The city of Detroit as we know it today was formed in large part by annexing to its core a number of surrounding suburbs into a sort of supercity near the turn of the century. Yet a number of these former villages and townships retained their character and identity as distinct neighborhoods long after being swallowed by Detroit. One of the more notorious of these, on the southwest border of the city, is Delray.
Delray is the closest thing to a ghost town in Metro Detroit. It also holds the distinction of being the most polluted residential area in the city. And it’s probably the only city neighborhood that has been deliberately condemned to death by city government.
The area is roughly contained between Fort Street and the Detroit River, and from Livernois to the Rouge Bridge. It edges against Historic Fort Wayne, built in the 1840s as a defense against attack by Canada but which now consists mostly of aging buildings surrounded by thick, unmowed grasses.
It’s hard to believe, passing through the area, that it was once a fully functioning village, with its own stores, banks, auto dealerships, movie theaters, churches, a hospital, and a library, all lining both West Jefferson and Dearborn with activity. Not anymore. Housing in Delray has crumbled and been replaced by empty lots; businesses have closed and their buildings have burned and disappeared; and factories have taken advantage of the Enterprise Zone tax credits and further industrialized the area.
The neighborhood also borders the Detroit Wastewater Treatment plant, where everyone’s toilet contents go to be incinerated, creating a God-awful stink that hangs heavy in the air with all the other industrial odors from the riverfront industries.
As if that wasn’t enough, filthy Zug Island sits just across the Rouge River, belching more pollutants into the air. The entire area is basically close to being unfit for human habitation. The city says as much, having declared long ago that the future of Delray is industrial. No major new housing is planned, and the housing that remains will continue to crumble until the land is cleared of homes and industry can fully take over.
Over the years, representatives of various industries looking to locate in the area have offered homeowners several times their properties’ assessed value to leave, but such offers are essentially meaningless in an area where homes are often assessed at $3,000. In addition, clauses in the purchase offers over the years often held homeowners liable for any cleanup of environmental contamination on their property, no small issue in what is the most environmentally contaminated part of Detroit. Thus, a lot of homeowners are stuck in the area.
Despite being part of Detroit for a century, Delray still maintains its own separate identity. To this day, many inhabitants of Delray refer to themselves as being from Delray first and Detroit second. Even on some business cards, addresses are listed as “Delray, Michigan,” claiming as their home a town that hasn’t existed independently for nearly 100 years.
The land that became Delray was originally inhabited by the Huron and Algonquin tribes, who found that the spot at the juncture of the Rouge and Detroit rivers provided plenty of food, easy canoe routes, and a natural defensive barrier on two sides. When the French arrived they set up small ribbon farms rolling away from the two rivers. Other immigrants soon followed.
The area, originally called Belgrade, got the name Delray from Augustus. D Burdeno, an early settler who lived on land at what is now West Jefferson and Dearborn. He served in the U.S.-Mexican War in the 1840s and found that the growing village he returned to on the Detroit River reminded him of a Mexican town called Del Rey that he’d seen during the war. The other settlers took a vote and in 1851 adopted the name, which eventually became Americanized as Delray.
Delray was incorporated as a village in March 1898, run by a city council with a president. The village became Detroit’s fastest-growing suburb, spurred by a steady inflow of mostly Hungarian immigrants. At one time it had eight Hungarian churches in a one-mile radius.
River Road, which became River Street and later changed its name to Jefferson when it became part of Detroit, was in those days lined with giant maple trees. Its riverfront featured quaint little houseboats and outdoor beer gardens laid out in an Old World style. Water lilies flourished along the west side of Zug Island. The Rouge was a clear stream filled with fish.
Delray became so well-known as a Hungarian enclave that it was called Little Hungary or Hunkytown. Every spring the community held a kriandulas, a big community picnic in the woods. In the fall the locals made wine at the szureti mulatsag, the grape festival. The immigrants would gather at Factory Park to watch the Delray baseball team take on the leading English-speaking teams from Detroit and other nearby towns. Hungarian social clubs sprang up throughout the neighborhood.
In the 1880s the land in Delray between River Street and the river was the site of the Michigan State Fair, and in 1889 the Detroit International Exposition drew thousands of visitors to view the exhibits, take canoe rides in the Detroit River and watch performances. The Exposition was held on the site until 1894, when the Solvay Process Company bought the land, attracted to the site by the natural salt deposits found there, which were necessary to its product.
It was the beginning of the industrialization of the area. By the turn of the century, Delray’s proximity to river transportation and natural resources attracted companies in industries that manufactured furniture, railroad cars, salt products chemicals, bricks and wagons.
Delray modernized quickly. Solvay provided the village with paved streets, sewers, and a horse-drawn, four-wheeled fire truck manned by Solvay employees, who also manned the hospital Solvay established. In 1901 Detroit Iron Works built two blast furnaces for iron-making on nearby Zug Island.
In 1905, Delray, along with fellow suburbs Springwells and Woodmere, were annexed by the City of Detroit after a special vote in all three suburbs. Though Delray at the time included Zug Island, which had once been an Indian burial ground, when Detroit absorbed the little village it opted not to take the island, instead giving it to the tiny community of River Rouge, south across the river from Delray.
By the 1920s, the village’s identity had transformed from being a quiet suburb to an increasingly polluted industrial area. Before the turn of the century, the only industries in Delray had been places like the Fisher glue plant and Parker Rendering Works, which used long-dead horses, and didn’t make much of an environmental impact.
