What’s special about the May 21, 1987 issue of The Detroit News

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

There's one copy of The Detroit News that will never turn brown, never line a bird cage and never become kindling.

The May 21, 1987 issue of The Detroit News is made of bronze, and it's forever being read by a statue in the Grand Circus Park station of downtown Detroit's People Mover. Crafted by prolific 20th century sculpture artist J. Seward Johnson, Jr., the artwork went up when the elevated rail made its debut later that year.

"Catching Up" is a bronze sculpture of a man reading The Detroit News. A similar piece of art stands in Montreal, Quebec.

Titled "Catching Up," the piece is of a standing man in a button-up cardigan, dress shirt, tie and textured corduroy pants. He's catching up on the news of a typical mid-1980s day. The front page stories of this particular 140-page edition have news of a Chrysler and American Motor Company merger, a win from the Detroit Tigers and an article about Mayor Coleman A. Young vowing to improve ambulance response times in the city. There are a few national stories, including the tragic attack on the USS Stark in Bahrain and something about Oliver North.

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The sculpture of the man reading this issue is one of many diverse pieces of artwork placed around the People Mover stations. Say what you want about the tram and its less-than-three-mile reach, but no one can deny its fantastic collection of public art. The pieces — including Johnson's statue, Charles McGee's "Blue Nile" painting and Tom Phardel's Pewabic murals — were even featured in a coffee table book. Wayne State University Press released "Art in the Stations: The Detroit People Mover" in 2004.

A bronze copy of the May 21, 1987 Detroit News is being read in the sculpture titled "Catching Up" at the Grand Circus Park People Mover station.

Johnson was one of the heirs to the Johnson & Johnson family fortune and was the grandson of co-founder Robert Johnson.

As an artist, he was successful and, while not all critics loved him, talented. About 20 years ago, The News' art critic at the time, Joy Hakanson Colby, wrote that his work was "so real, so convincingly detailed, so familiar in their postures that they set the standard for all realistic sculpture today."

What makes Johnson's People Mover statue unique is that he's reading The News. (Oh, and there's a copy of the Detroit Free Press folded up on his briefcase, too). What's not unique, however, is that it's a statue of a man reading a newspaper.

Another version of "Catching Up" stands in Montreal, Quebec. This reader is also casually dressed, wearing the same cardigan he does in Detroit. He browses a 1985 issue of the local Gazette paper.

"Catching Up" depicts a copy of the Detroit Free Press from May 1987 folded up on the man's briefcase.

Johnson's "Newspaper Reader" is sitting on a bench in Steinman Park in Lancaster, Pa.; he's reading the local Lancaster paper from September 16, 1923 and has two other historic editions by his side from the 1969 Moon Landing and 1979's Three Mile Island accident.

Forty miles west, a Harrisburg, Pa. statue titled "Waiting" also depicts a man reading a newspaper on a bench. About three months after Johnson's death in 2020, this statue was splashed with red paint in a seemingly random act of vandalism. He was cleaned up soon after.

While today most people waiting for public transit or resting in the park are more likely to be on their phones than holding the printed word, all of these figures serve as a solid reminder that for the majority of modern history, people got their information from their daily, local newspaper.

The sculpture "Catching Up" by J. Seward Johnson, Jr. overlooks Grand Circus Park.


Twitter: @melodybaetens