shorpy woodward

Shorpy — the online archive of vintage photos from the 1850s to the 1950s — ran this photo yesterday of downtown Detroit looking north/west on Woodward across Campus Martius.

Take a look at this photo full-size: I love the streetcars and early Model Ts, the incredible clothes, the electric signs and billboards. (Also, apropos of yesterday’s post, you can see the long-gone Old Andrew’s Hotel/Schubert Opera House, and a commenter on the post tips off that the Merrill Fountain in front of it is now in Palmer Park.)

Favorite details:

army uniform

The size of the pants on this Army uniform;

boots

This girl’s boots;

stop and go

Early pedestrian traffic control devices;

health insurance

A comforting declaration from the dairy industry.

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history of detroit

Construction continues on the new site, which should be up and running by the end of the week, although your friends aboard the Night Train aren’t making any promises.

One of the luxuries of writing about history, though, is that isn’t subject to the hyper-fast timeline that directs our daily lives. Taking a few days off the blog grind to learn code and play with my stylesheets puts a dent in my traffic stats, but I’m not worried about missing something on Twitter that won’t be relevant by the end of the day.

That isn’t to say that history doesn’t change. We revise it all the time; we change the stories we tell, how we tell them, the way the think about the characters involved. We build new monuments and memorials and tear down old ones. We fight about it. In Detroit, these fights are fever-pitch: the abandoned structures and empty lots that crowd the city are both monuments to a better past (one many Detroiters can personally remember) and painful memento mori of decline.

But there’s older, thicker history in the city that most of us forget after grade school. I like this mustier, more legendary stuff: the fur trade, the settlements, the berobed Jesuits and oak plank roads and war generals. I find it comforting. The past is tenacious, and we are strung to it.

So, scholarly asides aside: it was thus that we approached the tour itinerary provided in the 1933 edition of History of Detroit for Young People by Harriet and Florence Marsh. The original itinerary is bolded with our comments and photos below. Remember, watch for street car crossings and always have an older person with you.

I. THE CAMPUS MARTIUS

a. Find cannon from [Oliver Hazard] Perry’s victory.

No luck here. Does anyone know where this is? The Detroit Historical Society or the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, maybe? We saw some cannons on Washington Blvd., but they belonged to General Macomb, as it turned out.

b. Statues of Cadillac, N.E.corner; Father Marquette, N.W. corner; Father Richard, S.E. corner; La Salle, S.W. corner.

gabriel richard

These are now on the campus of Wayne State University, in a park on Anthony Wayne Street. Father Richard’s aspect is especially haunting, and the Marshes speak lovingly of him, although they do mention that he was a plain, bespectacled man with a scar on his face from a sword wound. Not evident on the statue.

c. Council chamber. Look at picture presented to Detroit by French Government, “Louis XIV delivering to Chevalier de Cadillac the ordinance and grant for the foundation of the City of Detroit.”

Detroit City Hall was razed in 1961. I found this painting during a routine Google Book search, where it appeared on the cover of “Historical Collections” published by the Michigan Historical Society. The painting is credited as part of the “Art Musem of Detroit, 1902” — is it in the DIA now?

2. The Soldiers and Sailors Monument faces the City Hall on the east side of Woodward Avenue. This was designed by Randolph Rogers and unveiled in 1872.

soldiers and sailors fwd

Standing triumphant.

3. Old Andrew’s Hotel, facing the Campus Martius, stood on the site of what now is the Schubert Detroit Opera House.

My dad speaks with a glint in his eye of Detroit’s movie house days, and he remembers the Schubert adoringly. The Schubert was demolished in 1964.

4. The fountain erected to the memory of Governor John J. Bagley stands on the north end of the campus.

bagley

This odd, pyramidal marble structure still stands, although it’s pretty dry as fountains go. It’s got lions in the center. Rawr.

II. CADILLAC SQUARE

1. Detroit Historical Musem is on the 23rd floor of Barlum Tower, rooms 2302-18.

Not anymore!

