The first federally-funded housing projects for African-American families were built in Detroit in the 1930s. They were the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects, located on Detroit’s near-east side.
If you want to hear why they were built, listen to our recent story here. Mary Wilson from The Supremes tells us about what she learned from growing up in the projects, in a story you can listen to here.
For the most part, former residents who lived in the area in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s speak highly of their time in the projects. But life in the Brewsters got much tougher in the 1970s and '80s.
Comedian Loni Love grew up in the Brewster projects with her mom and her brother. They lived in one of the Frederick Douglass towers in a 2-bedroom apartment.
She says life in the projects was fascinating and bittersweet. Love didn’t realize she was poor until she watched television, because she thought everyone was simply trying to get by, by working low-wage jobs. Love also says many of her neighbors lacked some of the finer things in life, “Like a car, or food every day, or three meals every day, or even clothes.”
But Love says life was also good, with lots of openness between neighbors, and socializing between people of all ages.
But when crack came into the projects it caused a big shift and things became more violent. “I can remember when crack first came in,” says Love. “A person either used it or sold it and that’s why today a lot of my childhood friends are no longer with me, because they were killed in the crack epidemic.”
In a lot of ways, the story of the Brewster Douglass projects is the story of Detroit. Residents were leaving the city and moving into the suburbs in the '60s, '70s, and '80s. At the same time, there was a shift in federal housing policy. The idea was to move away from building tall high-rises and instead focus on building townhouses in different neighborhoods.
That created empty apartments in the projects. Mix that with hard financial times, unemployment, drugs and violence, and you’ve got the decline of the Brewster-Douglass projects.
And some tough living.
Loni Love worked on the GM assembly line, and eventually became an electrical engineer. But she fell in love with comedy in college and later pursued what she calls “the hostile and aggressive occupation” of comedian.
Love thinks there’s a direct link between her childhood in the projects and working as a comedian.
She says comics must be both tough and funny and they must be able to see the lighter side of life. Love says her childhood makes her appreciate what she’s got now.
“You know, the way I live today, it’s like I have money, I’m successful, I’ve got an education. So if I’m having a bad day I say I can survive a bad day, because I grew up in the Brewster projects!”
She says if she could do it all over again, and could choose the place she grew up, she would still pick the Brewster-Douglass projects. Because Love says that experience made her into who she is today.
Even though the Brewster-Douglass projects were a big part of Loni Love's history and Detroit's history, the projects themselves did not survive. After years of decline, the last of the towers were torn down last year.