Joe Louis' old boxing gym in Detroit listed for demolition
Detroit Free Press (MI), 2014-08-05
Aug. 05 --A storied Detroit recreation center where Joe Louis trained and a host of basketball and boxing legends sharpened their skills will be demolished within a few months unless someone comes up with a workable plan to save the deserted building, the city told the Free Press on Monday.
The Brewster Wheeler Recreation Center dates to 1929 and is adjacent to the Brewster-Douglass public housing projects that are in the final days of demolition now. Detroit officials are beginning to make plans for what will happen next at the sites.
The city soon will issue a request for proposals for redevelopment ideas in adjacent Brush Park , a historic but underpopulated district in Midtown, according to John Roach , a spokesman for Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan .
A similar request was made early in the year, but officials decided to give developers a chance to update their designs in light of new developments, particularly the Ilitch family's plan to erect most of Detroit's new $650-million arena and entertainment district by mid-2017.
The city-owned rec center is structurally intact but in disrepair and awaiting the wrecking ball.
"It just kills me. It takes away another piece of history from this city of ours," said Dr. Stuart Kirschenbaum , founder and president of the Michigan Boxing Hall of Fame and a former state boxing commissioner. "It's almost sacrilegious to see that nothing was done to at least save something -- a stairway, an entrance way."
He compared its potential demise to that of the original Kronk Gym at 5555 McGraw in Detroit , a city recreation hall that produced a long line of boxing greats, including Tommy (Hitman) Hearns . It closed in 2006 amid Detroit's financial woes.
"We've seen most of these rec centers go into disarray where they've had to be torn down," Kirschenbaum said. "That sort of put the nail in the coffin for boxing in Detroit ."
As recently as a year ago, then-Mayor Dave Bing said the Brewster center would be spared as the city considered possibilities for eventually re-opening it as a community amenity for youths and seniors.
The red brick building contains a gymnasium, pool, auditorium and other space, and lots of history.
But Duggan's spokesman said Monday that the site was added to the demolition list. "So it is slated to come down this fall unless someone presents a workable redevelopment plan," Roach wrote in an e-mail.
He said people from several city departments who inspected the property reached a consensus for demolition.
Empty and peeling
The two-story Brewster center closed in the early 2000s. Today it is covered with graffiti inside and out and missing most of its windows and doors.
A video tour posted online reveals a deserted and trash-strewn gymnasium and natatorium with walls that are peeling paint and even stained with blood.
The most popular sports at Brewster center were boxing and basketball, and for years a group of aged athletes known as the Brewster Old Timers Club held fund-raisers to support the center's youth activities.
Newspaper articles describe how the center's heyday was 1929-59, before the Chrysler Freeway broke through the surrounding neighborhood.
Few -- if any -- of those club members are still around.
The name "Wheeler" was added to the Brewster center's title in the 1970s to honor Leon (Toy) Wheeler , the city's first black recreation worker and the center's longtime director. Under his direction, the area went from a playing field to an actual rec hall.
Boxing legend Joe Louis trained at the center, as did a host of other distinguished boxers and trainers like Delmar Williams , Eddie Futch , Kenneth Offett , Dave Clark and Sam Hughes .
Offett, a former pro boxer, recalled in a 1994 interview how Louis would work out at the rec center.
"An hour at a time, he'd be punching that bag. There would be a big dent in it afterward; then nobody else could use it," he said.
The center had its own basketball league and the Harlem Globetrotters made regular visits.
Early Brewster basketball stars such as Gus Finney , Harry Russan, Wilbert King and Bob Showboat Hall helped bring national attention to Detroit basketball after joining the Globetrotters.
In more recent years, Detroit native and ex- NBA star Chris Webber donated a new basketball floor.
Former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young described his amateur debut in the Brewster center ring in his 1994 book, "Hard Stuff: The Autobiography of Mayor Coleman Young ."
"I landed a good blow to the chin of an opponent who was very highly regarded," Young wrote. "There were usually girls around, and when I scored on this big fellow, they started chittering and giggling. With that, I tore into him. Which was not prudent. The moment I hit the canvas, it was apparent that I didn't have a career in store for me."
Contact JC Reindl: 313-222-6631 or firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow him on Twitter @JCReindl.
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