Forgivable Sins

May, 2009.

This is the St. Thomas Lutheran Church at 8690 Chapin Street, just behind the now-demolished Mark Twain Branch Library, which I explored in an older post.


According to research done by my colleague Benjamin Gravel, this church was designed by the firm of Kohner & Seeler. Kohner & Seeler show up in Google hits as having been headquartered in Suite 1402 of the Kresge (Kales) Building downtown, and they did work on the Grande Theatre which used to stand at 8024 W. Jefferson Avenue.


As I recall, around 2012 a guy named "Pastor Mike" and some followers were trying to fix up this church and use it again, and they were putting out a call for volunteers, but I can't seem to turn up anything online right now regarding the status of that project.


The original congregation moved to 23801 Kelly Road in the suburb of East Detroit (which is now called Eastpointe, so as to shed any potential misconceptions that it is part of the dreaded Detroit).

According to the history page on their own website, stl-eastpointe.org, St. Thomas Church was first built here in 1908, with 15 members. In 1921 the original building was torn down in favor of this newer, larger edifice. A parochial school had been built next-door in 1911, but it was demolished decades ago.


You may remember when I wrote about St. Petri Evangelical Lutheran Church in an older post. "Due to the changing environment of the location and the migration of members to outlying districts," St. Thomas's website says, "a merger was consummated" in 1945 that united St. Thomas and St. Petri. That was also when the Universal Hagar Spiritual Church Association (UHSA) moved from Black Bottom into the former St. Petri church at 2281 Pierce Street.


In 1956, the Bethel Church on Dubois Street (est. 1888) also merged with St. Thomas due to a dwindling flock.


At least some of the original windows were spared:


St. Thomas Church's membership levels had peaked in the 1930s, but by 1959 they were already moving to Eastpointe as "white flight" drained the urban neighborhoods of Detroit. According to their website however, they still held services in both locations—23801 Kelly Road, and 8690 Chapin—which I find a little extraordinary. They did this for a full ten years, before finally giving up on the Detroit location and selling it off in 1968. I wonder if The Riots had anything to do with that decision.


There is also a St. Thomas Lutheran Church on Grosse Ile, but it doesn't seem directly related to this one. If I'm not mistaken there are also Episcopal and Catholic churches in Detroit bearing the name of St. Thomas as well.


This sanctuary was occupied by other church groups after St. Thomas left, until about until the 2000s, at which time it was finally abandoned.


During my brief stint as a carpenter I did some renovation work replacing the windows in a house on Burns Street, just a block or two from this church. I took a couple snaps before work started:


Sadly, we were tasked with replacing these original windows with some ill-fitting vinyl junk that look like crap compared to the old wooden ones, which merely needed a few panes replaced. They all ended up in the dumpster out front instead of being reclaimed, which was heartbreaking. But my boss at the time was a complete pill-head idiot who couldn't be reasoned with. We even had to sawzall the hell out of the original window jambs to make the new junk "fit."


I still feel guilty about that, but I suppose at least the house got a second chance, hopefully with a landlord who isn't a total scumbag.


References:
http://www.stl-eastpointe.org/index.php/about/history
http://www.waterwinterwonderland.com/movietheaters.aspx?id=616&type=5
http://www.detroitfunk.com/200 5/01/who_stole_my_window.html

Pioneer Spirits

Barry County is one of the more overlooked counties of Michigan, since it doesn't have any well-known towns within its borders, nothing extraordinarily historic ever happened there, and there aren't any especially distinctive natural landscape features. It's a big, flat square of farmland situated between Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, but it is still as beautiful of a bucolic setting as you can ask for, and there are plenty of old buildings to look at.

After the native Ojibwe people ceded their lands here in the Treaty of Saginaw in 1819, Barry County was set off in 1829, and first settled at Prairieville in 1831. According to the Michigan County Atlas by David M. Brown, it was officially organized as a county in 1839, named for William T. Barry, U.S. Postmaster General under President Andrew Jackson. The astute historian will recognize that no less than ten of the counties of southern Michigan are named after cabinet members under President Jackson. They are sometimes referred to as the "Cabinet Counties."


The village of Woodland, according to Brown, was settled in 1837 by the Galloway and Haight families, and named for the fact that it was then in a densely wooded area (which I presume was immediately chopped down for farmland).


