They tower over a blighted urban wasteland just on the edge of downtown. Four empty, windowless skyscrapers hovering along I-375. More than a dozen row houses, a recreation center and a pair of small apartments sprawl out over 14 acres.
The Brewster-Douglass Projects rank up there with many of the other well-known U.S. public housing disasters, such as Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis and Cabrini-Green in Chicago.
The entire complex is massive. In addition to the four towers, there are two six-story apartment buildings and 16 row houses.
But it is also a deserted place. Burned-out, marred with graffiti and littered with trash. It is the stereotypical image the uninformed imagine when they think of Detroit. The whole complex is an eyesore. It is a symbol of Detroit’s decline. It is a symbol of the disastrous public housing projects of the 1950s. It is a symbol of institutionalized segregation. It is a symbol of failure.
And while it might not look like it, there is a lot of history here. They were the first public housing project built for African-Americans, and were home to Motown legends Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard and Smokey Robinson, and actress Lily Tomlin.
It seemed like a good idea at the time …
The 1930s were a different time in the United States. Racial tensions were still high. The civil-rights movement was decades away, and whites and blacks lived “separate but equally” in segregated neighborhoods. African-Americans usually lived in squalor, or rundown older neighborhoods - the scraps that whites had given them as they moved on to other areas. Meanwhile, the country had just clawed its way out of the Great Depression, and Uncle Sam was cutting checks left and right in order to help the nation right itself - and put food on Americans’ tables. Detroit landed several of these New Deal projects, including a new federal courthouse and post office. Another one of these projects would not only put Americans to work, it would contain Detroit’s working poor and minorities in one place - and segregated away from the wealthy whites. The Brewster projects would be the first federally funded housing project for African-Americans.
Black families were largely contained on the city’s near east side in neighborhoods known as Paradise Valley and Black Bottom. In the early 1930s, housing officials tapped the former as the site of the new Brewster Homes.
There was a significant amount of opposition from black families who did not want to move into new housing - and did not want to have their homes taken from them. Sadly, black Detroiters didn’t have much of a voice in this day and age. On Sept. 7, 1935, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt was on hand for what amounted to a ground-breaking ceremony for the projects, at which some homes were leveled. A party was thrown with children dancing and speeches by dignitaries.
The homes opened in 1938 with 701 units. By the time the first phase was done in 1941, there were 941 of them bounded by Beaubien, Hastings and Wilkins streets and Mack Avenue.
There were rules if you wanted to live in the Brewster Homes. Families took priorities and the men had to have a job and there were minimum salary requirements. At first, many of the projects’ residents liked their new digs. They were new, clean and modern - a far cry from their old, rundown homes. The social stigma of being lumped into what some amounted as a concentration camp for people was easily overlooked. At least initially, the Brewster-Douglass looked like a success.
Residents called the projects a “community filled with families that displayed love, respect and concern for everyone,” according to a state historical marker. It was a “beautiful, clean and secure neighborhood.”
The already sprawling Brewster Projects were expanded starting in the 1940s. Two six-story apartment buildings were built in 1942. In 1951, row homes and 14-story towers were added to the complex and dubbed the Frederick Douglass Homes. This is when the area became known as the Brewster-Douglass, and at its peak, it was home to several thousand Detroiters.
However, it was also at this point that Detroit’s population started to decline. The rise of postwar housing in neighboring communities and the addition of the freeway system made it easier than ever for people to live in suburban utopia and commute into the city for work. This left more homes available in neighborhoods previously closed off to - or financially out of the reach of - black Detroiters. As blacks moved into some of these neighborhoods, racist whites up and left the city. Racial tensions were high. Those tensions would boil over on July 23, 1967, when a race riot would increase the speed that the city’s population was decreasing.
Meanwhile, at the same time all this racial strife and white flight was going on, the Brewster projects were becoming a hive of drugs and crime. This meant lower rents. Much as whites had fled the city, more blacks with the ability to afford to leave the projects did so. This left more empty units, which meant less money to run the projects. The growing number of empty units meant the housing authority was less picky about who it let live there, which brought in more drugs and crime, furthering the downward spiral. The mid-1980s marked the last time that the projects would be anywhere near capacity. By 1990, the projects were only 36 percent occupied, and about 80 percent of those who lived there lived below the poverty line.
In a Hail Mary attempt to stem the projects’ decline, an urban renewal effort was brought to Brewster-Douglass in the early 1990s that saw the original Brewster Homes razed in 1990-1991 and replaced with 250 townhouses. And in an effort to consolidate the residents into fewer towers and cut costs, two of the six towers were imploded in 2003.
The decline. The end.
Such efforts did absolutely nothing to make the Brewster-Douglass a better place to live. Crime and drugs continued to spread like a cancer through the complex. The Detroit Housing Commission continued to poorly run the place. Residents continued to flee. Scrappers were ripping vacant units apart, even as families lived in the homes next door. Squatters moved in. Drug dealers set up shop in the towers and row homes. The Brewster-Douglass was simply no longer a safe place to live, even by the worst of Detroit’s standards.
By 2008, there were only 280 families left in the 14-acre complex. The city finally decided to shut the whole place down. The remaining stragglers were relocated to other public housing. Scrappers made quick work of the place, ripping out anything of value, from the window frames of the towers to the stoves that filled the many kitchens.
“The reason why we moved everyone out is because we could not maintain this property in decent, safe and sanitary condition,” then-commission chief Eugene Jones told The Associated Press in 2011. “The elevators were going out; systems were in need of repair.”
Jones, who left the housing commission earlier this year, had hoped to entice big-box retailers to the site, but the massive size of the complex and demolition costs at one point estimated at $6 million or more hampered those efforts, the AP reported.
With the buzz of the nearby Ford Field and Comerica Park, the property was appraised at $9 million in 2009, but the city’s continuing financial crisis, political corruption scandals and the downturn in Michigan’s economy dropped that value to $3 million a year later.
“A lot of people don’t want to take (the Brewster-Douglass property) because they got to demolish it,” Jones told the AP. “In order to make it attractive, you’ve got to knock it down yourself, then put it on for sale then maybe you’ll get some takers.”
Other cities had started pulling the plug on their 1950s public housing projects long before Detroit. Pruitt-Igoe was demolished in the 1970s. Demolition began in the 1990s on Cabrini-Green and continued into the next decade.
In his State of the City address on March 7, 2012, Mayor Dave Bing said that the Brewster projects were at the top of the city’s demolition hit list and goal of razing vacant, dangerous structures that dot Detroit’s landscape.
On Nov. 15, 2012, Bing announced that the projects would finally be razed, with the federal government chipping in $6.5 million to make it happen. The federal funds are part of the Obama administration’s Strong Cities, Strong Communities program that helps local governments revitalize blighted areas.
Finally, almost a year after the announcement, demolition began on Sept. 4, 2013. Clearing of the site is expected to take about a year.
The projects were the subject of a 2012 documentary called “Brewster Douglass, You’re My Brother.”