State does nothing as Historic Highland Park school is gutted by thieves

Part one of a continuing series on abandoned buildings. More than 60,000 vacant buildings are scattered across Detroit and Highland Park, driving down property values and attracting crime, rodents and fires. This is the story of one of those buildings. 

Neighbors tried their best.

They circled the historic, sprawling school in Highland Park to keep out thieves. When that wasn’t enough, the cash-starved police department stationed two squad cars as decoys outside the vacant building at Glendale and 2nd.

In the two months since then, the 96-year-old building that housed a high school and one of the country’s first community colleges has come under attack by thieves who have torn apart walls, ceilings and floors for metal. Vandals spray-painted and broke into one of the police cars.

Turns out, the responsibility for protecting the abandoned school belongs to the state because it took control of the Highland Park district and its buildings in January.

“You’d think the state could have done something,” said Harry Cooper, 43, shaking his head as he walked past the school Tuesday. “I don’t know how you ignore a building like this. What a waste.”

The state, which stopped mowing grass and weeds at vacant schools in the city, said it inherited a deficit of more than $11 million.

“While damage to a vacant building, which the district closed years ago, is unfortunate, the emergency manager’s top priority has been and will continue to be providing quality educational services to students in Highland Park,” Terry Stanton Michigan Treasury Department told us this week.

Before thieves began picking apart the building, the Motor City Muckraker toured the pristine school and its grand halls. Televisions, air-conditioners, computers, desks, thousands of books and student records containing Social Security numbers were left behind when the building – then a career academy – closed in 2009.

But three years of successfully fending off thieves ended a few months ago. Ceilings are collapsing onto the floors of classrooms and hallways. Windows are smashed out, and walls are splattered in graffiti.

It’s a far cry from the building that attracted thousands of students to Highland Park High School and Junior College in the early part of the 20th century.

Outside the school Tuesday afternoon, a scrapper chucked a glass bottle at my car from a second-story window while I was trained my camera on someone rifling through one of the decoy police cars that recently had been spray-painted.

Police arrived about 15 minutes later, towed the vandalized car but left without closing a wide-open door in the back of the school.

Police didn’t return calls for comment.

The next day, the clang of metal could be heard inside the school.

Before the state takeover, the district protected the building because of its historic and monetary value, said school board member Robert Davis.

“Every time I drive past the school, I get totally upset,” Davis said. “The state has the money, and they won’t even cut the grass. It’s disgraceful.”

Jim Robinson lives across the street from the school.

“Look around,” the 68-year-old said, pointing to gutted and abandoned buildings – a hospital, homeless shelter and apartments – that surround the school. “No one’s going to save that school. Scrappers will have at it until there’s nothing left.”

Visit our photo gallery to get a closer look at the school.


Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.