Jane's Abdication

November, 2008.

Jane Cooper Elementary School, like the Mark Twain Library, was something of an international media star in the late 2000s when Detroit came into the world spotlight for the auto company bankruptcies, the Detroit Public Schools bankruptcy, the Kwame Kilpatrick scandals, as well as the discovery of a frozen corpse in an abandoned warehouse—and the public was ravenous for ruin porn.

It was one of the handful of abandoned buildings on the "parachute journalist" checklist of must-see Detroit ruins, a circuit that became extremely well-worn over the next couple years as photographers flocked to the city to see all the cliché "this is Detroit" ruin-scapes. There was hardly a more illustrative or dramatic picture of Detroit's complete desolation available to them anywhere. It also helped that it conveniently sat only a few blocks north of the Packard Plant, an even bigger ruin-tourist draw.

I myself even escorted a few Bostonian friends to Jane Cooper upon request in those days, to satisfy their curiosity. I waited in the car to keep an eye on things while they were inside, since there was still heavy scrapper traffic in and out of the place—and they were the territorial kind. Dave got a few photos however that are much better than mine.

The "I-94 Industrial Project" was an idea that the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. (DEGC) had in 1999, as described in an article by Crain's Detroit. They bought up and cleared 189 acres for $18.9 million dollars, kicking residents out to attract industrial tenants to what was going to be a tax-free business park, ostensibly with the promise of jobs to follow.

They bulldozed all of the homes and no one ever came, so the empty land sat unwanted, just like all of the other empty land in Detroit. The result was this ghostly prairie; a black hole instead of an economic boon—with a grotesquely dilapidated Jane Cooper in the center of it—which occasionally attracted morbid curiosity-seekers such as ourselves.

The ruins of St. Cyril's Church and the Slovak Home were also in the area, and some other nearby neighborhoods have also been made intentionally more barren by FAA rule changes regarding buffer zones around airports. So in short, this area Jane Cooper sits in is one of the most pitiful-looking quarters of the city.

By 2007 the Detroit Public Schools closed Jane Cooper, due to declining enrollment. I wonder if that "declining enrollment" had anything at all to do with the fact that the surrounding neighborhood was demolished by the city? Ironically, in 1998—the year before the I-94 Industrial Project began—Jane Cooper School was given the "Innovator to Watch" educational award by Governor Engler, for its outstanding school-to-work program.

If you were keeping track of the numbers I threw out earlier, then you may've noticed that the DEGC spent $100,000 per acre on this plan (plus another $30,000 per year to maintain the site, according to Crain's), in an area of the city where single lots are probably still selling for $100. Naturally the process of acquiring or eminent-domaining all these tiny little parcels into one big, developable parcel took forever, and by the time it was ready, the market for industrial land had shit the bed and no one wanted it.

Jane Cooper was finally demolished in 2010, right about the time people were calling the dawdling development project a bust. The tax incentives the DEGC had in place for the industrial park are due to expire two years from now, in 2017.

Jane Cooper School was built in 1920 at the southeast corner of Concord and Georgia streets, and according to a reference I saw in a trade journal from that time called Engineering and Contracting, it was designed by prominent Detroit architects Malcomson & Higginbotham.

The timespan of 1919 to 1920 was a turning point for Detroit Public Schools, which would become more evident as time went on; that was when Superintendent Chadsey was forced to resign due to scandal, and was replaced by a nobody named Frank Cody, who would go on to be the greatest school administrator in Detroit's history.

Under Superintendent Cody the Detroit Public Schools rose to world prominence for its educational methods and innovations, as well as the new construction of beautiful and outstandingly modern school buildings, of which Jane Cooper was one of the first.

To my knowledge none of these fancy architectural appointments were saved before the demolition, they were all sent to the landfill despite being in perfect condition. These entire archways could have been reconstructed elsewhere, in some new building, transom window and all.

I found a death notice in the January 24, 1919 Detroit Free Press via the DPL's online ProQuest search service explaining just who Jane Cooper was. Miss H. Jane Cooper was a prominent educator who lived at 12 East Forest Avenue, and died in 1919 of appendicitis at Harper Hospital two years after retiring. She was buried in Birmingham. It was the following year that this school was named in Miss Cooper's honor, though originally it was due to be named after President Theodore Roosevelt, who had just passed away on January 6th himself.

Upon her death the school board decided to bump Teddy in favor of Miss Cooper, and Roosevelt's name was supposedly to be used instead on a recreational field near LaSalle Gardens as far as I can tell. Except that there never was a park by that name near LaSalle Gardens—apparently the name was instead bestowed upon the Roosevelt Park that we all know and love, which was laid out in front of Michigan Central Station in 1920, the same year Jane Cooper School opened.

