In 2014, when LSA alumna and former lecturer in history Sarah Hamilton (Ph.D. ’13) taught her Environmental History in Detroit course, she wanted to teach her students traditional academic skills, such as writing an annotated bibliography and doing archival research. But she also wanted them to learn a few other things. “I wanted them to learn to use audio and video equipment, and how to take oral histories. I wanted them to learn Wordpress. I wanted them to take what they’d learned over the course of the semester and produce a product—not a paper.”

The product turned out to be Environmental History in Detroit, a Wikipedia-like website that uses photographs, videos, narratives, and maps to interpret Detroit’s past from the ground up. Literally.

Detroit from the Ground Up

To ensure the course would be useful, Hamilton and her students partnered with two community organizations: the Nortown Community Development Corporation (CDC) and the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition. The organizations’ needs helped to direct the students’ research, and the final course projects supported the organizations’ goals.

Crippled Creek

Nortown, an area in northeast Detroit, was first settled by European fur traders. A traditional Native American footpath meandered alongside Conner Creek, which powered mills and provided irrigation that helped the area’s industry take root. Over time, Conner Creek became a dumping ground and was prone to raging fires. As part of the neighborhood's restoration efforts, the CDC wanted the city to build a greenway that followed the creek’s original path. “In order to make a case to the city for rebuilding historic Nortown,” says Hamilton, “they needed to know and compile the history first. And that was certainly something we could help with.”

The students dug through archives, letters, and photographs. They learned the way plank roads and railroads brought industry to the region. They handled maps that were more than 100 years old.

As industry grew in Nortown, Conner Creek retained little of its useful role in rural mills and irrigation. This map, drawn in 1924-25, shows the way the creek was diverted underground to serve as a sewer for factories. Image courtesy of Bentley Historical Library

LSA sophomore Zach Fogel says, “I really enjoyed going through old photos and newspaper articles and talking to city workers and residents—some of whom have been in Detroit their whole lives.” His research changed the way he understood Detroit. He notes, for example, when auto industry business left Detroit to find cheaper labor, the places in Nortown where they had been were downzoned from “heavy” to “restricted” industrial. This limited the kinds of businesses that could replace them to junkyards and repair shops, he says, which couldn’t provide the same economic benefits. “That made it very difficult for the area to rebound and recover,” he says. “It was caused by bad luck and the planners’ lack of foresight.”

The Dirtiest Zip Code in Michigan

Delray, on Detroit’s southwest side, was Detroit’s earliest industrialized area. Factories were built right across the street from houses, and as these factories grew—and grew bigger and dirtier—most of the residents who could afford to leave did. The city’s wastewater treatment plant, the largest single-site treatment facility in the country, is sited in Delray right next to a playground. According to U-M environmental scientists who have evaluated federal air pollution data, Delray is home to the dirtiest zip code in Michigan. It will also soon be home to the new bridge connecting Detroit and Canada.

The Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition advocates for Delray, which has gone from a thriving community to a geographically isolated, industrial wasteland. Because of the new bridge, Delray won’t be around in 10 years, says Hamilton, which was difficult for the students to accept. “The students who researched Delray began with the idea that their job was to stop the bridge,” says Hamilton. “But that wasn’t our job. Our job was to record a community and the process by which the neighborhood got to be the way it is.”

Delray was home to the Detroit International Fair and Exposition in 1889, which had an exhibit area of 200,000 square feet. At the time, it had the largest exhibit building in the world. Photo courtesy of River Rouge Historical Museum

To begin, the students conducted a series of oral-history interviews of residents describing their time in the neighborhood. In these histories, residents describe the way major decisions, such as using Interstate 75 as a “natural boundary,” isolated the neighborhood and hastened the region’s decline.

The Delray section of Environmental History in Detroit features images from the 1889 International Fair that showcases the early beauty of the Delray landscape, and the visions of comfort and wealth that were tied to its industrial growth. Alongside these images, are present-day Delray, including photographs of the mountains of petroleum coke heaped along the Detroit River. The difference between the two Delrays is striking.

U.S. Steel discovered petroleum coke in the early 1900s on Zug Island in Delray. Almost 100 years later in 2013, 40-foot piles of petrolum coke were left on the bank of the Detroit River. They shed sticky, toxic dust in people’s homes, cars, and lungs. Photo courtesy of River Rouge Historical Museum

“It didn’t take an expert to realize there were egregious pollution and zoning problems in Delray,” says LSA alumna Eleni Zaras (’13). “But it was inspiring to talk to people about their lives, to see their homes and the community center. Some residents put so much care into their homes and really did have their lives set up there. It was hard knowing that their neighborhood might not be around, at least in the way it is now or used to be, for their kids or their grandkids.”

“What I found most valuable about documenting Delray and its residents was the hope that someone up the line might be able to use it, or see it,” recalls Samuel Hahn, an LSA senior. “I hoped they would feel a twinge of empathy or understand that [residents] deserved more than they'd received, more than the city and the factories had allowed for them.”

The future of the neighborhood known as Delray may be in question, but the course helped ensure important parts of Detroit have been collected and preserved. Fogel notes that the process of researching, writing, and editing for the project were the same as drafting a traditional paper, but with one important difference.

“Our research and writing is on the website,” he says. “I like to think my work could be of real value to someone.”

This article is part of a larger environmental series in honor of the 45th anniversary of Earth Day. U-M kicked off the first nationwide Earth Day in 1970 by hosting a teach-in that drew more than 50,000 people. Also in this series: