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It was the kind of day in Detroit, late in the course of a temperate summer, when the heat rebounds and the humidity returns with a vengeance. We drove in on the freeway, past marshland and inoperative steel mills and townships whose names—Romulus, Troy—recalled the imperial ambitions of a more hopeful era. We were headed not to the city but to the simulation: the reconstructed historic town known as Greenfield Village. At nine, when we arrived—my mother, my sisters, the children and I—the parking lot was already packed. School had started a couple weeks earlier, and it appeared as though districts across the metro area had chosen the day for their inaugural field trip. Children poured out of Detroit Public Schools buses and shuttles stamped with the logos of Jewish day schools. There were Syrian and Yemeni kids from the Dearborn schools and kindergarteners dressed in the Hogwartian uniforms of parochial academies—all of them boundless and boisterous and shepherded by adults who bore the unexpressive fatalism of people who work professionally with children.

Saddled with diaper bags and water bottles, three small children in tow, we joined the throng at the gates and were promptly ushered into another world. Women in bonnets strolled down the thoroughfare. We passed tinsmith shops, farmhouses, horse-drawn buggies and a man who had been paid, in the name of historical authenticity, to stand in a shadowless field in three layers of tweed, pretending to pick beans. We had come here, supposedly, for the children, who belonged to my two sisters, though we were really here for my mother, who was in the delirious throes of early grandmotherhood and insisted that this was a family tradition. She led the way with the kids, while my sisters and I lagged behind, each of us pushing an empty stroller and redundantly lamenting the heat. We had, in fact, loved this place when we were young, but as adults we became uncharacteristically cynical each time we returned, eager to call attention to the park’s lapses in verisimilitude: the milliner surreptitiously texting beneath her apron; the two men dressed as farmhands, believing themselves out of earshot, discussing cyber-terrorism as they forked hay into a wagon.

Greenfield Village describes itself as a “living history” museum. Unlike most museums, where artifacts are displayed in vitrines, the park is emphatically “hands on.” Not only can you visit a nineteenth-century print shop where a man dressed in overalls operates a proof press with real ink, you can also attend one of the interactive workshops and make antique broadsides with your own two hands. On that summer morning, the Village was alive with the bustle of people making things. There were men tinkering in workshops, bent over bootjacks. There were women in calico dresses peddling flax wheels and kneading actual bread dough to be baked in functional coal ovens.

The park, completed in 1929, was the vanity project of Henry Ford, a man who years earlier had declared that “history is more or less bunk.” Later, he would clarify: written history was bunk, because it focused on politicians and military heroes rather than the common men who built America. Greenfield Village was his correction to the historical narrative. It was a place designed to celebrate the inventor, the farmer and the agrarian landscape that had given rise to self-made men like him. Ford had a number of historically significant buildings relocated to the park, including the Wright brothers’ cycle shop and Thomas Edison’s laboratory, both of which still stand on its grounds. But the park was never really about history—not, at least, in any objective sense. It was a sentimental recreation of the landscape of Ford’s boyhood. To this day, patrons can visit his family homestead, the one-room schoolhouse he attended and the workshop where he built his first car, buildings he not only relocated to the park but also faithfully outfitted with the decorative props he recalled from his youth.

Ford was evidently not alone in his longing for this bygone era. The park’s opening coincided with the Great Depression, a time when many people felt disillusioned with modernity and its narratives about progress. The Village, which evoked a way of life recent enough to have persisted in the memories of older visitors, attracted scores of Americans who felt alienated from the land because of urbanization and factory work, and who longed to return, if only momentarily, to the slower, more satisfying pace of pre-industrial life. In the Forties, park guides began their tours by encouraging patrons to “forget the hustle and bustle of the atomic age and return briefly to the simple, rugged life” their forefathers knew. The irony, of course, was that the way of life the park romanticized was precisely that which Ford had helped usher into obsolescence with the invention of the automobile and the modern factory. The Village was modernity’s elegy for an America that no longer existed, built by its most illustrious titan of industry.