2. The Wayne County Building is on the east side of the square.

ren cen wayne county

The Wayne County Building may be the finest standing example of Roman Baroque architecture in North America,  says Wikipedia (I have to trust the crowds on this one as I know nothing about architecture and the claim is unsourced), and it’s one of my favorite buildings in the city. We tried to get in to nose around, but the security guard, though evidently delighted to see another human being in the building, regrettably informed us that it was closed, and advised us to call his boss, who has “a big heart for people like you.” (Tourists? History dorks? White kids running around downtown with cameras?)

Mad Anthony has rapidly become an obsession and my boyfriend has obligingly been ordering out-of-print biographies of him through interlibrary loan. The Erie, PA-based Erie Brewing Company makes a delicious American Pale Ale in Mad Anthony’s name and we recommend it.

3. Cadillac Chair of Justice

Buildings of Detroit eloquently describes the fate of the Chair of Justice: “By the late 1930s, the limestone had started to fall apart, and the chair had turned into a favorite resting spot for vagrants and drunks. On Nov. 1, 1941, workers showed up with sledgehammers and it was removed in pieces.”

VI. Points West of Woodward Ave.

We skipped around on this tour, mapless, downtown and on foot as we were.

a. Statue of General Alexander Macomb, born in Detroit and at one time Commander-in-Chief of the Army. It stands on Washington Boulevard at Michigan Avenue, opposite the Book-Cadillac.

Impressive! The glorious Macomb still stands handsomely on Washington Boulevard opposite the still-standing (and gloriously restored and open for business!) Book-Cadillac Hotel. Fun fact: Macomb’s statue is made out of melted down cannons.

general macomb

Also on Washington Boulevard is a statue of Casimir Pulaski.

casimir pulaski

b. Mariner’s Church, northwest corner of Woodward Avenue and Woodbridge Street.

mariners church

Old Mariner’s moved to Woodward and Jefferson in 1955.

h. Fort Shelby, originally Fort Lernoult, was located on what is now W. Fort Street from Griswold to Wayne streets. The Post Office is on this site.

fort lernoult

Not a Post Office anymore.

More to  come!

By the late 1930s, the limestone had started to fall apart, and the chair had turned into a favorite resting spot for vagrants and drunks. On Nov. 1, 1941, workers showed up with sledgehammers and it was removed in pieces.

ship and dragon plaque fw

This weekend — with its unbelievable 60 degree weather, a healthy serving of historical adventuring and a rollicking season finale of Mad Men — was one of the best ever. The Hounds Below got down with their howly selves at the Majestic Cafe, we took in a month’s worth of accumulated recyclables, we witnessed the bowel-shaking power of the colossal pipe organ at Old Mariner’s Church and watched a 100-year-old retired sea captain ring one of the eight tolls of the bell to commemorate lives lost on the Great Lakes, and part one of our self-guided itinerary from History of Detroit for Young People (published in 1933) was a success.

I took lots of pictures and will share them soon, BUT: I must warn you that I am taking more decisive reigns at this blog and moving to a self-hosted server, which will give me more autonomy in the way the site looks and feels. BONUS: I am doing most of the technical work myself, and teaching myself how to do it, from building a custom header to exporting my existing database. So it may look a little wonky for a while.

I didn’t want to make this move until I had a solid sense of what I really thought I was doing, blogging here, but now that I’ve spent a month or so clearing up my voice and trusting my instincts and chasing what excites me, I think it’s become pretty clear. Thanks for slugging through the uncertainty.

This week: downtown and Campus Martius, then (from the treaty at Fort Lernoult to the razing of City Hall) and now (where is Oliver Hazard Perry’s cannon?); Farmington’s Pernambuco Hollow; more of the usual scratching around in old cemeteries.

Two summers ago, over watermelon mojitos, I met with Captain Rick Hake of Adventure Charter Boats, who shocked me with stories of violent storms and deadly shipwrecks in the Lakes’ waters.

