You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘metro Detroit’ category.

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;


This girl’s boots;

stop and go

Early pedestrian traffic control devices;

health insurance

A comforting declaration from the dairy industry.


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.


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.


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


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.

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.


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.”)

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!

soupy sales big

The kid’s comedy show “Lunch with Soupy Sales” launched in 1953 on WXYZ-TV in Detroit.

The first time I ever heard of Soupy Sales was when he came to the Farmington Civic in 1999 to perform with a couple of  ’50s Detroit TV stars Johnny Ginger and Mary Welch, and at the time I just thought he was some old guy with a vaguely sordid air about him.

But combing around for YouTube clips today, I really regret that I never saw his show, as a kid or a grown-up, because this man delights me. His manner is easy and charming, his smile is adorable, he laughs at his own jokes, his laugh is contagious. No kids’ program is like this anymore – zany and free and just for chuckles, unbridled by educational messages or moral lessons.

Here’s a great clip of Soupy Sales and Pookie the Lion dancing along to a Little Stevie Wonder song. Watch this a few times today, OK?

Yes, I am a vegetarian. Yes, my dad is a meat magnate.

He’s Sy Ginsberg, President and co-owner of Detroit’s own United Meat & Deli, wholesale purveyors of gourmet deli meats including Sy Ginsberg’s Corned Beef and Gold Label Pastrami. He is a fixture of America’s Jewish deli scene and Detroit’s Jewish community. The smell of my childhood is garlic and peppercorns and brine; as kids, visiting the factory, my dad would take us into the refrigerator and sneak us pickles out of giant red barrels. We took calls at home for him from Willie Horton and Joan Nathan. Sometimes we’d see big semi trucks with his name on them and squeal.

I stopped eating the meat that paid for my life a long time ago, for an assortment of reasons, ethical and personal.  But I don’t begrudge my dad the work he does; I am beyond proud of him, as a deli folk hero, as a man of the city, as an entrepreneur, as a hard worker. He’s incredible, and I’ve always wanted to write a book about him, or the history of corned beef, or a memoir about my childhood (“Willie Horton Called Again!: The Amy Elliott Story”) or an imagined retelling of my dad’s childhood in the golden days of magnificent, industrious Detroit, son of a red-headed Russian Jewish mobster and a comely deli waitress from Kentucky. That is not at all like Middlesex.

I guess it’s not too late, but David Sax has in part beaten me to it with his book Save the Deli, a valentine to the traditional Jewish deli, a mythical place where no one orders a sandwich on white bread or with any condiments besides a little bit of spicy mustard. The book features a whole chapter about Detroit deli heavyweights, Sy Ginsberg included, and it comes out on Monday, October 19.

save the deli

Mr. Sax’s publicist is pretty awesome and he has been all over the media world in recent weeks. Some of my favorite selections include a lovely ode to the deli in the New York Times (October 7) and a charming and funny Robert Siegel piece on All Things Considered (October 13).

You can try Sy Ginsberg’s Corned Beef at many local delis, including Mudgie’s in Corktown, any Bread Basket Deli, Hygrade Deli on Michigan Avenue and, of course, Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, where David Sax and my dad will be on hand for a book signing in late November (date TBA).

Oh, and I found this, from VITAL Source’s 2009 excursion to Detroit for the credit-crash auto-industry-collapse edition of the North American International Auto Show. In a bitter twist of fate (or perhaps the consequence of our hubris), our magazine ended up folding before we could print the story. But we did get a nice video series out of it.

I wish I were eating a pickle right now.

In the six weeks or so that I’ve been back in metro Detroit, I’ve been spending at least an hour a day in the woods, walking and thinking (or trying not to think too much).

From my apartment, it’s a five minute walk to a steel-caged footbridge that carries me over I-696 to Woodland Hills, a rough, root-knotted walking trail looped around a brambly 74-acre nature park. At the back of the park, just past a trail heavy with goldenrod and dogwood, there’s a marshy pond, goose families, and a few no swimming signs.


shaded path

bench by the pond

Suburbs have long seemed like no-places to me — invented miles of strip malls, office parks, curlicue’d subdivisions with no sidewalks, their continuity interrupted by perpetually widening expressway corridors. The suburbs, especially when I lived in the suburbs, were inconvenient, alienating and colorless at their best — at their worst, resource-sucking, psyche-ravaging holes in space.

But Farmington Hills is my hometown and, for now, the no-place I call my own, and although I felt strange and scared to move back here, I am learning to reconsider the suburbs — or rather this suburb — as an honest-to-goodness place. It’s a complicated reckoning, especially in Detroit, where every attempt at so-called normal life seems infinitesimally examined.


