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The Demolition of Brewster-Douglass and Our Abandonment of the Working Poor

• September 09, 2013 • 8:00 AM

The Fredrick Douglass housing projects as seen from the nearby Brewster mid-rise buildings. (PHOTO: ALBERT DUCE/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

It’s more than just brick-and-mortar buildings that’s crumbling in Detroit.

Demolition began last week on Detroit’s legendary Brewster-Douglass projects, bringing to an end one of America’s strangest stories in public housing—a story of artistic fame and federally-financed optimism, but also of the utter failure of concentrated poverty in cities.

In celebration of the nation’s first federally funded public housing project for African Americans, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt attended the groundbreaking of Brewster-Douglass in 1935. It was borne of the Works Progress Administration, and meant to house the working poor: at least one member of every resident family was required to be employed, and limits were set on how much they could earn. There were often unannounced housing inspections. A haunting short film about Brewster-Douglass released last year features the 1935 newsreel that touts how “this modern project” will “become a model for urban renewal across the nation.”

Such an initiative was a meaningful investment for Detroit, one of the cities that benefited most from the Great Migration. There were 6,000 African Americans in the city in 1910, making up 1.2 percent of the population. Twenty years later, the community had swelled to more than 120,000, or 7.7 percent of the population. Brewster-Douglass was meant as centrally located housing for the new families.

“I can tell you this from my own experience: That when I moved to the projects [at age 13 in 1950], I felt it was like dying and going to heaven.”

Built on a long swath of land just north of downtown, the projects ultimately featured an 18.5-acre landscape of townhomes, low-rise apartment blocks, and the now-notorious 14-story brick towers. It housed up to 10,000 people at its peak, but has been fully abandoned since 2008. The three gutted towers that loom over the I-75 gateway into downtown have been empty for 20 years.

But in its heyday, the projects birthed a generation of Detroit artists, including a host of Motown stars. Neighbors Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard formed the Supremes here. Little Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson also found their way from Brewster-Douglass to Hitsville USA. Actress Lily Tomlin lived here, as did champion boxer Joe Louis.

Old-time residents of Brewster-Douglass testify to a time when it was a welcome and nearly crime-free place to grow up. Doors needn’t be locked. The family-centered projects included a large and thriving recreation center, where Joe Louis trained and that, more recently, featured an indoor court donated by basketball star Chris Weber. (Though it’s now vacant, the rec center will survive demolition.) Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, a thousand at a time would reconvene for festive “family reunions,” closed to anyone who wasn’t a former resident. In 1991, one man who grew up here revealed real affection when he spoke to the New York Times: “I can tell you this from my own experience: That when I moved to the projects [at age 13 in 1950], I felt it was like dying and going to heaven.”

The projects served as a point of exile after Detroit’s vibrant African American neighborhood along Hastings Street, which partially bordered Brewster-Douglass, was paved over in the mid-1960s as part of an urban renewal project that included construction of the highway. It was reportedly around that time when the projects began to decline, as residency rules, oversight, and demographic patterns shifted.

Mayor Dave Bing made the demolition of what is formally known as the Frederick Douglass Homes a signature goal of his administration—a centerpiece in his four-year effort to tear down 10,000 vacant homes and businesses that have become dangers to the community. He’s completed 8,000 demolitions so far.

With $6.5 million of federal funds invested, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan flew in to join Mayor Bing for a news conference that signaled the beginning of the Brewster-Douglass tear-down. Together, Bing and Donovan championed hopes that this will catalyze redevelopment in a key neighborhood that connects Detroit’s downtown and Midtown. The project is expected to take one year to complete, beginning with the two-story rowhouses.

The dismantling of Brewster-Douglass speaks to the unsustainability of concentrated poverty. As the Brookings Institution and many others have documented, the segregation of low-income communities consistently leads to under-performing schools, higher crime rates, and poorer health outcomes. Former Brewster-Douglass Residents Council President Rosanna Johnson heralded the bulldozers, noting that the vacant area had become a haven for crime. But she did so with a significant qualification. As she told Michigan Radio:

“We need to show the community that there is hope!” Johnson said as she watched the first buildings come down. “I think our people have lost hope. And this is what we need.”

Johnson says she hopes to see mixed-income housing built here—and that it becomes a semblance of the community it once was.

But is mixed-income housing even on the radar? Bing said this week that he expects to hear a lot of offers from developers for investments in this prime real estate. It’s good news: No doubt Detroit is starved for a strengthened and more diverse economic base. And at 139 acres, some of it sparsely populated, Detroit isn’t at risk for the same one-to-one gentrification seen in dense places like Manhattan and San Francisco, where renters were vulnerable as pricey development grew. By default, Detroit has been home to one of the only mixed-income major downtowns in America, with luxurious condominiums and lofts sitting just blocks away from Section 8 and senior housing.

And yet, even as Detroit navigates municipal bankruptcy and emergency management, private development is growing in the city center. While its unusual dynamics and landscape create a window for Detroit’s planners to build an inclusive core, it won’t stay open forever. Intentional planning is required for Detroit to escape the same mistakes of displacement and concentrated poverty seen in other cities—and in its own history.

The disappearance of Detroit’s projects illustrates a broader abandonment of public housing as a priority in the urban agenda. In 1995, the federal government negated its longstanding rule that required a one-to-one replacement of any demolished public housing units. Section 8 rent vouchers are now the typical method of making housing affordable, many of which are usable in federally subsidized mixed-use developments. But, as Ben Austen wrote for Harper’s last year in a searing essay about the last tower in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green, the number of newly available units are nowhere near the number once offered in public housing, let alone enough to meet current demand. Where are today’s working poor supposed to go? For all of the long-term comprehensive planning happening in Detroit right now, a clear intention to disrupt patterns of economic segregation has not been articulated. What’s more, according to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU, the city’s homeless are actually being picked up from downtown and Midtown and left outside the city limits.

I am one of many Detroiters who look forward to a city that has a stronger tax base, a more income-diverse population, and the means to sustain high-quality public services. But this is a city that itself knows poverty intimately; one would think that it would make compassion for the poor a part of its future too.

Anna Clark
Anna Clark is an independent journalist living in Detroit. She writes reported news features, longform non-fiction, and book reviews. She's contributed to The New Republic, The Guardian, The American Prospect, and other publications. She is a political media correspondent for the Columbia Journalism Review as part of its United States Project.

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