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Cass Tech #5 : Best Arguments For And Against

Posted to MichiganNow.org on Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Here’s the 5th and final part of the series on Cass Tech High school. Let’s assume there’s a continuum for saving buildings. People on one side say: save the building at all costs, like Europeans who cherish 1,000 year old ruins. People on the other side say: tear it down. It’s been closed for a year. It’s a monument to misery. Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus has been hearing the best arguments from both sides.

With the possible of exceptions of Central or Mumford, Cass Tech produced Detroit’s best and brightest for almost a century. Carol Gist-Stramler was the first African-American Miss USA in 1990. These days she’s a mother and fitness teacher in metro Detroit.

“That building served so many lives, so many families, a community and Detroit itself…with its heart in automotive and an industry. It’s like the heartbeat of Detroit. It should remain.”

Administrators paid about $3 million last year to demolish 10 schools. That’s according to Joel Landy. Over the years, Joel Landy has bought four small schools. He gave them new uses: movie theater, recording studio, apartments and offices. Landy salvaged the original architects drawings of Cass Tech from a dumpster.

“Should spend a few hundred thousand. Make it look nice. Keep it alarmed. Someone will use it someday. You don’t need the land and you’re not accomplishing anything putting it in a landfill.”

Joel Landy says tearing down buildings is an instinct learned from the auto industry. New car model years conditioned drivers to get rid of what they paid for. It’s an anti-materialist argument. Think of the energy it took to make this 8 story school: food grown to feed workers, workers bodies to cut marble, lumber, stone, brick, aluminum, copper. Then fossil fuels to run heavy equipment. All paid for.

“They embody a lot of energy. If you were to replace the buildings you’re throwing away all the energy that’s in these buildings.”

Liz Knibbe is an architect in Ann Arbor. She says historic tax credits can cover half the cost. Got a $100 million project? You can pay for $50 million of it because companies will buy your tax credits.

Last Sunday’s service at Plymouth United Church of Christ was filled with Cass Tech graduates. One is the church pastor: the Reverend Dr. Nicholas Hood III.

“You know the building was built so well that I’m sure if it had a good reuse and a proper revenue stream to maintain it I’m sure it would be very functional.”

Hood sounds like Landy. Pay a few hundred thousand to mothball Cass Tech. Instead of paying $3 million to demolish it in February.

“To see that the building has fallen into disrepair to me that’s a sad commentary on our city leadership.”

In the last election, Detroit Public Schools Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb got voters to approve a $500 million bond. That’s being spent on building new schools and demolishing old ones. DPS is still hemoraging money.. The budget deficit is $327 million.

“The biggest mission for me, upon assuming the principalship, was to get a new building.”

George Cohen got it built in 2005 next door to the old Cass Tech. Cohen says rodents had been motivating him since he took the job in 1993.

“It starts with a student yelling. And there’s a rat. And then it just goes from that point. So you have to go through the process of calming them down.”

Cohen is supported by Deborah Jones-Gatson, class of ‘72.

“It has become an eyesore and a detriment to that community. It just needs to be torn down. It’s unsafe. It’s unsightly. And as much as I hate to see it go it needs to.”

This magnet school was called the pickle factory. Nerdy students came from all over town with armloads of books. Then 4,000 crammed into that grey building, packed like pickles. Walter Willard won’t miss it.

“It’s connected to the people. I had negative vibes 50 years ago when the kids laughed at me for going to that factory. It’s not the building. It’s the people.”

Sherri Childs Quinn is not convinced either. To her the building is a demented, crippled blind old man, with drool on his face. Let him have his dignity and die.

“I know what that meant for me.”

Vandalism to the building hurts. Richard Baron says he has a remedy.

“Preserve it and you’ll feel much better.”

Baron wants to redevelop it. But first he’s got to halt the demolition work going on.

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