College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
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Anthropology of the City tells story of Detroit's past and present

Date: 4/4/2016
Wayne State anthropology students unearth artifacts in Detroit's Roosevelt Park.

Wayne State University prides itself in education outside of the classroom. In many cases the city of Detroit has become the classroom. Anthropology of the City is one such example. This unique collaboration blends several Department of Anthropology research projects into one tale of the city told by the people — both past and present — of Detroit.
These Detroit-focused research projects create bonds between the university and residents, allowing all voices to be heard about a variety of issues.

The idea is to get rid of the mentality that the researcher and the research subject are divided. This initiative maintains a close partnership with innovative grassroots organizations working within Detroit communities, such as Building Movement Detroit.

Anthropology of the City engages scholars from all four sub-fields of anthropology. College of Liberal Arts and Sciences professors Krysta Ryzewski and Andrew Newman created and lead the project.

A good archaeologist needs to be a great storyteller.

“To me, archaeology is a tool for democratizing, or at least relocating historical narratives, by weaving together all the different strands of evidence in ways that access forgotten or underrepresented communities in the past, Ryzewski says. “Archaeology is a mixture of robust science in the lab and field, patient research in the archives, and communication with communities who are connected to my work. A good archaeologist needs to be a great storyteller.”

Anthropology of the City maintains a strong focus on environmental justice, immigrant communities, landscapes and industry amongst the projects. Currently there are several research projects and initiatives which include: Unearthing Detroit, the Roosevelt Park excavations and the Speakeasy Project at Tommy’s Bar.

In 2013, WSU faculty and student researchers reopened an extensive collection of artifacts recovered from the construction site of the Renaissance Center in the 70s. The project, aptly named Unearthing Detroit, houses artifacts excavated more than 40 years ago. One would think that you wouldn’t be able to reconnect with any descendants of the riverfront neighborhood, but they have. The Beaubien family, who were part of the original dig, shared historical notes after viewing the artifacts. 

One of the family members now volunteers with Anthropology of the City, and is dedicated to reanalyze the collection of artifacts. Over the next several years, this project will be re-examining the forgotten collections, and will deepen our knowledge of the archaeology of the city. 

“The researcher plays a crucial role in the unfolding of the past, but the voices of the past also play a very important part,” says Athena Zissis, a current M.A. student in anthropology. “Those voices need to be heard in order to maintain the original meaning of the artifact. Having one's own interpretation can be meaningful but not as impactful as the raw truth.”

For more information about Anthropology of the City, visit

By Julianne Hudson, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences communications associate