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Hero or Villain? A Look at Detroit's History

They say actions speak louder than words. So, I've become a woman of action.

Earlier this month, I pledged to do more for my city and state. Well, the Reading Corps volunteer meeting is Saturday, and I'm excited to find out more about how to get Detroit Public Schools back on track. More on that later.

I also vowed on Let's Save Michigan to do what I could to improve the state by shopping locally, living a greener lifestyle and getting more involved in the political arena. One other pledge Let's Save Michigan is asking people to make is “to support the arts in person and broaden my horizons by attending three festivals, cultural events or exhibitions I might not normally attend.”

To that end, my family and I went to the Detroit Historical Museum last weekend. We had a blast! Everyone, including the 4-year-old Lego expert, found something to love. For only $16, our group of four ran amuck for three hours, learning all about this great city.

One of the most intriguing exhibits was called “Hero or Villain?” It gives a long look back at Metro Detroit's “Legacy of Leadership,” and lets the viewer decide whether these top dogs should be prized or put out to pasture.

Some of the famous names included are Henry Ford (racist as well as automotive genius), Ty Cobb (psychotic baseball player and educational fund-raiser), Fr. Charles Coughlin (religious voice of hope and of hatred), Jimmy Hoffa (union great and grifter), Martha Griffiths (equality champion and manipulator) and, of course, Coleman A. Young. Lots of chat about Da Mayor on the blog – I'm never sure whether he is a hero or villain, so I loved learning more about him. Well worth the price of admission.

For background: According to its Web site, “The Detroit Historical Museum, established in 1928, is one of America's oldest and largest museums dedicated to metropolitan history. Over 80,000 square feet of exhibition space house more than 600 historic artifacts in the heart of Detroit's Cultural Center district.”

For kids, there is the elaborate Glancy train display with interactive switches to turn on the lights and move the trains. The trains were the collection of Alfred R. Glancy Jr., a Detroit real-estate financier and former co-owner of the Empire State Building.

All of us loved The Streets of Old Detroit. As the site notes, "As the museum's signature exhibit, 'the Streets' transport visitors to 19th and early 20th century Detroit through a visit to commercial shop settings furnished with artifacts from the 1840s to early 1900s."

It also is a favorite of my friend and editor Greg Tasker, author of “Sanders Confectionery,” which traces the complete history of Sanders, a venerable confectioner and Detroit icon for more than 130 years. He recently spoke at the museum as part of its exhibit on the “Fabulous 5: Detroit's Snack Food Superstars,” which includes Sanders.

“My favorite part of the museum has always been the Streets of Old Detroit because it transports you back in time like nothing else. It would be cool to see the streets expanded into the 1920s and beyond,” Tasker said.

“I've been to history museums all over the country and have never seen anything else like it. The museum also has done a great job in recent years with new exhibits. Detroit's Snack Food Superstars is especially fun,” he added.

Saturday marks the opening of another new exhibit: Corktown Works!, which will be at the museum through April 25. I'm eager to see the display, which celebrates the long history and contemporary success of Corktown as an urban neighborhood. The exhibit features the Workers Row House Museum, a historic preservation project of Greater Corktown Development Corp., which when completed will serve as a Welcome Center for Corktown and as a site for historical interpretation. The exhibit shows how the Workers Row House is developing as a cultural tourism destination.

Historic photographs and objects gathered from current residents and descendants of the early immigrant families are on display with objects from the collections of the Detroit Historical Society.

Corktown Works! also includes photographs by Marvin Shaouni of people and events in Corktown in 2008-09 that illustrate contemporary Corktown: the Tour de Troit, the Corktown-Mexicantown Greenlink project, construction of new homes and Michigan Avenue business improvements.

“Detroit's oldest neighborhood has attracted entrepreneurial, artistic and innovative people who are adding measurably to Corktown's efforts to survive and thrive as an urban community in the 21st century,” said Timothy J. McKay, executive director of Greater Corktown Development Corp.

So if you're in the area, take a break from the modern world and hit a museum or two. Hopefully, we'll run into each other.

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