Windsor 3: the border

It’s been a while since my previous post, as grading final papers, the holidays, and an addition to the family took precedence over writing here the last few weeks. But it’s now 2018, the winter semester is just underway, and I am turning my attention back to Windsor, which I have written about on this blog a couple of times before. My relationship with Windsor is a strange one that has developed over several years of being in the city, initially expecting to be somewhere else, then actually living in a different city but still working in Windsor and commuting on a weekly basis, and (very soon) being back in Windsor on a full-time basis. It is a little disorienting and limiting to be in a place but not feel totally of it, but in that respect at least I have the luxury of choosing my limitations and enjoying both mobility and a carefully constructed spatial distance between work and home. While the latter will soon come crashing down (the subject for a different post much later), I am currently engaged in some serious rethinking of my relationship with Windsor as a place and a community, and what I might contribute to it as I (re)settle in for a longer haul here.

To prevent this from becoming a confessional in which I reveal my love-hate experience with Windsor, let me turn then to the new semester and the graduate course I am co-teaching with Dr. Rob Nelson, a colleague from the University of Windsor’s Department of History, on the border. More specifically, we are focusing on the spatial history of Windsor and Detroit as a border region, looking especially at the geographical-historical transformation of Windsor-Detroit, and of the construction of the area by, around, and sometimes against the presence of the US-Canada international boundary. This is new territory for me, both because I have never properly team-taught a class over the course of a whole semester, and I have only ever dabbled in the material on borders and boundaries in my other courses. This is my first sustained attempt to grapple with the complexity of border theory, and my first deep dive into the local history and geography of the Windsor-Detroit region. Part of what I hope we can do in the course, though, is to break down the idea of local history, since the kinds of spatial connections and transformations that have made Windsor, Detroit, and the border region are not confined to a pre-given local scale, but built from dynamic patterns of human interaction with and movement through these spaces, and connections with many other far-flung locations, flows, and communities. The US-Canada boundary itself remains, in the grand scheme of things, a relatively recent innovation in spatial practice, and the spatial practices shaped by and dependent on its presence are themselves socially, politically, geographically, and temporally uneven. The boundary today has a much bigger impact, for example, on Windsor than it does on Detroit, the result of population differentials, economic orientation, position within a national urban hierarchy, and highly localized patterns and processes of urban investment and disinvestment.

detroit comeback
If you’re seeing Detroit like this, then you’re probably standing somewhere in Windsor, on the other side of an international boundary. Photo from michigan.org.

The course starts this week and I am hopeful that I can post a few more times about it here as the semester wears on. We are also hoping that a number of interesting and insightful student projects emerge from this and that we (students, faculty, and the university as a whole) can build on this to further the university’s capacity for research on borders, especially our own localized piece of border, and for carrying out the kind of geographical-historical “spatial history” research that is at the foundation of our approach to the course. This involves bringing together the insights of historical and geographical conceptions of time and space, and visualizing long-range spatial and temporal dynamics: the historical narrative of place and change over time is enriched by a geographical sensibility emphasizing the importance of spatial representation and practice, including the articulation of boundaries, the administration of territorial control, and the management of populations in place. If that’s a lot of impenetrable jargon, let me say it more simply: geographers and historians tell different stories about places and historical change, and the goal here is to weave them together, but in a way that produces an understanding of (in this case) the border region that is more than just the sum of its parts.

For any readers interested in this little experiment of a class (and it is that, for the moment at least), I’m making available here a bare-bones version of the syllabus we’ve put together. I will update the blog with tales of Windsoria-as-border-town periodically this semester, and am excited to see how the students develop their projects through this course. The spatial history approach draws on digital history, mapping, and other forms of non-text visualization in challenging ways, especially for students (and faculty!) who are more accustomed to writing and textual presentation. So check back often for news from the classroom, if that floats your boat.

And finally, as an addendum to something in my previous post on Windsor (“Windsor 2: is Windsor racist?”), the local police apprehended a suspect in the rash of graffiti appearing across parts of Windsor’s downtown and west end, arresting a Windsor man after he was reportedly caught on video spray-painting graffiti at a downtown business on December 13. The graffiti was strange, ostensibly favoring the implementation of sharia law, and noting that “Islam executes drug dealers,” giving the impression that Windsor was home to a strong and growing community of Muslim extremists. The man arrested, however, is not Muslim. The police have charged him with vandalism and mischief, but some observers in the city, including local Muslim leaders, Muslim student advocates at the university, and faculty and other community members wondered why the graffiti, which first appeared in the summer and specifically targets a particular religious group with politically charged statements designed to instil public distrust and suspicion, could not be considered a hate crime under Ontario legislation. An open letter to the Windsor police chief followed. The discussion continues, but this story from the Windsor Star contains the pertinent information on the debate and a link to the letter itself, which I have signed as well.