Labor Monuments

Transcending” labor legacy landmark                   Photo from Brian Callahan’s flikr post.

It seems fitting that Transcending — a labor legacy landmark on Detroit’s riverfront — sits on the spot of one of my ancestor’s former work sites.
And the UAW-Ford National Programs Center building sits on another. Both are monuments to labor.

It’s a fortuitous coincidence that these monuments occupy the sites of my grandmother’s initial foray into the labor market of a growing industrial city.  In my mind, the aptly named Transcending commemorates her, and generally speaking our family’s, move from the farm to the city, the transition from the agrarian to the industrial age.

Sarah Livingstone posing in one of the millinery’s hats in 1901

Sarah Campbell Livingstone [later McCrie] came to Detroit with her mother and siblings in 1897, the year after her father died on the family farm near Alviston, Ontario. She was 21 years old.

Sarah went to business school for six months and began working as a stenographer for the H. T. Bush Produce Company on Woodbridge Street in downtown Detroit. The company was on the first floor of a two-story building whose upstairs occupant was the American Eagle Tobacco Company. She earned $6.00 a week.

Four years later she doubled her earnings when she went to work as a stenographer for Mitchell, Harris & Company, a wholesale millinery two blocks away on Jefferson Avenue near Griswold Street. She worked there for about 10 years.

Advertising flyer for Mitchell, Harris & Co. dating to 1901

That area of Detroit was long ago re-purposed and is now the location of Hart Plaza, filled with monuments, fountains, footpaths, and memorials on the riverfront.

Using the 1897 Detroit street directory and Sanborn fire insurance map, as well as an 1885 map of the area, one can pinpoint the locations of her former work sites with the help of Google Earth:

• H. T. Bush Produce Company was located where the present day UAW-Ford National Programs Center (formerly the Veterans Memorial) building sits.

• Mitchell, Harris & Company was located where the Transitioning labor legacy landmark now stands.

An 1885 Detroit map overlaid on present day Hart Plaza and Renaissance Center.
Sarah Livingstone worked in the buildings outlined in red.

The next time I visit Detroit I’d like to make a trip to Hart Plaza and stand where she stood over a hundred years ago. Closing my eyes, I’ll think of her among an army of produce, fish, dry goods, tobacco, lumber, clothing, machinery, and millinery workers bustling among the offices, warehouses and shops of bygone Detroit. A farm girl turned urban woman, laboring to make a living for herself and family, and soon, in 1912, to marry James W. McCrie and make a family of her own.

Transitioning is a monument designed for reflection on the importance of labor. When I next visit, it will also be a place to reflect on the transience of time and on the importance of family.


If the Big Bang theory is correct, the universe began 14 billion years ago.

If fundamentalists are correct, the universe was created seven thousand years ago.

If I’m correct, the universe always existed.

The question of origins arose as I was reading Neil deGrasse Tyson’s book, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. I think the title is a euphemism for “people who want the Reader’s Digest version of astrophysics because they’re too lazy or dumb to plow through a scientific tome.” That pretty much describes me.

The book is small, about paperback sized, and has only 218 pages. But still, I was lost by the end of the first paragraph, the one introducing the Big Bang theory:

“In the beginning, nearly fourteen billion years ago, all the space and all the matter and all the energy of the known universe was contained in a volume less than one-trillionth the size of the period that ends this sentence.”

Huh? All the matter and energy of the universe crammed into the volume of a pin point? (It almost makes me want to ask how many angels could dance on the head of it.) But if such a micro dot really existed, where did all this matter and energy come from (there was no universe, after all, to forge it from), how was it constructed (given its inherent instability), why did it suddenly materialize, and just how the heck did everything fit inside it?

However, if scientists have posed a theory that raises as many questions as it answers, their religious brethren seem to be in the same boat (or ark, as it may be). For if gods created the universe, where did they come from? Did they always exist, as logic would suggest, indicating there really is no ultimate origin? Where do they live, outside of the universe, given they couldn’t very well have existed inside a universe they hadn’t yet created?

From a less cosmic and more human perspective, why did gods create mankind on a tiny speck in a universe billions of light years across? If mankind is the pinnacle of creation, why create such an enormous universe to obscure and endanger our presence? (Remember we’re probably talking about gods existing outside this universe, and if they’re looking in on us, they’d have to have uncommon visual skills to see us at such incredible distance and behind all the monstrous galaxies and dark matter that surround us.) And why put us on an orb destined for inevitable extinction from flying cosmic debris?

To my mind, the faithful and the scientists are looking at the universe through opposite ends of a telescope, the former seeing our world blown up to a significance well beyond its size, and the latter seeing the universe shrunk infinitesimally small in order to explain its origin. Me, I’m wondering if maybe we should set the telescope aside for a minute.

The intractability of the origin question leads me to wonder if maybe we’re anthropomorphizing the issue. People are born, we all have origins, so maybe we’re trying to see the universe in the same way. But what if the universe always existed? What if the universe’s expansion, as detected by scientific instruments, is simply part of a recurring cycle of repeated expansion and contraction over endless cycles of billions of years?

To me that makes as much sense as time and space having a beginning. If you can believe that gods existed forever (as it seems they must), you can just as easily believe that the universe existed forever. The recurring formation and destruction of stars and other objects through collisions of cosmic matter under the influences of nuclear, electro-magnetic, gravitational, and dark energy forces in the universe might argue against true beginnings and ends, just the perpetual metamorphosis of matter and energy.

Tyson’s book is a nice synopsis of current astrophysical science, I recommend a reading of it. It explains, among other things, the reasoning behind the Big Bang theory in layman’s terms. It’s perhaps my shortcoming that I couldn’t logically grasp the universe in a microdot. But if nothing else, it also served the purpose of getting me to thinking about my own concept of origin: namely, what if there were none?

P.S.: Tyson is also a fountain pen fan. An interview with him on his collection is on YouTube.