November 4, 2011 by Amy Elliott Bragg
An injection of the past into the present to inform the future
You may be interested in this event at the MOCAD this weekend (Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m., plus a Saturday matinee at 4 p.m.). Lost Landscapes of Detroit has been here before; this year’s show is new, with even more home movies, newsreels, industrial films, and other film ephemera.
But I want to share something Rick Prelinger says in this article, because it is really important:
“This isn’t about nostalgia, another chance to mourn the loss of the old Hudson’s building,” he says. “Everyone has their eye on Detroit; they see the possibilities. This is an injection of the past into Detroit’s present to help inform its future.”
He means it about these films, of course, where the experience of a lost icon like Hudson’s is poignant, personal and very direct. But I think it applies to the pursuit of local history writ large, from the first frontier fires to the steam ships, the street cars, and the influential people we cast in bronze and plunked down in the middle of city parks.
Sometimes I worry that early Detroit history isn’t relevant to anyone’s real life anymore, especially in a city with so many hip goings-on going on. But while tales of pony carts, public art pranks and wild pear trees may not resonate with as much consequence as stories from, say, the labor movement in the twentieth century, it is still pretty magical, and powerful, to feel connected to the dramatic sweep of this old city.
I try to be cautious about drawing lessons for today from fables of yore, but you can find plenty of useful parallels if that’s what you’re in it for. Like the microfunding of the Hazen Pingree memorial in Grand Circus Park, the fake-eviction tactics staged by the Whig party during the campaign of 1837, and the flourishing of bicycle culture of the 1880s that paved the way (no pun intended) for better roads — and, ultimately, cars to drive on them.
But I find something simpler than that in the study of old Detroit. The thrill of a small, achievable mystery, like the whereabouts of a painting. The joy, and the warmth of affection, of revealing a real person beneath an exalted hero, like the story of Stevens T. Mason drinking 14 toasts at a dinner in his honor and leaping up on the table. Laughing at a still-funny joke Jim Scott told to a newspaper reporter in 1885.
Listen to Rick Prelinger explain this better than I can on yesterday’s episode of the Craig Fahle Show, available here.
And come watch some old movies and think about your place in this city. You are part of its history. Its history is part of you.