“How many people, on average, do you think survived, per wreck?” he asked me.

“Twenty,” I flat-out guessed.

He smirked and shook his head of floppy hair. “One,” he said. “One person, per wreck. On average.”

I was working on a story for VITAL Source (today’s ThirdCoast Digest) and I had no idea lake wrecks were remarkable, let alone abundant, so Rick sent me off to work on my story with an armful of books, site maps and a list of phone numbers for other local wreck divers, some of them legendary. Even more surprising to me than the low rate of survival on Great Lakes wrecks was the fact that people actually get into the limb-numbing waters and stay in it for hours to hang out with some zebra mussel-covered boat frames, but of course, as any wreck diver will tell you, the Great Lakes offer some of the best diving in the world, because the wrecks are so well-preserved by the low temperatures on the lake beds and the lack of corrosive salt. Some divers still hunt for treasure, too, and although they are not legally allowed to take silver egg-cups, musical instruments or fine china from a wreck site, many of them do anyway, following that ageless law of the sea: “If I don’t take it, it’s just going to rot down there.”

After I turned in my story, my editor rewrote my headline and all of my subheads which, to his credit, were probably not great in the first place, BUT: to replace my anemic header copy, he chose quotes from the lyrics of the Gordon Lightfoot song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” and I was livid.

“The Fitz sank in Lake Superior,” I told him. “This is a story about wrecks in Lake Michigan.

“Yeah, but it’s the only Great Lakes shipwreck people know about,” he said. “And it’s a good song.”

edmund fitzgerald wreck map

People are still surprised to learn that the Edmund Fitzgerald, although it was the latest and largest Great Lakes shiprweck and the only one so far commemorated in a contemporary folk song, was not, by far, the deadliest disaster. Thousands of ships and more than a thousand lives have been lost on the lakes since Rene La Salle’s fur ship Le Griffon sank in Lake Huron in 1679, many of them killing hundreds of people. (La Salle himself was not on the boat; he took the voyage from Green Bay to Niagra by canoe.)

old mariners church

At 11 a.m. this Sunday, November 8, the Mariner’s Church in Detroit will hold its annual Great Lakes Memorial service in remembrance of the Edmund Fitzgerald (which sank on November 10, 1975, en route from northern Wisconsin to Zug Island, drowning all 29 men on board) and all of the lives lost on our inland seas.

The Mariner’s Church is the oldest structure on the riverfront, commissioned in 1842 by Julia Anderson, the widow of Colonel John Anderson, who commanded a regiment in the War of 1812. Julia specified a stone church that would last the ages and forever offer a free pew anywhere in the church to anyone who wanted to worship, especially sailors, who were marginalized in civil society at the time. Old Mariner’s also served as an important stop on the underground basement; refugees snuck through a tunnel in the basement to the waterfront and thereon across the river to Canada. (The Mariner’s Church website offers a thorough history with a great photo gallery recommended for further reading.)

There are dozens of books about Great Lakes wrecks, published mostly by small regional presses and written largely in a swashbuckling narrative style that sacrifices historical detail for suspenseful flair. They’re delightful nonetheless, and since it’s worth remembering at least one fateful night that didn’t sink the Fitz, here’s an excerpt about the sinking of the sidewheel steamer Atlantic, which sank in Lake Erie en route from Detroit to Buffalo in 1852.

atlantic steamer

From  Great Stories of the Great Lakes by Dwight Boyer (1966):

The Atlantic, back on her Detroit-Buffalo course after a stop at Erie, Pennsylvania, was steaming slowly through a heavy fog in the dark early-morning hours of August 19, 1852. Pacing the wheelhouse sleeplessly as the ship’s bell tolled out warning clangs at regular intervals, Captain J. Byron Pettey was grumbling to the wheelsman about the vessel’s overcrowded condition. There had been more than the normal complement of passengers at Detroit, about three hundred in all, and a great tonnage of freight. Despite this, the Atlantic was committed to stop at Erie to pick up two hundred Norwegian immigrants, bound for Quebec. But the captain had been obliged to leave seventy-five of them on the wharf — there just wasn’t room for them. as it was, those taken aboard were bedded down on the hurricane deck, on the forepeak of and in the companionways. Their trunks, boxes and bundles — their sole wordly possessions — were piled all over the ship. Adding to the Captain’s worries was $36,000 in American Express Company gold, reposing in the purser’s safe.

