Detroit Treasures

I had a tremendously positive experience conducting research at the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University this past Thursday.

Detroit has some tremendous educational and cultural resources, especially in/around the Wayne State campus. Not only is the glorious Detroit Institute of the Arts located there, but so is the Detroit Public Library Main Branch (built in the 1860s), the Detroit Historical Society & Museum, the Michigan Science Center, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, and the libraries of Wayne State University.

This is a tremendous resource that is actually easier to get to (from London) than the museums of downtown Toronto (quicker & with better parking). I don’t know how many people know of these institutions, but I would suggest checking them out. The atmosphere around the university campus is lovely and there is good eating, too.



A Detroit Experience

I had an interesting experience yesterday.

I was working in Detroit and when my work was finished, I decided to drive the length of Woodward Avenue from Hart Plaza all the way to 8 Mile Road, the city’s northern limit. I had never done this before and I wanted to have the experience of covering a stretch of this “All American Road,” as it is called.

There are stretches of heavy activity, especially near downtown, where the new arena for the Detroit Red Wings is being finished in time for the 2017-2018 NHL Season. And there are stretches of inactivity, of boarded up buildings, as Woodward passes through the city of Highland Park. I saw an old apartment building whose roof had caved in and whose windows were sealed with wood. I saw old stores with store fronts that looked like they were built in the 1960s but which were no longer open for business. I saw check cashing places and bail bonds establishments. I saw many people who looked out-of-work, though I cannot be sure.

Downtown I saw tourists and gilded bank buildings. I saw an expensive baseball stadium (Comerica Park) and art deco skyscrapers built when the city was flush with money. I saw the People Mover snaking its way around a small stretch of downtown -for such a big city, downtown Detroit really is small. But what I also saw were so many relics of the past, like the boarded up offices of the Michigan Chronicle, a historic African American newspaper (it is still in operation but at a new location). I also saw the renowned Cass Tech High School, one of the best technical high schools in the U.S., which has produced more than its fair share of brilliant musicians and entertainers including the inimitable Diana Ross, Lily Tomlin, Della Reese, Ellen Burstyn, Alice Coltrane and Ron Carter, to name but a few.

I saw (and felt) a great deal of history. But I also wondered, as I so often do when I am in Detroit, about the present and future. I listened to analysis over the radio of the decision to exit the Paris Climate Agreement and how General Motors and Exxon Mobil disagree with this decision. This led me back to my earlier days when I would get angry at how both companies seemed like great obstacles to meaningful steps toward a “Green Future.” And yet here I was, with the Renaissance Center (GM Headquarters) literally in my rearview mirror, listening to how the world’s largest automaker disapproves of the U.S. walking away from Paris.

I don’t thinking it is any exaggeration to say that things are changing profoundly. I don’t have to be in Detroit to feel those changes and wonder at them, but there is something about being in that city, the birthplace of the $5 daily wage, the Treaty of Detroit, Fordism and the birth of the modern middle class, to feel a sense of wonder -even foreboding- about present and future. I look at Detroit and feel both hope and hopelessness mingle . . . and then I shake it off knowing that what matters isn’t simply how we feel, but what we do now.


Talking water, water infrastructure & history

I had a great discussion with James Shelley about water, water infrastructure, and history back in January.

James is a local thinker, writer, researcher, podcaster and host of London’s Wolf Hall Debates. In other words, James is one of the people in our city who helps make London a vibrant, thoughtful community. You can catch the conversation here as well as check out his excellent website which is filled with other thoughtful content:

An outstanding link for studying the past & present

I am posting a link to the Studs Terkel radio archive.

This archive includes broadcasts Terkel did over his long and distinguished journalistic and broadcasting career.

As a teacher of history and the humanities I am thrilled to be able to use this resource with my students but also to use it as a means of expanding my understanding of the American past and present.

Jeremy Nathan Marks

Ecological Imperialism

I am currently studying environmental history with a student. The book, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (by Alfred W. Crosby) is an eye-opening examination of the growth of European imperialism from the standpoint of botany, epidemiology, agriculture, animal husbandry and also includes a fascinating study of climate and sailing.

The book requires readers to rethink how they understand and imagine the meeting of cultures. All too often we’ve been led to believe that one civilization colonizes another because it has superior technology, belief systems and a more sophisticated cosmology. Crosby challenges all of that. He also challenges the idea that European colonization of the globe was an inevitable result of the sophistication of European cultures.

But one of the most interesting questions his book raises is how the Europeans themselves were suited to new and alien environments and how well they did or did not adapt their thinking, mores and habits. In this age of globalization and global tourism where a person can go to the tropics, stay in an air conditioned villa, eat imported cuisine and traverse the landscape in familiar vehicles, it is all-too-easy to forget that even in the most easily settled of European colonies (e.g. Canada, Australia) colonists were often ill-suited to their circumstances and held to belief systems and aesthetic values which not only did not serve them but often led to a violent relationship with the land itself.

One of the finest examples of this in literature and film is the novel and movie “Picnic at Hanging Rock” about a turn-of-last-century picnic gone horribly wrong in the state of South Australia. The tension between the daughters and matrons of British culture and the ancient, un-English landscape of the Australian continent is palpable in Joan Lindsay’s novel and in Peter Weir’s cinematic adaptation. What stands out for me is the difference between the children of the wealthy, whose parents made money in international business, and those labourers who appear to be the descendants of the original English colonists. The question of adaptation, acclimation and acculturation cuts across the matter of social class:

Jeremy Nathan Marks 

Taking ideas seriously

I am looking forward to my upcoming sessions with a local “philosophy group” comprised of teenagers who have spent some months studying the works of many important historical thinkers.

Beginning this Friday we will be having five Socratic sessions which cover a range of books including The Communist ManifestoThe God That FailedTo Kill A MockingbirdWinnipeg’s General Strike and Utopia.

It is always exciting to see students taking ideas seriously and embarking upon the work of unpacking systems of thought. Like many critics, I also believe that all too often ideas are being turned into soundbites and quotes which are divested of intellectual, socio-economic and historical context. Therefore it is a pleasure to be invited to be part of a group that is working hard to educate itself and is not afraid of an intellectual challenge.

Jeremy Nathan Marks