Category: Essays (page 2 of 3)

Untrue Grit

The Detroit I love is a messy, challenging, and sometimes heartbreaking place. It’s a city full of chest-beating pride (and rightly so) and quiet, stolid patience. I could list descriptors of Detroit and her people for ages, but one word I refuse to use any longer is the one the outside media tends to recycle ad nauseam: “gritty.”

Why do I cringe at the word every time I see it? I’m not sure. It’s a gut-check response from having read it in article after article. These articles are thinly disguised ruin porn, backhanded compliments if anything. You know the ones: the headlines talk about “putting Detroit on the map” or “saving Detroit” while showing recycled photos of Michigan Central Station in its pre-window installation days.

These new hype articles highlight Gilbert and Cooley, Ilitch and the big funders. Sometimes they’ll trot out a small business owner, usually in Corktown. They’re endless circle jerks of White Saviors and Blank Slates. Do a Google search for “Detroit gritty” and weep at the hackneyed coverage of our great city. Heck, even Deadline Detroit created a drinking game based on all the clichés.

We deserve better than this. Detroit is a staggeringly big city: large enough to contain within its limits the cities of San Francisco, Boston and Manhattan combined. We’re more than just Corktown hipsters and downtown Quickenites. And, though we’ve seen more than our share of problems, whether created internally or foisted on us by a changing world, I hold us against any and all comers as a first-class city built and bred on the backs of individuals, not conglomerates.

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I’m sick and damned tired of the exploitation of Detroit’s tribulations. An especially egregious case of blightsploitation: American artist Ryan Mendoza ripped the front off of an abandoned house, carted it off to Europe as an “art installation”, and left the rest of the home to rot for months while horrified neighbors begged for the property to be taken care of as promised. Here’s the link to the Freep article, if you feel like getting as pissed off as I am.

We’re not perfect. One minute I’m in awe of the resilience of Detroiters, the next I’m aghast at the glacial progress and insider politicking that holds us back. And I’m definitely not saying that endless ra-ra listicles of “Ten Things to Do in Detroit When the Sun is Shining” are the answer either. Honest and well-researched investigation may be too much to ask of any media coverage at this point, but boy, I’m still holding out hope.

Next time I’ll sing a song of love and devotion to all the beauty and bravery of Detroit’s history and people. For now, though, I think it’s fair that we stop and think about how others are shaping the narrative of Detroit, and maybe a little bit about what we want to add to that story.

 

In A Stare It Happened

In a stare it happened. I saw it in the slowest of motion.

I was standing across the dance floor at the Whisky Parlor, a lounge perched a story above Woodward Avenue near Campus Martius. The record I played was just about to end, then bam!  When the ever talented drummer and avid record collector Djallo Djakate dropped the needle on a rare soul 45 record in the dimly lit lounge, it was magic from the very first measure. It immediately got everyone’s attention, but he stared right at fellow percussionist and DJ Craig Huckaby like he just tasted the sweetest potato pie. Ah, the deliciousness of unspoken communication. It was the mmmmmmmm stare. I’ve seen this look before from fabulous musicians on stage to these knowledgeable, lovable, garage sale chasing vinyl fiends in the lounge. After agonizing for weeks what to write for this blog, that linking moment and its importance presented itself like a baseball in the strike zone and I found the sweet spot of the bat. It’s the love for music, the art form, the striving to “one up” each other in a friendly way, the fruits of the relentless, dusty dig. Craig came right across to Djallo and said “hell yeah.” I captured their photo in time so I could remember it forever. And I will, but it won’t be the last between these two and so many of the passionate artists here in this city, the Detroit I Love.

Music and people have always been my passion and I put my all in always. My music roots stem from my Uncle Joe’s records and cassettes back in the mid 1970’s, to early MTV, to college radio (WBNY, Buffalo State radio), and CFNY (Toronto). From Soul, Rock, R&B, Jazz to Pop, variety was always king. On one Saturday night (1983/84ish) I was grounded, bored and was making a new cassette on my boom box.  I heard Ministry’s “Every Day is Halloween” morph seamlessly into New Order’s “Blue Monday.” I was thinking, how did this blend happen so perfectly? And then it happened again, and again. This was my first real exposure to a mix show. I was fascinated and wanted to learn more, but being in a suburban Buffalo basement, having no friends understanding, no internet and no money were big setbacks. One thing I did know, I wanted to be a DJ and mix like that someday.  Nothing in Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia could help me figure out this magic trick.