Now here we were, some eighty years later, at the coda of another economic downturn. Throughout the worst years of the Recession, a crisis that hit Michigan particularly hard, Greenfield Village and its sister site, the Henry Ford Museum, had become more popular than ever. At a time when tourist attractions across Michigan were struggling just to keep their doors open, the Village actually saw a surge in attendance. This was the first time I’d been back since the financial crisis, and I’d never seen the park so crowded. We spent most of the morning standing in lines, uselessly fanning ourselves with park brochures. At the machine shop, we waited almost an hour so that my niece could use a turret lathe to make a brass candlestick. It was a tedious process that involved several complicated steps, each of which was accompanied by the docent’s plodding commentary. In the end, though, there was something undeniably satisfying in seeing raw material transformed into a concrete object. I remarked to my sister, as we watched her daughter operate the lathe, that it must be some comfort knowing that if the whole global infrastructure collapsed, at least one person in the family would be able to make decorative metalwork.

“It’s character building,” she replied.

There was, certainly, a moral aspect to these demonstrations. As the costumed docents explained each archaic skill, they stressed the time and care that went into each of these primitive crafts. The park seemed designed to be not only educational but also edifying; children were brought here so they could become acquainted with all manner of “traditional” virtues—hard work, diligence, collaboration, perseverance—whose relevance to our current economy was not, it occurred to me, entirely apparent. But maybe that was the point. If the park still persisted as a site of nostalgia, it was because it satisfied a more contemporary desire: to see a market that depended on the exchange of tangible goods, a world in which one’s labor resulted in predictable outcomes and the health of the economy relied on a vast collaborative workshop powered by the sweat of common people. There are, of course, different kinds of nostalgia, some more flexible than others. On that day, there was a restive energy throughout the park, as though the collective longing that had brought us here was undergirded by something more desperate.

It is difficult, in a place like Detroit, to avoid thinking about the past. The city is still associated with an industry that peaked in the middle of the last century, and has since succumbed to all the familiar culprits of urban decline—globalization, automation, disinvestment and a host of racist public policies. Perhaps it was destined from the start to collapse beneath the weight of the metaphorical import placed on its shoulders. During the Depression and throughout the years leading up to the Second World War, the city stood as a symbol of national strength, a thrumming life force pumping blood into the economy—associations that persist in the city’s epithets (the “arsenal of democracy”) and its industries’ ad campaigns (the “heartbeat of America”). For decades, the auto industry boasted the highest-paid blue-collar jobs in America, making Detroit a magnet for working people from all over the country.

Among the first waves of migrants was my great-grandfather, who in the Twenties abandoned his family’s tobacco farm in southern Kentucky to build Model Ts for the wage of five dollars a day. His son, my grandfather, grew up on Warren Avenue during the Depression, shoveling coal for nickels to help with his family’s expenses. These men, father and son, remained lucid and hale well into my adolescence. Between the two of them, plus a coterie of uncles who had given their best years to Chrysler, my childhood was steeped in nostalgia for the city’s glory years. Hardly a family holiday went by when my siblings and I were not made to remain at the table after the food had been cleared to listen to their recollections of the city. “They used to call us the Paris of the Midwest,” my grandfather would say. These were men who spoke of Henry Ford as a demigod, and for whom work, with all its attendant Protestant virtues, was a kind of religion. Their stories expressed a longing for a time when the country still relied on the brawn of men like themselves who had, despite coming from humble origins and not going to college, managed to lift their families into the middle class. But they were also meant for us children, the beneficiaries of all that hard work, whom they perhaps feared were growing up a little too comfortably in suburban exile.

