A New Jack City Stronghold

On Detroit's east side, in one of the many old German neighborhoods off of Gratiot Avenue, sits the magnificent parish house of the First English Evangelical Lutheran Church, which I have already shown you in an older post. This building was erected directly next to the church sanctuary, and contained many gathering rooms, a gym, a library, and a kitchen, and it even had a large central meeting hall that in my opinion was even more beautiful than the church sanctuary itself.

It was built in 1929, and for an architect they hired no less than George D. Mason & Co., the same guy who designed the landmark Detroit Masonic Temple, First Presbyterian Church, Trinity Episcopal Church, Gem Theater, Broadway Exchange Building, and even the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. The builder of this parish house was A.W. Kutsche & Co.

The Detroit Public Library's online digital collection has a good historic photo of this building, which is dated to 1929. Here's some more from the interior, also marked 1929.

On the chimney, there is that symbol with the rose, heart, and crucifix again--the Martin Luther Seal:

Look closely under the seal and you can make out the dates "1896-1929," which commemorate the lifespan of this parish up to that time. We snuck in the backdoor, and came across the gym first:

This narrow side-balcony of the gymnasium looks like it was bare stone originally, but has since been whitewashed:

A couple windows looked into the narrow alley between the parish house and the old church:

Here was the front lobby of the building, with a set of steps leading up from three gothic-arched doorways, while dark-stained hardwood beams spanned the ceiling:

The banner hanging on the front of the building over this entrance bore the name "Kabaz Cultural Center Inc.," the building's last tenant, which was headquartered here at 3619 Mt. Elliott, but I think they no longer exist. Their Facebook page is still up, frozen in the year 2011, just like their former building.

Kabaz appears to have been a non-profit youth center designed to keep kids off the streets and give them various educational programming. One of the last posts on their Facebook page eerily reads,
It's Family Reunion time at the Kabaz Cultural Center! On Saturday, August 27, 2011. The Kabaz Cultural Center is calling all past and present Black Jewels, Hogan's Heroes, Damali's (Beautiful Visions), Chocolate Angels, Positive Peers, parents, staff, and entire extended family of the last 45 years. Mama Ayo says, "COME HOME AND HELP SAVE OUR CASTLE!!!"
A c.2008 obituary in the Detroit News told of the late 103-year-old Nora Williams, whose daughter, Audrey "Ayo" Hunter, was the Kabaz center's executive director. According to the obituary, both Nora and her daughter had been involved in the Kabaz program since the latter founded it over 30 years prior. Judging by the "HELP SAVE OUR CASTLE" bit, and the fact that there was nothing after it, makes it sound like the Kabaz program may have come to an end by the autumn of 2011.

Off to the side of the lobby was this gathering area with a fireplace, the first of many we would see throughout this building. The sconce lights above the fireplace have already been taken:

Almost all of the windows in this building were leaded glass swing-outs.

Several offices were also to be found here on the first floor, with the books and contents tossed:

The beautiful wood paneling in this library was in the process of being stripped from around another fireplace:

Here is a historic photo showing the room when it was new.

Oh wow, I wasn't expecting this...

This hall is every bit as grand as the sanctuary next-door. I wonder if it served as overflow space when the parish services were a little too crowded?

So far, the ceiling of this room was still amazingly undamaged, though the light fixtures have already walked away:

Up in the corners, atop the column capitals, were carved brackets with cherub faces on them:

Since the architect George Mason often worked with Corrado Parducci, I have to wonder if these cherubs were carved or designed by none other than the master himself. For that matter, I also have to wonder if Parducci did not also carve or design the decorative tablet on the chimney (which I showed in the third photo from the top of this post). It certainly looks like his style.

And there's that Martin Luther Seal again...

A view toward the rear of the room, showing the small balcony:

The tall windows at the back of the "altar" area:

It's starting to peel here a little bit:

I wonder if they had a real Oberammergau woodworker come and do these traceries? That Bavarian town is famous for religious woodworking, and among Lutherans for putting on the "Passion Play" every ten years since 1634.

I couldn't quite figure out what these tilting window things on the ceiling were, but I guess I didn't spend much time looking at them either...

Venturing upstairs, we started to come across the first of several be-fireplaced meeting rooms:

Some weird black lectern with a white triangle on it...that doesn't look very Lutheran to me:

And of course our requisite fireplace:

Notice the Martin Luther Seal again in the corners of the mantle:

High up on the walls of the room were various heraldic-looking emblems embossed onto the plaster:

They look like they've got about a million coats of paint over them.

Every now and then I'd glance out a window and get a bizarre, abstract view of the side of the church:

Another large meeting room, another decor scheme, another fireplace:

Looks like Hillary Clinton might've been in here destroying evidence by fire, heh...

What an incredible fireplace--look at these tiles...!

Each one was different, and I can only imagine it wasn't long before someone ripped all this apart and stole it...

Coming soon to a sketchily-written eBay listing near you.

A third meeting room, on the third floor. I found old paperwork in here from a community group somewhat hilariously called "Crackwise"...their mission however was quite serious.

The letterheads of some of their paperwork chaotically scattered on the floor indicated that they were based at 1575 E. Lafayette, Suite. 202, with an office here on Mt. Elliott as well. Their "Urban Impacts Fact Sheet" for Detroit and Wayne County in August of 1988 lists several interesting statistics. It said that in 1985 the Juvenile Court received 250 drug-related cases, and in 1987 that figure had tripled to 674 cases, illustrating the explosion of crack cocaine usage in the city. That year, a total of 334 juveniles were shot in drug-related incidents in Detroit.

