Photo credit: Jacques Demêtre, 1959
HASTINGS STREET BLUES explores the vitality and complexity of mid-20th Century African American life in Detroit, the city’s pre-Motown musical legacy, and its transformation amidst unprecedented migration, racial turmoil, civil rights progress and urban “renewal.” Macon, Georgia native Joe Von Battle emerges as a central character of the film. In 1945, he opens a record shop on Hastings Street—the heart of commerce for Detroit’s burgeoning African American community. He’s soon recording the neighborhood’s blues and gospel artists, shipping his records from his shop to destinations around the country. His business thrives as Joe’s Record Shop becomes a Green Book tourist destination. Forced to abandon Hastings Street in 1960 to make way for the new I-75 interstate, he relocates to 12th Street where his shop is destroyed during the rebellion of 1967. The story of Joe’s Record Shop and of the man himself mirrors the rise and fall of Detroit’s once vibrant Black Bottom and Paradise Valley neighborhoods. It weaves together two parallel threads developed throughout the film: African American self-empowerment, realized through economic, social and political activism; and the role of national and local public policy in defining and dismantling the built environment where African Americans lived, conducted business and ultimately were displaced. The blues, with its duality of hope amidst hard times, becomes a metaphor for these themes, driving a poetic aural and visual narrative that explores the relationship between physical place and cultural memory, and bridges the past and present.