Local historian pens “Detroit: An Illustrated Timeline”

"Detroit: An Illustrated Timeline" by Paul Vachon (2019)

DETROIT — Paul Vachon is a lifelong resident of Detroit, Michigan. He earned a B.A. degree in liberal arts from Sacred Heart Seminary College in Detroit 1982. He is a freelance writer and author specializing in local history, historical preservation and popular culture.

“I became a writer when the economic recession in 2008 ended my previous career,” Vachon explained. “I worked in the retail trade. Writing is something that I always wanted to do so I took the opportunity to embrace it. I lived in the Detroit area my entire life. The history of the area was always a strong interest of me.”

Vachon has written several books chronicling the history of The Motor City. His latest hardcover book “Detroit: An Illustrated Timeline” was released on May 1, 2019. It takes a look back at the 300-year plus history of Motown.

“This is my most ambitious undertaking to date,” he said in an exclusive phone interview. “It is a coffee table, hardcover style book that Reedy Press from St. Louis, Missouri, approached me about two years ago to write. It follows a formula that they came up with based on an earlier title that they had done about the St. Louis area where they are based. The series is set up about a series of vignettes of text–each of which are arranged chronologically. Each one describes a certain event in Detroit’s history.

“Detroit was founded in 1701 which was quite a while ago. Most of the material and subject matter in the early decades is related to military things whereas Detroit was set up as a military outpost by the French to keep the British at bay. The economy in the area was based on the fur trade. As the 18th century became the 19th century, Detroit became more of an industrial area. There were several different industries–stone building, railroad car building and other industries that sprang from the industrial revolution. As the auto industry emerged, Detroit was the center of that. My book gives highlights of all of those things.”

Since your book is in chronological order, does it begin with Detroit’s founding in 1701?

“It actually starts a little earlier than that. The city was founded by the French in 1701. But I actually talked about the movement of some Native American tribes in the decades prior to that. It goes up to about eight years ago when the city filed for bankruptcy protection. It covers over 300 years of history.”

How would you say Detroit: An Illustrated Timeline is similar or different from your previous books?

“Well, it’s more extensive first of all. It’s a lot more words. It relies on illustrations as my other books did. But I think, perhaps, a bit more so. Even thought you are reading my history, there are many places that are historic in nature but are still present today. The modern photography in the book I took myself. There’s also a large, large amount of vintage images that are either historic photographs from different sources or in some cases postcards and even newspaper clippings and that sort of thing.”

What are your thoughts about businesspeople like Dan Gilbert and The Ilitch Family and the resurgence of Detroit?

“I am very, very grateful that, over the last several decades, but especially the last 10 years, that citizens who have a great deal of means, such as the people you mentioned and ordinary citizens too, to come into Detroit and try to revive it. We owe a debt of gratitude to all of those people. Dan Gilbert is someone who I single out as the most impactful and most influential with the enormous amount of investment he’s done and that’s attracted other investment too.

“The Ilitch family has also done likewise. I think their dealings are not 100 percent honest with the community as they should be. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude. But I think some of their recent shortcomings about building what they call The District Detroit, which is the area surrounding the new hockey arena, they haven’t really lived up to their promises. That doesn’t mean that they won’t and certainly that there isn’t good things coming out of that. Right now, personally, I’ve been disappointed there. At the same time, too, I want to recognize their contributions, which are enormous. They invested in the city at a time when no one else would do it. Particularly with the Fox Theatre restoration that was done back in the late 1980’s.”

Does your new book mention Roger Penske and the bringing back of the Detroit Grand Prix?

“No, I didn’t cover that. I had to be selective about what I could cover. That is not in the book but it’s certainly something that’s noteworthy.”

How did you land on the year 2008 to where you would finish the book?

“I just thought that the city’s bankruptcy was pretty much a natural punctuation mark, a fitting point at which to end it. In the conclusion, the epilogue that follows that, I talk about some things that are more recent. But it’s more my personal reflections. I like to look back in order to look forward. There’s an exhibit at the Detroit Historical Museum right now that’s still going to be there through the balance of this year. It was put there in 2017 when the city marked the 50th anniversary of the 1967 insurrection. The name of the exhibit is Looking Backward to Look Forward. I really, really like that title. I think Detroit has gotten to a point where it can learn from the mistakes of its past.”

I’m curious, did you mention the Michigan Central Train Depot?

“In the conclusion, I did mention it because it was right around the time that I was finishing the manuscript when Ford Motor Company announced their acquisition of the train station and their plans to renovate it for a new mobility research location. I do mention that but I don’t have a lot of detailed information because it happened right around the time I was finishing the book.”

Some people call the old train station an eyesore while others are happy to see the historic building get renovated.

“I assure you that when they get done with it that no one will call it an eyesore.”

I noticed that you held a few book signings in May. How was your book received by the public?

“Those went very, very well. It’s been pretty well received wherever I’ve gone. People seem to really like the book and it seems to be doing quite well.”

Look for Paul Vachon’s “Detroit: An Illustrated Timeline” at Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Paper Trail Books in Royal Oak, Barnes & Noble locations in Michigan and on Amazon.

LISTEN: My Interview with Paul Vachon, author of “Detroit: An Illustrated Timeline.”

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