Basketball or Building Cadillacs

Exterior shots from March 2013; interior shots from January 2015

Detroit's Southwestern High School was built in two halves. You can see both here, on Fort Street...

...on the left is the more modern half, built in 1921, while on the right is the older building, built as the John Nordstrum High School in 1915. Both were designed by the local architects Malcomson & Higginbotham, the same firm that designed so many of Detroit's other schools from that era. The two are connected in the middle by a small, modern addition.

Southwestern closed in 2012. It was purchased in 2015 by auto supplier Sakthi Automotive who intended to turn it into a training center, and they did a better job mothballing the structure, which had already started to get torn open and gutted by scrappers. It was sort of like the Detroit Public Schools' "last stand" as it were; like they had seen so many of their other closed schools get breached, ransacked, and obliterated by the scrapping epidemic that they finally decided to circle the wagons and defend Southwestern at all costs.

The school system had sunk so much recent money into the campus that I guess they felt they had to defend it. I believe several arrests were made on people caught by the security systems they employed. There was also a DPS cop posted here regularly, and I believe I recall seeing U.S. Border Patrol parked out front a lot as well. The school still suffered heavy damage, but at least it remains basically intact. This may be thanks just as much to the subsequent tumble in metals prices as it was to added security measures.

The carving above says "Southwestern High School, AD 1921."

This tablet over an older entrance says "John Nordstrum School, AD 1915":

In 1916, under Superintendent Frank Cody (who I have written about extensively here), the nearby McMillan High School (also in Delray) was turned into an elementary school, and its high school students and teachers were moved here to the new Nordstrum / Southwestern. This area of the city was expanding so rapidly that the old Nordstrum building was already too small within a couple years, hence the addition of Southwestern in 1921. That was the hallmark of Cody's long tenure as Detroit Public Schools superintendent; the construction of new and massive modern schools city-wide to address the burgeoning population of Detroit. In fact he began his teaching career here in Delray, at the McMillan School.

Being located in Southwest Detroit (technically within Delray neighborhood), most kids who went here during my lifetime were Latin or Hispanic, but there were plenty of blacks and even some Hungarian-descended whites still. Back in the 1950s its enrollment district also included the suburb of Allen Park.

In 2009 Southwestern rival Chadsey High School closed, and its students were merged with Southwestern in order to boost its dwindling enrollment numbers. This brought fears that violence might occur between the two factions. 

The same fears cropped up in 2012 when Southwestern's closure meant that its students would be merged with their other rival, Western High (which happens to be where I vote). The students at both schools walked out in response, and a Free Press article quoted one teen as saying "All Hell's going to break loose." I am not sure any of the forecast violence ever took place however.

For historical context, the student bodies of Southwestern and Western had been temporarily merged once before, while the old Western High School (built on Clark Park in 1897) was being reconstructed after burning down in 1935.

We entered through the rear addition, when the place was still wide open. The well-worn trail of footprints makes a beeline for the trespasser's path of least resistance:

There is a small stage here on the right of this burned assembly space:


Yep...more arches.

Here's the pool. The tile on the floor spells out "PROSPECTORS," which is the name of the school's mascot. You can see a mining prospector also depicted in the tile, holding his pickaxe. I have to wonder how many local alumni came back in here to "prospect" for copper pipes to make ends meet during the Great Recession?

The school's peak enrollment was once around 2,000 students, but in 2012 it was 583. A major blow was dealt to this neighborhood when Cadillac's Fleetwood Body Plant and Clark Street Assembly Plant were both closed down in December 1987, resulting in thousands of local households being left on reduced or no income. At the announcement of the closures that devastated Southwest Detroit, an AP news article recalled lyrics from the contemporary song "C-I-T-Y" by John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band that referred to the Cadillac plants...

On the South side of Detroit city
I'm working all night on the line
Under black smoke stacks
Building Cadillacs, Jack
Not one of them will ever be mine
But I'm gonna make it out of the city
Got an American dream that's true
Want a big red car and
A big white house and
A blue-eyed girl like you
And you can spend all my money, honey
Na, na, na, na, your man has come
It's all right

Despite the apparent involuntary birthright of Southwest Detroit high school graduates to go on to a glamorous life of working the assembly line, there have been quite a few notable alumni of Southwestern High.

This list is from Wikipedia, so take it for what it is, but some of them include brain surgeon and current HUD Secretary Ben Carson; U.S. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib; chart-topping jazz guitarist Tim Bowman; civil rights activist Martha Farkas Glaser (who is also the manager of famous jazz musician Erroll Garner); former National Football League players Dale Hansen and Luis Sharpe; former Major League Baseball players Stan Lopata, Barney McCosky, Merv Rettenmund, and Mike Tresh; former National Basketball Association players Voshon Lenard, Howard Eisley, and Jalen Rose; former Detroit Mercy basketball head coach Bacari Alexander; and 1990 Final Four college basketball "Most Outstanding Player" Anderson Hunt.

The Perry Watson Gymnasium, once home to the school's renowned basketball team:

Sports Illustrated even did an article on Southwestern High in March of 2012, entitled, "End of An Era: Southwestern High May Have Played its Final Game." According to the article, Perry Watson was the legendary coach of the Southwestern Prospectors basketball team from 1978 to 1991, which you may recall also spanned the Detroit Pistons' "Bad Boys" years, when they were dominant in the National Basketball Association. Under Watson, the Prospectors had an incredible win-loss record of 302-34, and produced NBA stars Jalen Rose and Voshon Lenard.

Players recalled seeing NBA scouts and coaches such as Bob Knight in the stands during their games. The Prospectors ranked second in the nation in 1990, and first in 1991—Perry Watson was then named national coach of the year.

