Young people of today may not realize it, but it wasn’t so long ago that many American institutions were segregated, such as restaurants, neighborhoods, schools - even hospitals.
Up until the 1960’s, most Detroit hospitals were segregated by race. Black residents, who were kept in separate wards or different floors received a lower standard of healthcare than white residents. Surveys conducted by the Detroit urban league in 1950 indicated that black patients were more likely to die from treatable diseases, and that several hospitals employed no black doctors at all.
To fill this void in the community, over two hundred hospitals dedicated to serving black Americans were established, including several in Detroit. It was at these black hospitals that residents could receive treatment regardless of race, and where a generation of black doctors was trained and established their practices.
Southwest Detroit Hospital, located on the corner of Michigan Avenue and 20th, was created by the merger of four nearby minority hospitals - Trumbull General, Delray General, Burton Mercy, and Boulevard General. It would serve over 200,000 residents of southwest Detroit, most of whom were Black, Arabic, or Hispanic. Construction on the sleek, modern five-story hospital designed by the architectural firm of Eberle M. Smith Associates started in 1971 and continued on into 1974. The finished building was a steel-frame structure wrapped with silver metal and glass windows overlooking the Chrysler Freeway.
By the time that Southwest Detroit opened on October 10th, 1974, black hospitals were already on the decline. Integration had reduced the need for exclusively black hospitals, which also suffered from a perceived lack of quality due to their small size and smaller budgets. Financial problems dogged the hospital from the day it opened, already heavily in debt. To stay afloat, the hospital negotiated health care contracts through the county and formed a health maintenance organization, or HMO. Unable to attract patients, the hospital lost money in all but two years of operation until its parent company, LifeChoice Quality Health plan declared bankruptcy in 1991.
In 1991, most of Southwest Detroit Hospital was closed as the company went through bankruptcy proceedings. A medical plaza located inside the building stayed open through 1993, when 100 employees held a candlelight vigil to save the hospital from a bankruptcy court auction. The hospital remained vacant until 1996, when Ultimed, a health care company owned by businessman Harley Brown and several other investors purchased it for $1.5 million and reopened it as the United Community Hospital in 1997. Another $6 million was spent re-establishing the hospital part on two floors of the building in 1999.
Despite the investment and some lucrative government contracts, UCH struggled to maintain financial solvency. Quality of care and conditions inside the hospital declined, described as “dilapidated and nearly unoccupied… in dire need of immediate renovation and upgrade” by Kennedy Funding, a financial company that loaned the hospital $2.5 million in 2005 to shore up opreations. By this time, UCH was no longer exclusively a hospital, as several floors were rented out to other medical companies, and at least one had been partially converted into offices for the parent company HMO, Ultimed.
Unable to escape financial problems and under investigation for possible fraud, Ultimed was declared insolvent and liquidated by the State of Michigan in 2006, effectively shutting down the hospital. As the Metro Times reported, “State officials say (Harley) Brown oversaw an ‘elaborate holding company system’ that involved at least seven businesses including Detroit's United Community Hospital. According to (court) filings… it's alleged that the company's directors ‘siphoned millions of dollars from Ultimed and treated the accounts of this small, financially troubled HMO like their own personal bank account.’"
Once again the hospital was vacant as its owner went through bankruptcy court, though this time it would not reopen. As the utilities were shut off and maintenance on the building was halted, the loading dock and basement beneath the hospital flooded, filling up with slimy green water. Scrappers made their way into the building and removed much of the plumbing and wiring, and vandals knocked out many of the windows. Patient records could be found blowing around the hospital parking lot, while plastic bags of biohazard waste were left piled up in the emergency room.
Since 2010 there has been some activity at the hospital, as a new owner bought the property at a tax auction and seemed to be preparing it for renovation. The water that had collected in the loading dock and basement was pumped out, and a regular security patrol guarded the building. When we approached people working on the site, we were told that they planned to turn the building into a senior citizen home. Another plan floated in 2011 involved converting the building into a boarding school.
The task facing the new owner is difficult: much of the hospital has been plundered for scrap metal and covered in graffiti. The basement, which was flooded for at least two years, has sprouted black mold and would require extensive cleanup. There are significant issues concerning the hazardous medical waste stored on site, confidential patient records that need to be destroyed, and mountains of equipment that were left behind.