Bootstraps

At 4180 Marlborough Street on Detroit's east side is the old Jackson Intermediate School (aka, McNair Tech), which closed down in 2012.


These first several photos were taken one year later, in fall of 2013, after it had been ripped open and scrapped out. The Detroit Public Schools system sealed this building when it closed, but with the scrapping epidemic still at its peak, it didn't take long before the city finally gave up trying to keep it secured. I remember passing down Chalmers Avenue and seeing the school with lights on when it was still in session during the early 2010s, and then one day driving past it to see the building totally gutted like this...it is still just absolutely jarring to see how fast things can go downhill in Detroit.


As you can see the street is full of dumped refuse, and the school is surrounded by overgrown vacant lots, but there are some residents in the immediate area. The school is located between the Morningside and Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhoods of the city, both of which have struggled mightily in the recent foreclosure crisis and Great Recession, and still show promise.


My main interest in this school was due to its attractive architecture. I had become somewhat bored with exploring schools, but I wanted to check out the two big cupolas on the roof of this building. On my first visit I only got as far as the auditorium before something made us decide to leave. If I recall correctly the neighbors were still aggressively calling the police and the news media whenever they saw someone go inside.


Here you can see all of the original seats are still in place.


On a subsequent visit like three months later, all of the seats had been taken for scrap:


Andrew Jackson Intermediate School was built in 1928 at the peak of Detroit's construction boom, with a gym and swimming pool wing added in 1930. It was designed by the architectural firm of Bernard Christian Wetzel, which was headquartered in the Dime Bank Building in the 1920s according to Detroit historian Clarence M. Burton.

Wetzel also designed Wyandotte (Roosevelt) High School, Hamtramck High School, several other schools including the Gesu School, the Lothrop Branch Library, the Ralph Phelps Building, the DeLuxe Theater, Samaritan Hospital, the Dueweke Grocery Co. in Eastern Market, as well as other smaller buildings and fine residences.


Even the drinking fountain was gone too:


Jackson School has a unique exterior design, not a mimic of a pattern common to other schools as with the Hutchins design, but the interior layout is basically the same. For instance, the auditorium and main offices were centrally-located with the library above them, and the gymnasium / pool wing was adjacent, while classroom wings stretch out along a main central corridor to both sides.


The well loved Mayor Frank Murphy (who later went on to become governor, and a U.S. Supreme Court justice) gave the address at this school's dedication ceremony. A portrait of Andrew Jackson was presented by the students of the school to the Board of Education at the ceremony, even though it might be debatable whether 6th graders really knew who Andrew Jackson was at that age.


In some ways Andrew Jackson, the 7th President of the United States, could be thought of as the prototype of Donald Trump. He was the original "anti-establishment" candidate, and got into office with help from an undercurrent of populist sentiment. Jackson is also associated with touting the phrase "pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps," even though many have pointed out it is much easier for whites to pull themselves up by their bootstraps than minorities, since they actually have boots to start with.


Ironically President Trump seems to really identify with Andrew Jackson, and I particularly remember an incident where Trump "honored" two Navajo Code-Talker veterans in a televised ceremony that happened to take place directly in front of a portrait of Jackson that he hung in the Oval Office...a sly move that was probably a form of "code" of its own and not some idle coincidence, given Trump's suspicious tolerance for the white supremacist movement.

Andrew Jackson was known as "Indian Killer," and among Native Americans is probably recognized as their number-one historic enemy, best illustrated by his signing of the Indian Removal Act in 1830 to clear the way for white colonization. His policies lead to the "Trail of Tears," and he generally promoted the genocide of the Native Americans. President Jackson was also a slave owner so it should be no surprise that this Detroit school would eventually have its name changed, to instead honor Ronald McNair, the black astronaut and physicist who died in the Challenger explosion.


Jackson was also the school where in 1960 Peter Gavrilovich—Detroit Free Press editor, and co-editor of the compendious encyclopedia The Detroit Almanac, one of the greatest books on Detroit ever printed—spent his 7th grade year. He wrote down his memories about the school in the Free Press when it closed. Due to its reputation as one of the toughest schools in Detroit he jested that although it was named for the president, "most of us figured it was named for the prison," referring to the infamous Jackson Prison in southern Michigan. Incidentally, one of the shop teachers had a summer job as a guard at Marquette Prison.


