The demolition of the former Ruddiman Middle School on Detroit's west side began in late April. The school had been closed for nearly 15 years and had become a source of blight and crime. (Detroit Demolition Department Facebook photo)

Robin Hutton had some of her most memorable school experiences at Ruddiman Middle School.

As a student there in the early 1990s, she briefly played trombone for the school band and encountered some of her favorite teachers, like “Ms. Ellis” who taught math. 

“She was one of those stern little old ladies, but she cared about you,” Hutton recalled. “We had a lot of teachers that really cared about you and were concerned about your home life and your learning experience.” 

The 44-year-old, who now lives in Westland, has fond memories of Ruddiman and the Warren Avenue Community that surrounded it. Hutton’s family lived in the now-demolished Herman Gardens housing project and later in the West Park Apartments near the Southfield Freeway. 

But 30 years later, Ruddiman is no longer. The active and vibrant school Hutton once knew sat vacant for nearly 15 years before it got the chopping block last month and was torn down. 

After shutting its doors in 2009, the 88,000-square-foot building became a target for vandalism and crime, with graffiti-filled walls, broken windows and classrooms scraped clean.

Detroit-based Adamo Group began tearing down the former Ruddiman Middle School on Detroit’s west side in late April. The 88,000-square-foot building closed its doors in 2009 and had become a target for vandalism and crime. (BridgeDetroit photo by Micah Walker)

Mona Ali, Department of Neighborhoods manager of the city’s District 7, which includes the Warren Avenue Community, said over the years there have been reports of break-ins and fires at the vacant school. In 2013, police found a burned and decapitated body in the building. 

“It felt like after the school closed, it definitely brought on activity that you didn’t want to see,” Ali said. “So it’s definitely a huge win that it’s gone.”

The school was razed in late April as part of the Detroit Demolition Department’s inaugural “Demo Week,” where residents and community members were invited to watch live commercial and residential demolitions, meet the demolition team and attend information sessions and a city-wide job fair. The week-long event is part of Mayor Mike Duggan’s push for blight removal across the city, including identifying and tearing down deteriorating schools and large buildings. 

The Ruddiman demolition cost $560,000 and Detroit-based Adamo Group is expected to completely demolish and remove the rubble within 75 days.

Ryan Foster, a press secretary for the Demolition Department, said Ruddiman was declared an emergency demolition by the city’s Buildings, Safety Engineering, and Environmental Department (BSEED). More than 300 commercial properties across the city are slated for demolition, including 30 school buildings. 

“Unfortunately, once the building exceeded its useful life span and fell vacant, it became more known for crime than community,” Detroit Demolition Director LaJuan Counts said of Ruddiman in a news release. We’re proud to acknowledge the site’s rich history and remove what’s become a dangerous eyesore for residents.”

Hutton was disappointed to see years of memories being demolished, but said that the neighborhood has gone downhill since Ruddiman closed. 

“If I’m in the area and drive through, the neighborhood is totally run down,” she said. “It used to be a really nice neighborhood when I was a kid. There were a lot of young people, a lot of people were raising their families there. It’s totally different over there now.” 

The rise and fall of Ruddiman 

Ruddiman school was built in 1922 with red brick masonry and 14 classrooms. The school was named after Wiliam Ruddiman, a pioneer who migrated to Detroit from Scotland in the early 1800s. In 1839, he received a certificate for a plot of land on the corner of what is now Southfield Freeway and Warren Avenue, according to a 1985 issue of The Dearborn Historian, a quarterly magazine from the Dearborn Historical Commision.  A log house and barn were the first things built on the land and eventually, an elementary school. 

“The Ruddiman school has a beautiful history, serving as an educational haven for students and families in the Warren Ave. neighborhood for nearly 90 years,” Counts said. 

Ruddiman and its students were recognized for their accomplishments from the beginning. In April 1928, the Board of Commerce awarded the school a trophy for getting out the largest percentage of the vote in their school district for a city election the previous November, the Detroit Free Press reported. 

Detroit Free Press archives

The school also generated a couple of spelling bee champions in its early years. Bessie Doig beat 67 other district champions across metro Detroit in a regional competition in May 1928, which led her to become Michigan’s finalist for the National Spelling Bee in Washington DC. Two years later, 13-year-old Ruth DesJardins won the competition, beating Nolan School student Mary Elaine McCarthy over the word, “lyre.” 

