Tag Archives: Detroit

Looking for the Real Underground Railroad

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On the U.S side of the Detroit River, statues from the International Underground Railroad Memorial look across the river to freedom in Canada.

I’m working my way through Colson Whitehead‘s best selling book, The Underground Railroad which has received raves from just about every book critic and taken home  just about every award including this year’s National Book Award for fiction.9780385537032-1

The New York Times described it as “a hallucinatory novel about the horrors of American slavery and the sinister permutations of racism, an imaginative portrayal of the routes to freedom literally on a railroad.” .…that is underground. Kinda trippy, yet an effective way to portray the issues and the experience.

It’s not hard to find real underground railroad “stations” along various routes that enslaved people traveled on the route north to freedom in the 1800s. This wasn’t some sort of subway system, but rather a dangerous trip much of it on foot, as slave hunters followed in pursuit. The stories of the people—both escaped slaves and those who sought to help them—are often as dramatic as anything an author could invent. The U.S. National Park Service offers a great list of sites across the country.

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In Detroit, looking at Canada.

Some of my favorite of such places are in Detroit, mainly because it’s so close to Canada you can practically smell it. (Maybe it’s the Canadian Club distillery I smell over there across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario.) How close, yet so far, those escaping people must have felt to their freedom, less than a mile across the river. That’s particularly tangible in Detroit’s Hart Plaza where the International Underground Railroad Memorial overlooks the river. The installation features two groupings, one in Detroit with its counterpart across the river in Windsor, both by sculptor Ed Dwight.

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The Detroit component features two gateway pillars that bracket a ten foot by twelve foot sculpture with nine slaves and a railroad “conductor” pointing toward Canada in anticipation of boarding a the boat across the Detroit River to safety. The Windsor installation consists of a twenty-two foot high granite Freedom Tower that also serves as a candle representing the flame of freedom, along with a male slave giving thanks and a female slave holding a baby. A female Canadian underground railroad conductor is welcoming them both to safety.

Several other Detroit destinations offer their own story of abolitionist activity. The First Congregational Church of Detroit offers a “storytelling” re-enactment of the underground railroad passage. On the tour visitors are “shackled” with wrist bands at the entrance of the tour and begin their journey by entering through the “Door of No Return,” on Goree Island in Africa. “As this journey begins,” says their web site, “visitors transform into passengers on the underground railroad and are led to freedom by a conductor. Passengers hide from bounty hunters, cross the  Ohio “Deep” river, and take retreat in a safe house in Indiana which is owned by Abolitionist Levi Coffin.” Finally, they move to “Midnight,” the code name for Detroit and take safe haven at the First Congregational Church of Detroit before moving on to Canada.

Detroit’s Second Baptist Church  was also a station and received some 5,000 slaves before sending them on to Canada. By giving them food, clothing, and shelter the church was in total defiance of the Fugitive Slave Laws. The church offers tours that describe it’s long service to the community as a underground railroad stop and other activities.

For more, check out “And Still We Rise: Our Journey Through African American History and Culture” at Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

 

For more on Detroit, see my posts on street art there and on the Motown Museum. And for more reading on the underground railroad, see the list at Longitude Books.

 

 

 

Nostalgia: Detroit

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The taste of Fargo pop–yes, we call it “pop”– is one of my childhood memories, especially Rock & Rye.

I love Detroit.

If you haven’t been there lately, that may sound pretty crazy.  There’s been no shortage of reporting on Detroit’s hard times.  But I grew up near “the D” and as a kid, a trip to Detroit meant something special–a Detroit Tigers game or a speedboat race on the Detroit River with my dad, shopping at Hudson’s with my mom, Broadway shows at the Fisher Theater, field trips to the Detroit Institute of Arts, all accompanied by the rhythm of Motown.

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A portion of the famous murals by Diego Rivera at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

I live in Minnesota now, but returned to the city last week and once again felt how special it is–its history, it’s people, and a general vibe of grit and coolness found in few other places. Best of all, many of the things from my memory are still there, though sometimes in altered form.

Partly because of those qualities, the city is making a huge comeback.  I was there for five days and could have stayed longer, partly enjoying the memories, partly seeing what’s vital and new, and feeling nostalgia with a positive spin.

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The Detroit riverfront has changed dramatically, with old industrial land converted to parks. Windsor, Canada, is on the opposite shore.

 

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Detroit as a Street Art Canvas

Detroit has long suffered from urban blight and a gained a reputation as a mecca for “ruin porn.”  But the city is making an impressive comeback and has enough new construction projects, new residents and new sports facilities in the works to make most cities envious.

The city still has a long way to go. There are vast swaths of vacant buildings and open land where structures have been torn down. But, talk about making lemonade when life gives you lemons….The city’s many vacant buildings and storefronts have made Detroit a massive canvas for world-renowned street artists, attracting tourists who love street art and graffiti from around the world.

One of the most famous street art locations in Detroit is the once-thriving two-block area of the city’s 51T-3YvkmHL._SX403_BO1,204,203,200_east side known as the Heidelberg Project constructed by artist Tyree Guyton.  It’s an outdoor art experience you wouldn’t believe–funny, sad and haunting. His goal, to make people pay attention to the blight rather than avoiding it.  You can read about it and Detroit’s other street art and graffiti projects in the terrific book Canvas Detroit that I picked up on my recent visit there. In that book Guyton says, “My experiences have granted me knowledge of how to create art and how to see beauty in everything that exists.”  Take a look:

 

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