Detroit Xmas: Southwestern High

Detroit, Michigan (Map)

Winter 2014-15


Detroit has these old, glossy-white hamburger diners chugging along in areas where not must else besides gas stations and party stores manage to survive.

Over the years we started to wonder how good these diners must be on account of their longevity. Motz's Burgers on Fort Street was the most familiar because of its proximity to the bridge & therefore it was the first one we tried. Our suspicions were well-founded and Motz's was then visited on multiple future occasions.

Donnie would try moving on to another spot called Telway Hamburgers, but stormed out after they wouldn't cook his burger without onions (lol!).

On this January day we drove over to the west side to try Elmer's Hamburgers to complete the trinity0 of classic Detroit burger diners...and hoooooo boy! I've been home maybe 5 times since this day & I think we've went to Elmer's 4 out of those 5 times. It's so good, that it has become a mandatory stop like a preferred Coney Island or Buddy's Pizza.

0 - This really should be a quaternity as I now realize there's a
Sonny's Hamburgers @ Schoolcraft and Evergreen that I've overlooked.

After driving over to the west side at Chicago & Oakman for Elmer's, we went back down Livernois to a spot almost directly across from Motz's. Heck we could have even parked at Motz's, if not for how it would have raised questions about a car sitting there for hours.

Instead we found ourselves walking up this Southwest/Delray side street. Now one thing Delray still has is a few windowless (or covered window) factories, where things look abandoned but they're actually still in use. These factories have been here since I started looking around, so I generally don't pay them too much attention anymore.

So it came as a bit of a surprise today as we walked up the side street and Donnie yelled from behind that the grey building beside us was abandoned. We ducked in and found that there was nothing left to the place but the front and side wall - so yep, sure isn't a factory or even a building anymore.

This was the Stan Sax Corporation, where they made compounds and cleaning abrasives according to the Thomas Register of American Manufacturers 1995. The building was active in the June of 2011 StreetView, but it's hard to tell whether it's still open or not in September of 2013 StreetView (what was I just telling you about these windowless mystery factories!)

Our main target was across the tracks and up the street.

Southwestern High School has stately stood on this corner through a countless number of my trips around Delray, Southwest and along Fort St. The school would face closure numerous times and the pessimist in me feared its closure every time, especially after seeing how quickly nearby McMillan fell into ruin.

Even with declining attendance and an oversized school, community uproar and rising grades would keep Southwestern open through two faced closures. Unfortunately that would change when Detroit Public School leaders finally chose to close her down in 2012; leading to one of the quickest scrapping pillages and vandalism sprees on an empty school that I've ever seen.

By the time of my visit, Southwestern had been windowless for over a year.

We wandered into the courtyard and found the main school building to one side and covered walkway connections to a bland square building to the other side.

Wandering into the square building to the south, this was the pool, which seemed modest and modern in comparison to other Detroit high schools such as Cass or Mackenzie.

Sure enough, this is part of a 1960s addition but the pool isn't even that old. DetroitUrbex has a great, extensive write-up about Southwestern & they explain that this pool was built in 1995, then rebuilt in 2002 even though the 1995 one was never used because it never passed health standards. This new pool cost $1.25M, but couldn't be used for competition because it was too small.

Oh do the leaders at Detroit Public Schools amaze me sometimes.

One of the main reasons I wanted to see Southwestern was because this was Jalen Rose's alma mater. Jalen Rose being one of the famous Fab Five at the University of Michigan before going on to a 13-year NBA career.

Rose came back and bought a new basketball court for Southwestern in the 2000s and also set up a $10,000 scholarship program for one annual deserving Southwestern Prospector.

^From, the Southwest High School Throwback
Classic - 6th Annual/August 14, 2010. Mayor Dave Bing is the referee.

Jalen Rose grew up in northwest Detroit and played ball at and around St. Cecilia's, up near Livernois & Grand River (near Elmer's Hamburgers, lol). Back then in Detroit, you could go to any high school in the city as long as your attendance was good & you were willing to take however many busses it took to get you there on time. Jalen had went and watched Southwestern games around the city even as a grade schooler & knew that's where he wanted to go.

A big factor in Rose's decision would be Perry Watson. A former college player and Southwestern graduate himself, Watson took over Southwestern's ball program in 1978 and through coaching and guidance, had built up the program into a winner and started to recruit greater talent.

Jalen Rose started here in 1987, needing to partake in cross-country running as part of being admitted to the high school basketball team. He also had a 40-day training camp and they would run laps around the track or in the hallways if it was raining. In addition to this intensity involved in applying for a high school team, Watson was also comfortable with benching his kids for games; acting as a strong male figure in their lives.

Rose would finally push Southwestern over the hump of losing 7 straight city championships under Watson. During his time at Southwestern, Rose only lost an unbelievable 4 games in 4 years, delivering 3 city championships and 2 state championships.