There’s a lot that has dazzled me about Farmington Hills and environs, a freshness that comes as a luxury of my many years elsewhere. My small suburban apartment complex is unquestionably the most diverse place I have ever lived, and the sprawling aisles of ethnic food at grocery stores — and the languages I hear there — are dizzying. And I still see good movies and good art shows and hear good music and hang out with smart, creative people — my biggest fear about leaving a “real” city and moving to a satellite suburb in a huge, fragmented metropolis.

But my search for a spiritual core of suburbia has taken me time and time again to several local parks, all of which I call, in casual conversation, “the woods.”

park blight

The woods are part of the natural history of a place and reminder of the human history around it that I often want to deny the suburbs. In Heritage Park – Farmington’s 200-acre jewel — there’s a pet cemetary from the 1930s where the Spicer family dogs are buried, near an English-style countryside manor, built in 1926, where Eleanor Spicer lived until her death in 1982. The land that’s Heritage Park now was her farm — she rode horses, raised sheep and often referred to her land as “the only unspoiled place” in the city.

(Aside: stumbling around the internet for some basic fact-checking has led me to this excellent guide to historic Farmington buildings and sites, organized by architectural style.)

Farmington’s abundance of megaplex movie theaters and big box-anchored shopping centers belies the city’s history. The area was first settled by Quakers; Farmington founded a post office and organized a township in 1827. My parents live a few suburbs over in Novi (apocryphally, the number six — No.VI — train stop); a half-mile from their house, nestled between two industrial parks, is a little farmstead cemetery started in the mid-1840s by the Knapp family. Just past the graveyard you can hook a right into Rotary Park, a 67-acre swath of barely-tended woodland along the Middle Rogue. I walk my mom’s border collies down a trail crashed with deadfall and overgrown with water grasses; the dogs like to race down the trail ahead of me and leap through the brush into the river.

huldah blanchard

dogs in the river sized

Today, Novi is the mall capital of Oakland County, with the Fountain Walk and Twelve Oaks and the Town Center causing immediate aneurysm to anyone who finds herself at the 696 and Novi Road interchange. Then again, my brother lives in Novi on a gravel road and has watched herds of deer (and an occasional coyote) caravan through his backyard.

The woods are also, like the suburbs, a kind of no-place. These parks seem less like parks to me than slices of Farmington unstuck in time, shaken loose from the tended lawns and chain restaurants and allowed to be what they have always been. Just as the strip malls I’ve known in Michigan don’t look too different from the strip malls I’ve known in Iowa, Wisconsin, or Indiana, I call all of the nature trails I love — Woodland Hills, the river bluff trails in Milwaukee, even those modest few acres that buffer my elementary school from the subdivision behind it — the woods. And all of them make me feel basically okay about wherever I am.


branches on the river sized

wade in the water

What am I going to do during the winter? Maybe I should learn to cross-country ski.

This weekend, Detroit celebrates the grand opening of The Accidental Mummies of Guanajuato, a world-premiere exhibition of 36 corpses that were naturally mummified in their tombs about 100 years ago. The exhibition at the Detroit Science Center — aggressively promoted as a highly educational experience — will delve into mummy science, forensics and facial reconstructions and Mexican culture and death lore.


It’s the first time the mummies have left Guanajuato. They will travel to major museums throughout the country over the next three years, and it’s a coup to have them in Detroit first. They’re also controversial and of course creepy as goddamn (but Mexicans celebrate the dead! Chill, America!), but in a post-Body Worlds society, can anything really shock and awe anymore?

On hand for the grand opening tonight is Mexico’s 6’5” former cowboy president Vicente Fox, former mayor of Guanajuato and all-around strapping, mustachioed ranchero.

vicente fox

I was pretty excited to learn that Vicente Fox was going to be here, but then someone told me that he comes to Detroit all the time.

Also on deck this weekend: a flea market at Historic Fort Wayne to benefit the Detroit Historical Society. Tours of the Fort and the military museums it houses will be available. We hear there is also a bake sale. Fort Wayne, built during the 1840s to protect the United States from a possible British siege via Canada, has never seen a shot fired in anger and has mostly been used as a mustering center, garrison post and supply depot. It’s named for “Mad” Anthony Wayne, the Revolutionary War hero who led the capture of Detroit in 1796.  (He died weeks later in Pennsylvania after contracting gout. Fun fact: he was exhumed and his bones were boiled in a cauldron that is now on display in Erie’s Historical Museum. Creepy as goddamn. But kind of awesome. Halloween road trip?)

mad anthony wayne

I’ve never been to Fort Wayne, and I look forward to seeing this mildly important Detroit landmark for the first time with the added flourish of lots of junk for sale.

(EDIT: Detroit’s Fort Wayne is also, maybe, sort of, haunted.)

Finally, we will not be able to make this show, but we recommend you do: the fantastic keyboard pop trio Lightning Love plays tonight at the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor to celebrate the premiere of a new music video. They’re so pretty! Go there!

lightning love

(Photo by Trever Long)



May 2018
« Nov