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John J. Bukowczyk


In 1976, the United States of America celebrated its two hundredth birthday. Faced with increasing social and racial unrest, economic disparity, and international crisis, national leaders hoped to use the Bicentennial of the American Revolution to re-focus the public imagination. But for cities like Detroit---crippled by continual suburban out-migration, racial unrest, and infrastructural decay---the Bicentennial provided more than a reason for parades. The Detroit pro-growth coalitions seized the Bicentennial as a celebration of their ideas for an urban Renaissance: the national commemoration of the Revolution provided not only the funding for elaborate urban renewal projects, but also the ideological justification. Scholarship that deals with memory quite often seeks to unravel the cultural or even political meanings in the rituals of commemoration; this study asks instead, what were the consequences of commemoration? Born of a desire to connect two current historical methodologies---social and cultural history---this dissertation focuses on the tangible and substantive results of a particular commemoration. This dissertation argues that cultural meanings can have material results. While urban renewal efforts in Detroit did not begin with the Bicentennial, the nation's birthday provided excellent incentive to direct funds and attention to the public and corporate spaces of a decaying downtown. As a consequence, the Bicentennial became a celebration of pro-growth relationships, and the physical results of them. The Detroit Bicentennial Commission (DBC) was not interested in creating a dialogic place memory. Despite the attempt to invite members of the public to sit on the DBC advisory committees, the DBC's interpretation of the Bicentennial's meaning for Detroit was largely prescriptive rather than collaborative or representative. Working in conjunction with Detroit's redevelopment interests, the DBC was not so much interested in opening channels for shared authority and community dialogue as it was in creating comforting and beguiling feelings for the city's future plans, and the plans of their business partners. While memory is political, it does not always lead to open negotiation and class consciousness. Instead commemorations can reinforce the legitimacy of those in power and raise social capital for activities with limited social and economic benefit.

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