But a number of large industries had begun moving in, beginning in the 1880s and continuing through the beginning of the 20th century, attracted by the geographic desirability of the area. After Solvay, the Peerless Portland Cement Company moved there in 1925, joined by dozens of other industries like steel plants, Fleetwood Body on Fort, Detroit Edison, and Great Lakes Steel on Zug Island.
Low-cost housing sprang up around the factories so workers could walk to their jobs. New factories created new jobs, drawing even more immigration to the area, primarily from Hungarians, Poles and Armenians. Delray continued to prosper.
As the industries kept coming, the natural beauty of the region faded. The maples that lined Jefferson died off as 40-wheeled trucks pounded the street. Wildlife on nearby Zug Island and on the riverbanks was exterminated. Residents began complaining of ailments related to the increasing air pollution, and they began moving in droves to the suburbs. The population dropped from over 23,000 in 1930 to about 20,000 in 1940, and down to just over 17,000 in 1950.
There was another small influx of Hungarians who were fleeing communism in the 1950s, but the main migrants to the area after World War II were blacks, most of whom settled the area between West End and Livernois. Yet despite the newcomers, the overall population if Delray continued to decline.
By the 1950s the children of the immigrants had begun moving to the downriver suburbs like Taylor and Wyandotte. Factories closed, and jobs disappeared. The expansion of I-75 destroyed hundreds of Delray homes, as did the growth of the wastewater treatment plant. A City of Detroit Master Plan study in 1955 and a 1963 federal study of the riverfront both recommended that Delray should eventually become solidly industrial.
As the 60s wore on, the area continued to deteriorate. The city’s Housing Commission placed a number of welfare families in the area, many who had lost their homes in the 1967 riot, housing many of them in buildings in Historic Fort Wayne from 1967 to as late as 1971.
Delray General Hospital, open since 1904, merged with three other city hospitals in 1975 into the Southwest General Hospital, which itself closed in 1991. Most of the area’s businesses closed as customers moved out of the neighborhoods and the shopkeepers moved with them. The old village became blighted.
West Jefferson had been known as downtown Delray, and once was filled with shops, restaurants and small businesses packed tightly together. Besides industry, nowadays little more remains of old downtown Delray other than a few bars, a firestation, a handful of abandoned one- and two-story buildings, some old churches, a few businesses, and lots of empty lots filled with foot-high grass and weeds, scrap metal, and junked cars. Fewer than a few thousand residents remain, more than half of whom are well below the poverty line, according to Census data. Colorful plywood angels, part of the “Delray Angels” art project, are affixed to the abandoned buildings along Jefferson.
A lot of the homes, built at the beginning of the 20th century and of average construction to begin with, are dilapidated or worn by age, pollution and neglect, apart from some sporadic, well-kept examples here and there, including some stretches along streets that have rows of unique, well-maintained houses of with strange architectural touches not found in other Detroit neighborhoods. But the housing market, in any real sense, is essentially nonexistent here. Homes in the area, the majority of which have been owned for years by residents or have been inherited from parents or other relatives, are assessed as low as $3,000.
The city’s planning department still continues with plans to fully industrialize the area, and in fact intends to move three cement silos to Delray from their current place on the riverfront, just east of downtown. The designation of the area as a federal Empowerment Zone and a state Renaissance Zone has drawn a number of industries to the area, eager for the tax breaks such a designation offers, as well as the proximity to the Ambassador Bridge, and shipping by rail, water, and freeways.
But though its future has been decreed to be industrial, there are still thousands of residents living in Delray who suffer the effects of pollution from the surrounding industries in the area. Residents have managed to successfully fight the introduction of some industries, such as several proposals for new incinerators over the years, but are fighting a losing battle overall.
Two area companies in particular have been the targets of widespread criticism over the years. Sybill Inc., a waste oil plant, was the target of not only class-action lawsuits by residents, but also the subject of hundreds of formal violations for odor emissions issued by the Wayne County Air Quality Management Division. Peerless Metal Powders and Abrasives also was the target of complaints about red metal dust that occasionally drizzled on the homes, streets and cars in the area, coating them with a thin layer of red powder.
Few people are trying to get into Delray, and a lot of people are moving out. Kovacs bar, a mainstay on Jefferson, isn’t owned by the Kovacs anymore; they sold it to Delores and Bob Evans, who also intend to sell. The Delray Café, another of the few bars on Jefferson, is also up for sale. Much of what remains of old Delray is for sale, because it’s clear that the direction of the nighborhood is towards eventual extinction.
The area still retains enough Hungarian vestiges that a Hungarian Cardinal visited the area a couple years back and held Mass at Holy Cross, which still draws from the suburbs Hungarian Catholics, many of them descendents of the original Delray residents and some who lived in Delray not long ago. Ethnic whites who are the descendants of the original Hungarian and Polish immigrants sill live in the small, workingmen’s homes on the side streets.
Despite dying off, Delray still contains some amazing things, including beautiful Roman Catholic churches such as St. John Cantius, founded in 1902, and Holy Cross Hungarian parish, founded in 1905. It also has remnants of unique architecture on small storefronts, strange little homes with remaining Old World touches, businesses determined to stay open in the face of worsening odds, and a lot of residents who speak of old Delray with an intense sentimentality and who struggle, against the odds, to keep their neighborhood alive.