So I guess if you didn't like building Cadillacs you could aspire to play b-ball in the big leagues—but now that Southwestern's closed, that option's a bust, too. There's always that "midnight train, going anyyyywheeeere" like the Journey song...but then they closed the god damned train station in 1988, so now you have to take a couple busses to get across town to the other train station, in New Center. "Life here definitely ain't no dream," cuz!

In 2012 Coach Watson and several former players came home to make a case to the Detroit Public Schools to keep Southwestern open, even appealing to Detroit Mayor and former NBA player Dave Bing. U.S. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (who then represented the school's Michigan congressional district, and who herself is a Class of 1994 graduate) also reached out to Governor Snyder (whose "emergency financial manager" controlled Detroit Public Schools) to give Southwestern a stay of execution, but it was to no avail.

Despite the fact that Southwestern was one of the best schools in the city in terms of academics, attendance, safety, alumni ties, and condition of its building, it was closed down at the end of the 2012 school year. Jalen Rose had in fact just donated a bran-new gym floor just six years before the school was announced to be closed. But these are the kinds of decisions we get forced into when "businessmen" are in charge of politics.

Entering the old 1921 building:

Sadly I did not get to see this auditorium when it was still in pristine condition and people hadn't begun burning the place up yet.

Local photographer Manny Crisostomo did a photo essay in 1988 concentrating on the student life of Southwestern High. It is viewable online here: A Class Act: The Life and Times of Southwestern High School...some pretty neat throwback photos in there.

Pretty minor fire, actually...plaster's still fine:

An entry vestibule, sporting Gothic-arched leaded-glass windows, a staple of Detroit schools built off of this pattern during the 1920s:

Inset on the wall is an example of locally famous Pewabic tile.

Familiar staircase design as well:

Classrooms boasted the usual oak built-in cabinetry found throughout the historic schools of Detroit...

I've always yearned to salvage some of this old stuff, but I know from experience that the amount of labor involved is daunting.

It should've been done professionally via agreements through the DPS and entities like Architectural Salvage Warehouse, but...yunno.

The courtyard...where scrapping always begins:

This used to be a library if I recall correctly:

A pretty narrow classroom:

An interesting little spot:

And here we are in the 1960s-era addition connecting the two halves of the school:

Looks like a sort of break area for students:

According to this graffiti, someone didn't stay in school long enough to learn that the Nazis weren't really down with Satan too much:

Fort Street is visible out front:

We were now entering the old Nordstrum School half of the building.

Here, thanks to a missing radiator that someone heisted, you can see the old wall of the Nordstrum School from before the adjoining addition was built, completely unstained by the last 100 years or so of Southwest Detroit air pollution:

More beautiful oak built-ins:

I think the roof on this place is pretty new too...

Graffiti starting to accumulate. This was prior to the "Duggan Buff" that now operates across the city like a SWAT team, suddenly piling out of vans with paint sprayers and making things disappear...

A look west down Fort Street, toward the Detroit Produce Terminal, the old "Vinewood" telephone exchange office, and All Saints Church:

There's the football field, with Zug Island's towering black furnaces puffing in the background:

Last I knew, there were locals still maintaining and playing on this field, despite the school being closed. Zug Island's operations under U.S. Steel have ceased however, heralding the Second Great Recession, in 2020.

A science lab or something, on the top floor.

This is the attic level of the Nordstrum building.

A view out back toward the athletic buildings...beyond them you can see the old McLouth Steel plant and Atlas Foundry Co., both of which have recently been demolished for the construction of the new Gordie Howe International Bridge:

I kinda dug this room for some reason.

Another science lab on ground level.

By modern standards in upscale communities, these desks and chairs were medieval...they remind me of what I used in school back in the 1990s:

More architectural deets...

Okay, I went up in the attic of the Southwestern side too.

Up here I was surprised to find what appeared to be plaster molds that go to the building, likely stored here in case there ever needed to be repair work done in a historically accurate way. You can also see a lot of signatures up here from naughty kids that snuck away from the glaring eyes of hall monitors to grab a quick cigarette (or whatever they were doing up here, haha).

Maybe it was more innocuous than we think, like that movie "The Neverending Story" where the nerdy kid hides from bullies up in the attic of his school, reads a book, and inadvertently ends up spending the night there? (For full disclosure, if my crappy 1950s school would have had an attic, I would have done the same.)

And there's the roof access, the real reason I came up here.

Illustration of how far away downtown is:

Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps...JROTC. It sounds more military-industrial-complex when you actually say the full words instead of the abbreviation, haha. More like "Future Cannon Fodder Club"...

Sure, let's check out the boiler room too.


The nameplate reads, "Hays Panel & Instrumentation, Michigan City, Indiana, USA"...

This plate says "Burner Manufactured By Wickes Boiler Co., Saginaw, Mich., USA"...

Back in the halls...

Balcony of the auditorium:


...Now this is a curriculum that encourages my interests!

Okay time for another 1980s movie reference...

Don't act like you weren't already thinking of that scene in E.T. ...!

Whoa, this cigar box is a weird blast from the past... Dime Bank was one of the older financial institutions of Detroit's history. Their c.1910 building still stands downtown at 719 Griswold.

The box comes from the Mazer Cigar Co., which was one of the many cigar making firms based in Detroit back in the old days. I guess some science teacher used it to store test tubes or something?

The seal of the City of Detroit:

The future of Southwestern High still seems in question, but for now the building *appears* stabilized...

"Burned School to be Replaced," Detroit Free Press, February 27, 1935, p. 3
"Detroit Students Walk Out, Protest Closing," Detroit Free Press, April 26, 2012, p. A8