From time to time, my grandfather would load us kids—my brothers and sisters and I—into the back of his Town Car and drive us downtown to see his old neighborhood. By the late Nineties, the area was a characteristic stretch of bricked-over storefronts and condemned buildings, but it had once been a thriving residential area built for the city’s auto workers, a neighborhood of single-family homes where Southern transplants like his family lived alongside immigrants from Mexico, Poland and Greece. “People came here from all over the world,” he told us. “Everyone lived together and got along.” It was a remark he repeated every time he took us downtown, and one that seemed to me, even as a child, suspiciously rosy. In fact, the racial zoning laws that segregated the city were already in force during the decades he lived there. It’s possible that he was being sentimental, infusing his recollections with the same sort of romanticism that had colored Ford’s vision of his pastoral boyhood. But I think he was also deliberately refashioning these memories, the way one does when imparting lessons to children. He was not speaking to a historical reality so much as evoking an ideal, one that has long been associated with Detroit: it was a place where anyone—regardless of education, race or how recently they had come to this country—could, through hard work, enter the middle class.

Nostalgia was on my mind that day as we walked along the dusty roads of Greenfield Village. The country was entering the home stretch of a historically tumultuous election season, one in which Detroit had been revived, once again, as symbol. This time, in the imagination of Donald Trump, the city—along with places like Cleveland, Pittsburgh and the Pennsylvania coal country—became an emblem of bungled trade deals and inept Washington bureaucrats, representing an America that had been left behind in an era of breakneck change. Pundits dubbed this the “politics of nostalgia,” but it was a yearning that felt different from my grandfather’s wistfulness for the city of his youth. To be sure, many of Trump’s platform points echoed grievances that had been loitering for decades in the op-ed pages of the Detroit Free Press and at dinner tables across Wayne County. But on the campaign trail these arguments were fed by something new, the raw energy of conspiracy and xenophobic scapegoating—a melancholia that longed to resurrect not only the economic landscape of mid-century America but also its racial and gender hierarchies.

Throughout the summer, I had watched many of my family members—men who, like my grandfather, had once extolled the city as a diverse and booming metropolis of yore—fall captive to these nativist reveries. If my sisters and I felt particularly uneasy about being at the Village that day, and more eager than usual to expose its artifice, it was because the park could, in some sense, be read as a lurid expression of that constituency’s vision of a nation made Great Again: a world before globalization and the advent of civil rights; a time when black Americans were relegated to tenant farms and women were hidden within the narrow confines of galley kitchens.

But the park had taken pains to revamp its sites in an effort to preempt this more thorny form of nostalgia. Throughout the Eighties and Nineties, the Village amended its mission to offer a more progressive view of history. In place of Ford’s celebration of self-made manhood, the sites now emphasized “community life.” The bucolic romanticism of Ford’s day had likewise been replaced with a focus on the shifting technological landscape of nineteenth-century America and the innovations that led to the first wave of the industrial revolution. The Village had become, in the words of its former president, “the great American museum of change.” An African-American Cultures program was added to address the history of racial injustice inherent in the park’s representations of the past, and the guide scripts had been expanded to highlight the contributions of immigrants, minorities and women.

Some of these revisions were a bit of a stretch. At the general store, a female docent showed my sisters and me an early wholesale catalog and insisted that women’s demand for consumer goods significantly shaped the economic landscape of the nineteenth century. I turned to my sisters to impart some ironic remark and was surprised to find them listening with attentiveness. By this point, we had caught up with my mom and the kids, and my sisters had become mothers again. They were watching the faces of their daughters; it is difficult to be cynical in the presence of children. We were, on that day, among hundreds of them—kids who had come from all parts of the city to learn about their nation’s history—and the park docents were doing their best to impart a version of that story that included everyone. If nothing else, we owed them this attempt.

In her 2001 book The Future of Nostalgia, the critic Svetlana Boym, who grew up in the Soviet Union, traces the different forms of nostalgia that emerged in post-communist Europe. Boym argues that the word’s two Greek roots—nostos, or the return home, and algia, or longing—embody two types of nostalgia that tend to arise in modern cultures: “reflective nostalgia” and “restorative nostalgia.” Reflective nostalgia thrives on the feeling of longing. As much as it might idealize or romanticize the past, it is a flexible form of nostalgia that interacts, in creative ways, with the present and the future. Much like the revised narratives of Greenfield Village, or my grandfather’s memories of Detroit, this brand of wistfulness is aware on some level that its visions of the past are illusory.

