Mayor Dave Bing summoned the media to one of the city’s most visible eyesores in November and announced that crews would begin tearing down the crumbling Brewster-Douglass public housing projects in early 2013.
Now it’s mid-July, and the red-brick buildings are still looming over I-75 near downtown. The only difference, there’s more graffiti, broken glass and trespassers.
We asked Bing’s office about the $6.5 million, federally funded demolition project, and his office blew us off for a week and now is ignoring our inquiries.
The project is one of the mayor’s most ambitious yet. The elimination of blight has been a centerpiece of his first full term. He has pledged to demolish 10,000 houses and played a key role in developing a nonprofit to clear out abandoned areas.
Unlike some demolition projects, the Brewster plan has met minimal resistance, partly because the buildings have fallen into disrepair since becoming vacant in 2008.
Brewster has 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.
It’s unclear why Bing’s office is dodging questions. The project was a highlight of his state of the city speech two years ago.
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.