Miss Cooper taught for 35 years in Detroit, starting at the Barstow School, and eventually became principal of Lincoln School by the time of her retirement. It would seem that none of the schools listed in the article as ones that she had worked at over the years still exist today.

Miss Cooper graduated from Detroit Central High School (Old Main), and went on to attend Harvard, Columbia, and Oxford universities. The article called her a "great student of educational and sociological subjects," and notes that it was she who came up with the idea of implementing a "soup kitchen" in the schools, for the poorer children of the city.

Much of Miss Cooper's career was under Superintendent Chadsey's administration, and she was instrumental in bringing about a system by which "brighter pupils" could advance grades according to their achievement level instead of being held back with the the rest of their classmates, if they could benefit from jumping ahead. This may have presaged the curricular "tracks" idea that was implemented under Superintendent Cody's reign if I'm not mistaken.

Pretty standard trashed classrooms throughout...nothing much to see here:

Here's the entrance to the auditorium:

The auditorium itself was in surprisingly good condition.

From the balcony:

I have to admit, the yellow hallway paint really brightened up this disaster scene.

I just remembered that this was the same day that I later got harassed by DPD Narcotics officers on Harper Avenue later in the afternoon, who were convinced I was trying to buy heroin in that area. Anyway, they illegally "removed" me from my car and searched me without probable cause or even a discussion. When they couldn't find anything illegal they searched my camera and tried to get me to admit that these photos were of Cass Tech...because that was the same time that the press was having a field day over the massive waste of materials left behind there by DPS, and the fact that Cass was open for looting, vandalism, and arson.

Apparently narcs felt it was their job to pin those things on me, since they realized they couldn't get me for drug offenses or anything else. They ended up sending me away with a trumped-up ticket about "Loitering in A Known Drug Area" (which I had to show up to fight).


Downtown's hazy skyline seen to the south, from the roof:

Here is a close-up of the old Associated Spring Corp. plant (left), and the GM Poletown Assembly plant, (right):

The fire station seen on the left here is Ladder 16 / Engine 38, at Miller & Helen streets, which was manned when I took the photo, but abandoned today...

...behind it looms the hulking silhouette of the Packard Plant.

Then the blocks and blocks where beautiful old houses once stood cheek-to-cheek...turned back into Midwestern prairie.

These little piles in the street were the beginnings of open dumping, the result of having no bulk trash pickup service in the city anymore, and of there being no neighbors to stop it.

By the time 2010 rolled around, the mess had become much worse.

We wandered out away from the school into the wide savannah, almost entranced by the feeling of complete desolation, just to see what it was like to stand out there. Though we had both seen plenty of urban prairie before, neither of us had ever been in a neighborhood so completely erased as this.

Power lines hung limply from an Edison pole:

Phone cable lies partially husked in what used to be a narrow alley:

Another part of the same alley, so overgrown that the pavement is barely still visible:

Total anarchy...this is the kind of thing where the Mad Max references about Detroit come from. Now that the lines have been cut off as high as can be reached and taken to the scrapyard, the next step is to cut down the poles themselves and harvest the rest.

One last look at the building before it goes...

Over the entryways was a mosaic of Detroit's signature Pewabic tile, and the crest of the City of Detroit:

The crest shows two allegorical female figures; one weeps over the ruins of the old city that was utterly destroyed by fire in 1805, while the other looks to a bright future. The city's motto, "Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus" appears as well, meaning "We Look to Better Days; It will Rise from the Ashes." I doubt that Fr. Gabriel Richard could have foreseen these days, when a mere 200 years later those words are ringing so truly for a second time.

If only it were as easy to rebuild this time...

"Miss Jane Cooper Dies in Hospital: Well-known Educator Taught in Detroit Schools 35 Years," Detroit Free Press, January 24, 1919, pg. 5
Engineering and Contracting, Vol. 54, No. 4, (July 28, 1920) p. 38
Frank Cody: A Realist in Education, by Detroit Public Schools Staff

1 comment:

  1. That location was developed in 2015. Some kind of warehouse / distribution center went up over top of where the school was. I worked on the topographic survey, some of the site planning/engineering, and the landscape design for the development (there's a very nice row of maple, pear, and spruce trees along St. Cyril St. that I can take credit for).

    The only thing left of the school by the time we showed up was the asphalt running track that can be seen in the photo of the playground taken from the roof. I had no idea there was a school there, so I could never quite figure out what that asphalt oval was supposed to be.


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