It wasn't all great times on this court though, as Rose's career was almost ended below one of these rims. On a fast break, Jalen went up for a dunk but was met by a 6'8", 280-lb kid from Cooley High who had ran from midcourt to clothesline him. Jalen landed head first on the ground and started convulsing immediately. A stick was stuck in his mouth to keep him from swallowing his tongue & he would end up getting wheeled out into an ambulance in the cold night air outside Southwestern.

More important than basketball highlights - especially considering that someone like Rose should make it to the NBA anyway - is that Perry Watson sent an amazing 96% of his players to college. Not just the starters, even the bench warmers would have favours called in within Michigan & kids would get scholarships and opportunities they wouldn't have had otherwise. It served as an additional reason for the young men to keep their noses clean.

^Yeah, the crappy panorama makes it look like the windows are curved. I couldn't back up here to get a better picture.

In addition to Jalen Rose, I was also really excited once I learned that former republican presidential candidate Ben Carson went to Southwestern High. I don't think I would care if I happened to explore Mike Huckabee's or John Kasich's school for instance, but Ben Carson was an interesting character and the one candidate I enjoyed most during the republican debates.

The child of poor farm workers from rural Georgia, his parents met in rural Tennessee, when his mother was 13 and his father 28 (his mother would later admit to Carson that she agreed to marriage to get out of a poor home situation with 23 siblings). The Carsons would move north like many southerners at the time, seeking a job in the seemingly enticing Detroit factories, which would also provide an escape from the poverty of the rural American south.

The Carsons settled into Southwest Detroit & Carson's father got a job at "the Cadillac plant" - presumably Cadillac Detroit Assembly, which was located at Clark & Michigan in SW Detroit until its demolition in 1994.

Ben Carson would attend Southwestern High where fellow students remember him as bookish and quiet, although he claims in his book Gifted Hands that he had a temper to the point that he broke a knife on someone's belt buckle while trying to stab them (this was disputed on CNN & odd mysteries like this are what made Carson interesting).

His studious ways would pay off with a bachelor's degree at Yale, master's at U of M Medical School & completing his residency in neurosurgery at John Hopkins.

I still haven't told you what makes Carson all that special or noteworthy, but from here he went on to become a world leader in pediatric neurosurgery and performed the only successful separation of siamese twins joined at the back of the head. And here's what makes him so interesting to me: he's that smart and talented, yet he claims things such as he talked to God in his bathroom and that's what made him stop having anger issues. He also had a propensity for odd quotes in interviews and debates, such as, "My own personal theory is that Joseph built the pyramids to store grain” about how he doesn't believe the Egyptian pyramids were built as tombs, but instead to store large quantities of grain.

(He's certainly an interesting character, although I questioned whether he was a serious/good candidate for president.)

Now that I've put you to sleep with a recap of a fringe presidential candidate's life, let's get back to something that you might find more interesting.

What I liked most about Southwestern came from a fact relayed by Nailhed. This complex was actually a small outskirts high school that had another high school built on to it. This is something you can see in the above photo with the 1916 high school being darker and on the left; and with the 1922 high school being a different style on the right (the two buildings are connected by an arched-window hall that was built in 1969 (hat tip to DetroitUrbex again)).

As long as I can remember, I've driven up Fort and looked at the large windows and visible staircases of this connecting hall, appreciating how neat the space looked (even though it obviously wasn't very old, gasp!)

The older section started out as Nordstrum High School in 1916, before 'Southwestern' was built in 1922 and had Nordstrum integrated into it.

It was in this older Nordstrum section that there seemed to be disused rooms and rooms adapted to a later use. The above picture was the top floor reached by a narrow staircase, where I felt like I was on the factory floor of Roberts Brass or Fisher Body instead of a classroom.

Dormers and the steep roof on the Nordstrum side.

Nailhed would write a post on his website about McMillan during the time between when we went to Southwestern and current day. In that update he explains how McMillan was the high school for Delray until the village was annexed by Detroit. Once Nordstrum High was built just up the street and eastward, the old high school programs of McMillan were transferred to these very halls and grounds.

If McMillan was still standing, you would be able to see it by looking a little to the right of the above picture.

The view up Fort Street, going away from the bridge towards Oakwood Heights.

Looking out from here, National Foods Supermarket - with abandoned checkouts and everything - used to stand in that empty parcel just across the street. Also, I told my friend Amber to pull into this lot to gawk at Southwestern about a week earlier and we almost got stuck, which would have been funny and unfunny all at the same time. It was night time & the desolation here would have had me pushing with all my might to get us out.

The view across the street provided a great look at Frank H. Beard Elementary/James A. Garfield School, now the oldest school in the Detroit Public Schools system (built in 1896 for Springwells Township). Beard acquired the title of oldest school building after McMillan was abandoned and destroyed (McMillan was built in 1895).

Beard School is still in use as an 'Early Learning Neighborhood Center'. A new school was built nearby in 2000 because of overcrowding at Beard, but the healthy neighbourhood that exists north of I-75 here meant that there was still enough reason to keep Beard open.

In the foreground is Olivet Presbyterian/Old Landmark Church of God in Christ.

There were more funky old building quirks as we returned towards the Southwestern side. Here, there was a floor hatch that led down into an undersized basement.

