Longtime Residents Reflect on Their Days at Brewster Projects

Friday, March 14, 2014

By David Cassleman

Photo credit: Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

Longtime Residents Reflect on Their Days at Brewster Projects by WDET

All that's left of Brewster-Douglass are four towers -- windowless now and 15-stories tall.

And in two months officials with the Detroit Housing Commission say the buildings will be turned completely to rubble. Excavators are tearing down what remains floor by floor.

Rosanna Johnson is standing near the high-rises at Beaubien and Alfred Street as the demolition begins. She says she moved into one of the towers shortly after they opened in 1955.

Johnson says she remembers one famous neighbor, Alvin “Blue” Lewis, who was an inspiration to many kids in the community.

“He was a boxer and he used to come out and whistle and all the kids knew it was ‘Blue’ -- they called him ‘Blue’. Right, he taught her how to box. So that was one of my fondest memories.”

In 1972 “Blue” Lewis fought Muhammad Ali in Ireland. But he wasn't the only renowned resident to live at Brewster-Douglass.

Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard called it home. So did actress Lily Tomlin. And another boxer -- Joe Louis -- worked out in the community's gym.

Of course most of the people living in the Brewster-Douglass projects weren’t so famous.

Beatrice Spears points to 2521 Saint Antoine, where she grew up in the late 1980s and 90s with her mom and the rest of her family.

“My two brothers and then my aunts and my cousins they stayed there also in different units. But it was just like family-oriented. Everybody was family even if you weren’t family.”

Spears says one of the things she loved most about growing up at Brewster-Douglass was the Brewster-Wheeler Recreation Center. She says she would hang out with friends at the rec center where kids could swim, do arts and crafts, learn to box like the Brown Bomber or Alvin Lewis and play ball. She says former University of Michigan star Chris Webber donated a basketball court there made from recycled tennis shoes.

“Hopefully they keep the rec center. That’s what I want most of all ‘cuz that’s what made so many people in this community. The rec center.”

The rec center closed in 2008, along with the rest of the nearly 700 housing units in the project. Beatrice Spears says watching the towers come down gives her mixed emotions.

“It’s bittersweet. I know it’s gonna be a change and it will be better … something better for my kids when they grow up and their generation. Hopefully it will be a mall. We don’t have a mall in Detroit. So that’s a good idea.”

Spears is now living just up the street in the new Brewster homes.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan spoke at the site when the final phase of demolition began this week.

He says the city has been too slow moving from blight to rebirth.

“The buildings behind us have been vacant since 2008. They've been subjected to vandals and scrappers … and we needed to take some action. And for many people these towers have recently become nothing but a symbol of the blight and decay of the city of Detroit.”

Duggan says his economic development team -- headed by Tom Lewand -- is working with the federal Housing and Urban Development Agency to re-develop the Brewster-Douglass site.

What initially brought people to live in Brewster-Douglass when it opened in 1938 was the opportunity to get affordable housing in the city.

Photo credit: Kenny Corbin