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Lifestyle

Sweat & struggle

A quick tour of Detroit labor and industry history

 

Published 6/16/2010

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Sweat and steel

The Labor Legacy Landmark, a 60-foot-tall open steel arch in Hart Plaza, is the largest piece of public art in the country dedicated to working people. During the upcoming U.S. Social Forum, docent tours of the landmark are available between noon and 6 p.m., June 23-25.


"Potato patch" Ping

There are a number of historic labor sites downtown. Cadillac Square hosted labor rallies, and Detroit's unemployed gathered in nearby Grand Circus Park during the Depression. But perhaps downtown's most interesting site is the monument to Detroit Mayor Hazen Pingree at Woodward Avenue and Adams Street. Historians often rank Old "Ping" among the best mayors in U.S. history. Though he was a prosperous capitalist his whole life, when he won the Detroit mayoralty (1889-1896) he found himself in complete sympathy with the working people. (He had been a workman once himself.) To the horror of his Republican backers, he became a progressive, supporting "responsible" unions, allowing vacant lots to be used for urban agriculture during an economic crisis, and laying the groundwork for transit reforms, demanding electrified streetcars, low fares and, finally, municipal ownership of the streetcar company. Downtown Detroit's monthly Critical Mass bicycle rides honor Ping's transit legacy by gathering at his statue at 6:30 p.m. on the last Friday of the month.


Paint it red

Diego Rivera's "Detroit Industry" mural was so controversial when it was unveiled in 1933, some proposed ripping it down. (His mural in New York's Rockefeller Center, which pictured Lenin, met just that fate.) Luckily for us, Detroit's art mavens were enlightened enough to treasure it. Located in the Detroit Institute of Arts (5200 Woodward Ave.; 313-833-7900), the mural shows the assembly line as a ritual, with machines as its gods, and depicts actual workers Rivera met in Detroit. Rent headphones to get an excellent tour of this sprawling masterwork.


Capitalist digs

No Detroiter had greater influence on the 20th century than Henry Ford. You can view Ford's early 20th century, Italian renaissance revival home (140 Edison St.) in Detroit's historic Boston-Edison District. Another auto magnate, John Dodge, lived just a few blocks up and across Woodward Avenue (75 E. Boston St.). 


Home organizers

Sure, they're humble digs, but if you're curious to see where some of America's most notable labor leaders laid their heads, peek at the one-time residence of Walter P. Reuther at 3240 W. Philadelphia St. in Detroit, or Jimmy Hoffa's humble former digs at 4742 Toledo St., in Detroit's Mexicantown.


Picture the context

One challenge for this sort of sightseeing is that looking at Detroit's historic sites often means staring at a hulking vacant building or an empty boulevard. Ron Alpern, a guide for Detroit Labor History Tours, says, "It would be fascinating if we could drive down streets like Grand River Avenue, Gratiot Avenue, Jefferson Avenue and Fort Street and see what it was like in 1952. There were these thriving commercial strips, because people were employed by the thousands in nearby factories, and many of them still walked to work." Try to remember that this was once the fourth-largest city in the United States, with a factory in every backyard.


Bloody road

On the west side, it's worth a quick look at mostly empty Miller Road north of Dix Road in Dearborn. It was there in 1932, outside Ford Motor Company's Rouge Complex, a "Ford Hunger March" crossed a line of Dearborn police to be met with fire hoses, tear gas and machine guns near Gate 3. Four lay dead in the street, with scores more wounded. On May 26, 1937, near Gate 4, Ford goons beat up UAW organizers passing out leaflets in the Battle of the Overpass, slamming labor union leader Walter Reuther down on the concrete seven times and breaking organizer Richard Merriweather's back. (An overpass marks the spot, but it's not the same one.) Luckily, a photographer smuggled film out of the incident, winning public sympathy for the union. Ford Motor Company was finally unionized in 1941.


The Packard Plant 

Probably the city's most notable ruin, photographers inevitably find their lenses drawn to the Albert Kahn-designed complex, which is falling apart floor by floor. Built on 35 acres at 1580 E. Grand Blvd. in Detroit between 1903 and 1911, it was once a beehive of activity, producing luxury cars and aircraft engines until it closed in 1954. But, labor-wise, it was the site of a great progressive victory. In response to the 1943 "hate strike," when white workers walked off the job in response to an African-American worker's promotion to the line, the UAW stepped in and promoted racial harmony among the rank-and-file. (Even during the 1943 race riot, no violence broke out in factories under the UAW's watch.)


The ghost of Dodge Main

Driving up Mount Elliott and Conant between I-94 and Hamtramck Drive, it's hard to imagine that the mighty Dodge Main complex once dominated the area. It employed 35,000 workers at its peak, surrounded by bars, barbershops, social halls, and the single-family dwellings of the workers. And the area was indeed a hotbed of radicalism during the second half of the 1930s. Midland Steel, now International Specialty Tube, (6660 Mount Elliott St.) was the site of Detroit's first sit-down strike in November 1936. But Dodge Main finally came down when General Motors' struck a deal with Detroit and Hamtramck that would demolish the old plant and the community around it so General Motors could build a new factory that's fortress-like, surrounded by gates, swales, berms and service drives and trucking lanes. During a recent strike, protesters were lucky to get a thumbs-up or honk from a motorist speeding by, with nary a bar or barbershop in sight. 


The beat goes on...

Former industrial facilities struggle to find new purposes; old Murray Body is now the Russell Industrial Center (Russell at Clay, Detroit), which hosts artists' studios, print shops and a regular bazaar. And the deindustrialization is ongoing. Another Hamtramck facility, American Axle (1840 Holbrook, Hamtramck), is practically closing down. In 1939, it was Chevrolet Gear and Axle, the site of an important tool and die strike. Seventy years later in 2009, after a long and acrimonious strike, the company announced plans to move much of its workforce to Mexico. 


Radical Yemans

Walking down Hamtramck's Yemans Street is really a pretty odd journey through radical history. At 2934 Yemans, you'll find what once was the Detroit Workmen's Co-Operative Restaurant. Set up to serve single men working in Detroit's auto plants, the upstairs meeting hall was a haunt for unionists, socialists and ethnic groups. They still serve food there; it's now Polonia restaurant. Or walk down to 2990 Yemans, where you can dine at Polish Village Café; they even still have a picture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the wall. Fortified with pierogies, you can stroll on to 3014 Yemans and see the site of the old International Workers Home, which, unfortunately, was demolished a few years ago. But if that weren't enough, walk down to 3059 Yemans; unbelievably, around 1932, the family of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Mohammed rented this home!


Labor historians Ron Alpern and Steve Babson will give labor history tours June 22-24, covering downtown Detroit, Rivera's murals at the DIA, and auto heritage bus tours. Call Dianne Feeley at 313-843-2125 or feeleyd@earthlink.net, or register at the US Social Forum Registration area at Cobo Hall 9 a.m.-5 p.m. throughout the Forum.

Michael Jackman is associate editor of Metro Times. Send comments to mjackman@metrotimes.com.

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