Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Boneyards: Detroit Under Ground: Book Review

Boneyards: Detroit Under Ground, by Richard Bak, was a fortuitous grab off the new book shelf at the Ann Arbor District Library.

From a recent MetroParent article on libraries I learned the shocking news that the public library in Troy, Michigan will be closing at the end of the April. Troy is not a poor suburb, nor a particularly small one. But its voters turned down a couple of millage increases that would have kept the city library running, and then the city government didn't allocate the necessary funds. I hope that the Troy library doesn't end up like the Mark Twain branch of the Detroit Public Library.

Anyway, I never would have found this book without the AADL, which has such a fabulous library that I couldn't give it up when I moved out of the city to an exurb. I now pay for the privilege of being able to check books out of it. It's not that my local library isn't good - I'm often surprised by just how good the Saline District Library is (sometimes they even have books the AADL doesn't have!), and they're open to suggestions - but Ann Arbor is a much bigger city, and it has a library to match.*  Then again, Troy isn't all that small, and look what happened there. I like the comment on dETROITfUNK under the pictures of the Twain branch noting that this abandoned library is a "mind cemetery".

Which brings us back to graveyards, the subject of Richard Bak's new book. I never would have found this browsing on my new nook, as much as I've found love the immediacy and portability of e-books. Boneyards is the kind of book that really doesn't work well on an e-reader, anyway - the beautiful black & white photographs are a huge part of this book, and the main reason I grabbed it off the new book shelf and stuck it in my bag with the romance, fantasy, mysteries, and memoirs that came up on my request list.

I was thrilled to find that the text - the historic snapshots of a major midwestern city that it provides, both in the introduction ("Here and Gone") and on the pages facing over one hundred of these amazing photographs - was as well-done as the photographs.  Many of these photos are historic, and others are striking or evocative artistic works. Taken together, they provide one of the most unique perspectives Michigan history that I've seen. 

In Boneyards, I learned about Hazen Pingree, the Detroit mayor during the depression at the end of the 19th century who created plans for unemployed workers to grow vegetables on vacant lots. "Potato Patch" Pingee became governor, died suddenly of peritonitis in England in 1901, and the Detroit City Hall was draped in elaborate mourning buntings with an enormous black-rimmed portrait. (Many of the historic photographs of funerals and cemeteries show mourning decorations that appear bizarre and extravagant to 21st century sensibilities).

Then there was Benedetto Evangelista, the creator of his own religion, who provided celestial services in his basement, found beheaded in the same basement in 1929. His family - a wife and four young children - were slain upstairs, and no one was ever convicted of the murders.

Native peoples and burial mounds, the deaths and graves of French and British soldiers, Greek, Polish, Italian, and Romanian immigrants, convicts buried in prison cemeteries, the Purple Gang, drug dealers in the 1980's, racial segregation in cemeteries, Henry Ford, Walter Reuther, the Dodge Brothers (Bak notes that the workers on the main Dodge line were permitted to drink beer while working), union protesters killed by the police and Ford security personnel in 1932, and unclaimed cremations are all the subjects of short but eloquent essays. The photographs alone would have made Boneyards a beautiful coffee table book, but Bak's research and insightful narrative make this something more.

*Too bad you can't check books out of the University of Michigan libraries without paying a small fortune. You think they'd have some kind of special deal for alumni or local residents or both, like many other state universities, but nooo. Instead, I get some of the books I need for writing jobs from inter-library loan from EMU or MSU - or in one strange instance, a city library in Bezonia, Michigan - even though the same material is sitting unused on a shelf in the Hatcher library just six miles away.


Sandy D. said...

Local historians might find a couple of pictures from Washtenaw Co. cemeteries interesting, too.

Harper Alibeck said...

I'm really shocked that your university doesn't give free alumni library access. My undergraduate, state institution does. My graduate, private school does not. If nothing else, why not offer "pay to play" for alums: join the alumni association and get free library privileges? Might be worth suggesting to U of M.