Professor Jean Boucher Takes MSU Sociology Students on a Field Trip

Last semester, Professor Jean Boucher took students from his Urban Sociology and Developing Societies classes on a tour of Detroit. Read Dr. Boucher's recount of the experience below:

Questioning Past Glory: A Reality Tour of Detroit’s Highs and Lows

Jean Boucher

On a cool Saturday morning last October about 45 students and I—from both my Urban Sociology and Developing Societies classes—traveled by coach to Detroit. This trip was part of the experiential component of these classes: an attempt at concretizing theory and engaging sociological lenses with urban socio-spatial characteristics, gifts, and struggles.

Besides our tour guide, Dr. Ren Farley, Professor Emeritus, the University of Michigan Population Studies Center (who has led tours for over 15 years), we were also joined by Dr. Louise Jezierski, Associate Professor, James Madison College. If Dr. Farley was not enough, we had Dr. Jezierski to fill in the blanks: there were times we had Detroit information overload.

After reviewing some history of the French on Native American land, we arrived at our first stop, Mexicantown: with its humble buildings and colorful murals. The name traces back to the families who arrived in the 1940s. Dr. Farley pointed out how a local park, abandoned by the city, had been adopted and is now maintained by the community. After cutting through quant Corktown, apparently Detroit’s “oldest neighborhood,” we made our way through “Eastside development”: Detroit riverfront—an important shipping area since the early 1900s, Hart Plaza, and the GM Renaissance Center (see photo). We also drove around Belle Isle, where the 1943 race riots began—after spreading into the city the rioting was finally repressed by 6,000 federal troops. We then stopped at the Heidelberg Project.

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Riverfront Hart Plaza

The Heidelberg Project is neighborhood art on a mission; it is something of an open social critique with painted jumble-numbered clocks whose hands are frozen in time. Reminiscent of a Dr. Seuss book, with a peppered rainbow of colors, there are miscellaneous polkadots and painted things: shoes, tires, and rocks. Somehow there is joy amongst the chaos of abandoned toys and figures made of “junk.” For Tyree Guyton, artist and lead visionary, this project is a means of pushing back against an unjust system, creating community, and improving lives. Guyton believes that all of Detroit’s forgotten and diverse peoples deserve a seat at the table: recognition is essential to creating and sharing a viable economic life. Guyton and Heidelberg have garnered attention and spurred discussion.

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Heidelberg Project

For lunch, we stopped at the bustling Eastern Market and explored the grand spread of farm stands, veggies, and specialty items like hot apple cider and gourmet corn. After an hour we toured some affluent areas: Indian Village and Grosse Pointe where, sadly, we learned that these neighborhoods still use subtle means to exclude others from their communities and schools.

Next, we visited Hantz Woodlands where reportedly 180 acres of abandoned lots have been cleared and planted with hardwoods and maples. It is hoped that these tree investments will beatify the area and turn profits from tree/wood sales or maple sugar tapping. Then we drove by the trash-burning Detroit incinerator where locals and environmentalists have taken issue against its smells and toxins, calling for a shutdown.

Our trip ended with a visit to the broken-windowed ruins of the Packard Plant; the Henry and Clara Ford house—where Ford spent some of his most creative years; and a tour of the Michigan Urban Farm Initiative, where a war veteran explained how their urban gardens are giving back.

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Michigan Urban Farm Initiative

Emotionally exhausted, many of us slept our way home, but I couldn’t help but think how Detroit was plagued by comparisons with past glory, a glory that—when considering ongoing inequalities—could very well be brought into question.