As Detroit reached its population peak in 1950 with more than 1.8 million residents calling the city home, Detroit Public Schools had to accommodate the growing student enrollment. In 1954, the city approved a $900,000 addition to Ruddiman which included two stories made of brick, according to the Free Press. The addition opened just in time for the 1955-56 school year. 

By the 1960s, Ruddiman transitioned into a middle school, housing grades 6-8. In 1966, Detroit Public Schools reached its peak of nearly 300,000 students and 370 schools. But that number soon dropped off as white residents began leaving the city for the suburbs, especially after the 1967 Detroit uprising. 

In the 1970s, DPS began closing schools as enrollment continued to decline and by the early 1980s, the district was having its share of problems, such as a teacher’s strike in 1982, a growing dropout rate and violence on school grounds. Despite being a middle school, Ruddiman was no exception. 

In 1986, the Free Press reported a 14-year-old Ruddiman student was expelled after firing a shot at a group of non-students who approached him outside the school. In 1994, Ruddiman made headlines again when a 12-year-old girl admitted to dropping sleeping pills in the coffee cup of math teacher Ellen Hechler. The student served 12 weeks probation for the incident. 

During the 2000s, DPS decided to make some drastic changes to some of its middle schools and high schools in an effort to improve the district’s graduation rate. Ruddiman eventually transformed into the Cody Ninth Grade Academy, a place where freshmen attended before spending the next three years at the main Cody High School building, located in the nearby Franklin Park neighborhood. But the change didn’t last long. At the end of the 2008-2009 school year, then-emergency manager Robert Bobb shuttered the academy, along with 28 other schools to save the district $14 million a year. During its last year, Ruddiman only had 311 students with a capacity of 742 and needed $3 million in repairs, the Free Press reported. 

What’s next?

Angy Webb, who lives in the Joy Community, was shocked to see that the city tore the school down. Her son Derrick went to Ruddiman during the early 90s. She said she’s interested in finding out what will replace the former school. 

“That’s what I would like to know,” she said. “What are they actually building over there?” 

Built in 1922, the school was named after Wiliam Ruddiman, a pioneer who migrated to Detroit from Scotland in the early 1800s. (BridgeDetroit photo by Micah Walker)

According to Foster, the space will become an extension of the neighboring park, Simanek Playfield. She did not have any additional details about the green space since the plot belongs to Detroit Public Schools Community District. 

Meanwhile, west side organizations like the Cody Rouge Community Action Alliance are working to improve the area surrounding the school. Executive Director Kenyetta Campbell, 49, said the nonprofit is doing a “Keep Cody Rouge Clean and Safe” trash cleanup Saturday minutes away from the Ruddiman site on Warren Avenue and Archdale. The alliance serves the Cody Rouge neighborhood in three areas–community engagement, youth development and neighborhood revitalization, according to its website. 

The 48228 ZIP code of the Cody Rouge neighborhood is relatively young. With a population of 57,005, the median age is 29. Kids under the age of 18 make up 31% of the neighborhood and the median household income is at $31,330, according to the website Census Reporter. 

Some of the alliance’s initiatives include opening a tech lab inside the youth center Detroit Impact, training seniors in computer literacy and adopting families during Christmastime, Campbell said. 

“This neighborhood has been working for the past 16 years developing block by block,” she said. “I’m just looking forward to continuing to beautify the neighborhood so that residents can continue to thrive in a safe and healthy community.”

Part of that redevelopment was seeing vacant buildings like Ruddiman being demolished, which got large support from the community, Campbell said. 

Ali also said the demolition of the building was a common ask from residents. District 7 was in talks with DPSCD a few years ago to discuss possible plans for Ruddiman, including rehabbing the site. But the project became too big to take on, she said. 

Ali, who was born and raised in Cody Rouge, said she used to drive by the school every day and was sad to see Ruddiman turn into an eyesore. But since the school demolition began on April 28, she’s been getting positive feedback from residents. 

“Just the energy it’s already created with residents who are driving in and off of Southfield…it’s definitely being well received,” Ali said. 

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