Several of the buildings in Woodland's tiny downtown still bore hallmarks of the 1800s and early 1900s. I think it's likely that the only reason Woodland even sees any traffic at all is because it lies along M-43 on the way to Lansing.


In a different corner of the county was the ghost town of South Assyria, but I'm afraid the only known remnant of South Assyria that still survives today is its cemetery, as author Larry Wakefield describes.


Joseph S. Blaisdell moved from Vermont with his family in 1834 Wakefield writes, and became friendly neighbors with a band of Potawatomis who lived here in southeastern Barry County. The Indians had already been there a long time, had established cornfields with fences, and a burial ground with many graves. Eventually more white settlers came, and by 1850 a post office with the name "South Assyria" was established here.


Blaisdell became the first interment in this cemetery when he died in 1848, but his grave was found to  be opened the next day and his corpse unaccounted for. A swift investigation by the townsfolk ascertained that the body snatchers were in fact medical practitioners from the nearby city of Battle Creek, who were apprehended. A judge failed to find enough evidence to convict the suspects at trial however, and the missing body of Joseph Blaisdell never turned up.


Setting out westward from South Assyria, I traversed many of Barry County's scenic country roads. I now wish I had consulted with my colleague Martin Hogan beforehand, since he seems to know a lot more of the countryside around the Grand Rapids region.


Before I reached my destination I paused when I saw an old railroad trestle crossing near the town of Morgan, along Thornapple Lake Road.


It looked pretty old so I figured it was worth investigating.


This was one of Michigan's "rail trails" that are common in the Lower Peninsula where old abandoned railroad right-of-ways have been converted for use by bicyclists and hikers.


David M. Brown's Michigan County Atlas writes that the town of Morgan was a station on the Michigan Central RR called "Sheridan," in 1878, and it was renamed Morgan when the post office opened.


Brown also notes that early settler E.E. Cook built a sawmill near here in 1866.




The Thornapple River by the way is the namesake of the once well-known Michigan-based brand of sausages called Thornapple Valley. I wrote about that company's Detroit slaughterhouse in an older post.


I continued on to Charlton Park. It was marked on my map nearby as a historic site, and it was situated on a small lake in a natural area, so I figured why not? Brown says the Thornapple Band of Ottawa established a village here in the early 1800s, as there was an intersection of Indian trails at this point on the northeast end of Thornapple Lake. One trail led to Canada, and the other to the Grand River. In 1936 the landowner, Irving Charlton, donated the land to the county for use as a park, and founded a museum here of his pioneer artifacts that he went on to direct until his death in 1963.

The first thing I saw was what looked to be an old foundation, and a sign indicated that this was once the spot of an old Indian mission:


In 1849 the Ottawa allowed the Episcopal Methodist minister, Rev. Manasseh Hickey to build a mission here on their land. It was a 12ft. by 27ft. log structure with a stone chimney. Historical accounts say that Rev. Hickey blew a loud horn to indicate when it was time for services, so that the residents on the other side of the river would hear.

The mission operated until 1854 when the Indians sold the property to Henry Edgecomb and moved away. After that time the mission became a house for a succession of different owners, and by 1894 all that was left of it was the foundation. An archaeological excavation was done in 2003-2011 by Grand Valley State University, which discovered the foundation and some artifacts.


It seemed that this was some sort of mini-Greenfield Village kind of historic park, but it was apparently still closed for the season. So I decided to just get out of the car and walk around a bit anyway. The preserved original town of Charlton was a pretty picturesque scene on the banks of the Thornapple River...


It wasn't long before I spotted an old log cabin off in the woods.


Well ain't that just a purdy sight now?


From some fairly hardcore Googling I came up with a reference in the Historic Charlton Park Volunteer Manual, which says that this was the c.1870 "Robinson Log Cabin," reconstructed in 1999, but that's all I know.


Appears to be sitting on a cobblestone foundation with a central chimney, and dovetailed / mortared walls, with a second story. I presume that's a shake roof under that snow there.


There was a wood shed too, with wood in it, so I imagine that this structure was probably still in use for historical interpretation during the summer months.


I walked around it, enjoying the hell out of this beautiful afternoon light, but all the shutters were firmly screwed shut on this old cabin. 


The only ingress I could find was a tiny little gap in the wall where a beam had rotted away next to the front door, just big enough to stick my face into like a cat:


So I took a few flash photos, and this is what I got. That's a pretty rad fireplace:


Moving on from Charlton Park, I also had plans to check out the village of Coats Grove, where I knew there was an old abandoned church and school.


