Two years in the making, the Detroit River Story Lab lifts off at the University of Michigan this semester with grant-funded partnerships and several multidisciplinary courses devoted to the international waterway’s long and deep store of sustaining narratives, past and present.

As envisioned by David Porter, professor of English language and literature and of comparative literature in LSA, the multiyear project spans both sides of the river and collaborates with many groups, including the Detroit River Project, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, National Park Service, Dossin Great Lakes Museum, Detroit Riverfront Conservancy and others.

The Story Lab, which grew out of the recent Great Lakes Theme Semester on which Porter also worked, was awarded $50,000 as part of the Confronting and Combating Racism grants awarded earlier this month by the Center for Social Solutions and Poverty Solutions at U-M. The grants will support community efforts.

Photo of David Porter
David Porter

“The project sets out to develop creative ways to leverage the resources of the university community to help research and amplify stories of the Detroit River, and to make the rich history and current challenges facing the river and adjoining communities more present, more palpable, more real,” he said. “For a long time, the importance of the river to the history and identity of our region has been underrecognized.”

Porter said the idea to harness the Detroit River story for current and future generations occurred to him after stumbling on a news story about Kimberly Simmons. She is the executive director and president of the Detroit River Project, a public history organization, and a local activist, historian and Underground Railroad descendent.

“One of the more eye-catching objectives of the Detroit River Project is to secure UNESCO World Heritage Site designation on the grounds of its role in the Underground Railroad,” Porter said. “As a vision, I find this incredibly compelling as a way to make the river’s story more accessible and meaningful to more people.”

Students will hear from Simmons and Irene Moore Davis, who both contributed to the 2016 book “A Fluid Frontier: Slavery, Resistance, and the Underground Railroad in the Detroit River Borderland,” and others. The book is being used by three U-M classes this semester.

Photo of the Detroit River looking southwest.
This aerial view of the Detroit River looks southwest showing, from left, Ontario, Canada, Belle Isle and Detroit. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

In partnership with the Detroit River Story Lab, the Michigan Engaging Community through the Classroom at the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning has coordinated a number of courses this semester to focus on the Detroit River’s history. MECC brings together students from different disciplines to work on stakeholder-based community projects.

Major themes for fall semester

Major themes to be addressed through coursework include documenting existing pieces in the river’s narrative infrastructure and identifying what is missing, whose voices are not being heard, what life is like today along the river and how has it changed over the last generation, and what differences exist in policies, actions and laws between Canada and the United States that pertain to the river’s well-being. Faculty involved are:

  • Damani Partridge, associate professor of anthropology and of Afroamerican and African studies in LSA: Filming the Future of Detroit.
  • Jaimien Delp, lecturer II in English language and literature in LSA: Literary Journalism, The Detroit River & Why Stories Matter.
  • Kristin Hass, associate professor of American culture and in the Honors Program in LSA: Detroit and Gentrification Now: A First Year Writing Course.
  • Maria Arquero de Alarcon, associate professor of architecture and of urban and regional planning in the Taubman College: Physical Planning and Design Workshop: The Fluid Commons.

“We follow the pedagogical approach for each unit, allowing students and faculty to go where the interviews and research take them,” said Paul Fontaine, MECC program manager. “The goal is to give the state of Michigan a template to tell all the great stories in our places.”

Alarcon said her course, taught each year for graduate students from a variety of disciplines, follows the discipline of a design studio, so the class is kept small. She’s working with 19 students from urban design, urban planning and architecture for the Detroit River work.

“Much of what we bring is a conversation about visualization,” she said.

Some students have an interest in environmental issues, something that first interested her in the Detroit River, she said.

“I always looked at the river more from the environmental view rather than as a robust story about people and places,” Alarcon said. “We will learn how to deal with landscapes that are gone and just told through stories. That is an important component that has to do with the mapping and fluidity of this course — and how we as designers and planners can contribute to telling those stories and showing how they can be revealed.”

Delp said her course will look for ways to make the Detroit River stories accessible to people.

“I see literary journalism as a way to move closer to truths we might not otherwise have such personal access to, and find ways to build care around that truth within communities — to get people excited, to get people interested and inspire their sense of empathy and imagination,” she said. “It’s a call to attention, and maybe — hopefully — a call to action, however subtle. It gives students the opportunity to explore both inside and outside of themselves, and see their words resonate on a larger scale.”

Future semesters will begin to dive into creating new narrative structures, exhibit design, curriculum development and event planning, Fontaine said.

Support of ongoing community projects

Porter is working on additional grant applications to help support the efforts of various organizations invested in the future of the 28-mile river and its adjoining communities. The Story Lab, he hopes, might become a bridge between U-M research and teaching projects and under-resourced community groups.

“The Detroit River Story Lab was conceived from the outset as a way for the university to support ongoing projects of community groups. The lab has a community-first orientation,” Porter said. “The idea is to serve as an umbrella and clearinghouse for faculty and students from across the university interested in story making around the Detroit River … and innovative models for research, teaching and public engagement in that space.”

The lab’s grant-funded work this year will include co-producing and sharing historically nuanced, contextually aware stories that recast the role of the Detroit River from an anti-racist perspective and document its history as part of the Underground Railroad.

The lab’s participants propose to advance these efforts through three channels:

  • Secondary education — In partnership with regional scholars from the Essex County Black Historical Research Society, researchers will work with curriculum development experts at the School of Education and local teachers to develop a new experiential curriculum on the history and enduring effects of the Detroit River’s role in the Underground Railroad for middle and high school students in Michigan and Ontario, Canada.
  • Public history — In partnership with the Detroit River Project, researchers will help to advance the group’s ongoing bid to secure a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation for the Detroit River to forge deep links to this history with the image of the city on the international stage.
  • Journalism — In partnership with the new community-based journalism nonprofit BridgeDetroit and its Pulitzer Prize-winning director and U-M alumnus Stephen Henderson, researchers will work to promote public discussion of the place of Black history in recent efforts to redevelop the waterfront and claim it as a site of cultural heritage.

Working with local museums could also result in Detroit River history exhibits geared toward K-6 students and others to cover K-12 in both Detroit and Windsor.

“In recent years, national and international news coverage of Detroit has been dominated by a simplistic death and rebirth narrative,” Porter said. “Part of the effort here is to foreground more nuanced and capacious story lines about the region in order to do justice to the histories and commitments that continue to define it.”

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