There are two distinct housing developments here. In 1935, Eleanor Roosevelt came to Detroit to initiate the building of the Brewster Homes, the first federally funded housing project designed for blacks. By 1938, 701 Brewster units were occupied, and when construction was completed three years later, there were 941 homes. The Frederick Douglas homes included six large high rise towers. Construction began in 1942 and was finished a decade later.
Major cities in the United States, including Detroit, had a large stock of extremely dilapidated homes in the 1930s. Small and flimsy workingmen’s homes built in the late Nineteenth Century could be found in most locations, some of them still using direct flow plumbing. Some stables, garages and appertenance structures had been converted for human occupancy during World War I and were still in use. The word tenement has disappeared from common use and there never were many tenements in Detroit. There were quite a few several-story apartment buildings in serious disrepair.
In many northern cities, the large migration of blacks who arrived during World War I and into the 1920s were concentrated in neighborhoods with poor quality housing, made even worse by its high density. The Jim Crow system of residential segregation that characterized most metropolises until recently came into being during and after World War I. In Detroit, there were two main areas where black residents were confined at the start of the 1930s. One was on the west side and the other extended along Hastings Street from, roughly, West Jefferson to West Warren. With the construction of the interstate highway system in the 1950s and 1960s, when the federal urban renewal programs were known as Negro Removal, Hastings Street was replaced with the Chrysler Expressway.
Municipal and federal housing authorities in the 1930s appreciated the shelter problems of the poor—and in the Depression very many urban residents were impoverished. Blacks suffered even more than whites because of the common practices and norms that restricted where they could live. By 1935, President Roosevelt and his advisors were confirmed Keyseans who believed that generously spending federal dollars to create jobs could create employment and minimize the economic crisis of the Depression. England had established a favorable and popular system of public housing, a system that served as a model for public housing in this country.
One major problem faced planners who wanted to build public housing for blacks. At that time, integrated housing was not considered. White neighborhoods and their political leaders would block the construction of any nearby public housing designated for blacks. That meant the only locations to build such homes were in or near already established black neighborhoods. Thus, the area near the intersection of Brewster Street and St. Antoine was selected for the nation’s first public housing for African Americans. Mayors, contractors, builders, architects and unemployed construction workers greatly appreciated in flow of federal dollars during the Depression since there was virtually no new private construction.
The Brewster Homes were low-rise buildings. They have been torn down. I believe they resembled the Sojourner Truth Homes at Fenelon and Nevada, although those homes were modernized and updated in 1970. By the early 1940s, it became evident to housing officials that there was an increasingly severe housing problem for blacks in Detroit. Thousands were migrating to take jobs in the booming defense industries as the city became the Arsenal of Democracy. But Jim Crow was strictly enforced, so blacks could only live in the few areas of the city where they were traditionally concentrated. When the federal government funded the building of the Sojourner Truth homes, a substantial racial confrontation broke out when blacks tried to enter a Detroit neighborhood that whites defined as theirs. About 1,500 police and military officers were needed to protect blacks when they eventually moved into the Sojourner Truth Homes.
To provide housing for a large number of blacks, the federal government began constructing the Frederick Douglas towers, six large high-rise building. It took a decade for the buildings to be completed. In the early 1950s, the Brewster Homes and Douglas towers were home to about eight to ten thousand residents, almost all of them black.
As conceived in the 1930s, public housing in the United States was to provide shelter to aspiring middle-class families who were at the start of their careers or were temporarily financially strained because of events such as the Depression. Planners assumed that residents would live in public housing for a fairly brief span and then amass the savings to purchase their own housing or rent an attractive residence. At the start, officials issued many rules restricting occupancy to employed persons, to persons with no criminal record and, in so far as possible, to married couples with their children. There was an image that public housing would be a great asset to aspiring families as they worked their way into the prosperous middle class. And it was not assumed that only minorities would live in public housing. The Brewster-Douglas homes on the east side of downtown were intended for blacks, but the federal government built the Jefferies homes on the west side of downtown for Caucasians.
Federal housing policies after World War II
provided the funds for a massive invasion of the crabgrass frontier. With
money down and low
monthly payments, returning servicemen, blue-collar workers and the petite
bourgeoisie could buy one of those modest homes you now find in the northern
fringes of Detroit or in the adjoining suburbs. Although there may have been
no intent to discriminate on the basis of race, very many—almost all—of
the new homes financed by the federal government after World War II were constructed
in neighborhoods that strictly prevented the entry of blacks. As a result of
those policies, the racial composition of the clients of public housing changed
in most large cities except New York. By the early 1960s,
public housing became the refuge of last resort for poor blacks, since more
prosperous blacks could move into better quality housing left by the whites
who moved to the suburbs.
The Civil Rights Revolution of the 1960s accomplished many marvelous goals, but there were unintended side effects. The numerous regulations that public housing officials used to exclude former criminals, unemployed persons, unmarried women with children and deadbeats were challenged in courts and often overturned. Those blacks who could afford to leave public housing had even more incentives to do so. Public housing was then occupied by unmarried women depending upon welfare, along with men who were often known to the police. Public housing symbolized crime, racial segregation and urban despair.
By the 1980s, it was obvious that the system of high-rise public housing in Detroit and other cities was a social disaster. The federal government began to supply funds to destroy the high-rise buildings and create suburban-like townhouses, funds that became more generous during the early years of the Clinton Administration. The Brewster Homes were torn down in the early 1990s and replaced with 250 townhouses. If you walk through this area on a warm spring day when the grass is green and the flowers blooming, you might think that these homes could be transported and sold as condos in a quite upscale suburb. Two of the four Frederick Douglas Towers were also torn down.
There are people who have fond memories of
their residence in public housing before the 1960s. In cities such as Cleveland,
medical students regularly lived
in public housing. And the Brewster-Douglas complex was the home to such luminaries
as Florene Ballard, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Lily Tomlin and Mary Wilson.
Date of construction of the Brewster Homes: 1935 to 1941
Architect for the Brewster Homes: Unknown to me
Date of construction of the Frederick Douglas Homes: 1942 to 1952
Architect for the Frederick Douglas Homes: Harley, Ellington and Day
Website for Detroit Housing Commission: http://www.dhcmi.org/
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: P237; Listed June 15, 1995
State of Michigan Historical Marker: Put in place June 23, 1995 near the intersection of Eliot Street and St. Antoine.
National Register of Historic Places: Not listed
Use in 2008: Residential complex
Photograph: Ran Farley
Description prepared: December, 2008
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