According to David M. Brown, Coat's Grove was named after George Coats, its first postmaster, in 1879. This is the old methodist church:


And across the street, the old schoolhouse:


Notice that both structures still have their bells intact in their belfries--a real rarity.


Picture perfect:


Not far away was yet another derelict schoolhouse...


I had also paid a perfunctory visit to this area while on my way to Grand Rapids the summer prior, which is when I took these photos. Here's an abandoned house across from the schoolhouse:


So, there are still plenty of occupied houses still in Coat's Grove, but I'm wondering at what point one can one officially bestow (or burden) a community with the designation of "ghost town"? Where is the cutoff mark for that?


I have a feeling it is pretty unscientific, and left mostly at the discretion of tourists and careless travel writers. Rarely, I think, would a town ever decide to start willingly referring to itself as a ghost town.


According to one reader (see comment below), Coats Grove was featured on an episode of The X-Files, season 5, episode 9.


References:
Michigan County Atlas, Second Ed., by David M. Brown, p. 14
Ghost Towns of Michigan, Vol. 3, by Larry Wakefield, p. 95
Historic Charlton Park Volunteer Manual

"Livin' in the PJs," Part 1

October, 2008.

The original Brewster Projects were built in Detroit's "Black Bottom" quarter from 1935 to 1938, while these taller towers were added to it from 1950 to 1954, and named after historic abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The Brewster Homes were the first federally funded housing project for African-Americans in the U.S., according to several sources. Eventually the entire 14-acre complex came to be known as the Brewster-Douglass Projects, and housed up to 10,000 Detroiters at its peak.


The area of Detroit known as "Black Bottom" was originally so-called because of the rich, dark soils there in the wetlands around the River Savoyard, a small creek that was buried as a sewer in 1827, according to the Detroit Historical Society.

Of course by the 1900s it was still being called Black Bottom, but that's because it was where all of the city's Afro-American residents were clustering. Black Bottom was bounded by Gratiot Avenue, Brush Street, E. Vernor, and the Grand Trunk railroad (the Dequindre Cut), and its main commercial strips were Hastings and St. Antoine streets. Paradise Valley is often confused with Black Bottom, but it was a separate community that extended north of Black Bottom along Hastings and Oakland.


Hastings Street was the heart of the black business and social community in Detroit, and it became famous for its jazz and blues scene. The usual cast of famous musicians regularly performed in Paradise Valley according to the Detroit Historical Society, including Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine, Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, and Count Basie.

It's also where John Lee Hooker came from, Joe Louis, and Della Reese, and it was where Aretha Franklin's father, Reverend C. L. Franklin, opened his New Bethel Baptist Church, where she sang in the gospel choir. In the dark soil of Black Bottom was planted the seed of Motown, and it was on top of the same soil that the Brewster-Douglass Projects were built when Black Bottom was "cleared" (demolished), eventually housing many of the same people who had once lived along Hastings.


The book Home in Detroit by T. Burton describes how Motown star Diana Ross grew up on Belmont Street but in 1960 her family moved into the Brewster Projects at 2691 St. Antoine. There she met Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard, who recruited her into their group to form The Primettes, and eventually became The Supremes.

Smokey Robinson, and actress Lily Tomlin also lived in the Brewsters at one time, and Stevie Wonder had relatives who lived here. In 1965 Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records, bought new homes for all the Supremes on W. Buena Vista Street, in the prestigious University District neighborhood on the other side of town. Diana lived at 3762 W. Buena Vista, Florence lived across the street at 3767, and Mary Wilson was at 4099.


I made a very cautious first visit to the Brewster-Douglass right after it closed down in autumn of 2008, at the very height of the Detroit scrap metal epidemic, when the place was still swarming with scrappers.


This was back when the scrap yards were even still accepting chain-link fencing (which is worth almost nothing). The city tried to put up new barbwire fences to keep people out of the complex, but it was like you'd have one crew putting up the new fence on one end, and a crew of scrappers right behind them rolling it up again and tossing it in the back of their truck before it was even finished being built.


In the 1930s, demolishing the "ancient, rat-infested" buildings of Black Bottom that the city's poor had lived in was easy; getting these new housing projects built was an unexpected challenge. In the book American Odyssey, historian Robert Conot says that private construction of homes for the lower and middle class people of Detroit had "all but ceased" by 1929, even though the city's population was still exploding. Conot said that in 1935 it had been predicted that 14 million new housing units would be needed by 1945, but "more housing was being demolished than was being built." (Sound familiar?)

