From the Freep
Digging for mid-1800s trash uncovers lives of Corktown residents
A broken piece of pottery. A discarded milk carton. A shattered medicine bottle.
By themselves, they look like junk or something trash pickers left behind.
But together, they tell a story of gritty work life in one of Detroit's oldest neighborhoods. Taken from tenement houses, or row houses, the remnants are from archaeological digs spanning 11 years as researchers and historians piece them together to create a picture of the lives of these workers.
Now, as the area braces for a dramatic transformation with the entry of Ford Motor Co. reviving Michigan Central Depot, experts hope not only to preserve the past but to learn from it.
“(We're) now developing the row house site as a community hub and sort of an emblem, an iconic house, representing the significance of Corktown,” said Tim McKay, Corktown resident and executive director of the row house.
And this all started with a dig 11 years ago.
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McKay asked professors at Wayne State University to investigate a three-story worker’s row house, or tenement house, that he owned.
Thomas Killion, associate professor of anthropology at Wayne State, said he and his students worked for three years on the archaeological dig at the row house, one of Detroit's oldest surviving structures. The house was built in 1849 on 6th Street, he said. Workers moved into the building in 1850.
The dig revealed more than 6,000 fragments and pieces of different household objects that helped paint a picture of how these workers lived in the mid-1800s. Killion said archaeologists don’t expect to find one huge item that reveals everything, but rather a lot of little things that add up to a story.
During the last few weeks of excavation at the row house site, Killion and his students found a pit in the backyard that the workers would have used as a refrigerator. At the bottom were three bottles: a milk bottle from the City of Detroit dairy, a beer bottle from a Port Huron brewery and a whisky bottle from New York.
“It was an interesting icon for this fairly mythical Irish neighborhood of Detroit. It had the trifecta there: (the beverages you drink in) early life, middle life and later life," he said.
McKay and other residents took all of what Wayne State found and decided to create a local organization called Corktown Experience.
“Worker housing is the contributing factor to Corktown’s historical district,” McKay said. “They were ‘courageous ordinaries’ — courageous, ordinary people who did incredible things.”
Another of Wayne State’s big projects was at Roosevelt Park. Krysta Ryzewski, associate professor in anthropology at Wayne State, has led the Roosevelt Park digsevery other year since 2012.
When plans to build the train station were announced in the early 1900s, the city wanted to forcibly remove those who lived around the station, Ryzewski said. Residents who lived in front of the station (where Roosevelt Park is now) refused to leave.
Ryzewski said Michigan Central Station has a deep foundation, so the homes probably don’t still exist underneath that. But, landscapers only added soil to grade the park’s landscape.
Using satellite imagery, GPS information and historic maps, Ryzewski and her students were able to see well-preserved remains of the old structures under Roosevelt Park, now an official state-recognized archaeological site.
They've now recovered over 30,000 artifacts from 16 different properties.
Research from Roosevelt Park will continue at Wayne State's archaeology lab this fall, Ryzewski said.
“The remains of the neighborhood underneath Roosevelt Park are part of the personal histories of the people who once lived and worked there,” she said. “It is very important that they are recovered in a scientific, systematic, and respectful way.”
All of the Corktown residents involved in these excavations over the years are excited for Ford’s re-occupation of the train station. Ryzewski said she and her students hope to install a mini-exhibit explaining the history of the area with some of the artifacts Wayne State has found.
“I think that recognizing the past in the future design of the city is very important for appreciating the deep-rooted legacy and contributions that Detroiters made to it over time,” she said.