The iconic towers of Detroit's former Brewster-Douglass housing projects were officially closed several years ago, but the buildings are far from empty. A community of people still lives in the development, and new film is bringing to light both their untold stories and the housing projects' fraught history.
"Brewster Douglass, You’re My Brother," a 27-minute documentary by filmmaker Oren Goldenberg and journalist Paul Abowd, will premiere Thursday night the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.
"The way the windows were removed [from the buildings] really created this opening for all this history about the area to flood out," explained Goldenberg.
The original 1935 Brewster Homes were the first public housing for African-American families in the country, and the later constructed towers are commonly noted for their list of famous past tenants, including Motown singers Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson.
The high-rise projects were closed in 2008. Now considered an eyesore or symbol of blight, they may be razed if Mayor Dave Bing has his way. In March, Bing said the high rises are at the top of the city's demolition list.
“I think people want to see them torn down, because they’re blight at this point," Goldenberg said, but noted anti-blight efforts aren't necessarily positive. “Things being torn down in Detroit seems like progress, but it all depends on what’s built to replace them."
The buildings play a role in the city's current redevelopment talks but have long been a subject of tension, writes Abowd in a story for Critical Moment, highlighting problems with public housing and institutional segregation.
That context informs the film, as "Brewster Douglass, You're My Brother" turns the camera on those who are often overlooked in the city's redevelopment.
“Not only did [Abowd] bring desire to know fact and create accurate history, he also brought the desire to connect it to ongoing struggles of development that have been happening throughout the city since its onset," Goldenberg said.
In the film, the buildings’ future is purposely left uncertain. Instead, it connects with people who still live in the project as squatters and spends time with the congregation of the Greater Shiloh Baptist Church, a historic black church at the site that has twice avoided demolition.
But rather than dig too deep into the buildings' history, Goldenberg sees the film as more of an art piece. He said a large part of the film is spent showing how the buildings are seen from all over the city, and perhaps changing the viewers' perception of them.
“I think the medium is much more powerful than just using it as text or information,” Goldenberg explained. "It's aimed at a visceral experience rather than historical or informational."
Musician Sterling Toles produced the soundtrack for the film using a variety of music, from sounds captured in Toles's flooded basement to a Detroit musician's unreleased soul track from the 1960s. Toles, who will join Goldenberg and others on a panel following the Wright Museum screening, has a unique perspective: He grew up using the Brewster Douglass recreation center.
Doors for the free public screening of “Brewster Douglass, You’re My Brother” open at 6:30 p.m. and the film will start promptly at 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 26 at the General Motors Theater in the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, 315 East Warren Avenue, Detroit. The film will be followed by panel with filmmaker Oren Goldenberg, sound producer Sterling Toles and community leaders connected to the former housing project, Maureen Taylor, Dorothy Ford and Marcus Finley. For more information, see the museum's website.
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