… There was a flurry of shouted orders, a hasty clamoring of steam whistles, a great clanking of metal as the ship’s big walking-beam engine thrashed violently astern and finally, a hollow rumbling as the Atlantic was rammed forward of the port wheel by the propeller steamer Ogdensburg!

Like two dogs that have tangled viciously but briefly and then backed of to survey the damage wrought, the ships drifted apart after the collision, neither, apparently, seriously holed. But minutes later a begrimed and frightened fireman sought out the Captain to report that the Atlantic was looding below with water spurting up through the engine-room gratings. Captain Pettey gave the “abandon ship” order and the crew began their orderly routine of lowering boats and assigning seats. But the terrified Norwegians, who understood no English, panicked at the shouted orders and began to jump overboard. By now the water had reached the fires and huge clouds of steam began spurting up from the skylights and companionways. In this eerie scene of disaster the Atlantic made her final plunge, leaving the surface of the lake cluttered with wreckage, trunks and drowning passengers … almost 300 people, many of them hapless immigrants, either went down with the ship or drowned while waiting rescue. The Atlantic went to the bottom some four miles off Long Point in 155 feet of water.

voyageurs

I love when people say Detroit is “a shadow of its former self,” or one of America’s “fallen cities.” The benchmark, of course, is Detroit at the height of its industrial success and the peak of its population in the 1950s. But I’ve been reading accounts of the city in the very earliest days of the fur trade and the French occupation, thinking to myself: will it ever be the same? I know what you’re thinking: grueling physical labor! the constant threat of Indian raids! no antibiotics OR contraceptives!

But I found this incredible book, History of Detroit for Young People, by Harriet and Florence Marsh, self-published in the early 1930s, and it makes the early settler days of southeastern Michigan sound pretty swell*:

I am forgetting the parties they had any time during the year that was convenient. The French, as a rule, have happy, cheerful dispositions. They work while they work, and play while they play. In spite of all the toil and hardship and real danger that these first settlers endured, both old and young were able to throw off care and anxiety and enjoy themselves whenever it was possible … [and] Every one, young and old, danced. … In those days, people really danced! Nobody sidled over the floor in our lazy fashion. These French people would never have wished to do so. If they had, they would not have dared, for their friends would have supposed they were ill, and ought to go home to bed.

Late in the 17th century, Cadillac wrote to the Comte de Frontenac that the chain of Great Lakes waters were “as richly set with islands as a queen’s necklace with jewels, and the beautifully verdant shores of the mainland served to complete the picture of a veritable paradise.” Of special interest to Cadillac was “the region that lies south of the pearl-like lake to which they gave the name of Ste. Clair, and the country bordering upon that deep, clear river, a quarter of a league broad, known as Le Detroit.”

After personally persuading Louis XIV to support a new post on the straits, Cadillac left France for Montreal and from there, on June 5, 1701, set sail with “one hundred Frenchmen and one hundred Algonquin.”

It was in the early summer, when we usually have beautiful weather. The twenty-five canoes were manned by stout voyageurs, who raced like mad over the water for two hours at a stretch, then stopped for a smoke and a rest. After this a new set of paddlers took the oars. The voyageurs had many jolly boating songs which they sang as they pulled the oars.