There were nine square miles of "slum" areas within Detroit at the time, where working poor lived in decrepit rooming houses, tent cities, or shantytowns. The east side ghetto had seven and a half times the crime rate of the rest of the city, and six and a half times the tuberculosis rate.


Conot stated that real estate interests nationwide fought against the coming of public housing, and quoted a New York realtor as saying that it "would destroy all incentive for home ownership and break down that great barrier against the spread of communism," and that it would represent "the end of our country."

Personally, I think we can all agree that public housing has certainly not hindered the market for private home building or home ownership in the least, and furthermore our country seems to have survived the *ghastly scourge of public housing* somewhat intact, although the "redlining" practices implemented by mortgage lenders since the 1930s have effectively gutted our inner cities and kept the specter of racism strong.


Most of the slum housing being demolished in Detroit in the 1930s was occupied by blacks, despite the fact that the black population was still steadily growing. That, combined with the fact that the white population of the city had begun to migrate outward from the "inner city" bounded within Grand Boulevard meant that the area traditionally considered "the black neighborhood" began to expand outward.

Conot notes that "in 1930 there had scarcely been a single Negro beyond Beaubien Avenue," but by 1937 they were to be found as far east as Mt. Elliott, as far west as Woodward Avenue, and as far north as the edges of Hamtramck and Highland Park.


The Wider Woodward Association was a particularly strong voice fighting against the creation of public housing in Detroit, who feared that if a project was built, it would be built for blacks. It was the westward expansion of the black population toward Woodward that worried these merchants and real estate owners the most, Conot said, for they seemed to believe that it would worsen the steady decline in downtown area business, so they lobbied for a slum-clearance program.

The Wider Woodward Association (WWA) hoped to "implant a white colony in the midst of the black ghetto," in order to halt or redirect black expansion. I'm not sure how well that would have worked, but there you have it. On the other hand, the liberal supporters of public housing wanted to use the projects to break down the traditional segregation, and they were opposed to any projects designated as either "all black" or " all white."


In the climate of 1930s Detroit, Conot explained, a stand-off over this issue might threaten to kibosh the project altogether, so the NAACP and Urban League agreed to a segregated all-black project, under the stipulation that "no housing project shall change the racial characteristics of a neighborhood."

The compromise allayed the fears of racist whites, but also undermined the WWA's plot to bust up Black Bottom by planting a white enclave within it. The work on the Brewster Homes project could finally begin, at least.


There was a huge demand for the Brewster Homes once they were built, but unlike the ghettoes that preceded them, there were requirements for residency. For example Conot said that in order to live in one project in New York, a family usually had to be no bigger than one child, have both a father and mother, one of them must have been employed for at least one year, they needed a savings account of at least $100, and insurance of at least $1,000. Unannounced home inspections were also the rule. It sounds to me like that described precious few families currently living in the ghettoes, but nonetheless there were plenty of applicants to fill it.

The reason that smaller families were preferred for residency in the projects was because the smaller the living units could be made, the more units could be fit in each building, thus improving the cost ratio of people to federal tax dollars spent on housing.


One of the obvious problems in the logic of both opponents and supporters of federally subsidized housing such as the Brewsters was that there was no accounting for where the thousands of people would go who did not meet the qualifications for residency, and what would happen to the areas that they subsequently relocated to. Nonetheless, politicians were quick to pat themselves on the back for solving the problem of slums forever, and New York's Mayor LaGuardia even went as far as to gloat that "one hundred years from now people will be looking at those [projects in Harlem]...as monuments to the genius and the vision of American statesmen."


Between the construction of the Brewster-Douglass Projects, Lafayette Park, Medical Center, and Interstate-375, Detroit had successfully gotten rid of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, but as you are well aware, it failed to get rid of poor African-Americans. As a result Brush Park, and all the other surrounding areas quickly began to fall victim to blight as the displaced poor moved outward and crowded into old housing that shady landlords were more than willing to subdivide in order to increase profits.

The strange thing about poor people is that they don't have any money to move somewhere nice, so they just sort of keep hanging around and being poor, much to the chagrin of people like the WWA. Imagine that. And since there is almost always someone better to hire they are often passed up for jobs, which makes it uniquely hard to lift oneself up from the bottom rung of society even with a concerted effort.


