Brush Park

The neighborhood of Brush Park in Detroit has long served to juxtapose two opposing views of the city: old and new, decay and rebirth, progress and lack of. A handful of crumbling mansions on the edge of downtown, disappearing into fields of tall grass with modern skyscrapers like the Renaissance Center as a backdrop.

Brush Park was once Detroit’s poshest neighborhood, attracting a who’s-who of famous Detroiters settled in the area, including David Whitney, Dexter Ferry, and Albert Kahn. The area got its name from the Brush family, who owned a farm on the land. As the city began to grow in the 1850’s, they began subdividing up the farm and selling off plots of land, with much of the present street grid was laid out by 1880.

What set Brush Park apart from other Detroit neighborhoods was that the Brush family waited to develop the land until the surrounding areas were already being built on, ensuring higher prices and a more exclusive clientele. The houses that were built were some of the largest and most ornate mansions in the city.

Starting around 1900 however, Detroit’s elite began moving to neighborhoods further outside of downtown including Indian Village and Boston Edison, seeking to build larger houses with more space around them. The increase in housing demand downtown due to the industrial boom led to many of Brush Park’s mansions being subdivided into apartments or built onto. This shift from homeowners to renters resulted in a more transitional population, marked by rapid turnover as immigrants attained social mobility.

Urban renewal and large-scale “slum” clearance projects led to tends of thousands of poorer, mostly black Detroiters being displaced and having to find new homes but having few options for home ownership. The creation of the Brewster housing projects on the east border of Brush Park cleared out many run-down homes but did little to remedy overcrowding. By 1945 the Detroit Free Press was describing Alfred Street as “desolate… a scene of poverty and chopfallen gloom… dismal structures. A blighted area in bitter need of paint and repair.”

As early as 1973 the city was looking at large-scale demolitions in Brush Park to make way for new housing. Brush Park managed to avoid urban renewal due to the age and historic nature of the homes, as well as a strong community association. But over the decades the neighborhood began to thin out as houses were abandoned, burned down, or just fell apart.

Many houses were seized by the city for non-payment of taxes. In 1984 the city offered six mansions for sale, starting at prices as low was $1,000. While there was interest from the public, the city seemed unwilling or unable to complete any sales. On the day of an open house to show off the properties, it took three hours for a city representative to show up, and he “opened” the houses by chopping down their doors with an axe.

This was symptomatic of administrations that could not make up their minds about what to do with Brush Park. Between 1983 and 1990 the city rolled out four different plans for Brush Park with wildly different goals, including restoration and complete demolition. And since the city owned 75% of the property in the neighborhood, community-based efforts to buy up homes failed. Even as some restoration projects moved forward in the late 1990’s, mansions designated for redevelopment burned down in suspicious fires. One mansion was picked up and moved to a different block at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars after the Red Cross bought the land it was on to build a parking lot. A dozen years later the house collapsed due to neglect.

The first sign of hope came with a few new developments, including condos along Woodward Avenue and a 113-apartment senior complex, which broke ground in 2000. Several of the privately-owned mansions were renovated and turned into restaurants, hotels, and a bed and breakfast. The Brewster Douglass housing projects were demolished in 2014, removing a major eyesore.

The tipping point came in the mid 2010’s, as plans for a new hockey arena across Woodward and the QLine streetcar line revived interest in Brush Park. Dan Gilbert’s Bedrock company is currently redeveloping a little over 8 acres of the neighborhood into a mixed-use community of modern housing units and renovated mansions. Additional building projects are under way, with 1,200 residential units announced in just one week of 2018.