Promises of steady work and hopes of escaping the overt racism of the south brought tens of thousands into Detroit between 1910 and 1940. They arrived to find jobs, sure, but not tolerant neighbors. Shut out from de facto white neighborhoods, they were often pushed far outside of the city into substandard housing. The Black housing crisis kicked off a push for something new, which eventually took the shape of the first federally funded public housing in the US.
Brewster Douglass Projects, as neighborhood came to be called, were constructed between 1937 and 1952, including two 6-story high rises in 1942 and 6 14-story apartment towers, totalling some 8,000 units. The projects became the center of Black culture in Detroit; Diana Ross, Mary Wilson (The Supremes), Lily Tomlin (Ms. Frizzle on The Magic School Bus), Loni Love (Laugh Factory), among others. Diana Ross recalled it as “a warm, loving family environment” while another resident notes that, after the 1967 riots, Detroit “started moving in welfare people that really didn’t have the interest in keeping up the apartments.” While the phrase ‘welfare people’ has changed meaning since the 1960s, it references the original intention of the public housing to serve the working poor with the understanding that basic maintenance would be paid for by the residents. In any case, when the population topped 10,000 the apartments, especially those in the high rise towers, were becoming more run-down and dangerous. At one point, there was a maintenance ticket backlog of 8,000 requests. Clearly, the projects were becoming unlivable.
Vacancy rates in the 1987 indicate that a little more than half of the units in Brewster Douglass were empty. In 1991, the city began consolidating residents and demolishing the most run-down low-rise buildings, replacing them with townhomes. Two of the 14-story towers were demolished in 2003, leaving the others standing even as the city closed the projects in 2008. The remaining towers were demolished in 2014.