The idea of the federally subsidized housing project was that it would inspire those of the lower class to improve their social status by making it easier for them to do so via an improved environment in which to live. While this theory did work favorably for many blacks, the restrictions placed on qualifying for such residency made it a kind of "catch-22" for many of the city's poorest people.

Thomas Sugrue's scholarly book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, spends many chapters discussing the historic challenges of public housing and race in Detroit, in infinitely better depth and detail than I can here. Those interested in the topic of urban housing in Detroit would do well to acquire that book.


No one disagreed that the slums of Black Bottom were mostly unfit for human habitation and constituted health and safety hazards, but the solutions offered by the predominantly white business community and politicians were not designed with the best interests of the poor black community in mind.

My partner Donnie tromps through someone's former bedroom:


Mayor Albert Cobo was strongly anti-public housing, and was elected by a landslide in 1949 against George Edwards, a pro-public housing candidate. As soon as he was in office Cobo made good on his campaign promises to whites by vetoing eight out of 12 proposed public housing sites, except for ones that were planned for areas of the city that were already black.

The old Cass Tech, and Michigan Central Station are visible in this shot:


Cobo also gutted the ranks of the Detroit Housing Commission and replaced all of its administrators with businessmen from the real estate and home construction industries. If you have ever wondered why so many Detroit neighborhoods are comprised solely of single-family houses and no apartment blocks, it's because of this, and because Mayor Cobo also helped to block building permits for multi-dwelling rental units, which white neighborhood groups opposed because they presumably brought in undesirable, lower-income people (i.e., blacks).


The Mayor's Interracial Committee issued a scathing rebuke of Cobo's politics, saying that "the present program is to be concentrated in the Negro area, for the sole purpose of rebuilding and perpetuating the Negro ghetto." Another critic alleged that the mayor's policies were determined to preserve a monopoly by the building industry and bigoted racial prejudice."


Detroit was extremely slow to desegregate its housing projects, and to offer equal housing opportunities to all people. It started to integrate in 1954 while the Douglass Towers were being completed, but not until 1956 did they officially open all public housing to blacks, and even then they were forced to do so after a lawsuit by the NAACP. But since you can't get rid of racism by suing it, little had really changed, and there was still not nearly enough housing for blacks in the city.

"After a decade of struggle over government-provided housing, its opponents had won a clear victory," Sugrue writes. Both politicians and white community groups had thwarted integration, further polarizing the city's neighborhoods, which has created lasting barriers and a sense of isolation between whites and blacks, which in turn has made it more difficult for each group to understand the other.


One of Mayor Cobo's other facets was that he was also an ardent supporter of growing the city's new Interstate highway system, and he often downplayed the hardships that would be inflicted on residents forced to move due to eminent domain.

The building of the freeways did not affect only poor blacks, it affected just as many (or more) poor whites, but from above it looks like the routes were mapped so as to specifically slice right through the existing black enclaves of the city in order to bust them up. The families living in the path of planned expressways were often given a mere 30-day notice to vacate, and neither the county nor the city offered any assistance in relocating. (One might also observe that the hippie/radical enclave of Plum Street was strategically eradicated as well, by the construction of the Lodge Expressway—which then relocated to the 4th Street Fair neighborhood).


Eddystone Hotel, and Hotel Park Avenue (Harbor Light Center) are visible in the distance here:


The "cheese-grater" effect:


That moment when you realize what "urban exploring" really means...

Photo by a friend
On one of our later trips into the projects, we started to notice that suburban sports fans who came downtown for games at the stadiums had seemingly begun to lose their innate fear of the big scary abandoned buildings they parked near, and some waltzed right on in with their flip-flops and fanny packs. On a rooftop nearby we spotted a group of about five white chix led by a soccer mom, contentedly Instagramming away, apparently not terribly concerned about where they were.

Sure, you can get away with it most of the time, but consider for example the national story in usatoday.com about the able-bodied 23-year-old French artist shot in the face and found dead here at the Douglass Towers in July 2013. I suppose I never ran into anyone sketchy here myself, but just to be on the safe side I never let myself get too comfortable anywhere.

Photo by a friend
The Douglass Towers had a pretty decent view of downtown for the annual 4th of July fireworks show. By the 2011 fireworks, the rooftops of all four Douglass Towers were crowded with photographers and other spectators.