Restorative nostalgia, on the other hand, dwells in the feeling of nostos—returning home. It seeks not only to remember the lost homeland, but also to rebuild it. This more rigid orientation toward the past lies at the root of nationalist movements, and unlike reflective nostalgia, which can be ironic or playful, it tends to be severe, if not authoritarian. Those who are drawn to this kind of nostalgia, Boym notes, “do not think of themselves as nostalgic; they believe their project is about truth.” Rather than meditating on the sense of loss, restorative movements exploit this longing by blaming certain groups of people who have supposedly caused the loss of the homeland. The Nazi pogroms, Stalin’s Terror and McCarthy’s Red Scare, Boym argues, all appealed to restorative accounts of history. Such narratives are often fueled by conspiracy theories and a mythology of persecution.

Nostalgia almost always stems from an anxiety about modernity: the fear that progress is happening too fast, and that the past will be irrevocably lost. But restorative tendencies are more likely to emerge during especially dramatic periods of upheaval. Restorative movements often take root in the aftermath of revolutions, though they are also common during times of social and economic turbulence, particularly those that unsettle existing narratives about national identity. It is in such times, when the distance between reality and myth becomes unbridgeable, that nostalgia can coarsen into resentment and people begin hunting for someone to blame.

Here in Michigan, it’s hard not to sense that something fundamental shifted, or perhaps snapped, during the Recession—not necessarily at its nadir, but during the years that followed, when the news touted the “recovery” of the market while people throughout the state continued to lose their homes and their jobs. Any lingering belief that Detroit stood as symbol of the nation—that its prosperity and the rest of the country’s were intertwined—was shattered in 2013 when the city declared bankruptcy the same week the Dow and the S&P closed at record highs. The city had been through hard times before; but if the crisis had a particularly demoralizing effect this time around it is because it undermined, in a way that even the Great Depression had not, the populist myths that have long animated the region. There is an uneasiness here, a needling suspicion that the fruits of the economy do not correspond to the exertions of the nation’s labor force; that prosperity, once envisioned by Diego Rivera as an endless collaborative assembly line stretching into the future, is now a closed loop that ordinary people are locked out of. From such desperation, the natural tendency to reflect can evolve into a misguided effort to restore.

By the time we left the general store, the heat had become oppressive. The children were growing fractious, and the docents, with their Victorian cheeriness, were beginning to seem sinister. We made our way to the center of the Village, where there was a restored carousel, and each of us chose a painted animal; the children shared an antique bench carved to look like a swan. As the carousel began moving, the pipe organ churned out a kaleidoscopic rendition of “After the Ball,” and soon the Village, and its visions of the past, became a blur of green. On a gilded unicorn, a man in a United Auto Workers cap snapped a selfie with his unsmiling granddaughter. A mother idly straightened her daughter’s hijab. Everyone looked extremely tired.

The music stopped and the carousel slowed. People began collecting their bags and sliding their children off the wooden animals, but then the platform jolted and the carousel kicked back into gear. “Not over yet!” someone exclaimed. The man with the UAW cap joked about getting a two-for-one, and it became apparent that he was right: the ride seemed to have started over again. The organ played “After the Ball” from the beginning, though the tempo seemed slower this time and the melody began to warble, as though it were slipping into a minor key. As we wheeled around toward the operator box, I tried to determine whether anyone was manning the controls, but it was impossible to see inside. The other passengers seemed blithely resigned to our fate. It was hot, and the spinning created a welcome breeze. My mother was riding sidesaddle on a painted camel, texting. The children were narcotized, hair pasted against their temples, their eyelids weighted and fighting sleep. It was only when the music ended and we continued circling in silence that people began to look up with a dawning sense of alarm and seek out each other’s gaze, as though everyone had collectively begun to wonder how we were going to get off.

Art credit: Pat Perry

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This essay was published in
the “What is America for?” symposium
in issue 13 of The Point.
To read the rest of the issue,
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