Worth A Thousand Words: A Chat with George Bulanda

In George Bulanda's latest book, The Way It Was, Part 2, a compilation of Detroit photos dating from 1869-1980, a shot of a mariachi band and dancer at the Mexican Festival in 1975 stands out. It looks rainy – the ground has a sheen – yet there's the band, striking it up in the parking lot. This image could reflect a trial-ridden city's outshining of the rain, a fete of ethnic diversity – or both. The delight to readers is that nostalgia also leaves room for interpretation.

Bulanda's work is a compilation of "The Way It Was" photo features appearing on the back page of each issue of HOUR Detroit magazine from 2005-11. Bulanda, a history buff who grew up around the Palmer Park area of Detroit and has served as HOUR Detroit's managing editor since 1999, still curates each photo and writes the accompanying text. Most of the images are sourced from the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University. While elements of the magazine sometimes run their course over the years, Bulanda calls "The Way It Was" a standby.

"I've lost track of the people who say, 'I always start the magazine with the back page and then work my way forward. A lot of that comes from young people too," Bulanda says. "I mean, certainly people who've lived through an era say, 'Oh I remember that.' But a lot of young people will say, 'I never know Detroit had all those stores. I never knew there were that many shoppers on Woodward Avenue.' So I think it appeals to a broad spectrum of readers."

Metromode's Tanya Muzumdar talks with Bulanda to put some context on The Way It Was, Part 2, and focus in on a few of the images.

Detroit is a city still fighting the ugly stepsister stereotype. What is the most pressing responsibility you have in terms of portrayal of the city to the public?

One thing I don't do is the ruin porn. I'm so tired of that. People seem to have a gleeful fascination with burned-out buildings and crumbled structures like the Packard Plant and the train station, and I don't include them in The Way It Was because people don't want to remember ruins, they want to remember a thing as it was in its heyday. So you're not going to find photos of crumbing buildings and decay. It's just overdone. It's a cliché. It is the way it was, not the way it is now. I always say The Way It Was is a scrapbook of the city. And what do people include in their scrapbooks? They include happy memories, fond memories. I don't think we need to include pictures of overturned cars on fire during the 1943 riots or any of the devastation of the '67 riots.

That isn't to say I don't make reference to social problems at the time. There is a photograph, in fact, of a group of African Americans, men, watching a baseball game at Navin Field, which later became Tiger Stadium. It was 1913 but they were in the segregated section.

I was struck by the photo from 1936, the scene from Detroit's Water Works Park. It reminded me of a Monet painting with all the light and crowds of folks dallying in the pool. The accompanying text says all that remains is the Hurlbut Memorial Gate facing Jefferson.

And not in very good shape. That big tower, the pressure tower, was torn down. But just look at the number of people in there swimming. What you have to keep in mind, in the '30s and '40s, Detroit was so densely populated. It was just packed, until about 1950 and then it started to lose population. Detroit lost 10% of its population between 1950 and 1960. That might not seem like a lot, but there were almost two million people living in Detroit proper in 1950. I think it was 1,850,000, something like that. This was pre-mall, so you see the sea of people downtown. There weren't a lot of places to shop, other than downtown.... But if you turn to 1949, you've got the Santa Claus looking at all those throngs of people on Woodward, but in a few years malls would start opening in the suburbs and it just drew people away from the center city.

And today a wastewater-treatment facility sits on the site, and obviously the remains of the gate, as opposed to the beautiful scene we had from 1936. What does that say about progress?

It says more about the decay of the city and the decay of the finances of the city of Detroit. Detroit used to be renowned for its parks and the upkeep of parks. Palmer Park, Belle Isle, and Rouge Park is by far the largest park in the city. It says a lot about Detroit's horrible financial situation.

What are your favorite images?

I like the cover shot in 1929 of the Guardian Building with that starburst. It so well encapsulated what Detroit was in 1929. That was a period of tremendous growth, tremendous wealth, in the city. And with that big starburst it's almost as if, and then you can see the light on top of the Penobscot Building too, it's almost as if it's saying 'World, look at us. We're growing, we're a force to be reckoned with. We're the fourth largest city in the country.' And it probably seemed at that time the growth was boundless. But of course what happened later in 1929 was the collapse of the stock market. It hit Detroit particularly hard...

One of my favorite pictures is the Supremes with George Romney, who's Mitt Romney's father. He was governor of Michigan at the time. And the State Fair got some of the top acts, entertainment acts, during the '60s. And I guess Governor Romney was just presenting in there. He looks out of place on the one hand, but then he looks completely comfortable, as though he's the fourth Supreme. Just that shot is very funny to me.

I like the Madison Theatre too, because I remember seeing movies at the Madison. There's just something kind of melancholy about it, even though Dan Gilbert saved that building and it's occupied. The theater is gone....

There's a picture of Sanders in 1945. We used to have one in our neighborhood in Highland Park, at Woodward and Davison, which has been torn down. Now that little boy 20 years on, I could have been that little boy.

I love that one, also from 1945, where you see that woman, the aerialist jumping over the city, and you have to look closely to see the board under her. She looks suspended in air. That was part of her act, Betty and Benny Fox. They would do these death defying acts over large cities in downtown, and people would congregate underneath... I like it because she looks like she's just part of the skyline.

Of all the images presented in the book, although the most recent dates from 1980, which is the most evocative of the Detroit of today?

So many of the buildings are gone. Like Kerns is gone. Hudsons is gone. I'm not sure that anything is evocative of today. Some places are still extant. For a while, all the Sanders closed. And now there are several that have opened...There's a picture of the Madison Theatre from 1961. Well, the Madison Theatre has been gutted, but Dan Gilbert rehabbed that building and it's occupied again. So although there are a lot of events and places and people who are gone, there are a few at least that still have some ties to the present.

The cover of the book, which has got the Guardian Building on there, that's still standing. And Saint Florian's Church is still there in Hamtramck. There's still some connection to the present, but I don't think anything looks the way it did fifty, sixty, seventy years ago. Things can't remain the same.


Tanya Muzumdar is a freelance writer and assistant editor of Metromode and Concentrate. Her previous article was "Double Lives: Ben Sharkey".
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