Here you can also see the rest of the way south down the I-375 expressway (at left):

Photo by a friend
When construction of the first buildings of the Brewster Homes was begun it was a big deal. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was even at the groundbreaking ceremony in September 1935 to christen the project, since, according to an article at michiganradio.org, it was executed in partnership between the City of Detroit and FDR's New Deal program. Again, it was the first federally funded housing project for African-Americans ever built in the United States.


Even though "the projects" eventually came to be perceived by the 1960s as more like an Indian reservation for blacks than a utopian community tied into surrounding neighborhoods, historian Ken Coleman was quoted in the article as saying that at least initially, Brewster Homes was something of a prestigious, close-knit, and upstanding community where everyone looked out for their neighbor, and it was linked to surrounding Brush Park and Paradise Valley.
The guy down the street cared so much about his neighbor’s kids. He might be a doctor, he might be a preacher, he might be a foundry worker at Ford Motor Company…and I think that sort of fostered the idea that you can be great. That there’s going to be a time we can move out of this community and you can live anywhere you want, whether it be Boston-Edison or West Bloomfield.
Well, maybe. Kind of.


The ruins of a wooden pavilion that had been destroyed by a combination of fire and belligerence:


Anyone who grew up at the Brewster-Douglass must remember these huge signs hung up in the courtyards forbidding the children from "playing ball"...one of the major flaws of high-rise public housing is that mothers who lived on the upper floors couldn't really monitor their kids playing outside. So children ended up either running the streets, or they were stuck inside while mama did housework.


Right before the place was demolished, I decided that this sign needed to come home with me. Today it resides in my basement on display with all of the other pieces of historic demolished buildings that I have rescued over the years. Maybe I should start selling some of this stuff to local hipster bars as kitschy wall-hangers to make some coin...heheh.


The first phase of the Brewster Homes started admitting residents in 1938 and was completed in 1941, with a total of 941 living units according to professor Ren Farley. The two six-story buildings were built in 1942, and the Douglass 14-story towers and row homes were added from 1950 to about 1954.


According to Farley, the architectural firm that designed the Douglass Towers was Detroit's own Harley, Ellington & Day. Harley & Ellington had decades earlier designed the vastly different Metropolitan Building downtown, and the Hotel Fort Wayne. My limited searches of a digitized but not yet uploaded c.1942 Detroit Housing Commission document on Google Books seems to indicate that William E. Kapp, or Derrick & Gamber may have been the original Brewster Homes' designing architects.


This was a typical entrance at one of the corners of a Douglass tower. The stairs led down because the main floor was like a terrace level (sort of a half-basement). There you could get the elevator, or go to any of the community rooms, or the office.


The c.1921 Sanborn map shows that there was once a short, east-west running street in Black Bottom called Brewster Street, between Wilkins and Alfred, which I'm guessing is how the Brewster Homes got their name originally. The projects' footprint was put right over the entire breadth of Brewster Street, so it doesn't really exist on the map anymore today except for the short stub that leads to the front doors of the Brewster-Wheeler Recreation Center.


The Detroit Public Library's Bernard Ginsburg Branch stood on Brewster Street, and it became part of the projects when a large addition was built onto it by 1929, making it part of the new Brewster-Wheeler Recreation Center. It is famous for being the gym where the great Joe Louis learned to box.

The former Ginsburg Library / Brewster-Wheeler Recreation Center is seen in this next photo taken from one of the Douglass Towers. Stay tuned for the next episode, where I take a look inside.


Next to the library once stood the tiny Antioch Baptist Church, which is shown on the Sanborn Fire Insurance Co. map annotated with the word "(Colored)" in parentheses beneath its name...I suppose, just to make sure no insurance adjuster were to accidentally ascribe too great a value to the property? This was actually a uniform practice on Sanborn maps as far as I can tell; you can find churches or hospitals marked "(Colored)" all across the city wherever black neighborhoods existed at the time.


Elsewhere in the footprint of what would soon become the Brewster-Douglass Projects, the c.1921 Sanborn maps just show tightly packed rooming houses with a sprinkling of coal sheds, garages, "poultry killing houses," and small junkyards. There was still a Jewish school and a bath house listed nearby, as well as a few tiny synagogues, and of course the usual storefronts along Hastings (which is now the I-75 trench).

A good idea of the slum type of housing that was in this area can be seen in a post at the blog stylesource01, which takes a look at "Binga Row," a tenement that once stood at Mack & Hastings and was built for former slaves.