The Marshes include a few of these coureurs de bois folk songs in the appendix of the book, for kids at home to sing along (and for me to learn on my accordion?). They also tell charming stories that bring a playful vividness to life in the early settlement:

Cadillac brought three horses and ten head of oxen. Two of the horses died, but the fine one that was his saddle horse lived and must have been a great help to him in his journeys around the settlment … he named it Colon. Queer name for a horse, was it not? But horses get used to almost anything.

… If your father and mother had brought you to the settlement, who knows? Perhaps you might even have seen Cadillac some morning. If you had just arrived from France, even if you were a little boy, you would surely have been dressed in a little gown with long sleeves and a skirt that almost reached the floor. As you walked along, Cadillac might have come clattering by on Colon. And your mother, as she bowed to the Commandant, would have picked you up and squeezed herself into the nearest doorway. Ste. Anne Street was only twenty feet wide, and no one knows what a horse might do, especially if his name was Colon.

In an account of Detroit written for the King, Cadillac describes with most Baroque flourish the flora and fauna of the trading post, which has “never wept under the knife of the vine-dresser” or the “pitiless hand of the reaper.”

(from Detroit Perspectives: Crossroads and Turning Points, edited by Wilma Wood Hendrickson. Wayne State University Press, 1991):

Under these broad walks one sees assembled by hundreds the timid deer and faun, also the squirrel bounding in his eagerness to collect the apples and plums with which the earth is covered. Here the cautious turkey calls her numerous brood to gather the grapes, and here also their mates come to fill their large and gluttonous crops. Golden pheasants, the quail, the partridge, woodcock and numerous doves swarm in the woods and cover the country, which is dotted and broken with thickets and high forests of full-grown trees, forming a charming perspective, which sweetens the sad lonesomeness of the solitude. The hand of the pitiless reaper has never mown the luxurious grass upon which fatten woolly buffaloes, of magnificent size and proportion.

There are ten species of forest trees, among them are the walnut, white oak, red oak, the ash, the pine, white-wood and cotton-wood; straight as arrows, without knots, and almost without branches, except at the very top, and of prodigious size. Here the courageous eagle looks fiercely at the sun, with sufficient at his feet to satisfy his boldly armed claws. The fish are here nourished and bathed by living water of crystal clearness, and their great abundance renders them none the less delicious.

It sounds like a golden age to me.

(*There’ll be more gems from History of Detroit for Young People later this week, hopefully including a 2009 tour of one of the recommended itineraries in the appendix. A word of caution from the authors:  “These trips are outlined with the hope that you may be able to get your father to drive you to these places. Because of the congestion of traffic in so many of the downtown districts, especially where changes of street cars must be made, it would not be safe for you to go with more than five or six companions. There should always be an older person with you.”)

For a few weeks, I’ve been compiling some Mad Men-iana for the blog — notes and sources and photos, with an eye toward exploring the first few years of the ’60s as they played out in Detroit. Because the perfectly constructed, jewel-like ’60s of Mad Men is the ’60s of Manhattan white-collar professionals and WASPy suburban New York, and its not-WASPy characters and elements — the Jewess Rachel Mencken, the Draper’s maid Carla, even the specter of Dust Bowl Dick Whitman — are there to remind us of the worlds outside of Mad Men’s own orbit. It’s not a fault of the show. But in so many places, like Big Labor, blue collar, black middle class Detroit, the ’60s were experienced differently.

But I can’t not write about this week’s episode, as long as we’re on the subject. So, if you don’t want to read any spoilers, or if Mad Men‘s not your thing, do not follow the cut. However, please do enjoy this photograph from LIFE of Sebastian S. Kresge, who founded K-Mart in 1962, playing with his dog (or … a deer?). Check back throughout the week for posts on the stained glass windows of Old Mariner’s Church, coureurs de bois songs from Detroit’s bygone fur trade days and self-guided tour itineraries for the city — from the 1930s. I had a really good run at the library yesterday.

