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No reason to save United Sound Systems

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There are several freeway expansion projects panned for Metro Detroit in the coming years. One improvement would slice through Detroit's Midtown/Wayne State University districts. Preliminary reconstruction of Interstate 94 would add fourth lanes between Conner on the east side of Detroit and I-96 on the west, and would include continuous service drives along the same stretch.

But there are issues. One is that the improvements would result in the loss of a chunk of the Wayne State neighborhood, in that 100 properties there would be purchased for the roadway expansion. The other is that the United Sound Systems studio would be lost as well. Many Motown stars recorded songs there, up to modern rapper Eminem. Many people hate to see the studio lost because of that. As a result, they want to see plans altered so that both the studio and the neighborhood would be preserved.

Two things come to mind. One lies within the sphere of the general versus the special interest, and the real point there is clear. I-94 has been an early morning/late afternoon parking lot for years; it needs to be expanded for the sake of better traffic flow at peak times. This is a general societal interest issue. The special interest of either a neighborhood or an old recording studio should not be allowed to interfere with that.

The second point is about preserving history. Why ought the United Sound Systems building be saved? Merely because many prominent musicians and singers recorded there? Merely because it represents Detroit's contribution to the nation's or the world's music scene?

These simply aren't reasons enough. To begin with, don't we have the music recorded there already preserved, well, through the recordings? Why ought the building be spared then? Secondly, everything of historical note cannot be preserved. Eventually we would not be able to move, because everything (arguably) has historic or neighborhood value. Every physical piece of the past cannot be saved; it's a practical impossibility. Further, we have the special interest angle to again consider: in this case, the special interest of music fans against the general interest of folks trying to get to and from places conveniently. In this instance, the general interest should win.

To be sure, if the plans could be changed without too much hassle, or especially if a private group could come up with the cash or the wherewithal to save the studio or the neighborhood, there would be little reason to not do that much. Short of that, I-94 ought to be improved via the best potential route. Even if that means losing an old recording studio.

We Americans think we know history. We think that whatever we've done, even such relatively unimportant things as making popular tunes (which are really only recent things not truly subject to the judgment of history as of yet) ought to last forever. Yet we forget an important point: the future will be the real judge of Motown's contribution to music history rather than our obviously prejudiced feelings of the moment. And yet another thing: when we attempt to embalm history, are we really preserving history, or simply being arrogant about ourselves and our contributions to it?

We're just asking. But we are fascinated about the potential answers.

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