In the distance to the right in this next shot, you can see the roofs of the many smaller, modern housing units that were built in the 1990s to house those who used to live in the original Brewster Homes before they were demolished:


They are still called the Brewster Homes, and were built where the original c.1930s Brewsters had stood. Stay tuned for the third episode where I go inside the six-story towers.

Ren Farley said that by the early 1960s public housing had become the "refuge of last resort," since with more whites leaving the inner city this opened up better quality housing for the more successful blacks, and there was less of a need for projects. The presence of blacks moving into Detroit's former strongholds of white affluence continued to drive "white flight," and with the construction of the same expressways that buried Black Bottom whites found it more convenient to simply live in the shiny new suburbs and commute to their downtown jobs.


As a result of the negative stigma that living in the projects had become amongst blacks, and because of the reduced federal funding for keeping the projects operating (resulting in frequently busted elevators and nonfunctioning plumbing, etc.), the population of Brewster-Douglass began to decline sharply after the 1970s. This left behind only those who were the most helpless to change their situation (such as impoverished elderly with no family connections), and those who were the most inclined to criminal activity.


The glut of cheap houses available in the swiftly depopulating city also continued to reduce demand for public housing. By the 1990s these towers stood 60% vacant, and crime flourished within. By the early 2000s the vacancy rate in the Brewster-Douglass was so pronounced that two of the six towers were demolished so as to downsize and save on operational expenses. 


The issue of vacancy continued to spiral downward until even the remaining four towers were mostly empty, and the Detroit Housing Commission finally made the decision to close Brewster-Douglass altogether in 2008. The federal government had seen by the 1980s that high-rise projects were a failed social experiment and began creating funds for cities to demolish them, but for some reason Detroit was one of the last in America to give up on the idea, and did not begin demolition until the fall of 2013.


There is a good documentary on Vimeo, made in 2012 by Paul Abowd and Cass Corridor Films called Brewster Douglass, You’re My Brother. It is just 27 minutes long, featuring interviews with "lifelong residents, activists who fought to keep the projects open, and squatters–themselves former residents–who struggle to stay warm through Detroit’s harsh winter," as well as footage from inside the buildings.


You might also remember the claymation animated series The PJs (which of course is slang for "projects") that was on primetime network TV in the 1990s. According to a product description on Amazon.com, this Emmy-winning animated series starred Eddie Murphy as the voice of Thurgood Stubbs, "the chief superintendent of a Detroit housing project."


A note on IMDB also states that "Although The PJs is modeled after the Brewster-Douglass public housing projects in Detroit, Michigan, the show takes place in the inner city of Chicago, Illinois."


Because of where I typically parked when visiting the Brewster-Douglass, we often walked past the long blocks of small two-story row-houses that formed a street grid next to the high-rise towers. It sort of gave me a feeling of being in a shooting gallery or something, because there were so many places on either side of you where potentially nefarious individuals could be lurking.


More than once I found spent shell casings on the ground from 9mm pistols that had been fired here, and the evidence of the most depraved, desperate kinds of scrapping was littered everywhere. It was getting down to where people were taking Cat3 phone wire and other low-grade metals.


The fact that there was also a full street grid here sitting totally abandoned within this cordoned-off neighborhood gave it perhaps the most eerie ghost-town feeling of the entire complex. This was the middle of a 14-acre exclusion zone, Detroit's very own scale model of Chernobyl.


Once we had to duck from the police as we were leaving for the day...a DPD patrol car passed just as we were coming out into the open to get to our vehicle parked on the freeway service drive. We knew he saw us when he tapped his brakes and looked in his mirror, so even though he kept going like everything was cool, I instinctively darted back into one of the townhomes, knowing that you can just walk right through the front door and out the back...


The cop apparently knew this too, because once we were out of his sight he "nonchalantly" hooked a right turn on Beaubien to get around behind us. However, instead of playing into his hands by continuing to run out the back door, we had remained watching from the front window through some overgrown bushes. Since Beaubien is a one-way street and he had turned the wrong way down it, I knew that he must've been after us.


As soon as the cop had committed to his turn, we waltzed right back out the front door and to our car, effecting a clean get-away. I wondered how many times hoodlums had pulled a variation on this same maneuver back in the days when the underworld ruled Brewster-Douglass. The townhomes are set up a lot like the ubiquitous rowhouses in Philly, where I'm told the cops just block off both ends of the street and unless you've got buddies who will let you cut through their backdoor, you're trapped.


