Kronk Community Center & Gym

While unfamiliar to many Detroiters, "Kronk" is a name that carries a lot of weight in the Boxing World. Curiously though, Kronk is not the name of a boxer – but of a venue, and a person.

For five years, residents in the southwest Detroit neighborhood around Atkinson Park had been pushing for the city council to build a recreation center in their neighborhood. It wasn’t until 1921 that councilman John Kronk won an appropriation for $135,000 to build a community house on the site of the park. In May of 1922, the Atkinson Community House opened with a week of activities. The center included a swimming pool, gymnasium, club rooms, an auditorium, as well as athletic fields outside. “This building, the first of its kind in Detroit, should do much for the benefit of the growing generation,” said acting Mayor John C. Lodge at the grand opening. Four years later in 1926, the Atkinson Community House was renamed for John Kronk, in honor of his service to the city and the community.

In 1969, an apprentice linesman with a local electrical company named Emmanuel Steward began training his younger brother in the center’s basement boxing gym. After the younger Steward won a Golden Gloves tournament a year later, Emmanuel quit the electrical company and became the regular boxing coach, starting a boxing dynasty that produced some of the era’s biggest names.

Over the next three decades under the guidance of Steward, the Kronk Gym would produce 50 amateur boxing champions, 30 world champions, and three Olympic gold medals. Tommy "The Motor City Cobra" Hearns got his start at Kronk, going on to win titles in five weight classes.

Most important though was what the gym meant to the thousands of neighborhood kids who passed through during its 37 years. For a teenager living in a rundown part of Detroit in the 70's and 80's, the discipline of boxing gave them an alternative to gang life – or worse.

By the 1990's Kronk had stopped producing world champions. The City of Detroit, who owned and ran the rec center, was dealing with significant budget issues, forcing the gym to rely more and more on donations. Stewart drifted away from the gym, focusing on training big names including Lennox Lewis, Oscar De La Hoya, and Evander Holyfield. But trouble with the IRS over back taxes and a desire to return to his roots led him back to Detroit and to the program he’d started years earlier.

Despite investment by the city and by private sources, a 2004 survey of rec centers by the city recreation department found that the Kronk building – by then the oldest center in the city – was in serious disrepair. Detroit was facing a budget shortfall of nearly $200 million dollars, and in 2005 announced that it would be closing nine out of 29 of the city’s recreation centers, including Kronk.

Steward stepped in with an offer to buy the center rather than see it close, eventually reaching an agreement with the city to pay the operating costs out of his own pocket – estimated to be between $500,000 to $1 million dollars annually. While the rest of the recreation center closed, the gym remained open, thanks in part to donations from supporters and people who had come up through the program. But in September of 2006, thieves broke into the center over a weekend and stole most of the copper piping. Without water, Kronk was forced to temporarily shut down and relocate to a gym in nearby Dearborn while the city assessed the damage. Though Steward initially hoped to reopen the center after raising the needed money, the temporary shut down became permanent in November after the city determined it would cost too much to replace the pipes.

Within a few years, the closed Kronk recreation center had fallen victim to scrapping and vandalism. The punching back, turnbuckles, even the metal doorknobs of the basement gym were stripped out by scrappers or souvenir hunters. Several plans for renovating the building came and went, and after a while Steward moved his program into a permanent storefront in Dearborn. Until his unexpected death in October of 2012, Emmanuel Steward had remained optimistic that one day he would return to the old Kronk gym in Detroit. But his passing, along with a massive fire that destroyed much of the old recreation center in October of 2017 has left a gap in southwest Detroit that will be difficult to fill.