The Fauxtopias of Detroit's Suburbs
April 26, 2012 10:59 AM   Subscribe

"These historic parks are perfect symbols of the romantic small-town fantasy most people first thought they would get when they moved out of the city."

"That today they are besieged on all sides by freeways clogged with rush hour traffic, thriving businesses and office parks, and neighborhoods full of homes show that no one escaped the city: they brought the city with them."
posted by enn (13 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
As I said on Route 3 north of Boston yesterday: Big roads kill towns.
posted by dunkadunc at 11:05 AM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

That Meijer parking lot is completely perverse. It's like Buffalo Bob dressing up in the skin of his victims and dancing around to "Goodbye Horses." Better bare cinderblock than that.
posted by entropicamericana at 11:07 AM on April 26, 2012 [8 favorites]

somehow, somewhere, I want to make snark about where/when did Ford have time for the Elder Protocols, and why aren't they part of his mockups..
posted by k5.user at 11:32 AM on April 26, 2012

Good article, thanks.

A bit of an aside since the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village were mentioned. It was interesting to see Obama sitting in the Rosa Parks bus now on display at the Museum. I happened to be visiting the Henry Ford Museum just after they had brought the bus in. It had been stored in a field somewhere, pretty much abandoned for many years, and it showed.

Before they had started the restoration the bus was a rusted hulk, much of the interior in shreds, it was a bit of a mess. I came around a corner of the Museum and found it sitting next to a wall, no markings, no plaque, nothing to identify it. I didn't know why it was there until I asked someone.

For some reason, it was an awe inspiring moment to stare at that huge piece of history that for so many years had been neglected and ignored. The fact that it was sitting in the same building as the chair that Lincoln was sitting in when he was shot and the limo that JFK was riding in while in Dallas created some interesting energy.

Greenfield Village and the Ford Museum are not to be missed if you're in Detroit, there is a moving amount of history to be experienced.
posted by HuronBob at 11:35 AM on April 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Wonderful article - thanks for posting this!
posted by kristi at 11:46 AM on April 26, 2012

> no one escaped the city: they brought the city with them.

Time to move farther out. (Yukon Territory. or Mars.)
posted by jfuller at 12:47 PM on April 26, 2012

That was a really interesting piece and I'm glad I read it, even of he was a bit of a snotball to Mr. and Mrs. Green.
posted by Diablevert at 2:48 PM on April 26, 2012

I worked at Greenfield Village for 3 summers. I'm sure I have institutional bias, but I can't help but hold a certain reverence for the place. Like HuronBob says, there is something awe-inspiring about proximity to objects of historical significance.

I often worked in Henry Ford's childhood farmhouse, whose bottom level housed Henry's grandparents and sisters. The upstairs, closed to the public due to fire code, was where Henry, his parents, and his brothers slept. One evening right before closing, I unlocked the door to the second level, and furtively crept upstairs. The rooms were barren (a stark contrast to the intricately-furnished display rooms) save for a couple boxes of modern Christmas garland, but still: I was in Henry Ford's bedroom.

It's easy to get cranky about history. Quick, turn around my last sentence: I was in the bedroom of a noted anti-Semite who created suburban culture! But all the cultural objectivity can't wash away the significance of that moment. Even though the space was empty, miles removed from its original site, and decades from any time that Henry would recognize, I felt the glimmer of a shared experience.

I think that's what museums, Greenfield Village especially, attempt to replicate. We'll never walk into Henry Ford's workshop on Bagley Avenue. A tea shop was built, then a theater, then a parking garage, each because that's what the city or a landowner needed at the time. Nor will we see the same views that Robert Frost did, because the landscape is forever changing. No city, no place remains static.

Maybe that detracts from the purity of a relic, but I think it means we have to pick and choose what moments we save, lest we rely upon aqueducts for irrigation until kingdom come.

So, we're left with these imperfect memories, of Henry Ford down the street from Thomas Edison down the street from a 1760 farm a half mile from a Ford Mustang pushing its limits on a test track. But an imperfect history still captures the recognition of walking in someone's faded footsteps, with a simultaneous familiarity and alienation.

Greenfield Village sets out to do that with the semblance of a town, chronicling everyday life. In my opinion, I think that's more useful than, say, idolizing the spot on which powerful men signed an important document; not many of us will be in a position to write a Constitution, but kids walking through the Ford home will recognize a hairbrush and quip "you did WHAT in a chamber pot!?" That's how you connect with our daily history, not the history of politicians and Magnae Carta.

The museum is unabashed Americana. They even sold us that in the training, that this is the history of ordinary people who became titans of history. Nowhere in the Village is an immigrant slum, a cholera outbreak, the whipping of slaves. It's very much a middle-class ideal. But, from what I gather, that was Henry Ford's ideal, and he built the Village when everyone was throwing away their relics. That alone, I think, is kind of cool.

So, yes, Henry Ford saved the more idyllic remnants of the past. But that's still something saved, and even if it doesn't encompass the whole of human experience, it's still an experience we can share.
posted by Turkey Glue at 3:05 PM on April 26, 2012 [7 favorites]

Also, for what it's worth: The bulk of Greenfield Village staff are considered historical presenters because they tell the story of the building/person in question. First-person interpretation ("Why hello, I'm Henry Ford and this is my workshop!") is rare (save for the actors) at the Village. I'm not sure why, but that's how it is. Even the people in period clothing do not play in character. Probably because it's easier.

Some folk folk wear tennis shoes because they are in the present, telling the story of the past. You (probably) won't find costumed staff in tennis shoes because the dress code and period clothing staff are pretty militant about accuracy. Which is good! I think it's honest.

