SEPTEMBER 19, 2013 — Demolition began this month on the Frederick Douglass Homes public housing development in Brush Park, closing a messy chapter in Detroit’s history. Shaun Donovan, secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development joined Mayor Bing on Wednesday, September 4th to kick off the year-long, $6.5 million effort. More commonly known as the Brewster-Douglass projects, the complex was once called a “model of urban renewal across the nation”.
In 1935, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt broke ground on the Brewster Homes, a 701-unit development of two- and three-story apartment blocks for African Americans bounded by Mack, Hastings, Beaubien and Wilkins. Brewster expanded to 941 units in 1941 and was demolished in 1991, replaced by 250 townhomes in 1994.
In 1942, the low-rise Frederick Douglass Apartments went up just south across Wilkins, named after the famed African American abolitionist. The six iconic 14-story Frederick Douglass towers of 112 units each went up between 1952 and 1955. Detroit architecture firm Harley, Ellington & Day (the same firm who designed the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center) designed the Frederick Douglass complex.
Public housing developments like Brewster-Douglass dotted American cities in the mid-20th Century and were touted as solutions for redeveloping blighted areas and housing the “working poor”. In fact this recent short film contains a snippet of a 1935 newsreel praising the construction of Brewster Homes and how it would achieve those goals.
Adjacent to the once-vibrant African American neighborhood along Hastings Street, Brewster-Douglass was arguably successful early in its history. The Detroit Housing Commission originally required that residents maintain jobs and incomes within a set range. Lawsuits challenging those requirements, lax enforcement of resident rules, concentrated poverty, economic disinvestment and other factors led to increases in crime in the 1960s and 1970s. Although Brewster was rebuilt in 1994, Douglass continued to decline. Two of the six towers were demolished in 2003 and the last remaining tenants in the other Frederick Douglass structures were moved out in 2008.
At its peak, between 8,000 and 10,000 residents called the combined Brewster-Douglass projects home, including Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson and Lily Tomlin. Joe Louis lived in Frederick Douglass and began his boxing career at the nearby Brewster-Wheeler Recreation Center. Stevie Wonder had relatives in the complex as well.
Future use of the 18.5-acre site is unknown at this point. The land is well situated though, tucked between Detroit’s burgeoning downtown, Midtown and Eastern Market districts and highly visible along the I-75 expressway. In 2012, Mayor Bing’s administration announced it would seek funds to tear down Frederick Douglass to make way for new affordable housing and commercial space on the site. The Brewster-Wheeler Recreation Center would be spared the wrecking ball for its own redevelopment. No firm plans for any of the site were offered, however. [PD]