Eight decades ago, a caravan of four vehicles motored from city hall downtown to the Hastings-Benton Street area. Passengers included Mayor Frank Couzens, Common Council members, and one very special guest: First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
It was September 9, 1935 and they had arrived at 651 Benton Street in the heart of the city’s growing black community that all accounts was bursting at the seams.
A makeshift platform awaited them. One of the city’s most respected clergy leaders the Rev. William H. Peck, pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church and founder of the Booker T. Washington Business Association, was among many there to greet them. Standing in front of the platform were city’s police band as well as the Brewster Center children’s group. A double quartet from neighboring Miller High School was there, too.
The City of Detroit and the Detroit Housing Commission, co-hosts of the event, called the program: Demolition Ceremony and Public Reception for Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt. A street festival featuring young neighborhood girls clad in pretty dresses performed and greeted Roosevelt, the iconic liberal woman of patrician upbringing.
Construction followed in later weeks, but first land had to clear to make room for the new development. The event, in effect, served as a kickoff for the Brewster Homes; the nation’s first federally funded housing project for blacks. The first phase of the project opened in 1938. It contained 701 residential units in a series of four-story structures. The development, several few streets wide, crossed Beaubien, St. Antoine, and Hastings. By the early 1950s, the Frederick Douglass Apartments, two-six story low rises and six 14-storey residential towers were completed to top off the development.
It was sorely needed.
By the 1930s, a significant portion the city lower east side was deemed by city and federal officials alike as “slum clearance.” Residential units and commercial structures, most of which were built in the previous century, had leaky roofs, inadequate plumbing, and collapsing porches. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was elected in 1932, pledged to pull America out of the economy-ravaged Great Depression, create government-sponsored and funded public works projects, get people back to work, and help local governments to rebuilt sections like Black Bottom, Paradise Valley and the other communities on the city’s lower east side.
In 1910, only about 5,000 blacks lived in Detroit; by 1930, the number soared 120,000 of the city nearly 1 million residents. About 85 percent of city blacks lived on the lower east side in Black Bottom, south of Gratiot, in Paradise Valley, north of Gratiot, and headed up to Mack Avenue or Rowena Street, the thoroughfare’s name prior the 1930s. New residents to the city would double and triple up with aunts and uncles; cousins and family friends. Most of them made the trek from the South to find employment and a better quality of life in the bustling industrial city then the nation’s fourth largest. However, racism in the mortgage lending industry and extreme protest from whites in other sections of the city relegated blacks to only a few neighborhoods in which to live.
Fast forward to 2015.
After the demolition of the Douglass Towers and the deteriorating condition of the neighboring Brewster-Wheeler Recreation Center, a City government call for redevelopment proposals yielded everything from a skateboard park to residential development. Mayor Mike Duggan, in carefully crafted April news conference, including develops, neighbors and other leaders announced an ambitious $50 million plan to rescue the historic Brewster-Wheeler Recreation Center. The proposal calls for a new restaurant, 150 new housing units, and new offices.
“Every opportunity we have, we are going to preserve buildings like the Brewster Wheeler Recreation Center that have a deep personal history in our city and do it in a way that provides real benefits to Detroit residents,” Duggan boasted in a prepared statement. “When this redevelopment is completed, we will have a facility that honors the legacy of Joe Louis, Leon Wheeler (the first black man to work for the city’s recreation department) and so many others, and re-establishes its connection to the community.”
The much-anticipated announcement came about eight months after the first-term mayor committed to finding a developer to revamp the structure where champion boxers Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson learned the “sweet science.” The Miller High School boys basketball team, which was coached by the legendary Will Robinson and had star players like future Harlem Globetrotter Charlie Primas, adopted the center’s full-size court to play home games because their matchbox-sized gymnasium was too small for the Trojans that won four consecutive city championships between 1947 and 1950. The center closed about 10 years ago and had been plastered with graffiti both inside and outside. Vandals had begun stealing copper and boosting other metal fixtures.
Developers promise that the project will celebrate the rich history of the recreation center, which was a sanctuary of sorts for generations of children and young adults. A restaurant will be built on top of a basketball floor. The Clarkston Union and Vinsetta Garage proprietors will operate the restaurant.
John Rhea and Livonia-based Shostak Brothers will build the residential development. Detroit-based Jenkins construction has been was selected as the contractor. Jim Jenkins, an African-American well credential and respected builder, was an early supporter of Duggan’s 2013 bid for mayor.
As concern grows among some longtime city residents about gentrification, Duggan and developers have made several promises:
- 200 or more permanent jobs
- 20 percent of residential units will be offered at affordable rates
- 30 percent of construction jobs will go to Detroit-based contractors
- 51 percent the construction jobs will go to city residents
- 35 percent of available jobs will be filled by city residents
- 40 percent of jobs at the restaurant would be offered to Detroiters, with a goal to increase that to 70 percent within four years
In addition, Duggan pointed out that Slow Roll, the nonprofit that hosts all-the-rage weekly bike rides for thousands of cyclists, as well as the award-winning Detroit Chess Club and Alternatives for Girls, will have office space in the new development.
Donyetta Hill, who led an impressive fight to preserve the Brewster-Wheeler Recreation Center in yesteryear glory, described the Duggan development as a “big victory” and a compromise that she could live with.
“I’m down with the idea,” she said. “We took what we could get. It was the closest fit. We just want community things there. I was born and raised in the Brewster Homes. The recreation center was my second home.”
Ken Coleman is an author and historian who has written about the Brewster Homes community in “Million Dollars Worth of Nerve: Twenty-one People Who Helped to Power Black Bottom, Paradise Valley and Detroit’s Lower Side.”