At Jackson School "getting from one class to the next was a life threatening experience" Gavrilovich recalled, but since he had befriended the biggest kid in the school, a 6-foot-tall Greek boy, his safety was assured that year.


One thing I love about old Detroit schools is checking out the different styles of smokestacks they have. For some reason these mundane structures used to be considered something to beautify, and each one is architecturally unique. If I had things to do over again, I might publish a coffee-table photography book called "Finer Smokestacks of Detroit."


Anyway, a Detroit Free Press article from March of 1974 said that the school was then "still plagued by incidents, rocked by violence." Things had cooled off quite a bit since the 1972-'73 school year however, where Jackson had more police-investigated incidents than any other school of any size in the city. Fifty-three, to be exact, and Jackson accordingly earned a reputation to go with it. The Detroit Public Schools typically assigned security guards only to high schools, but in the case of Jackson, they made an exception.


"Jackson was bubbling like a hot pot...and young hard-eyed dudes strutted through its halls with knives and sticks and trouble on their minds," according to the article. A 17-year-old recently beat a male teacher in the halls with a tree limb, and another was dragged from her classroom by three boys who tried to throw her down a stairwell. The current principal of the school, Charles Clement, was a black man, and some faculty apparently had a "painful" time adjusting to this, which I take to mean that some white teachers didn't like having a black boss.

Image from Detroit Free Press, via Newspapers.com

Administrators pointed out that the problems really began when the school reached the "racial turn around point" a few years ago, and black students outnumbered whites for the first time. The neighborhood around Jackson still had pockets of white families living in it despite the rapidly changing landscape of the east side (with the affluent suburbs of Grosse Pointe ironically being just a few blocks away), but the ratio at Jackson was currently 75% black to 25% white. Fights, verbal harassment, and pulling fire alarms were the most common disturbances, drug use and drug dealing were rampant, as well as the occasional overdose.


But the central issue in 1974 was that older ex-students were now coming back to Jackson to cause trouble. The security chief of the Detroit Public Schools was quoted as saying, "We spend the first 16 years keeping them in school, then they drop out and come back to the schools because there's no place to go." Many of the school's supporters argued it was important to recognize this distinction, that most of the incidents were being perpetrated by non-students; outsiders, sometimes the siblings of students.


There were similar parent-participation problems to the ones I wrote about at Cooley High School with regard to PTO groups, which did not help the school's situation.

Principal Charles Clement said that there were currently a few specialized programs underway in the school designed to get at the problems affecting the youngsters. "Mini-schools" were conducted, where a teacher might take a few kids and drill with them on some basics that they might not be grasping in the larger classroom setting, and there was a "mini-job program" where teachers scouted in the community for jobs on behalf of 14- to 16-year-olds with Social Security cards. 


One teacher named Dorothy Furo held remedial reading workshops with seven kids per hour. She said that most were reading at a 4th-grade level, and that this was at the root of most other problems. She kept her classroom door closed to keep the troublemakers out, but sometimes older kids would wander by and kick it.


This is the library, on the second floor. I would guess that the big thing on the ceiling used to be a skylight, but it was roofed-over at some point.


Honestly, this building is of an architectural caliber that most universities would be jealous of; it certainly puts to shame the mundane little junior high school that I attended. And Detroit is absolutely littered with these grand structures, just rotting.


All the original furnishings such as the built-in shelves and cabinets, desks, etc. throughout the school were made of oak, and are mostly still intact. You could not ask for better constructed schools than these.


Dr. Terry Truvillion was the principal and matriarch of this school during its transition phase in the 1980s from Jackson to McNair. During her first two years at the head of the school she engaged in a campaign of activity designed to turn its fortunes around, recruiting teachers and parents, cutting through red tape, and even hiring private investigators in her fight to do what needed to get done for the school. You might even say she helped the school pull itself up by its bootstraps.

