Rec center where Joe Louis learned to box faces final round

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Brewster Wheeler Recreation Center. All photos by Steve Neavling

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 on Detroit’s east side.

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.

The two-story center was the cornerstone of the nation’s first federally funded housing project for black people – the sprawling, red brick Brewster housing units that are currently being demolished.

Brewster Projects

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.
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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.

That historic significance is why former Mayor Dave Bing’s administration pledged not to demolish the center.

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Abandoned Brewster Wheeler Recreation Center

But no developers have come forward, and Mayor Mike Duggan sees a new opportunity to revive the long-blighted area on the heels of an adjacent $650-million Red Wings arena and entertainment district expected to be built by mid-2017.
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Unless a viable redevelopment plan is presented, the city plans to demolish the recreation center by this fall.

Seeing an unprecedented opportunity for regrowth, city officials are taking proposals for development ideas in Brush Park, one of Detroit’s oldest neighborhoods. It is now a patchwork of blight, Victorian homes, lofts and vacant lots.

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Brush Park
Brush Park

The city is searching for a developer to build on the site where the storied Brewster-Douglass housing projects are being demolished.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who was an outspoken advocate of racial equality, was at the groundbreaking for the housing projects 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.

It’s hard to imagine the recreation center in its better days. The walls are cracked, covered in graffiti 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.
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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.

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The adjacent housing units went vacant in 2008. Thieves gutted everything of value, tearing apart floors, ceilings and walls for metal.

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.

Colbert Prince, who lived at the housing units in the 1950s and '60s, poses with a photo of himself and a friend.
Colbert Prince, who lived at the housing units in the 1950s and ’60s, poses with a photo of himself and a friend.

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.

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