The Spirit of Detroit

Five years ago today, on the first take-off-your-sweater-nice day in spring, in a college town on the stateline between Wisconsin and Illinois, I walked to a tattoo parlor, had this done, and then went out for a beer.

Because it was sunny and warm. Because spring fever does funny things to people.

What compelled me? I was a kid. The bad-ass mystique of Detroit still impressed my friends. And I suspected that I loved the city. Because of the train station. Because occasionally my cool friends from home would take me to someone’s “artist loft” for a scene-y CCS party, or smuggle me into some blues bar to see a cover band.

And because Detroit was where I’d come from, and where generations of both sides of my family had come to, and from, in their quests to improve their lives.

That said, I really didn’t know anything about the Spirit of Detroit. (Also: I didn’t really know anything about Detroit.) Brutal honesty: I thought it was a sculpture of a man letting some birds eat out of his hand. I REALLY DID.

A mere hour before I had this heroic little man inked into my leg for the ages, I went to the library and did some research.

The sculptures of Marshall Fredericks, I learned, are some of Michigan’s most beloved works of public art. As a young teacher at Cranbrook, he won a national competition in 1936 to create the Levi L. Barbour Memorial Fountain on Belle Isle — the wheeling gazelle, his first public monument.

Fredericks worked in bronze on a gargantuan scale. Look at this room full of humongous treasures. His crucifix at Indian River was at the time, and may still be, the largest crucifix in the world.

He worked with huge ideas and emotions, too. His sculptures are lofty. Like, here’s Man and the Expanding Universe, 1964:

The Cleveland War Memorial Fountain (the “Fountain of Eternal Life”), 1964:

The nudes of “Star Dream” rising over Royal Oak, 1997:

(He had a way with animals, too, that I really appreciate:


Over and over again, the triumphant theme of the human spirit, in harmony with nature, ascending from forces of violence, evil, war and suffering, to an eternity on high. Ad astra per aspera: to the stars, through adversity.

So. The Spirit.

(Of COURSE, the only picture I have of him in my personal collection includes a marching band.)

He’s a hunk, that one. By one account, the largest hunk of bronze cast since the Renaissance. A dream of perfected humanity, with wavy hair and washboard abs. In one hand, he holds a gilded orb, representing God, casting rays of light on the world.

Like a lot of Marshall Fredericks’ work, there’s a touch of the Disney — a wholly uncynical dream of man’s potential, cartoonishly rendered. But I will always love this sculpture for this tiny, gleaming reason:

This is not a bunch of birds eating out of a man’s hand. It’s a family.

This weekend, my fella and I will start a tiny new family, in front of our much larger family, and our family of friends and loved ones, in the magnificent, magnanimous city of Detroit, where our families have lived for years. That’s why we included a silhouette of the Spirit on our invitations (designed by the amazing husband-wife duo of Perfect Laughter). (I’ll include a picture, but I can’t find anything right now, because, GOOD LORD, WE’RE GETTING MARRIED IN THREE DAYS, and our place is a shambles.)

After the wedding, we’re honeymooning in New Orleans. When we return, I will settle in to write my BOOK (!!!!) of quirky tales from Detroit’s pre-automotive past.

So I guess this is my long-winded way of saying farewell, for a while. Posts will continue in May. See you when I’m MARRIED! Meanwhile, be good to your family, be good to Detroit, and enjoy the spring.


The Night Train


  1. Amy - April 13, 2011 @ 6:07 pm


  2. Christina - April 14, 2011 @ 7:01 am

    I didn’t know you had a tattoo of that! I hope our illustration did it justice.

    And once again, congratulations!! Wishing you the bestest of beautiful wedding days!

  3. Tim Marks - April 14, 2011 @ 8:50 am

    One morning back in the ’70s Detroit woke up to find giant green Footprints leading across Woodward from the Spirit of Detroit to the front of the Michigan Consolidated Gas Building across the street. It seems that our jolly green giant wanted to make a late night visit to the “Passo Di Danza (the nude sculpture in front of the building).

    One of the great all time pranks in Detroit History. I think they left the prints until traffic wore them out!

  4. Tim Marks - April 14, 2011 @ 8:50 am

    Oh and congrats on the wedding

  5. Nancy - April 14, 2011 @ 9:06 am

    Congratulations! I married my best friend on a beautiful day in May 30 years ago! It is the best.

  6. Lynn Anderson - April 14, 2011 @ 11:35 am

    I met Marshall Frederick in 1997 while working at United Way. We were looking for a very special gift for Bill Gates who was coming to Detroit to talk to United Way donors. Mr. Frederick was pretty frail at that point, but he invited a colleague and I into his studio off Woodward – a once in a lifetime experience. He shared with us many of the original etchings of the Spirit of Detroit, and a mold of the Spirit on a coin, that he generously allowed us to have a bronze cast made that we could present to Mr. Gates. His kindness was extraordinary. I recently saw a photo of Bill Gates leaning against his desk — the Spirit could be seen on the book shelf behind the desk. How cool!

  7. One More Spoke - April 14, 2011 @ 6:34 pm

    The state line between Wisconsin and Illinois is the same geographic survey line used to mark Eight Mile Rd. So it all makes sense.

  8. Sven Gustafson - April 15, 2011 @ 9:53 am

    Congrats, and nice post. Where are you tying the knot?

  9. amy - April 28, 2011 @ 8:14 pm

    Hi Sven! We had our ceremony and reception at the Belle Isle Casino. I wrote about it here:

  10. Jennifer - May 10, 2011 @ 10:22 am

    So funny… For months I’ve been thinking of getting the EXACT SAME tattoo on my wrist. (silhouette borrowed from The City of Detroit) I’ve even made some temporaries to wear around and try it out. I like your take on it here. I think this is a sign! Maybe I’ll get it on my next visit home. (One of these days I will actually make that long planned move back, but not sure I’m done with DC quite yet.)

    And best wishes to you and Scott! Looks like it was a fun wedding!

  11. Suki - August 24, 2011 @ 8:36 am

    Congratulations on your wedding!
    What a wonderful story and a great blog entry!!! My father would have been amused and somewhat aghast…and flattered, for sure!!!
    BTW, he loved the Jolly Green Giant footsteps and the newer jersey regalia too.
    Sincerely, One of MMF’s daughters

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