sebastian kresge with dog

Read the rest of this entry »

it's complicated

It’s been a heady week in Detroit, which is part of what’s kept me from the blog for a few days — it’s hard to find quirky historical perspectives on the tense lead-up Devil’s Night and an FBI raid in Dearborn and Detroit that killed a black imam — allegedly an armed, criminal separatist radical, although details of the organization’s intents are murky, no charges of terrorism will be pressed, and the reliability of undercover informants has been questioned. In other news that I didn’t feel like writing about, Detroit made Forbes safest cities list after making the most dangerous cities list in April,  Red Dawn keeps blowing stuff up downtown and my dad can’t stop bitching about the traffic problems it’s causing, the Book Tower is being sustainably renovated and (fingers crossed) peopled, and regularly scheduled cultural life is on hold for Halloween which, to page through this week’s alt-weeklies, seems to be scary only for those terrified of clubbbbs, girls in bikinis or shelling out a couple hundred dollars to go to a masquerade ball.

As for me, I have directed much of my spare time and effort to a., getting a job and/or lining up some freelance work and b., planning a tremendous upcoming week of blog content, to this week’s detriment. I know that’s not really how this shill is supposed to work, but perhaps you can find it in your heart to bear with me, at least in these early days of my new bloggery life.

To sate you, meanwhile, here are two somewhat related items that are worth spending some time with:

Race a challenge in Detroit’s urban agriculture movement

The Michigan Messenger reports on the social divide between blacks and whites in the city and their efforts toward urban farming and food activism:

Many black Detroiters have a negative perception of white people who come into the city and start projects in neighborhoods regardless of these groups’ good intentions. “What matters is how do their intentions come across?” [Monica] White [WSU sociology professor] asked. “A common perception is that this is a pet project to make them look and feel socially responsible,” she said of how some native Detroiters look at incoming whites who jump into the urban farming movement.

In general, according to the article, urban farming and garden programs are theoretically open to everyone, but participants tend to be fairly segregated according to community, which tend to be fairly segregated according to race. And that can lead to some friction.

Some of the assumptions the writer seems to make in regards to race perceptions in the city are unsourced, but I’m glad the Messenger is addressing this issue. Urban agriculture often slides through uncritcially as a feel-good solution for struggling communities, and while community gardens and food sharing programs can educate us, put us in touch with where our food comes from, empower us with a sense of autonomy and build strong community relationships, it may not ultimately be a sustainable alternative to having a good, accessible grocery store nearby. And we still need to solve a huge array of other problems at hand — crime, drugs,  housing, city infrastructure and, yes, race relations — so some of us might need to take a break from digging in the ground for bell peppers and do something else that builds social captial in Detroit.

Bonus: cute pictures of goats at the end of this article.

Privilege, sacrifice and not feeling so great about yourself

Of course, like anyone else who loves good writing, photography, Detroit and life in general, I love Sweet Juniper and I read it every day and whenever anyone asks me what I’m trying to do with this “blog” business I always use it as the perfect example of the power of blogs that aren’t just topical top-ten lists and link farms and blah, blah, blah.

For an assignment with Assignment Detroit, Mr. Griffioen stayed up all night with a private security guard, and on his blog he writes about the complicated feelings he has about their conversation:

I don’t tell him that I went to law school, or quit a good job on purpose, or moved to Detroit because San Francisco seemed too nice. All of these things that seemed to make so much sense suddenly sound so ridiculous. Instead I wear a mask. I pretend like we actually have something in common, which of course we do (and all that truth would just get in the way of it).

… Someone once commended me for the sacrifices I’ve made. But, I think, I’m so privileged I don’t even know the meaning of sacrifice.

I can’t tell you how many people think I’m doing a “good thing” by moving back to Detroit, or that since I moved back to Detroit, I naturally have grand designs on “saving” it. I don’t. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to explain the guiltiness I am sometimes charged with, and often feel, when I explain that I live in Farmington. I don’t know why I feel so defensive all the time. People want to know if I’m buying and refurbishing foreclosed homes, or teaching neglected kids how to read, or joining the patrols that comb the streets of the hood for homeless teens, or — of course — getting into urban farming.

