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.

#detroit history#lost landscapes of detroit


  1. jdg - November 4, 2011 @ 10:54 am

    while I love Rick’s work and am happy he’s returning, I attended the last showing and judging by the crowd and their reaction (both in their shout-outs during the video and questions afterwards) it was (for them) most definitely about nostalgia. nostalgia is a huge part of the debilitating curse over this entire region, and that’s not always so evident to those who come here from outside.

    note I do not think studying and getting excited about history is the same as nostalgia.

  2. amy - November 6, 2011 @ 6:10 pm

    Oh, noted, and agreed — I hope that I didn’t conflate that too much.

    I suppose I am just excited by the thought of a place and time for people to celebrate a shared past, even one that is sentimental or seems cliche (”We used to ride the street car and then go shopping! OH THE DAYS!”), and still feel excited by, or at least care about, Detroit as it stands, and has changed, as cities inevitably do. Then again I guess that is a pretty tall order, and I should know better having read countless letters from dudes in the 1870s and ’80s along the lines of ”I REMEMBER WHEN THIS PLACE USED TO BE QUIET. REMEMBER INDIAN RAIDS? WHAT FUN. OH THE DAYS!”

  3. Michael - November 10, 2011 @ 2:09 am

    Thanks so much for this post. We should celebrate, and become educated about our past. Over the last century we have been guilty of completely discarding our history for the sake of modernity. Examples of this range from the sale of our streetcars, to the fact that Fort Wayne is not a required field trip for schoolchildren, to every abandoned historic structure downtown.

    Although you may be “cautious about drawing lessons for today from fables of yore,” history of old Detroit has policy implications, as well as community implications.

    That said, this “thrill of a small, achievable mystery” to reveal Detroit in its actuality needs no policy justification. It’s not nostalgia, and it’s not tangible. My great-grandfather was a DFD man in the days of horse-drawn firetrucks. I don’t know why that matters, but the stories are part of my identity, and important to me. Millions of other such stories exist, and are worth uncovering. I don’t think you should ever worry that “early Detroit history isn’t relevant to anyone’s real life.” Again, thanks for a great post.

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