Massive, crumbling Brewster projects to be demolished but no plans for future site

The nation’s first federally funded public housing project for black people is coming down on Detroit’s east-side, removing a behemoth eyesore looming over I-75, Mayor Dave Bing announced today.

The storied, abandoned Brewster projects, which once offered apartments to low-income Detroiters, including the families of Motown legends Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson, resembles a mini-city of crumbling red bricks.

Rows of burned out townhouses and high-rise apartments are decaying, windowless and tagged with graffiti. Broken furniture, garbage and dead trees are strewn across the 30-acre ruins near downtown.

This morning, an upbeat Bing pledged crews would begin tearing down the buildings next summer with a $6.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“The former Brewster-Douglass complex has a proud place in Detroit’s rich history, as the nation’s first federal housing project for African Americans, as the place where Joe Louis learned to box, and where Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard formed the Supremes,” Bing said. “However, as a vacant site it became a major eyesore and a danger to the community. We welcome the chance to make it a productive residential and commercial area once again.”

The next hurdle is finding investors to pump life into the prime spot that buffers the freeways, downtown, Ford Field and historic Brush Park.

“We’re going to be looking for people who are interested in this site,” Bing said. “Hopefully people will come forward after this” announcement.

The Brewster projects have a rich, tragic history. Built in the 1930s, the red-brick buildings are the first publicly funded housing projects for black people.

At first, the working poor who were lucky enough to get a Brewster apartment were thrilled because they could proudly raise a family in a clean, safe environment. At the time, the city was beginning to clear out over-populated slums, known as Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, where African Americans were confined to substandard living.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who was an outspoken advocate of racial equality, was at the groundbreaking and said the new apartments represented a grand achievement for human rights.

At any given time, between 8,000 and 10,000 residents lived at the Brewster projects.

But drugs and crime, especially during the 1980s, began to deteriorate the mini-city of red bricks, leading to a drawn-out exodus that left the housing units vacant in 2008.

Since then, the buildings have crumbled. Thieves have gutted everything of value, tearing apart floors, ceilings and walls for metal. The row houses often catch fire, sometimes at the hands of homeless people trying to stay warm in the winter.

The adjacent recreation center where Joe Louis learned how to box is falling apart. Tennis and basketball courts are cracked, with long grass poking out of the concrete.

Bing said there are no plans yet to demolish the large, decaying rec center.

For now, Frank Lyman, who is homeless, spends his days and nights in the abandoned projects, sleeping on an old mattress in a dilapidated row house. He didn’t know about the mayor’s plans to demolish Brewster.

“Damn, that’s heavy,” he said Wednesday night, sitting on the steps of a row house. “I guess I’ll leave when I see the (demo) trucks.”

Check back a photo gallery of the Brewster projects later today.

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Steve Neavling is an investigative journalist and former city hall reporter for the Detroit Free Press. Got tips or suggestions? Contact Steve at sneavling@gmail.com. 

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.