I remember my first trip to Detroit in 1985. I was with a youth group to deliver a health fair to an underprivileged community. We drove downtown via Woodward St. (one of Detroit’s main thoroughfares) and just before we entered the core, I saw what I later realized was Brush Park: Victorian houses, mostly decaying or abandoned or visibly burnt out, interspersed with empty lots. Combined with the boarded-up storefronts (most notably, the giant hulk of the once-great Hudson’s department store), it was clear that Detroit was a shell of the Motor City of yesteryear.
It seems that there is a pattern to many of my obsessions. There is an early memory that plants a suggestion in my mind–builds a door, perhaps–and then it’s a book that opens up that door. The book was Camilo Jose Vergara’s American Ruins. As someone with an undergraduate degree in classics and ancient history and a doctorate in history, I had always had an appreciation and an affection for the ruins of past civilizations. But I saw modern ruins differently–particularly those of more humble homes or factories–as blight. Vergara’s book changed my perspective. His photographs revealed the beauty of the recently ruined and decaying, made all the more poignant by the fact that in many cases, the buildings depicted were soundly built and in other cities would be treasures.
Brush Park (now the Brush Park Historic District) was developed starting in the 1850s. Just north of the downtown core of Detroit, the area became home to Detroit’s elite, who built gorgeous Victorian mansions, earning the area the nickname of “Little Paris.” But by the beginning of the 20th century, the elites were already moving out. Brush Park briefly became a centre for wealthy German Jews before they, too, moved elsewhere. The mansions were subdivided into apartments and homes for the working classes. In the early part of the 20th century, the neighbourhood housed a vibrant black community until the Great Depression and the racial tensions that began in the 40s led to the beginning of the decline. Houses were boarded up and abandoned, or simply torn down. Crime skyrocketed. By the 80s, when I saw it for the first time, it was one of Detroit’s most derelict areas.
But even as early as the 70s, the historical value of the neighbourhood was recognized, and it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. Sporadic efforts were made to plan to restore and redevelop the area, none of which came to fruition. In the 90s, around the time Vergara’s book was published, individuals began to acquire and restore individual homes, which at that time could be acquired for as little as a few thousand dollars. These early pioneers did so with little official support, and around them the neighbourhood, still sketchy, looked like something from a war zone. I collected quite a few images of abandoned homes from those years.
Nothing quite personified Brush Park like the William Livingstone House, nicknamed “Old Slumpy.” Designed in 1894 by famed architect Albert Kahn, the house was saved by preservationists and relocated when the Red Cross built a new building. Unfortunately, the home was left to deteriorate after its move, and clearly destabilized by the transfer and not placed on a proper foundation, begin to droop, thus earning it its nickname of “Old Slumpy.”
Someone even filmed part of the building actually falling off right before their very eyes. The house was demolished in 2007.
By that date, there were signs that the neighbourhood might have a brighter future. The construction of new stadiums for both football and baseball just to the south in the early 2000s led to more traffic in the area. Along with the homes restored by individuals, the City had stepped in to stabilize some of the remaining abandoned properties rather than simply tearing them down. Here and there, some new infill housing was built. Just north of Brush Park, the Midtown area, which had retained some vibrancy due to the presence of cultural institutions such as the Detroit Institute of Art began to boom, with new development spreading southwards. The last time I was in Detroit, a few years ago, I was stunned to discover that that area now boasted artisan shops, craft breweries, and a Whole Foods. And then, across from Brush Park on Woodward, the new Little Caesars Arena, the new home of the Red Wings, opened in 2017.
As in the case of the Metropolitan, which I talked about yesterday, the changes to Brush Park have come fast and furious in the past five years. The first residents of City Modern, an enormous new infill development that includes a seniors’ centre and affordable housing, began to move in last fall. Other smaller developments have also been completed. Curbed did a tour of the neighbourhood in 2016, which you can see here, and followed that up with an update in late 2018 mapping many of the changes, which you can see here. Another huge residential development with over 900 units is due to break ground this year, along with several other smaller ones. The projects have included both restoration/adaptation of existing structures as well as new ones, many of which are being built in a strikingly modern styles rather than attempting to replicate the Victorian architecture of the past.
If Old Slumpy is the face of the dark days of Brush Park, the Ransom Gillis House–the house you can see at the top of this post–is a sign of its future. The home, with its corner turret, can be seen in its abandoned state in the opening montage of the Eddie Murphy movie Beverly Hills Cop. That famous turret had almost collapsed in the early 2010s, and it seemed the house might be written off as unsalvageable. Then, almost overnight (in just five months), Nicole Curtis, star of the HGTV show Rehab Addict, restored the home in 2015. It’s now a modern duplex. And although the neighbourhood has added affordable housing, many of the new homes mark Brush Park’s return to luxury: One of the condos in the City Modern development just sold for over $700K.
But Detroit’s resurgence is not restricted to downtown. The massive derelict Packard Plant–long a playground for enthusiasts of urban ruins–is showing signs of life. My next post will discuss both this and the Michigan Central Station–another iconic ruin that may rise from the ashes.