Brewster-Wheeler Recreation Center
Location Name: Brewster-Wheeler Recreation Center (Detroit, Michigan)
Location Type: Abandoned Site (Recreation Center)
Year Completed: 1929
In the 1920s, Detroit’s African American population began to significantly expand. The city sought to provide a recreational outlet for the growing number of black youths. Since integrating the Downtown YMCA was considered out of the question by many city leaders, the decision to provide for a recreation center for blacks was made. In 1929, Brewster Center opened in the middle of, what was then, a black ghetto just outside Downtown. Substantial funds were invested to create a center with basketball, swimming, boxing, tennis, baseball, and other forms of recreation. With the construction of the adjacent Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects in the late 1930s, Brewster Center became an important part of the nation’s first federally funded housing project for black people. Despite the inherent racism of the city’s segregation, many took pride in the center, which became an important part of the black community.
In 1932, a mostly unknown 17 year old Detroiter named Joseph Louis Barrow (Joe Louis) made his boxing debut at the Brewster Center. Barrow often frequented the center with his younger friend Walker Smith (later known as Sugar Ray Robinson) who was introduced to the world of boxing at Brewster. In later years, notable boxing trainer Eddie Futch (known mostly for training Joe Frazier) also trained at Brewster. The center was never as famous as the nearby Kronk Gym, but it certainly played a role in Detroit (and boxing) history. The center’s name was changed to Brewster-Wheeler in honor of Leon ‘Toy’ Wheeler, the first African American employee of the Detroit Recreation Department. Mr. Wheeler also served as the first supervisor of Brewster Center.
As the decades passed, tough times fell on the city; and especially the area near Brewster-Wheeler. First, the city leveled most of the surrounding black community to build the new Interstates through Detroit and other developments. This was followed by hard economic times and the urban flight of the more mobile residents of the city. As hardships increased, the nearby housing project became a magnet for crime and the buildings fell into disrepair. The community fell apart and the center began to see declining use. An attempt at increasing attendance was made in the 1990s when ex-NBA star and Detroiter Chris Webber donated for the construction of a new basketball court at the center. Yet, despite this effort, the neighborhood continued to decline. Several of the nearby project towers were demolished in 2003, and the rest of the development would be empty within five years. In 2006, the center closed its doors and has been sitting vacant ever since. In 2012, Mayor Dave Bing announced plans to demolish what was left of Brewster-Douglass but said he was "very adamant" that the recreation center be reopened. No plans have been proposed to save the center as of yet, but it appears that it will be spared from the demolitions scheduled to take place sometime in 2013.Sources