DETROIT (WWJ) – It all started with a call from Kid Rock.
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said a story had appeared in the paper last fall that the Brewster Wheeler Recreation Center was slated for demolition. The 52,000-square-foot center, located off the I-75 Service Drive near Mack, had been closed and abandoned by the city during budget cuts in 2006.
Duggan said City Councilmember Mary Sheffield begged him to stop the demolition. The center had a lot of history and it was important to people. But he told Sheffield, “There’s no money for a recreation center. There’s not really a community here. We could never save it as a rec center.”
There used to be a community there. The many residents who lived in the neighborhoods like Ursal Scott Charleston remember the center fondly. “I was ten years old,” said Charleston. “I used to come everyday. I lived right there … where the expressway is.”
There was a lot to do at Brewster, from sports to swimming. Built in 1929, it was famed as the gym where legendary boxer Joe Louis trained. By 2015, it had been empty for nearly ten years, the windows smashed out. It is covered in graffiti.
Then the call from Kid Rock.
“Kid Rock says “Why are you knocking down that building?!” said Duggan. “He says “I’ve got a friend, Curt Catallo, who runs Vinsetta Garage Restaurant. And he’s willing to put serious money into renovating that historic building’.”
The rec center will house not only the Brewster Wheeler Union Joints Restaurant, it will also have free available space for community groups like the Detroit Chess Club and a headquarters for the Slow Roll. The restaurant floor will be the original basketball floor where the Harlem Globetrotters used to play. The famed Joe Louis “Brown Bomber” mural will stay and Catallo promises he’ll do something special with the library where the pool was.
The project will cost $50 million in all and include the construction of 150 homes across the street. Catallo isn’t saying if Kid Rock is putting up any money, saying only that it’s a “private investment.” The mayor promises the homes will be affordable and at least 50 percent of those hired for the construction will be from Detroit. [VIDEO]
The Central Community Center opened in 1929, and in 1969 it was renamed for the city’s first black recreation worker, Leon Wheeler.
The restaurant construction is expected to start this year and be complete sometime in 2016.
The son of Joe Louis, Joe Louis Barrow, Jr called the announcement a “historic day.” Barrow said he felt his father’s spirit at the site, but the project is much bigger than his dad.
“Everything is bigger than Joe Louis,” said Barrow. “Because Joe Louis felt like he was a part of the community. He wasn’t seeking fame. He wasn’t looking for fortune. He was just trying to provide a life for his family. And that all started right here.”