Hallway outside the auditorium. The auditorium had suffered a fire and
wasn't overly remarkable for a Detroit high school.

Throughout the day I was resigned to the fact that this would be the best Southwestern I'd ever see. From here the school would continue its decline into certain destruction.

Matty Maroun, owner of the Ambassador Bridge, had offered $1.2 million for the property in 2014 but was turned down by the city. I figured it was only a matter of time before Southwestern joined his holdings of blight and urban prairie, but apparently the city had better choices.

In April of 2015 it was announced that Sakthi Automotive, with Detroit operations located on Fort just across Waterman St from Southwestern High, would purchase the 16.1-acre property.

Their aluminum foundry has already been constructed over the old tennis courts, baseball diamond & running track, as seen on Google StreetView from July 2016. In addition, they've also fenced in the old high school and installed boards that look like windows covering Southwestern's gaping holes.

Future plans include reuse of the main school building by converting it into an "engineering training center" and office space. The 1960s building and the 2002 pool will go, while the famous basketball court of Jalen Rose will be saved as Sakthi will renovate into a testing track that preserves a portion of the court.

After quickly checking out a church and running out of daylight, we were now hungry again & having not driven west enough earlier today, we almost crossed the Rouge River by going all the way to the end of Fenkell for fish and chips. This is where Scotty Simpson's Fish & Chips is located, another old school institution that's been there for decades (5 decades in the case of Scotty Simpson's).

Cruising around again afterward, eventually we ended up at Tom's Tavern. Now while I have a running list of potentially cool dives that my friends have and haven't visited over here, Tom's Tavern ranks pretty high on this list in terms of priority.

That's because Tom's has been here since 1928, now existing as a ramshackle, listing hodgepodge of shingles and boards. It looks so out of place at 7 Mile & Wyoming next to modern pillars of community like the oil change cinderblock building next door, the tan, windowless Family Dollar across the street and the cookie-cut 1990s Little Caesars that's kitty-corner across Ilene St. I need to take a daytime picture of Tom's front street scene, but until then, you can check out the StreetView. The exterior and placement of Tom's is amazing. A little piece of a long gone Detroit lingering onward.

Like so many dive bars in Detroit, there's no windows and you have no idea what you're getting as you open the door. Lo and behold, the door could barely open because there were so many people at Tom's. Nailhed had been here before and relaxed with the bartender and one other friend in an otherwise empty bar, so he was dismayed by all of this commotion.

It wouldn't take long to realize that there was some type of party or meet-up going on here. Donnie, Nail & I could hardly order a beer, but once we managed to get one, there was an open table where we appreciated the damaged, creaky building, with strange plaster archways and uprights.

This large gathering of people wasn't Donnie or Nailhed's scene, so we didn't stay longer than our one beer. I got up to use the washroom at one point, finding an average sized room with a single, small urinal trough surrounded in pencil and Sharpie graffiti.

I'll make it back to Tom's one day.

After stopping at the Hosmer library branch - this time so Nailhed could see it instead of Steve - we went down to Delray and hung out at a fishing spot across from Zug Island. Always enamored with ice and the possibility of access to other places because of it, I wandered down beside the dock and into the riverside trees and grasses, before seeing some open water on this warm night.

It was one of those fine winter nights that's above freezing, with snow and ice around, but up into the upper 30s and feeling even warmer as you're used to sub-freezing temps. It kept getting warmer through the night & the melting ice and snow produced tiny bits of fog along the ground in the wet darkness.

The bullshitting and enjoying of the night would continue until some ungodly hour, until it was now the day my Michigan/Ontario holidays would end.

Now that it was morning, the warmth and the mess of melting snow was even more apparent. Even in my mental fog and lack of sleep, I savoured this beloved weather. I wasn't thinking about the awfulness of what would come after a couple of plane rides, but just that this was another thing to miss about Michigan.


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2015's Winter Trip: Port-aux-Basques
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1 - Stan Sax Corporation (Detroit, Michigan) - Wikimapia
2 - Ben Carson's 17 Most Memorable Lines - CNN Politics, Tal Kopan, Oct 27, 2015.
3 - What If Sarah Palin Were a Brain Surgeon? - GQ, Jason Zengerle, March 23, 2015.
4 - A tale of two Carsons - CNN Politics, Scott Glover/Maeve Reston, Nov 7, 2015
5 - School of Hard Knocks: Hunkytown High & King Cody,
6 - Southwestern High School -
7 - Gotta Give the People What They Want: True Stories and Flagrant Opinions from Center Cour, Jalen Rose, 2015
8 - End of era: Detroit's Southwestern may have played its final game,
9 - Matty Moroun's Plans To Buy A High School Are Dead, Curbed Detroit, Sarah Cox, Aug 12, 2014
10 - Sakthi to transform Southwestern High neighborhood, Detroit Free Press, Tom Walsh, Apr 28, 2015
11 - Detroit Southwestern gets new life, keeps the old gym, Tom Walsh, Detroit Free Press, May 12, 2015

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