Coming of Age in 1980s Detroit

In 1987, Manny Crisostoma, a photographer for the Detroit Free Press at the time, began documenting the students at Southwestern High School in Detroit. The students were a racially diverse group and hailed from an inner city school that was just five miles from the Detroit Free Press newsroom. His close proximity to the school allowed Crisostoma to follow the kids through the 1987/1988 academic year, highlighting the highs and lows of what it was like to come of age in Detroit in the late 1980s.

“There were drugs everywhere. There was violence everywhere. Yet, it was still high school,” Crisostomo says. “There was dating. There were pep rallies. There was football.”

In 1989, Crisostoma won the Pulitzer Prize for “A Class Act, The Life and Times of Southwestern High School,” the Detroit Free Press story that resulted from his year-long examination of the school and its students.

“Some of what I learned speaks to the enduring tradition of high school — homecoming, proms, sports, classroom antics, flirting, romance, parties, breaking small rules and just being kids,” he wrote. “But it was impossible to deny the negative side, reflecting the problems of the world outside Southwestern’s dirty red-brick walls: Smart kids dropping out, football players selling drugs, children having babies, teenagers feeling rejected or unloved or unwanted by their parents, youngster victimized by violence at home and on the streets, promising lives ending by suicide and by accident.”

After winning the Pulitzer, Crisostoma took the $3,000 prize money and donated it to Southwestern High School to fund a journalism scholarship. It was his way of not only saying thank you to the students, but investing in one potential career path for the school’s graduates.

More than 20 years after the article was published, however, Southwestern High School faced a reality shared by more than a dozen other Detroit area schools. According to Detroit Urbex:

In February of 2012, Detroit Public Schools announced that Southwestern High would be closing at the end of the academic year, along with 15 other schools. Throughout the spring parents and students rallied to save the school, which was finally starting to show improvement in test scores. In April, students at Southwestern and Western High Schools walked out of class to protest the closure, fearing that the merging of the two rival schools would lead to violence. But with just 583 students and a capacity of 1,600, keeping Southwestern open was no longer financially viable. The school closed for good in July.

Today, the school sits empty.

(Photograph: Manny Crisostoma. Caption: Scene from “A Class Act, The Life and Times of Southwestern High School.”)