Truvillion oversaw the school's official name change to "McNair Technical Middle School" after the 1986 Challenger disaster, and she focused its new curriculum more on information technology and computers. The school even adopted new colors: purple and gold.


The roof had been leaking for a long time and water was destroying the ceiling in the library, so Truvillion fought to get a new roof put on, and repaired the plaster. New lighting was installed under her watch as well. Several news articles during the 1990s also tell of a yearly program she initiated within the school to get kids to help provide a Thanksgiving feast for the homeless.

In 2005 William Dechavez, a teacher at the school, was awarded the MetLife Foundation Ambassadors in Education Award for building relationships between his school and the surrounding neighborhood. He was a community activist who lived in the suburb of Southfield.


Despite these promising developments, by 2007 McNair Tech had shrunk down to an enrollment of just 1/10th of this building's original 2,200-student capacity, illustrating just how much this area of the city had emptied out. It was proposed to close along with a whopping 47 other schools in the city recommended for closure at that time. McNair somehow dodged the knife and was kept open a while longer by an influx of kids from other schools that were being closed.


This photo from the roof shows how sparse the immediate neighborhood is to the north:


On the other side of Chalmers Avenue, the neighborhood appears more dense:


The houses date from the late 1920s and early 1930s, the same time period that the school was built.




Well, here was my chance to go inside one of those big fancy cupolas on top of the building...


...as usual it is always less exciting than it looks from down below.


I do wonder of course just how many kids snuck up here to use these cupolas as their clandestine smoking or make-out spot.


One thing we can be sure of however is that nobody ever snuck up here to do extra studying, I can tell you that much.


In April of 2009 McNair was again slated for closure and possibly demolition, since it currently needed $2.2 million in repairs. The school was reopened one more time however to serve as the temporary home of Finney High School from the fall semester of 2009 to the spring semester of 2012, while the original Finney was demolished and rebuilt. This mural near the front entrance of the building was painted during that time:


The mural says, "Welcome to Finney High School, An African-Centered Education School, A Celebration of African-American Culture," and the imagery depicts a boy and a girl as they grow up and progress from elementary school to junior high, high school, and college. Behind them is a representation of the Detroit skyline juxtaposed across from what looks to be African shores (either that or Windsor just got a lot more tropical). The door on the left has a picture of the African continent and the words, "From Africa to Finney," which seems to explain the left-to-right progression illustrated in the larger mural.


After the displaced Finney students departed in the summer of 2012, this old school was finally locked up for the last time. Whether it will ever be reused for anything is dubious. Sadly, it was in pretty fair structural shape when it closed.

I have two other posts where I explore Detroit's intermediate schools:
Hutchins Intermediate School
Sherrard Intermediate School


References:
The City of Detroit, Michigan, 1701-1922 Volume 3, by Clarence M. Burton, p. 815
Industry Week, Volume 87 (1930), p. 75
"Violence Still Plagues School, But the Mood is Changing," Detroit Free Press, March 24, 1974, p. 3A, 18A
"Coat of Paint, the Scent of Tar Hopeful Signs for Detroit's Schools," Detroit Free Press, May 30, 1999, p. 1B
"Detroit School Sparkles Again," Detroit Free Press, August 22, 1999, p. 1B
"McNair Teacher Receives Honor," Detroit Free Press Community, May 5, 2005, p. 5
"Will Dedicate School Friday," Detroit Free Press, September 30, 1931, p. 5
"Detroit Closings List is Raising Some Questions," Detroit Free Press, January 11, 2007, p. 10A
"District Could Look Drastically Different," Detroit Free Press, May 13, 2009, p. 4A
"Historic Schools Could be Razed," Detroit Free Press, August 26, 2009, p. 7A
"Proposed School Closures," Detroit Free Press, April 9, 2009, p. 4A
"At Jackson Junior High, Great Music and Lessons on Toughness," Detroit Free Press, April 12, 2009, p. 25A
Detroit Gesu Catholic Church and School, by Patricia Montemurri, p. 14
"Population Ratios Alter Future Building," Detroit Free Press, August 9, 1931, p. 5-1

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