Besides Motown idols, another less-illustrious Detroiter grew up in the Brewsters, named Kurt McGurk. He was raised from age 10 as a soldier for one of the most infamous and brutal crime syndicates in Detroit history, the Young Boys Inc. (YBI). 

In the 1980s the Brewster Projects were a five-figure-profit-per-day drug market for the YBI. McGurk had been doing hits for the gang since he was 15, and was known for his modified bullet-proof Mercedes. And you thought you were cool because you had your parents' old Escort GT in high school. 


McGurk commanded the YBI's "A-Team" hit squad, and was the Wayne County Sheriff's most wanted by the time he was 19. Supposedly he had three separate hits put on his head by rivals but none of them succeeded, and all three eventually turned up dead, according to one website.


Another website tells how McGurk also once sent a death threat to Gil Hill himself, the chief of the Detroit Police Homicide Dept., which resulted in a city-wide manhunt being sent out for him, ending with a car chase that resulted in his capture in Oakland County.


Okay, one more tower rooftop...


With the chain-link fences around the roofs of each tower, I imagine that people might have come up here regularly. I mean, I know for myself that if I were cooped-up in some housing tower I would definitely want to lounge on the roof as much as possible. As you can see however, not even these fences were immune from being scrapped:


Standing on top of the elevator penthouse, looking down:


Here, St. John / St. Luke's Lutheran Church is seen at left, and Trinity Lutheran to the right of it, with the Detroit River visible in the background (and I think that's Walker Distilleries on the Canadian shore):


St. Joseph's Catholic Church, and the east side:


One thing about living in the PJs was being close to Eastern Market, although I doubt many Brewster residents could afford to buy much from there except maybe simple produce. (Spoiler alert...usually the kind of thing I found in most Brewster-Douglass cupboards was government cheese and peanut butter, not artisanal goods.)

A reader says that in the 1950s and '60s, Eastern Market was not an expensive place to get food from like it is now; in fact it was very affordable, and many of the boys who lived here had jobs there as well. It was also common for some to raid the dumpsters at night after the market closed, for the still-good unsold produce that farmers left behind. I can vouch for the fact that this practice is still alive and well today, and is a good way to make ends meet if you need good food and don't have much money.


The Grand Trunk Warehouse & Cold StorageFisher Body Plant #10, GM Poletown Assembly Plant, Sweetest Heart of Mary Church, and Sacred Heart Catholic Church are all visible in this shot:


You can see the Detroit Water & Sewerage Dept. Warehouse in this next one, and the Detroit Fire Dept.'s Russell shop, with the Packard Plant stretching across the entire skyline from left to right in the background:


Thorn Apple Slaughterhouse, and more Eastern Market:


Looking west, there's First Unitarian Church and Brush Park; you can see the towers of the Jeffries Projects in the distance:


A view towards "Midtown," sometimes known as the "other Detroit," with the hazy silhouette of Lee Plaza on the horizon:


The place where the Tigers try to play baseball:


In fact, in one of the apartments within the Douglass Towers I found an old Comerica Park employee ID badge, indicating that the guy who lived in that unit had a job at the nearby ballpark. So far my attempts at impersonating Tyrell the peanut vendor have not gained me free access to any games, I'm sad to report.


CLICK HERE for the next episode, where I explore the famous Brewster-Wheeler Recreation Center.


References:
The Origins of the Urban Crisis, Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, by Thomas J. Sugrue, p. 49-50, 86
American Odyssey, by Robert Conot, p. 362-364, 374, 545
Detroit Across Three Centuries, by Richard Bak, p. 257, 262
Home in Detroit, by T. Burton, p. 90
http://detroithistorical.org/learn/encyclopedia-of-detroit/black-bottom-neighborhood
http://michiganradio.org/post/here-s-why-brewster-douglass-housing-projects-were-built-1930s
http://michiganradio.org/post/detroit-seeks-proposals-re-develop-iconic-brewster-recreation-center
http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/03/28/french-artist-found-dead-detroit/6999927/
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0182621/
http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004MWLXTO/ref=tsm_1_fb_lk
Free to All: Carnegie Libraries & American Culture, 1890-1920, by Abigail A. Van Slyck, p. 189
Joe Louis: The Great Black Hope, by Richard Bak, p. 293