All of these things need to be done, but I want to spend some time figuring out what, exactly, I can do, and where I can do it to make it count the most. It’s a struggle, and it’s so wrapped up with who you are when you live in or around Detroit that it’s hard not to feel paralyzed by that expectation.

I read this post and I just nodded. And then I read it again. And now I read it whenever I need to be reminded that it’s okay to feel confused about my relationship to this city and my own self-righteousness about living here, coming back here, being from here, knowing about here, and all of those complicated things.

bought in detroit

It’s simple, participatory, and pleasant to look at. Did you buy something in Detroit? Post a picture and submit it to Bought in Detroit dot com.

I know it seems banal, but how many times has someone from out of town called you to say, “HEY! I heard there are no grocery stores in Detroit!” OR: “Gee! Can’t you buy a house for like a dollar?”

The surprise with which people greet the fact that there are functioning local business that are wonderful and would be wonderful in any other city is tiresome, and spending your time and your dollars in the local economy is good for everyone.

So far, users have uploaded photos of books from John King, colorful food from Eastern Market and University Foods, a pizza, drinks at the Bronx, scarves, soap, pretty things from City Bird and City Knits and the Bureau of Urban Living. You can also follow Bought in Detroit on Twitter, where you will learn about things bought in Detroit that did not make it to the gallery, for instance, a blueberry muffin from Avalon Bakery that was purchased but eaten before the photo shoot.

It’s not revolutionary or grand in scope but it is a loveliness, and I am in favor of loveliness.

(Thanks to Perfect Laughter for the tip.)

low-res Suzy Parker with Robin Tattersall and Gardner McKay, evening dress by Lanvin-Castillo, Cafe¦ü des Beaux-Arts, Paris, August 1956 fc

Suzy Parker with Robin Tattersall and Gardner McKay, evening dress by Lanvin-Castillo, Café des Beaux-Arts, Paris, August 1956. © 2009 Richard Avedon Foundation.

(*Edit: how could I have neglected to mention? Richard Avedon: Fashion Photographs, 1944-2000 runs through January 17, 2010 at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Golly.)

Richard Avedon was 21 when he was first published in Harper’s Bazaar. It was 1944. Sixty years later, on a shoot for The New Yorker, Avedon died of a brain hemorrhage. His life and career plots an uninterrupted course through 20th century fashion — and fashion’s animation of the joyful and spirited cultural moments that defined what was beautiful in the modern world.

I don’t really follow fashion — my wardrobe is built with an eye for solid colors, comfortable fabrics and not looking too clueless —  nor am I very smart about photography in an art-historical sense. But there is lots to love about this exhibition, and you can pretty much just walk in the door and love it, no questions asked, and I think that’s the greatest testament to Avedon’s mastery. The clothes are beautiful, even if you, like me, can’t tell a Dior from a Balenciaga; the models are strikingly, naturally gorgeous, and everyone is glamorous and having a good time.

Avedon was most certainly in control of every detail of his photo shoots, which were as complicated as movie-making and frequently required blocked-off streets and generator trucks. Nonetheless, there is a fundamental free-and-easy-ness to these works that feels captured, not contrived: a model in a circus-huge hat posing with contortionists and street musicians in a Paris alleyway; Dorian Leigh hugging a rough, delighted bicyclist; Buster Keaton, Gardner McKay and Zsa Zsa Gabor at the Moulin Rouge in campy Western wear, giggling and drinking. And there are animals everywhere — monkeys, big silly dogs, little silly dogs and, famously, elephants, which add an animating liveliness and perhaps remind the viewer to let fashion to bring levity into our lives.

The 1940s  Stephanie Seymour in Charvet, Paris, April 1995 - low res

“The 1940s,” Stephanie Seymour, hat and suit by Charvet, Paris, April 1995. © 2009 Richard Avedon Foundation.

