Restor(y)ing Detroit

2 Jul

Everybody’s got a story.  

I’ve never met a person, place, or thing that didn’t hold some interesting piece of trivia or history, some facet of fascination.  It’s it’s why people consistently call me The Interviewer—that, and a little social phobia, resulting in me peppering bystanders with questions.  But as far as questions go, a political science professor of mine once remarked that the third “why” is always the most interesting.   

At the risk of sounding didactic (bing! read: annoying), I’ll ask the question: Why is history important?  History tells a story, giving us a way to frame certain events.  And why is this important?  Because people love stories—we read books, watch movies and TV shows, relay our lives to others through stories over the phone and in the break room.  And why do we love stories?  They are the way we connect to the world around us, and to each other.  Stories are how we make sense of the world.  

Alpha’s got a story.  It’s got millions, which is what this blog is all about.  And yesterday, Alpha got to witness and participate in a story with real history.  

Appraising the Mural: from left to right, Alpha's David Lawrence, 174's Financial Secretary Sheila Draper, Alpha's Chuck Dardas, and conservator Serena Urry

 

Some of you, I’m guessing, have been to the UAW West Side Local 174, over in Romulus.  If you have, you’ve probably noticed a huge mural hanging behind the podium in the main hall.  Sheila Draper, the Local’s financial officer, tells me it’s known simply as “The Mural”; I found an obscure online reference to it as the “Ford Riot”.  In either case, that mural has been hanging at Local 174 for almost 75 years.  

 Just five minutes of looking at the mural reveals a whole string of stories—from the real buttons inlaid on the canvas, to the partially hidden contracts, to Walter P. Reuther himself, painted beside a bloodied Richard Frankensteen after the 1937 Battle of the Overpass.  The various scenes and details are a snapshot of the Detroit UAW in 1937, the year the mural was created, and all of it rendered in the style of Diego Rivera (whose own frescoes you can find on display in Detroit at the D.I.A.)  

A closeup of the 1937 mural

 

Speck managed to adhere real buttons, like this one, to the mural

 

 But the mural isn’t just an interesting portrait of the UAW.  As it turns out, this piece was created by Walter Speck, a Detroit native and head of the city’s F.A.P. program.  What’s the F.A.P.?  The Federal Arts Project was a sub-program of the Work Projects Administration (W.P.A.), created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression.  Through these projects, the president hoped to offer new employment to the nation’s out-of-work citizens (artists in the case of the F.A.P.) and foster a sense of unity in the community.  And this it did—the F.A.P. created over 5,000 jobs for artists and 225,000 new works of art, including the “Ford Riot” mural.  

Speck painted the mural on-site at the old West Side Local 174 building located on Maybury in Detroit, where it stayed for just a few years before being moved to a new building, and finally to the current Local 174 building in Romulus in 2001.  

At 73 years old, the mural carries the stains of tobacco smoke and dirt, old-age wrinkles, and stripes from ceiling drippings, but its story isn’t over yet.  Yesterday, Alpha joined its friends over at Local 174 to meet Serena Urry, a former Detroit Institute of Arts conservator who came to appraise the mural for restoration.  The four of us watched while Serena rubbed cotton swabs in small circles over various spots on the canvas, removing layers of grime and weathered varnish, finally revealing the true colors of the paint.  The results were incredible—you can see for yourself in the photos below.  

Former Detroit Institute of Arts conservator, Serena Urry, now of Pentimento Conservation, inspects the mural

 

One of Serena's test spots, revealing the original paint of the woman's face

 

These are the kinds of things I’m talking about—objects with such a rich history, unique and native to Detroit.  I look at that mural and I wonder about all the things it’s seen, all the conversations it’s overheard, all the stories it has witnessed unfolding—stories I can’t even guess at.  Change is good.  Innovation is great.  But it’s also important to hang on to roots.  This mural is a piece of history whose own story helps us all contextualize Detroit’s story a little better.  With a dab of luck and some hard work, the “Ford Riot” will be restored to near-original condition, a bright and shiny piece of Detroit history for all to see.  Right now, the costs of this restoration have yet to be determined, and funding sources have to be lined up, so we’ll see what happens.  But as for the story, well, it goes on.  

For more information on the “Ford Riot” mural, take a look at these links:  

Article on the WPA Mural Site  

UAW West Side Local 174 Site

Walter P. Reuther Library Site 

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