By day, Paul Sewick is a humble bookkeeper doing accounts receivable work at the Detroit Institute of Arts. But away from work, he brings the same meticulousness to an unusual avocation: Detroit history.
For instance, Sewick wrote the Corktown History blog while he lived in Corktown from 2005 to 2015. We’ve long considered it one of the better blogs about Detroit in general. Over the course of several years, Sewick’s site featured literate essays on, say, the widening of Michigan Avenue in the 1930s, or the creation of Roosevelt Park in the 1910s.
Sewick does it all without a degree in history. It’s not easy being what some call a “amateur historian,” if only because a lot of the people who try their hand at writing history are sometimes tremendous data aggregators without storytelling skills, or storytellers who lack the meticulous skill needed to back up the research end of it.
But Sewick’s blog posts had a knack for approaching questions in Corktown’s history and turning them into satisfying and readable accounts of what happened when. They’re a terrific introduction for people who didn’t realize the history, or an interesting walkthrough for people who thought they knew the story. The humble Sewick says it doesn’t come naturally.
“I’m definitely much stronger in the accumulation of information,” he says, laughing modestly. “Storytelling, even conversational speaking, my thoughts don’t flow very well. The truth is I rewrite each paragraph over and over and over again to get something that flows and sounds natural. I have to work very, very hard to get results like that.”
Thankfully, Sewick’s work pays off. It also has to do with the interesting questions that prod him into action. It might be a rumor from the past or an question from the present, prompted by something as simple as a bend in the road.
“Actually, when I start a post, I don’t really know anything about the subject,” Sewick says. “I have to do the research as I’m writing it. I’m not really cueing up information I have stored up. I only learn when I’m writing an article.”
Then there are the special challenges of being a historian in Detroit, a town that has laid waste to more of its history than most, where buildings may stand as briefly as 20 years before being knocked down for something new. In many cities, you’d be able to look at the intact buildings and architectures; in many cases, in Corktown, you’re surrounded by vestiges of what used to be, where things are rumored to have been. This relatively unusual circumstance is familiar enough to him to cause laughter, as it’s interwoven with Corktown’s history.
“In the ’50s they wanted to build Cobo Hall,” Sewick says, “but there was a small warehouse district where they wanted to build the convention center, so to keep these small machine shops and warehouses in the city, they decided to demolish Corktown, which they considered to be blighted. About half the neighborhood was wiped out, despite very strong, very well-organized, and emotional protests from the neighborhood. They went ahead and relocated everybody, made payouts to the property owners, and they have a small light industrial district today that’s still standing and still has businesses running.”
“And Corktown has taken multiple hits, not just from that, but there’s been several other road widenings, including Michigan Avenue, and Rosa Parks Boulevard was widened so everything on the east side of the road was demolished. The Lodge Freeway cut through Corktown, I-75 cut through Corktown, so you have all these road projects and demolitions that just pummeled the neighborhood for a century.”
Also, the neighborhood’s two busy light rail lines were decommissioned, which put quite a strain on the neighborhood in the form of baseball fans needing a place to park.
“With Tiger Stadium,” Sewick says, “parking was a huge thing, because you had houses that were cheap to buy and you had a steady supply of easy income if you just knocked the house down: People would come and give you money to park your car there. So a lot of these people who had parking lots that made a lot of money by demolishing historic houses. So, in a way, it’s good that Tiger Stadium was moved out of the neighborhood. A lot of people would disagree with that, but I think there’d be even fewer houses if the stadium had still been there for another 15 years.”
“We’re lucky to have what little we have left,” the blogger says. “Corktown was huge and vast and dense 100 years ago, and we’re lucky to have what we have, but it’s a very small fragment of what once was.”
Ironically, this challenge brings out something special in Sewick’s historical research: If you can’t find what was there, you end up writing about what indicates it used to be there. It’s a strange way for an urban historian to hit pay dirt, but it works, as Sewick plies the poignant remains and points to their hidden portent.
“In Corktown, there are a few streets that suddenly take a weird crook, and you wonder why that is,” he says. “You find out that exact spot where the sidewalk takes this little bend is a border between two different ribbon farms that were subdivided in two different ways. It’s interesting to think that you’re standing on the border where there once was a fence between two farms and that property line and that difference has been preserved, you know, 100 or 200 years later in the sidewalk that we have. Or why does this one street suddenly end? A lot of those questions have answers that are, you know, discoverable.”
The Corktown History blog project drew to a close last year when Sewick moved to Farmington Hills. But Sewick continues to write history — he’s just opened his aperture a bit. His new project is called Detroit Urbanism, a blog he says “just a broader view of the same things that happened in Corktown, how Detroit set its shape, basically: anything that had to do with shaping the map of the region and historical events that left a mark on the map. That stuff is always fascinating to me.”
For some of the topics Sewick has already covered, you wonder why there aren’t already well-known works answering the questions he wrestles with, particularly where the First Nations are concerned. Sewick went back to primary research from the early 19th century in his search for where the original native trails ran, or where the original settlements were.
Sewick certainly has plenty of ground to cover. The native peoples are a relatively overlooked underlayment to an area coated with many histories, which Sewick intends to peel back like so many layers of paint. Detroit has adopted or inherited plans and then modified them or thrown them out the window for hundreds of years, from the Indian trails to the French ribbon farms to the Woodward Plan to the 10,000-acre tract.
Speaking of that last plan — the broad 10,000-acre swath of land that makes up central Detroit and much of Highland Park and Hamtramck — Sewick says it’s going to be a future blog post for sure. It’s where Augustus Woodward fought his last battle for a city of triangular parcels, broad thoroughfares, and public plazas, a plan one historian later called “one of the most unusual city plans ever devised.” Instead, Lewis Cass and others pushed ahead and sold rectangular farms where Woodward had planned his metropolis.
“Woodward was furious that they were just selling farms in the city,” Sewick says. “He argued that this is a city, and it should follow a city plan. And no one listened to him.”
But if Detroiters down the years had answered the call of Woodward, if we had a city with a marvelous plan that stuck to it, producing a city with orderly streets that stretched to the horizon? What would Sewick have to write about then?
“There wouldn’t be as much to write about,” Sewick says. “But I think that’s a good point, that the chaos and the obscurity, the reason why the map looks the way it does, is why I’m able to find something to write about. My work is cut out for me. When I see the jumble of streets on a map that don’t line up and dead end, that’s a post waiting to be written, you know?”