The Brewster-Wheeler Recreation Center has a long history, from its early days as a public library in a slum neighborhood to an athletic facility in one of the city’s first housing projects.
In 1913, the Detroit Public Library established a branch in a storefront on Hastings Street and Wilkins. Originally known as Branch 11, it served a deeply impoverished population in the slum immigrant neighborhoods just outside of downtown. A few years later the library commission unveiled plans for a permanent location to be built a few blocks west on Brewster Street.
Designed by Mildner & Eisen, the new library featured walls of cut stone and vitrious brick, with a roof of green Ludowici tile. The first floor had reading rooms for adults and children, with club and story-hour rooms in the basement. Construction was underway by October of 1916 on the Bernard Ginsburg branch library, named for a member of the library board. Construction was finished in 1917, and the new library was dedicated on May 15th.
Despite early enthusiasm for the library, patronage never reached expected levels, and in May of 1927 the Ginsburg branch moved from the Brewster location back to a storefront on Hastings before closing in 1928. The former library, just 11 years old, was put up for sale.
By the 1920’s, the slums around Hastings Street had grown more crowded, swelling with a large influx of black migrants from the south. Lacking a proper recreation facility in the neighborhood, the parks department began a $500,000 conversion project to renovate the library into a community center. A new two-story wing designed by George W. Graves added classrooms, a gymnasium, and a swimming pool. The library was converted into an auditorium with seating and a stage.
The Central Community Center opened to the public on October 28th, 1929 and was dedicated on November 1st with a crowd of over 5,000. Speaking at the ceremony, acting Mayor John C. Nagle acknowledged the changing racial composition of the neighborhood in his speech, declaring "I dedicate this building for the people of the city of Detroit, regardless of race, color or creed. I realize that much prejudice exists in Detroit, but a building of this kind will wipe it out."
From its opening in 1929 until 1945, the Central Community Center was managed by Leon Wheeler, who was the city's first black recreation worker in 1919. Wheeler established programs at the center including swimming, boxing, billiards, woodcraft, glee club, tap dancing, ukulele, track, tennis, drama, and dancing. 81 different clubs met every week in the center's six club rooms. On Thanksgiving Day in 1932, the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team played their first tour game at the center against the "Detroit AA," a team assembled by Leon Wheeler. The boxing program, led by Alter "Kid" Ellis was especially popular, attracting neighborhood kids including a young Joe Louis, who spent hours sparring in the basement.
In the 1930’s, the area around the community center changed significantly as the dilapidated slum housing was demolished to make way for the first federally funded housing projects for black residents in the nation. The Brewster Projects would eventually grow to surround the center, with low-rise apartment buildings and six 14-story towers that were home to over 10,000 low-income residents at its peak. The Central Community Center played a vital role in the growth of the neighborhood, with its programs giving children from all different backgrounds the chance to experience things outside of their neighborhood. Paradise Valley celebrated in the streets in 1938 as Joe Louis, by then a champion boxer, defeated German rival Max Schmeling in a prelude to the Second World War.
Though the Brewster projects were initially considered a desirable place to live, lack of maintenance by the city and the relaxing of housing standards in the 1960’s resulted in a decline in quality of life throughout the neighborhood. The construction of Interstate 75 in the late 60’s wiped out most of the black cultural center along Hastings Street, and displaced many residents. Crime increased, bringing with it increased drug use and prostitution. Through the troubled 1960's and 70’s, the Brewster-Wheeler Center – renamed in 1969 in honor of Leon Wheeler - was a haven for children, with athletic programs and summer classes keeping many off the streets and out of trouble.
Keeping the Brewster-Wheeler Center running was a challenge in later years, with the center relying on donations of equipment and money from alumni to stay open. In the mid 1990’s, NBA basketball star Chris Webber donated a new court for the gymnasium. When boxers Mike Tyson and Andrew Golota faced off at The Palace in Auburn Hills in October of 2000, Tyson practiced in the same basement ring that Louis had used, feeling the presence of his childhood hero.
By the mid 2000’s the Brewster Projects were half-empty. Though the Brewster-Wheeler Center continued to offer programs, budget cuts by the city led to reduced hours in 2005. Plans to close the projects by 2007 led to many residents moving out, and the recreation center closed permanently on August 25th, 2006. Less than three years later the projects were emptied, and left vacant.
Within a few short years, metal thieves had stripped the Brewster-Wheeler center of everything of value. After several fires destroyed the classrooms on the upper floors, graffiti taggers covered almost every surface of the building in spray paint. Demolition of the Brewster Projects began in 2013, leaving the center to an uncertain future. With the upcoming redevelopment of the former Brewster Housing Project, interest in the rec center has been revived, and the building has been secured.