Alumni on what it was like attending closed or demolished Detroit public schools
Due to budget cuts, population shifts, and deterioration in the building, around 200 Detroit public schools have closed since 2000.
The loss of these schools is felt in many ways: longer transit times for students commuting to schools further away, lack of an anchor in the neighborhood, presence of a large abandoned building near houses. Many of these schools were architectural gems designed by some of the city’s most prestigious firms and designers.
To get a feel for what it was like to visit some of these closed or destroyed schools, we spoke to alumni who were visiting three of them. Here’s what they had to say.
Old Cass Technical High School, opened in 1922
In addition to being one of the top performing schools in Detroit, Cass Tech was also a historic landmark with an illustrious list of famous alumni such as Alice Coltrane, Diana Ross, David Alan Grier, and Big Sean, to name a few.
It first opened as the Cass Union School in 1922 on Second Avenue. It was designed by Malcolmson & Higginbotham with additional architectural support from Albert Kahn. The brick and limestone Gothic building was large: eight floors for 4,400 students and 50 classrooms. Today’s construction would have cost around $ 60.8 million.
Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University
For more photos, visit Historicaldetroit.org.
Monique Bryant, class of 1986
I attended because I had a first cousin who was also graduating Cass. Although my parents weren’t there, they understood that it was college prep and urged me to leave. At the time, we were the only school with an exercise program, so I got really into it. I also played tennis.
Even though I took two or three buses to school every day, my experience was great. I got along with everyone.
Back then there were a lot of homeless people in Cass Corridor – you’d step over them and just go to school. But they wouldn’t bother us. I was never afraid to go to school because they all respected Cass Tech as a place of higher learning and knew that we kids came every day from afar in the dark to go to school.
Cass Tech could take about 5,000 students – that’s about 1,500 children in each class. Many people found it overwhelming with so many people. They would ride the bus arm-to-arm to school and then wait in all those lines to get to school. The hallway would be full, the dining room would be full, but you loved it. It was like college in high school.
Harry C. Todd, class of 1981
The area was like, “Did our parents really love us?” There were drug dealers, hookers – it was a sling line. Fortunately, it was not only a place to rest and learn, but also a safe zone. It was an area that was like an island in itself.
I was amazed at the school. It was huge: eight floors of an elevator that had been around for decades. But over the years the building got older. Still we loved it. It played a crucial role in our trajectory.
In 2000, the Detroit Public School District announced plans to build the current modern Cass Tech building, which was built in 2004. The old building caught fire in 2007 and was finally demolished in November 2011.
Nostalgia will make you think “mine was better,” of course, but today’s kids need a nice school with windows and air conditioning that has all the modern features of a Birmingham or Grosse Pointe school. Our children deserve the same or better.
Doretha Clark Evans, class of 1980
In 2015 I had the opportunity to tour the new building. Architecturally, I found it beautiful. While I hated seeing it demolished, the building isn’t what makes us great. Some have a story, but we have a legacy. The Triangle Society is committed to preserving this legacy by providing financial support to clubs, organizations, athletic and academic programs at Cass.
Thomas M. Cooley High School, opened in 1928
Cooley High School was built for a growing Detroit population in northwest Detroit. It was also located in an opulent building designed by the renowned local company Donaldson & Meier in a Mediterranean Revival style. A 1,000-seat auditorium was added in 1930. The school also had an indoor swimming pool and facilities for fencing, table tennis, athletics, and ice skating and hockey.
You can find more photos here.
David Webb, class of 1976
When you went through the second double door, the school opened up to many different hallways. I remember the auditorium with graduation ceremonies, plays and music events. There were all these different areas – gym, showers, other facilities. And if you went to the back outside there was the baseball field, basketball courts. It was huge – it was almost an entire square block.
What I’ll always take with me is basketball, camaraderie, and cheering. School brought us a sense of community because everyone has problems, but school was the exit. Even if your parents chased you, you would have your friends at school to hang out with and who would always take care of each other.
At the end of the 2009/2010 school year, Cooley High School was closed due to budget deficits and lower school enrollment. In 2017 the building was badly damaged by a fire in the auditorium. The building is still standing but has been deteriorated by fire, scraping and vandalism.
I went back recently and man. The building is there, but it’s dilapidated, it burned down. It’s just sad to see When I came back in 2017, a piece of me died inside. All these parts of the city were occupied, now all the houses in the parts of the city have disappeared. Nothing but burned down houses and empty lots. It’s like a ghost town in the middle of life.
Redford High School, opened in 1921
The city was first built for the Redford Parish and was later annexed and incorporated into the Detroit Public Schools system. The original building was designed by Burrowes & Eurich, but several buildings were added in the decades that followed. The interior had elaborate tile work, an ornate library, pool, gym, auditorium, and more in its six buildings.
Check out photos of the building on Detroiturbex.com.
Phillip Allen, class of 1977
They started integrating Redford when I started there. It was mostly white when we blacks walked in – they started walking soon after. We lived about four miles from the school and took the Grand River bus.
I remember hanging out in the police station across from the school. They had a lawn and we gather there. The police never bothered us.
I enjoyed school and was able to go there with my siblings. I have memories of walking down the hallways and writing my name on the walls. Jump out the windows to get out of the classrooms as it wasn’t that far down. We go to the basement and security comes after us.
In its prime, Redford High School had over 4,000 students. When it became known that the school would close after the 2006-2007 school year, it was just over 1,000. It was finally demolished in 2012. Today there is a Meijer grocery store on the premises.
A lot of memories come back when I walk past it. Wow, my high school is gone, they demolished it.