Ground Truthing

Trivia question: If you leave Detroit and travel in a straight line due south, what is the first foreign country you will enter? 

This is one of those reliable stumpers that I confess I got wrong the first time. The answer isn't Mexico - it's Canada (Ontario, to be precise). I had a chance to prove it to myself this morning as I arrived in Motor City for the annual conference of the American Association of State and Local History - one of my favorite professional gatherings. 

Since I usually get in the day before sessions begin, I've developed a little routine for 'ground-truthing' (to borrow a term from cartography) in conference cities. Once I've found the hotel and dropped my bags, I like to take off on a walkabout to understand the lay of the land and learn what I can about the city's culture, identity and history. Though I devour tourist brochures and websites before most trips, it's not until I walk the streets that I really feel I understand it. Traveling by foot is the best way to let a city tell you its story. 

I started on the Riverfront, where a handsome promenade follows the river and offers views of that tricky Windsor, Ontario on the other side. Near Hart Plaza I encountered the Underground Railroad monument.

Michigan, like most of the present-day U.S., has a history of slavery, but it entered the union in 1837 as a free state. After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, even free states were no longer safe havens for those escaping from slavery. With Canada in view across the water, Detroit became a major hub for people fleeing re-enslavement. This is actually a two-piece monument; across the river, a second sculpture by the same artist imagines another chapter in the story of escape.

I hung a left here and continued down Woodward Avenue, the heart of the business district, yesterday and today. As an architecture geek, I always enjoy trying to read history in the design. Detroit's downtown offers a little bit everything - nineteenth-century commercial, Beaux Arts, Romanesque, Gothic, Art Deco and a bunch of shiny new banks. Great Easter Eggs of architectural detail reward the alert hunter.

At Campus Martius Park - so named because it was once a military drilling ground - I found a smorgasbord of pop-up urbanism. A temporary sandy "beach" with lounge chairs and foosball tables sat under the imposing Civil War Soliders and Sailors Monument. A food truck alley led to a covered tent with tables and chairs. Like school kids on recess, people escaping their corporate-tower offices lined up for tacos, pizzas, and steak sandwiches.  Around the park's fountain, hundreds of people in green t-shirts were milling about some tents. It turned out to be "Donate Life in the D," a fair promoting organ donation. For a topic so serious, it was pretty lively.

Putting on my museum programmer hat for a moment, I stood back to look at how they were engaging the public. Donors and recipients wore special badges, and a forest of lollipop stands featured the individual stories of recipients. Various agencies and health care organizations hosted tables of giveaways. People posed in a giant cutout picture frame, with the option to choose from various caption paddles saying things like "I'm a donor!" or "I got my sight from a donor!" Or "I'm here today thanks to a donor!" or "Recycle yourself!" Music played, a stage hosted rotating performers and speakers, and the atmosphere was upbeat. I felt good about checking that box on my driver's license.

I strolled down along Woodward Avenue, reading a series of historical plaques placed every block or so. The avenue was the birthplace of Kresge's (now K-Mart) and the Hudson's department store chain. Rehabbed historic hotels - many now under the management of global chains - and the greatest concentration of theaters outside NYC's Broadway line the street. To the right, I caught a glimpse into the stands of Comerica Park, nicely situated right downtown and a big upgrade from the old Tiger Stadium, home of the Bleacher Creatures.

Upon reaching Grand Circus Park, I was about ready to turn around, but noticed a big monument up ahead - a sculpture of a seated man, facing away from me. Who was it - some industrialist? Politician? Abolitionist? I decided to walk around and read the plaque to see who this Detroit muckety-muck. When I saw the name, I laughed out loud - it was Hazen S. Pingree, probably not a household name to most, but famous to me: as I described in Interpreting Food, Pingree was in many ways the father of today's urban community gardening. His "Pingree's Potato Patches" were  a (somewhat controversial) plan to address inequality by allowing poor people grow food on the city's vacant lots. Headlined "Idol of the People," the plaque's message had a very 2016 kind of ring: "He was the first to warn the people of the great danger threatened by powerful private corporations. And the first to awake to the great inequalities in taxation and to initiate steps for reform." Perhaps fittingly, in recent history, the Pingree statue towered over the tents of Occupy Detroit.

This ground-truthing walk served to introduce a number of themes I'm looking forward to exploring over the next three days at AASLH 2016: public space and urbanism, civic issues and questions of justice, and (as always) food. Tomorrow, I'll be moderating the session "Don't Get Chopped! Cutting Through the Obstacles to Great Food Interpretation" with Tanya Brock, Rachel Thomas-Shapiro, and Cathy Stanton. Other sessions on my list include "Reaching Out: Contested History and Community Engagement," "Power and Responsibility: The Civic Mission of Museums," and "Breaking the Mold: Reimagining Traditional Museums and Programs." My morning ramble today revealed the ongoing, forward-looking life of a city whose past is one of the assets being used to build a healthy civic future. In that spirit, AASLH has put together a dynamic and relevant program that shows how vital history remains in the questions we face today. I'm glad to be a part of this association.