Diana Ross & The Supremes at Brewster-Douglass

Detroit’s First Public Housing Program

Image: Diana Ross and The Supremes in Detroit at the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects in 1965. From the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University. 

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The Brewster Projects were built in 1935 on the east side of Detroit in the “Black Bottom” neighborhood. What is lesser known is that a housing project named Parkside Projects, a segregated housing project for low-income whites, were simultaneously funded and built. In the summer of 1938, the Detroit Housing Commission took over management of both projects, with Eugene P. Opperman as Resident Manager of Parkside and George A. Isabell as Resident Manager of Brewster. Their first duties included overseeineg the applicant process for potential tenants, which was very strict. Caution was taken to ensure that “the spirit and intent of these low-rent projects” was upheld. Eligibility requirements included such things as inspection of the potential tenants’ current living conditions, their fitness, their moral credit, and their income, as that one member of each family in the projects was required to have a full-time job. Many families who moved into the projects came from “miserable, damp, unhealthful quarters” where overcrowding was common and alleyways were considered backyards. To aid in giving these low-income renters a better place to live, the Brewster projects were built near the factory in which many tenants worked, so that they could walk to work and easily get back home. By the end of December of the first year, 539 tenants had moved into the available 775 units of Parkside and 551 tenants had moved into the available 701 units of Brewster. Applications for Parkside currently totaled 5,951 and 6,059 for Brewster respectively. The projects were praised as a way to provide decent, healthy, and safe living conditions in new beautiful neighborhoods that would offer Detroit’s poor “a new lease on life”.

This government-documented account of the initial ideas and creation behind Detroit’s low-income public housing projects provide an excellent representation of historical environmental racism in three significant ways. First, this account from the Michigan Housing Commission shows that historically, “the spatiality of racism is not understood, particularly the relationship between places” (Pulido). Even accounting for the acceptance of racism at the time (such as segregated housing and creating more units for Whites, despite a higher demand from Blacks) this document still holds underlying environmentally racist issues, with the most prominent being that the housing units for Blacks were located closest to the factories, where air pollution was surely present. These neighborhoods might not have been any safer than the old ones, especially considering the amount of polluted emissions allowed in the 1940’s, despite being praised on a national scale as a great step towards a safe and happy city. The placement in Detroit in which these houses were designated was not environmentally equal to those given to Whites, yet allowed to occur on the claim of mass transportation ease. Second, this document illustrates how heavily the government was involved in assessing the morality of tenants moving into the projects by determining their current living conditions as a way to assess their moral character. This coincides with ideas of the time that those who lived in poor and dirty areas were bad people, instead of realizing the political system that may have put them in such conditions. Finally, this document provides rationale behind the first step to Detroit’s larger “slum clearance” plans to come later in the ’60’s. The African-Americans who were moved into the projects had been forced to leave the area they already lived in (Blackbottom) to make way for a highway.

By marketing the projects as a beautiful new place to live, the government justitied their plans as best for the city and its people. However, we know today that there are many historical accounts of the injustice behind this plan, since Blackbottom was alternatively considered by its community as a vibrant neighborhood with alleyways – that the government called dirty and unsafe – serving as largely communal family spaces for gathering and growing urban gardens. Overall, this document shows that the environmental relationship and Detroit’s city planner’s allocation of home and neighborhood played a big part of the injust racism in Detroit’s old African-American neighborhood of Blackbottom, despite being perceived quite differently at the time.

Initially, the Brewster Projects were regarded as a beautiful and healthy public housing model community for low-income families. Living in these projects represented a high social standing in the Black community, considering their improvement to the relative housing conditions of the rest of Black Bottom. The projects held none of the negative connotations that we currently have today towards crime ridden and drug infested housing projects. In fact, these homes and community centers held some of Detroit’s and America’s most famous Black celebrities of the next few decades, such as Joe Louis or Diana Ross & The Supremes. Black Bottom and Paradise Valley were poor, yet culturally rich and thriving communities as the Great Depression ended and immigration increased even more due to another boom of the auto industry.

As testimonies from past Brewster Project residents have recounted, their projects were a “paradise” of sorts. Deanna Neeley states, “it was a Godsend, it was like moving into a mansion and even some of my friends  that lived in the South used to say that when they used to go visit their friends  that lived in the projects it was like going to heaven” (Kinney, 44).  The Projects were built with the intentions of the Brewster being for blacks while Parkside was for whites. Although both projects were a success in providing decent government housing for low-income families, they also perpetuated the housing segregation that already infected Detroit.

Nonetheless, racial discrimination was rife throughout the process of construction and residency for the Brewster and Parkside Projects. The Brewster Projects were built on land that was government-funded for “slum clearance.” This means that many houses and businesses were demolished in order to construct the projects in the first place, forcing residents to relocate and altering community economics. Conversely, the Parkside Projects were built towards the outskirts of the city, on vacant land in a neighborhood of single-family homes for whites. Partly because it was built in a cleared space in the center of the city, the Brewster Projects were also built on a much smaller parcel of land than the Parkside Projects, with 32 units per acre compared to Parkside’s 25 units per acre (Kinney 48). Despite the fact that overcrowding was a much more significant problem for the city’s Black residents than for whites, there were about seventy more units in Parkside, and the units themselves were more spacious. Although the Brewster Projects were beneficial to those that lived in them, their construction stands as a reminder of racial discrimination that was both intentional and institutional.

  • Rebecca J. Kinney, “The mechanics of race: the discursive production of Detroit’s landscape of difference” (Ph. D., UC San Diego, 2011), 261.
  • “Brewster Housing Project,” August 1, 1938, Photograph.
  • Brewster and Parkside Homes — Their First Six MonthsMichigan Housing Commission 1940-1949, 1940 (Detroit: Michigan Housing Commission, 1940), 55-73.
  • Laura Pulido, “Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and Urban Development in Southern California,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 1 (March 2000): 12-40.

Click here to see all narratives about Black Bottom

Click here to see resources for further reading on Black Bottom

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