It’s not all folksiness-couture, gambling in evening gowns and topless showgirls, of course. Avedon’s studio works are full of movement and fun, too, but they are also where Avedon really showcases his peculiar taste in faces — doe eyes, sharp noses, comically long necks — and dramatically highlights the sculptural quality of the garments.

Veruschka, dress by Kimberly, New York, January 1967 low res

Veruschka, dress by Kimberly, New York, January 1967. © 2009 Richard Avedon Foundation.

The show is an ambitious survey of Avedon’s entire career in fashion, crisply and stylishly installed with little elaboration in text. Even if you don’t think this exhibition is your “thing,” I’d recommend a visit if you’re feeling drab, uninspired, or in need of a quick infusion of spring in your step. My boyfriend, who was not overly prepared to enjoy himself, had a wonderful time.

We left the museum when it closed at 5 pm and strolled next door to the Park Shelton (15 E. Kirby) in hopes of visiting brand-new Leopold’s Books (right next door to Good Girls Go to Paris crêperie). Posted hours say Leopold’s also closes at 5, but owner Greg Lenhoff lets us hang out for a while to browse his small but sumptuous and well-curated collection of art and literary magazines, graphic novels and comic books, zines, small and local press publications and contemporary and classic literature.

Underneath a city streets map painted by Emily Linn from City Bird (also opening a storefront soon — look out!) is a prominent drinking fountain which Greg says the City Inspector made him install. When he saw a patron tentatively lingering near it, he said “Please! By all means — have a drink.”

Greg wants all of the trouble he took to have a drinking fountain installed to be appreciated by his customers and members of his community, and we encouraged him to promote it as a value-added aspect of the Leopold’s shopping experience.

So, Detroit: if your Nalgene is in need of a refresher, hop into Leopold’s and help yourself. Also maybe buy something. I picked up a Believer collection of interviews, which is very handsome and makes me look hip when I read it in public, but if that’s not your style, might I also recommend a little matchbook-sized collection of Detroit trivia cards, published by the Detroit Historical Society?

Here are a few questions to pique your curiosity. Best guesses in the comments:

the supremes

GEOGRAPHY: What does the name “Detroit” mean in French?

HISTORY: In what year was the first car driven on the streets of Detroit?

BUSINESS: The Michigan Telephone Company, established 125 years ago in Detroit, is now known under what name?

PEOPLE: What Native American leader laid seige to Detroit in 1763?

SPORTS: In what year did the Red Wings win their first Stanley Cup?

ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT: Name the three chart-topping hits by Diana Ross and the Supremes released in 1965.

Your move!

There is nothing unusual about a deer, I know. They are so populous we need to issue licenses to kill them every year — for their own good. The drive from the southeast corner of Michigan to the western coast of the lake in Wisconsin is measured in deer corpses on the highway shoulder. Most people I know have shot a deer, hit a deer with their car or know someone who has, can dress a deer, eats deer, or once stumbled over a garbage can stuffed with a deer’s carcass whilst playing football in the street.

deer in the woods

I know that seeing a deer in the woods is tantamount to seeing a squirrel or fellow hiker in the woods. Still, every time I see a deer in the woods, I am startled, and awed a little by the sight of something so big — bigger than me — something so lithe and graceful loose in the wild.

My parents found no joy in the outdoors; to them, “roughing it” meant finding a restaurant in a foreign city with a legible menu. Growing up, my biggest zoological excitements (outside the zoo) were garter snakes, exceptionally large spiders and the rare mole sighting — maybe skunks on dark summer nights, but mostly only their awful smell, and as I got older that only meant I’d have to scour the dogs. I guess a creature as large and majestic as a deer holds, to this day, a glimmer of city-kid mystery. It is rare that I don’t see a deer or four in Heritage Park — the bucks with a flash of white tail darting out of sight, the does with their long, still gaze under those big, ridiculous, vulnerable ears — but I can’t help but stand frozen and watch them for a while, until I start to think about those antlers, and what they could do to me, and scamper off.

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