On a summer day in June of 2007, the last students of Jane Cooper Elementary School trickled out the doors and onto waiting school buses, celebrating the arrival of summer break and the weeks off that lay ahead. Their teachers and school administrators stayed behind a few days more, tidying up classrooms and taking care of paperwork before turning off the lights and leaving as well. The last person set the security alarm and locked the door on the way out, never to return. After 77 years, Cooper Elementary – along with 25 other Detroit schools - would not reopen again in the fall.
Like many other schools in Detroit, Cooper was a school without a neighborhood. At its peak in the 1990’s, it was home to over 1,000 students, a number that had dropped to just 430 by 2007. Most of the schools closed that year had suffered similar declines in enrollment as the overall population of the city fell, but Cooper was an exceptional case: the neighborhood it served disappeared quite suddenly, razed by the city to make way for an industrial park on Detroit’s east side that never fully metalized, resulting in a massive man-made urban prairie.
On first appearance, the proposed I-94 Industrial Park seemed like a good idea. Detroit had plenty of vacant land in the late 1990’s, but much of it was made up of empty lots in neighborhoods mixed in with occupied homes – not attractive to property developers. By buying out an already blighted neighborhood, demolishing the houses, and offering strong tax incentives, the city hoped to lure industrial companies to build new factories. Beginning in 1997, the city established six of these “renaissance zones” in troubled parts of the city, one of which was a declining neighborhood on the industrial east side of the city. At the center of this neighborhood was Jane Cooper Elementary School.
When the Detroit Economic Development Corporation began buying out the Cooper neighborhood in 1999, there were only about 200 residents left. Like many east side neighborhoods, the loss of industrial jobs – particularly the closing of the nearby Dodge Main plant – had left too many vacant houses and too few people to live in them.
It took 10 years to acquire most of the 290 acres that would make up the industrial park. Most of the houses in the neighborhood were bulldozed between 2004 and 2005, though a few remained until 2007. From the windows of Cooper Elementary overlooking the neighborhood, the view students had would have changed quickly in the last years, as the grid of streets emptied, were blocked off with concrete barriers, and quickly gave way to nature. Grass grew tall and fast, obscuring sidewalks and fire hydrants as trees and heavy brush took root where houses used to stand. Sections of road filled with water, forming canals that fed into ponds, attracting birds and other wildlife.
Nature wasn’t the only thing taking root in the industrial park: by 2004, three major tenants had set up operations on the north side of the site. But aside from these early additions (two of which were already in the neighborhood), much of the park remained undeveloped.
In the years leading up to and after its closure, Cooper Elementary remained at the center of the deserted neighborhood, a quiet, dignified edifice surrounded on all sides by fields of grass and trees. When the lights were finally turned off in 2007, scrappers stripped the building of its metal pipes, wires, and window frames. The closets full of supplies were emptied, filling classrooms and hallways with textbooks, toys, notebooks, student art projects, and computers. Pages of homework were carried out of the building on the brisk winds that whipped across the open plain, caught and held aloft by the branches of nearby trees until summer rains reduced them to pulpy remains.
Cooper was one of the last remaining structures in the neighborhood when it was demolished in the fall of 2009. So far, the Detroit Economic Development Corporation has spent at least $19 million since 1999 to purchase, demolish, and clean up the Cooper neighborhood. An additional 90 parcels of land still need to be purchased, though the corporation plans on finalizing the remaining buyouts in the next year. It costs another $30,000 to $50,000 a year to remove the trash that is dumped on the vacant streets, including bags of garbage, thousands of tires, stolen motor boats, and furniture.
But there are already doubts about the viability of the planned industrial park. The economy has declined considerably in the ten years since the park was announced, resulting in a surplus of vacant industrial space throughout the city. “Right now, it's at the point where you couldn't even give the land for free to a developer and they could afford to spec a building,” developer Dan Labes told Crain’s Detroit Business in 2010. “Today's rents are so low that it can't justify the costs of new construction, even excluding the cost of the land.”
“’We ought to begin to recognize that some of our best ideas are 10 years old and reassess them,’ EDC board member Conrad Mallett Jr., president of DMC Sinai-Grace Hospital, told fellow board members and Detroit Economic Growth Corp. officials at a meeting last week. ‘It's time to throw in the towel and say, It was a hell of an idea, but it's not working out.’”
In October of 2014, the overgrowth in the neighborhood was bulldozed and completely cleared. Construction of a new warehouse began in the summer of 2015 on the site of the old Cooper School.