There was still not one single publicly-funded treatment facility for youths in the city by 1988, the sheet exclaimed. "Latest estimates" indicated that up to 40,000 individuals were using heroin or other opiates in Detroit--a number which represented 85% of the statewide population of narcotics-addicted people. The Wayne County Morgue reported that 38% of all its autopsy cases were found to contain cocaine or its derivatives.

If you were alive in the mid-1980s to 1990s, you remember Detroit and crack cocaine as almost being synonymous. It was a scary time, one which helped cement Detroit's already dark reputation as the "Murder City," a stronghold of drugs, gangs, violence, and other senseless inhuman acts. This old Lutheran Parish House served as a bulwark against those forces.

Detroit was at the epicenter of the crack plague that laid waste to the urban populations of America, as told in several newspaper articles from the time, as well as at least one documentary. Even the classic 1991 movie New Jack City was based on the story of Detroit's infamous Chambers Brothers' gang, despite being set in New York. It's no coincidence that the 1987 movie Robocop was set in Detroit, either.

This blue Pewabic tile created a cool effect, which someone obviously took into account when they were inspired to paint the room red.

Some interesting plaster details were evident in one corner, patterns of storybook creatures like lions and owls and swans.

There were even a couple fantasy creatures as well...I wondered if this was the parish storybook corner, where books were read to children? A built-in bookcase wasn't far away.

Walking out onto the meeting hall's balcony, we found all of the wooden parts of the original seating rows to be piled up after the steel parts had been stolen for scrap.

Each one of the ceiling beams has a different pattern on it:

This guy looked super thrilled to be stuck in a back corner:

Back to Crackwise for a moment. One article, "Detroit Drug Dealers Spreading Out," which ran in the December 11, 1988 Chicago Tribune described at length how the crack epidemic took root here and spread across the entire Midwest. "Through the mid-1980s, Detroit's major drug entrepreneurs resembled Fortune 500 companies in their size and scope" according to the article, and the Chambers Brothers' gang exemplified this. Their successors, the infamous Young Boys Inc., drew in an estimated revenue of $7.5 million a week at its peak.

Two main factors precipitated the outward expansion of the Detroit crack empire: market saturation, and ramped-up pressure on traffickers from Detroit Police. There was literally so much crack in Detroit in the '80s that it was being sold for less than $10 a rock--half the regular market rate. Being so cheap meant that anyone could get it, so crack usage spread like wildfire here, taking a hideous toll on urban youth.

Dealers needed to branch out to take advantage of new markets, and that's when towns in Ohio, Indiana, and greater Michigan began to see ruthless Detroit crack dealers in their midst. The Cleveland Police even went as far as to blame Detroit for the crack epidemic that hit their city in 1986.

Seeking the sanctuary of small towns to hide out from police or business rivals while waiting for things to "cool off" in the city was something that even Al Capone used to do, said Carl Taylor, a Michigan State University expert on gangs and juvenile crime. Even though Detroit Police were able to smash the Chamber Brothers' ring and Y.B.I., it seemed to have only fragmented the Detroit crack trade, with little or no net decrease in volume of drug traffic in the city.

Taylor said that "the same individuals [were] still out on the street," still slinging rocks under new leadership, or their own entrepreneurship. It's worth noting that the tactics used by the Detroit Police in the name of the "War on Drugs" were usually just as brutal, tyrannical, and out of control as those used by the gangs themselves.

It was in the midst of this anarchy that Crackwise seems to have inserted itself as an agent of calm and healing by trying to mobilize neighborhoods against the cycle of drugs.

At the 1990 Great Lakes Leadership Conference on Substance Abuse Prevention, Crackwise's spokesperson Victor Hall said that he found the community to generally be full of fear, which was preventing them from getting organized and getting involved. "Fear has gotten us nothing through the 1980s," he said, "and if we keep avoiding action through fear, we will get nowhere."

It was even harder to organize the community when the neighborhoods were emptying out, as Detroit continued to depopulate. The Devil's Night arson epidemic also peaked in Detroit about the same time as the crack epidemic, and we've all heard stories of neighbors trying to burn out crack houses, or setting fire to vacant houses before they could become crack dens.

Crack is still present in Detroit today, though it isn't nearly as popular as it was back in the 1980s.

This meeting room was divided in half by fancy wooden dividers, each half of which had its own fireplace.

It also overlooked the main hall from a small window:

Off to the side was a small library, with beautiful wooden panelling.

Die mannen gehen in het:

...reminds me of the men's room door at the Dakota Inn, heh.

As of the close of 2015, the future looks bleak for this jewel of a building. When I was there a couple years ago, it looked like heavy scrapping was about to begin, so I can only imagine that it looks much worse than this by now.

Driving Detroit: The Quest for Respect in the Motor City, by George Galster, p. 98
The Lutheran, Vol. 15 (1932), by George Washington Sandt, p. 25
Action Strategies for the '90s: Conference Proceedings of The Great Lakes Leadership Conference on Substance Abuse Prevention, p. 177

1 comment:

  1. As I sat in the parking lot across from this beautiful, old building I wondered about its storied past so I Googled it. I came upon this and it made me even sadder to know that now the church is gone and this beautiful building may not be far behind. Detroit is losing a lot of its beautiful old buildings to decay.


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