Cadillac Body Drop at the Detroit Historical Society at 5401 Woodward

Cadillac Body Drop at the Detroit Historical Society at 5401 Woodward On Saturday morning I packed the Brompton into its suitcase, headed to the airport (thanks for the ride, ladyfriend!), and flew to Detroit for a few days of bicycling and learning about how another postindustrial city is doing its public memory. It’s pretty much a dream vacation for me–bikes, cities, history, bikes, waterfronts, history, beer in the afternoon–magic. I spent my Sunday getting my bearings. I first walked around in circles for almost a full half hour before finding my way to the coffee shop and bakery that was two blocks away. Then I went a couple miles out of my way trying to find my first stop: the Detroit Historical Society. Eventually I found it, and I locked up Brompty to a well-designed bike rack, and headed inside.

The place was practically empty, and I took my time wandering what is the usual route in a museum like this: Indians, trading with the Indians, establishing towns “founded” by white people (this time, Mr. Cadillac), and then developing industrial and cultural greatness. Detroit had the largest stove factory in the country in 1890, when it was also the nineteenth largest city in the nation–that sort of thing. History from 1910 to the present was almost entirely automotive, except for a sprinkling of soda pop and Motown thrown in. I’m sure anyone who has ever been a school kid from Detroit or its environs knows about the “body drop,” which happens after a short film explaining how great assembly line production is–keep the car moving, not the worker, and get the worker to be 100 times more productive. Blah, blah, blah, I want to see the outside of the car fall on the chassis! And then it did, and I went hunting for histories of labor unions who must have had a thing or two to say about all this increased productivity.

There were a few wall panels talking union, a few about Black workers joining unions, and a murmur or two about women working on the floors. I headed downstairs for the Streets of Old Detroit nostalgia exhibition, wondered if in 1840 a Black barber in his own shop really would he giving a shave to a white man, took the Underground Railroad to an exhibition about Detroit fashion designers, a turn through the Innovation Room, and out through “Detroit: Arsenal of Democracy,” an exhibit about how making cars prepared Detroit to make military vehicles for war. Arsenal of democracy, ouch.

I left my bike and hit the Detroit Institute of Art for a quick lunch before heading to the Charles Wright Museum of African American History. That was my reason for coming to Detroit, and I took my time in there. There’s so much to say about this place, but for now, let me just say I’ve never been to a museum that used sound so well to evoke genuine emotional response. I sat for a bit in the room about Reconstruction. A woman came through, asked me what I thought. Amazing, I said. You? “I never imagined people could be so cruel,” she said. Me neither. We agreed we were fortunate to not have that kind of imagination, and then parted ways.

I was spent after that visit, so declared learning done for the day and took the bike on a ride toward the river. That ride was like so many Baltimore and New Orleans bike rides–past mansions and vacant, blighted properties, across rail tracks of old public transit and exposed brick, bouncing through industrial blocks where industry used to be, and then I was on the Dequindre Cut, a bike/pedestrian path that heads to the river. It was packed with bicyclists, pedestrians, rollerblade-ers, scooters, and  skateboards. The thing was packed, as were the parks at the end and the Riverwalk out toward Belle Isle. I stopped at the end of that trail, got a soda from a machine, and sat in the wind catching my breath. What a perfect day. And then it was home, a quick stop for a beer tasting at a brewery, new plans for the next day. I’m so glad I brought my bicycle.

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