brewster douglass housing projects

LEG Management

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.

Nationaal Archief (Dutch National Archives)

Today on Stateside, we’re getting the inside scoop from former residents of the Brewster-Douglass housing projects about what it was like growing up in the Detroit projects. 

Their answers are overwhelmingly positive.

Ruby Straughter lived in the Brewster-Douglass projects from 1957 to 1972. She remembers people in the projects taking good care of each other.

“If a family couldn’t pay rent, neighbors would throw a rent party and they’d give the money to whomever needed the rent paid.”

She says no one ever went hungry or made fun of anyone else for being poor. Straughter remembers parents were strict with their own kids, and looked out for other people’s children as well.

There was also lots and lots of singing in the Brewsters. People sang four-part harmonies on street corners, in the parks, on porches and in the stairwells, where the echo was best.

But why was music such a huge part of living there? 

Emil Lorch collection/Bentley Historical Library/University of Michigan

All this week on Stateside, we’re looking at the history of the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects in Detroit. If you’ve ever wondered about why they were created or what it was like to live in them, we’d love to fill you in with our three-part series. Here's part one:

If you remember the projects, you might picture the six identical high-rises on the city’s near east side. Those were the Frederick-Douglass Towers, and they were built in the 1950s and finally destroyed in 2014.

Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

The city of Detroit is looking for plans to re-develop the former Brewster-Wheeler recreation center.

The center is best known as the place where Detroit boxing legends Joe Louis got their start in the sport.

It also served as an important community hub for generations of Detroiters who lived in and around the recently-demolished Brewster-Douglass housing projects.

But it’s fallen into disrepair since it closed in 2006, and was recently added to the city’s demolition list.

Now Mayor Mike Duggan is making a final push to re-develop it instead.

Amber Leigh / Flickr

To those of us who have seen those decaying buildings along I-375 near downtown Detroit, it’s pretty difficult to realize that the Brewster-Douglass Projects were once seen as a shining example of public housing.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt turned up on Sept. 7, 1935 for the groundbreaking. And when Brewster homes opened in 1938, they became the America’s first public-housing project built for African-Americans.

Brewster-Douglass went on to become home to names like Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard, Smokey Robinson and Lily Tomlin.

The projects helped launch many blacks into the middle class.

Now the last phase of demolition is under way. No one will miss the crime-ridden, decaying housing project that sat empty since 2008. And now the question is: What should be done with the site?

We welcome June Manning Thomas. She’s an urban planner with the University of Michigan College of Architecture and Urban Planning. We also talk to her colleague, urban designer Roy Strickland.

Listen to the full interview above.

Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

Detroit’s historic Brewster-Douglass housing projects will finally come all the way down sometime this spring.

The final stage of the ongoing demolition effort at the 18.5 acre site started Monday. Officials say it will last for another two months, while land restoration will continue throughout the summer.