It’s said that a teenage Joe Louis hid his boxing gloves in a violin case so his mom didn’t know he was sparring at a recently opened recreation center in Detroit’s slums.
For 25 cents a month, Louis and other teens could escape the hardscrabble streets just north of downtown to play checkers, meet new people or learn to box at the Brewster Wheeler Recreation Center. The art deco building, named after the first black city recreation worker, Leon Wheeler, was built because city officials rejected calls to integrate the spacious, first-rate YMCA in downtown Detroit.
Louis was barely literate and 17 when he made his debut at the center in 1932. He was knocked down numerous times, but five years later would become a world champion and an icon for poor black Detroiters.
The center, which closed in the 2000s, became a source of hope and pride for children and teenagers at a time when the growing African American population was confined to segregated slums.
Its historic significance is why Mayor Dave Bing’s administration is not demolishing the center as part of a $6.5 million plan to demolish the surrounding housing projects.
Bing said he was “very adamant” about finding ways to reopen the center.
Once the abandoned housing complexes are demolished, Bing’s administration said the idea is to entice investors to transform the 30-acre ruins into a mix of commercial and residential development. Without a nearby recreation center, a restored Brewster, which has a basketball court and indoor swimming pool, could be in demand, the Bing administration told me Monday.
It’s hard to imagine the center in its better days. Today, the walls are cracked and shedding layers of paint; copper and other metals were stripped by thieves; the ceiling is falling down; some of the interior is scorched from fires.
The swimming pool, which was a luxury for long-neglected African Americans, is strewn with trash. And chunks of the wall in the basketball court are collapsing.
While some historians and building preservationists are upset about the demolition of the Brewster housing projects, they’re thrilled about the plan to save the recreation center.
“All of the areas popular to black folks in the early 20th century are gone. Black Bottom, Paradise Valley. Gone,” Donald Ross, a 30-something graphic designer who is enthralled by Detroit’s history. “Generations of houses, stores, jazz clubs, theaters – they’re all gone.”
Bing acknowledged the historical significance of the Brewster projects and said the decision to demolish is never an easy one.
“I dont’ think we can always hang on to the history,” Bing said of the housing projects. “We can have good memories of the place. But it has been sitting empty for 20-plus years and has become an eyesore. We have to think about now and our future.”
The demise of the projects and the recreation center parallel the tragic fall of Louis, who later in life was confined to a wheelchair and overcome by paranoia, cocaine addiction and debt. The boxing champ, who rose from the slums and won the admiration of millions, died broke, working as a 67-year-old greeter at Caesars Palace.
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.