Greening Detroit's HistoryRoundup
tags: environmental history, Detroit, urban history
Brandon M. Ward is a senior lecturer of history at Georgia State University—Perimeter College. This piece is adapted from his just-published book, Living Detroit: Environmental Activism in an Age of Urban Crisis (Routledge Press).
Mildred Smith was fed up with bulldozers in 1966. She had twice been forced out of homes to accommodate urban renewal developments in Detroit, and officials now asked her to move a third time. She and her neighbors refused to budge.
Wayne State University eyed her neighborhood for a space research facility, one part of a larger expansion which had frequently uprooted Black neighbors in the 1950s and 1960s. Mildred Smith joined with neighbors in the West Central Organization (WCO), a multi-racial group of residents inspired by Saul Alinsky who made frequent trips to train and support the WCO.
As a bulldozer stared down Smith, WCO members and local clergy joined her in what became known as the “Battle of Hobart Street.” City crews, police, and the Detroit Housing Commission director stormed Smith’s home at 5778 Hobart Street, smashing toilets and fixtures, and inflicting damage on the property to make it unlivable. Demonstrators took their protests to city council meetings and the homes of the Department of Housing Commissioner Robert Knox and Mayor Jerome P. Cavanagh. To housing activists, the liberal mayor represented a softer, kinder slum clearance, which nodded to the need to adequately re-house displaced residents but, nevertheless, prioritized destructive urban renewal plans. The confrontational protests lasted for days, leading to the arrest of twenty-one WCO members. Remarkably, their efforts worked. The Detroit Common Council reversed its approval of part of the university expansion project and spared several homes in the neighborhood, at least for the time being.
The significance of 5778 Hobart Street did not stop there. High school students from the wealthy suburbs of Grosse Pointe and Royal Oak assisted in the rehabilitation of the home in 1971. Three years later, Grosse Pointe students fundraised $1,000 to build an “environment school,” where inner-city and suburban students could discuss environmental challenges and “get…involved with one another.” Together, they established the Hobart Street Environmental Field Center, an alternative public school accommodating as many as 40 students. Suburban students’ motives for assisting the project are unclear, though notably they occurred in the context of fierce suburban opposition to Detroit metropolitan busing plans that would have required students to cross municipal boundaries. Environmental activism offered suburban students and residents a means to gesture at concern for inner-city residents and their living conditions with little personal sacrifice. 
Mildred Smith, who was now secretary for the neighborhood organization, praised the effort at establishing the environmental school. She now viewed housing and urban renewal as explicitly environmental causes, joining the millions of Americans who were inspired to action after environmental crises of the late 1960s, urban uprisings, and the nation’s first Earth Day in 1970. “Environmental problems are human problem,” Smith noted, insisting on the importance of urban environments. “We’ve all got a right to live and we have to live and work together.” What began as an urban renewal protest transformed into what would later be called environmental justice activism, and an insistence on environmental health “where we work, live, and play.”