So, that quip about "historical re-enactors wearing sneakers" really got my goat because I was not a re-enactor and it's probably okay to wear sneakers if you're wearing a vest emblazoned with the museum name.

That part of the article can get off my lawn that I cut with a hand-mower with an authentic species of grass used in the 1830s which was not actually indigenous to North America...
posted by Turkey Glue at 3:14 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

That was a great article. Historical preservation is a pretty tricky business. I don't necessarily get the distinction between preserving historical objects in a museum, even if that object is a building, and preserving it on site. I mean, adaptive reuse is best, but if that's not going to happen, then I don't know. I won a grant to move an enormous centennial barn from a development site to a park that hosts the county fair. I left Detroit before the project broke ground, but from visiting the barn before it was moved, I felt there was value in experiencing and interacting with the building itself that could still be enjoyed even after it moved from one flat former farm field to another. I guess he acknowledges that when he says "I do love these places---and have loved places like this since I was a child. But that doesn't mean I still can't find them problematic."
posted by BinGregory at 6:04 PM on April 26, 2012

Ford didn't move everything to Michigan.
posted by adamg at 7:21 PM on April 26, 2012

That was thought-provoking, but as a kid who grew up with a dad who ran two separate house museums, and whose summer travels were often checking off this indoor museum or that open-air museum, and who remains steeped in the historic preservation movement, I'm not sure I fully accept all his criticism.

It occurs to me, for instance, that we have a sort of park like this here, as the house museum was augmented in 1964 -- in one of my dad's first acts as director, actually -- with a stone building that is believed to be one of the oldest in the city, or even the county. It wasn't preserved to dip a faux-Victorian small town atmosphere in amber; it was preserved because it was going to become a parking lot. It was then placed on the grounds of the spectacular Italianate mansion -- almost perfectly in its original 19th century condition, thanks to a family mummification that kept it from getting electricity and indoor plumbing -- facing another (lesser) Italianate home, one that was subsequently demolished by a land-eating hospital campus. My dad saved bricks and wooden columns from a porch, later incorporating both into our own house as a way of preserving a vestige of the lost building's (not to be mawkish) soul. I guess that's a bit like the Ford workshop bricks.

I don't see any of this, however, as motivated by some kind of suburban sprawl guilt. Maybe there are people in my city who think that way, but most of them are genuinely interested in just saving what they can, not fixing some quaint point in time and assembling a Lego kit of buildings to represent it. Lord, we had enough trouble getting some historic districts established, and a landmarks protection ordinance was recently politically defeated -- but we were, long after having lost many 19th century buildings through the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, able to save a 1930s gas station from the wrecking ball. Some consolation prize.

Indeed, the urge to preserve is pretty universal. Cabins? They're held in reverence because so few survive, after being renovated into milk sheds or garages or discovered lurking in the back wing of a Civil War era house. General stores? A type of building often of little modern use, found in places likely to attract modern development. Churches? Buildings that come with a built-in fan club, three or four generations removed from the last worshipers.

Greenfield Village as the template is a very problematic choice, and it sounds like the author is educated enough to know it. In my dad's day, it was derided as "Disneyfied history" and it took a long time for the place to become accepted by the modern curator community. I've actually been to the real template for the open-air museum, and it isn't in Detroit: it's Skansen, in Sweden, not to mention local versions such as Old World Wisconsin, which maintain the highest professional standards. Yes, there are historical presenters there. No, it is not nostalgia, insofar as history is ever nostalgia. How do we tell our own stories without our own histories? Some of us may yearn for a simpler time, but if that's what drives the open-air museum, funding and attendance figures suggest it's a dwindling number, not some sort of fatuous fad. The day of the fauxtopia, lovingly preserved and interpreted by a bankrupt historical agency, dispersed to the winds and private collections to save the property from a real suburb, cannot be far off. What then will he say? Good riddance to bad rubbish?

Now, there is an area of discussion here that this jdg ignores. That is the gap, sometimes a crack and sometimes a canyon, between those who see a building as an artifact, and those who see it as a living object. The world of adaptive reuse of historic buildings awkwardly bridges this gap, rarely satisfying. I was recently in an old tobacco-drying warehouse, newly renovated as apartments. They're atrocious, dull boxes of drywall inside an elegant brick shell, with occasional winks from visible 12x12 timbers making up the building's frame. You don't get much of the sense of being in an historic building from the inside, to the point where I wonder why they bothered. The kitchen cabinets are almost identical to those in a rental building we own, which was similarly gutted and rehabbed in 1994! But nevertheless, the alternative was the structure's permanent loss, either through deliberate razing or attenuated neglect.

If I worried about the artificiality of bringing out a 19th century building's original woodwork and trim, because that's somehow nostalgic, I'm not sure I'd get anywhere. Or is he offering an alternative, a better way to preserve and interpret history? If so, I don't see it. Maybe that bit at the end reveals he is only objecting to a certain element found in the area of Detroit, a city famously emptying out, but this is probably the fate of most rust belt cities except in scale. Maybe there simply isn't any market for adaptive reuse, and so we get in Detroit no middle ground -- just the perfect little buildings they could save, the modern, and the parking lots. Maybe that's where this comes from.
posted by dhartung at 10:57 PM on April 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Pictures of the Michigan Theater parking garage just can't do it justice. If you're polite to the security guard you can usually get up there for about five minutes. I dragged my husband there because he didn't see the point in staring at a parking garage. It actually rendered him speechless.
posted by MaritaCov at 4:04 PM on April 27, 2012

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