In 1965, a famous photo was taken of three young girls strolling through the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects in Detroit. Their names were Florence Ballard, Diana Ross, and Mary Wilson. The trio grew up in the public housing complex, forming the Supremes in 1959. More than 50 years later, Wilson returned to her old stomping grounds for an impromptu photoshoot with The Neighborhoods photographer Cyrus Tetteh and creative director Amber Lewis, as part of their Neighborhood Natives portrait series.
The Neighborhoods is the department of storytelling for the city of Detroit and needed a year to complete the project.
“We caught Mary Wilson at Detroit Homecoming 2017,” said Tetteh, who grew up on Detroit’s east side and attended Cass Tech. “She was in town and Amber said we should try and get her for the project. Amber was in the green room serenading her and the next thing you know, we were headed to the Brewster Projects.”
“She was the most memorable to shoot because she is the most legendary. She’s a Supreme and a part of Motown. We did a walkthrough of the old Brewster’s to make sure things were safe and she came, sat on this old, dusty porch, told us some stories and even sang for us.”
In an interview with The Neighborhoods, Wilson said she lived in the Frederick Douglass towers at 2602 St. Antoine street and attended Northeastern High. Erected in 1952, her 14-story building was demolished in 2003. The remaining towers were torn down in 2014. The Brewster-Douglass Projects were a haven for blacks in search of better housing options outside of the deteriorating Black Bottom neighborhood to the south.
“There are so many memories here at the Brewster Center,” said Wilson, as she sat on the steps of the old Brewster-Wheeler Recreation Center. “We had so much fun as the Primettes, there was a lot of sports going on, and there were a lot of people here who trained many of us and who were wonderful mentors to young black children in the neighborhood.”
Legendary east-sider and boxer Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns also participated in the shoot. He grew up in the Gratiot Town-Kettering neighborhood and attended Northeastern High School. Hearns boxed at the famous Kronk Gym, became the WBA Welterweight champion in 1980, and was the first to win five world titles in five different weight classes. Growing up on the east side in that era, Hearns knew some of the city’s top drug dealers, including Richard “Maserati Rick” Carter, who was actually his close friend and bodyguard at one point. Carter was murdered in a Detroit hospital in 1988.
A few minutes east on the I-94 Freeway is the neighborhood of Ravendale near Harper and Conner. That is where Antonio “Tony Whlgn” Robinson was raised. The nationally known artist and designer’s grandparents still own a house on Corbett street where his photoshoot was done and where he once experienced a tornado.
“I don’t even know if people remember that, but a tornado happened here,” said Robinson, who went to the Detroit School of Arts. “I remember I was at my grandparents’ house and I was still standing outside when the tornado was going on. My granddaddy grabbed me and we all ran down into the cellar. That had to be early 90s. I had to do the research to make sure that really happened.”
The other east-sider who took part in the project was Detroit vs. Everybody creator Tommey Walker, who grew up in the Ralph Bunche Cooperative apartments near Lafayette and Chene and graduated from Cass Tech. Of all the t-shirts brands In Detroit, Walker’s is the most recognizable. Ask the thousands of bootleggers around the world.
East Coast vs. West Coast Beef
When you meet someone from Detroit, they will tell you what side they are from, east or west, hood, and street.
Huffington Post front page editor Philip Lewis now resides in Washington D.C. but is the pride of Six Mile or if you are not an authentic Detroiter, McNichols. He hails from the west side, in the Evergreen-Outer Drive neighborhood, and ran from stray dogs on Anchester street as a boy. He has an interesting theory on why Detroiters are proud to claim their neighborhoods and streets.
“When you don’t necessarily have a lot, you sort of latch on to anything that you have,” said Lewis, who graduated from Renaissance High. “Streets can be that for some people. It’s their street, it’s where they grew up, and it means everything to them.”
“I know people who are from the west side and have never been east, and east-siders who have never been to the west. In some instances, that is all they know, and they are highly protective of it.”
Budding comedian Delorean “Delo” Brown recently moved west to Los Angeles, but, in all of her sets, she proudly lets everyone know that she is from Six Mile as well. She grew up in the University District and attended Renaissance High. Brown said her upbringing, racing down Greenlawn street as a child, eating hot pickles is what groomed her to be able to sellout and headline comedy shows.
“The neighborhood has changed a lot, but it’s still beautiful over there,” said Brown, who is 27. “A lot of my richness and material comes from my surroundings, living over there and seeing the different types of people that lived in my neighborhood. It’s really a melting pot in the University District and it helped me to be the person that I am today: a bit hood, yet classy.”
Rounding out the west-siders on the list include internationally renowned poet, playwright, performance artist, and producer Jessica Care Moore, rap artist Cherrish “Detroit Che” Willis, and entrepreneur and FEMOLOGY owner Meagan Ward. Moore is from the Aviation Subdivision near Tireman and Littlefield, Willis calls the Evergreen Lahser 7/8 neighborhood home, and Ward grew up in the Grandmont-Rosedale Park community.
Ward’s photos were taken in front of Detroit Roller Wheels on Schoolcraft. She remembers going there on Saturdays, living in a house with her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. That being said, Ward believes the Neighborhood Natives project was important to discovering and displaying the roots of some of Detroit’s prominent citizens from the past, present, and future.
“All generations have contributed to Detroit,” said Ward. “My grandfather came from Alabama to Detroit because he wanted better for his family, a job at the factory, and to buy a home. And it was like that for a lot of families here. So for the next generation, we want to do our part, because we saw our grandparents and parents sacrifice to build our futures, and now we want to contribute.”
The exhibit can be seen online at theneighborhoods.org or in person at the Detroit Main Library until March 27th.