Cass Cafe/Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs


Artwork at Cass Cafe by John Brown.

Artwork at Cass Cafe by John Brown.


My flight back to New York is tomorrow and I’m about ready to wrap things up.  But before I do, a word of thanks is in order.

The two places where I’ve spent the most time here in Detroit have probably been the Cass Cafe and the Walter Reuther P. Library of Labor and Urban Affairs.  I always feel strange about becoming a “regular” anywhere.  I’m not sure where to draw the line in terms of the etiquette.  Am I supposed to greet the people there with a sense of familiarity, like, “Hey, it’s me again!”, or just feign anonymity in a deliberate attempt to perpetuate the fantasy that we don’t recognize each other?

Normally, I try to avoid this Larry David-ish predicament by not going to the same places over and over again.  However, Cass Cafe and I ended up in a shotgun wedding of sorts because the second time that my roommate, Michelle, and I moved this month it was to an apartment with no internet connection.  What’s more, the wifi at Wayne State University is restricted to matriculated students.  

cass cafe

Cass Cafe has the combination of a speedy wifi connection and a high tolerance for weird dudes sitting by themselves for hours typing, and thus became my easiest means for adding to this narrative.

I never felt especially hungry when I was there, but I would order food items occasionally just to stay in the good graces of the staff and management.  Cass Cafe’s most popular dish is its lentil burger, which I found very tasty and filling, but the real scene-stealer, restaurant review-wise, was a bowl of borscht that I had there on Wednesday of last week.  I wasn’t even hungry, I only ordered it because it was the cheapest item on the menu, but I gobbled it right up as soon as it arrived.

In addition to a cafe and bar, Cass Cafe is also a functioning art gallery.  In general, the place feels like a headquarters of sorts for the various strands of the Cass Corridor scene, a culture with a lot of history and accomplishments to its name, but which also strikes me as elusive and ephemeral, which may be unavoidable because there are so many parts of the Cass Corridor area that are so dangerous.


Stage set up for a show at Cass Cafe.

Stage set up for a show at Cass Cafe.


Just now, I went outside to take a picture of the Cass Cafe from the street, and as I was coming back in an African American man and woman flagged me down.  The man had a pad of paper and a pen, and he asked me if I could tell him what would be the “best bad news” that I could imagine being told by a friend or family member.  I said that the best bad news would be to learn that that person had received a job offer that was lucrative and exciting, but in a very distant location, so I wouldn’t be able to see them very much anymore.

“That’s profound,” the man said.  “I’m going to put that in my book.”

The woman said that her idea of the best bad news would be if her mother, who is 50, told her that she was pregnant.  “I’m the oldest, and she’s already 50, so I know I’m going to end up taking care of it,” she explained.

In any case: thank you, Cass Cafe: I couldn’t have done this without you.

The Reuther Library is located only a few blocks up Cass Avenue from the Cass Cafe.  As the Library website boasts, “The Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs is the largest labor archive in North America.”  It is mostly useful for scholars of labor history, but I went with the objective of learning about community organizations in Detroit.  There is a lot to be found on those types of organizations, especially in regard to the manner in which they organized and formulated responses to the urban renewal program in the 1950’s and 60’s.

Reading Room at the Reuther Library.

Reading Room at the Reuther Library.

Reuther, the library’s namesake, was president of the United Auto Workers from 1946 until his death in plane crash on May 19, 1970.  Reuther’s most legendary accomplishment is probably the 1937 Battle of the Overpass, in which the Ford Motor Company utilized hired gangsters, wrestlers, and a noted boxer to seriously fuck up Reuther and numerous other UAW organizers who were distributing union literature outside the gates of Ford’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn.

“Reuther was picked up and thrown down repeatedly and was kicked in the face and body,” reads the brief narrative of the Battle of the Overpass at the website of the Henry Ford Museum.  “He was then thrown down the steps of the overpass.”  And that’s just what happened to Reuther himself: fellow UAW organizer Victor Frankensteen was “kicked in the head, kidneys, and groin” and Richard T. Merriweather’s “back was broken.”

The decision to dispatch such violence backfired on Ford, as the National Labor Relations Act had already been passed in 1935, giving FoMoCo few legal options in the situation, and grisly images from the melee were circulated throughout the national media.  

Walter Reuther (left) and Victor Frankensteen (right) following the Battle of the Overpass.

Walter Reuther (left) and Victor Frankensteen (right) following the Battle of the Overpass.

Ford won the battle, in other words, but lost the war, and ceded union recognition to the UAW by 1941.

Boxes containing files from the various collections at Reuther.

Boxes containing files from the various collections at Reuther.

 Attention must be paid to the fact that Reuther has been criticized on a wide variety of fronts, in particular regarding the way that he contributed to McCarthyism by purging the UAW of its radical left wing as soon as he became president of the union.  That said, the Library named for Reuther at Wayne State styles itself as something of a monument to the man, and I had a fun time, while I was there, reveling in the notion that I was working in a sacred space, a shrine to a hero of the labor movement. 

Plaque adjacent to the elevator in the welcome area at Reuther Library.

Plaque adjacent to the elevator in the welcome area at Reuther Library.

Also, despite the McCarthy-era purge, the Library contains the records of many organizations, individuals, and factions whose politics are significantly to the left of  Reuther himself, including the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, and Detroit mayor Coleman A. Young, who was himself purged as a Communist from his position as an organizer in the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1948.

I would like to say “Thank you, Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs.  I couldn’t have done this without you”–just as I did with Cass Cafe–but I can’t.  

The work that I did at Reuther was research for my dissertation, not for this narrative, and my dissertation has yet to be completed.  I hope to be able to thank the Reuther Library someday, in the manner that it surely deserves, but the problem with writing a dissertation is that it is a project whose true shape and meaning only reveal themselves at the very end, after it has already been written.  This is what I have been told, in any case.

Dissertation writing: the whole thing has a deeply mystical feel, like reading tea leaves or gazing into a crystal ball.  This inherent characteristic of the project may also have contributed to my feeling that doing work at Reuther was like visiting an oracle, although I’m not at all convinced that this is a good thing.

Thank you, Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs: If I crash and burn with this thing, it at least won’t be your fault.

~ by electrorefutedrobo on August 30, 2009.

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