The rabbit stayed in the hat until I moved to Detroit.  In 1995, I walked into Record Time in Roseville and saw the all vinyl dance room. It all hit me then. The styles of music, the art… this is a scene. Dance records all over the walls. I had all CDs at that point, but screw that, I thought. Records are much better. I bought two that night and turntables the next day.

I became the over-excited puppy dog that people kept in the basement when friends came over, wanting to learn all that I could about mixing music and the electronic music scene. I was “that guy.” A few hard, cold Detroit stares and dismissals put me into the “this is the underground, STFU” state of mind. I remember one guy who dismissed me at first, but then turned to me and said “lock yourself in a room with five or six records for a day. You’ll figure it out.” I took a lot longer than that, but in that experience I realized that I had to respect the art form enough to learn it my own way, to become original, and to chill out. This is the Detroit I love.

Re-channeling my energies I began to not only fall in love with this music, but with so many of the diverse, worldly, talented and fun people in this city. There is no shortage of creative types hustling. Making it happen. I became a promoter because I like bringing open minded people together to connect and get away from the computer while presenting a wide variety of musical styles to feed the crowd. Great jazz, soul, classic r-n-b, house, techno chosen tastefully on vinyl by skilled DJs. Breaking down social barriers. A love bubble, you could say, promoting togetherness and community. That good vibe wave between the performers and the crowd is one I will surf until my time runs out. This is the Detroit I love.

This resurgence is real. And that’s encouraging. It seems like it is a lot easier to bring people downtown these days to visit and to live. I am grateful. Seeing these once broken down structures turn into beautiful lofts, Airbnbs, restaurants, clubs, galleries, boutiques and more is really inspiring.

My girlfriend and I recently had the chance to stay in a beautiful Airbnb in Woodbridge. It is a tall, two-story, ‘work in progress’ home rich in character. The owner, recently surviving brain surgery, has his business office on the first floor. We stayed on the spacious second floor wonderfully decorated by his wife who specializes in interior design. As soon as we opened the door, we felt at home. Huge ceilings, blonde hard wood floors, art deco style chairs, a picnic table made of reclaimed hardwood in the dining area, claw foot bathtub with shower, subway tile in the kitchen, appliances from the 40’s (I think) and so much more.  It was the perfect mix of old and new styles. With such attention to detail, it was the experience that you don’t get at a hotel.  The owner’s kindness and creativity are evident in every inch, revealing the building’s charm. This care is happening in businesses all over the city. This is the Detroit I love.

We found out about this space though the Airbnb app. There is no doubt the internet, with its’ speed and convenience, is the biggest game changer. It is the vehicle that turns this elbow grease into progress (that is if you choose to see it that way.) There’s so much contagious, easy self promotion through social media not to mention the media as a whole that is very hungry for quality reporting.

From bloggers to TV stations, they want a piece of everything downtown and their power is no joke. There are countless positive stories to cover. As the founder of this blog Steven Reaume said “If we only had the internet like this in the early ‘90’s… good lord what we could have done.”  It’s making the Detroit I love easier to become the Detroit I love.

Yes there’s still a long way go, but the energy so many people put into their work here makes this movement forward possible. This has always been a hustling, proud city. The poor U.S. economy and exportation of jobs (pre 2008 in my opinion) muddied the landscape and had people spinning their wheels in the mud. Many people left. I left. I lost my house in Woodbridge. Club attendance was declining, record stores were closing, crime rampant, too much fighting over a small piece of the pie. This chapter of my life was closing.

With my burned out engine, in 2008, I packed it in to live in New York City and Buffalo, New York to be with family for about six years. Even though I was gone, my heart never left Detroit. My bond with this city and my friendships here will never be broken. I came back to live downtown in 2015 to a city ripe with possibilities and enthusiasm. Progress made from people loving their crafts and finding new ways to make a living at it with promotional vehicles to make it possible. A world spotlight not so much for the blight, but for the diligence people put in daily to make the Motor City shine. Communication through fixed up historic buildings, to beautifully prepared meals, to friendly competitions, to conversations spoken and unspoken… care spilling into the streets of the city I love, Detroit. As I see it.

With all this success, let’s hope we can all afford to live here in the near future.  😉

This Place

A nonchalant “born n bred in the D” is my standard response to inquirers. Brows raise and furrow less often in New Detroit but I’m still met with disbelief. I get it: alternately erudite and base; ambassadorial; pedestrian by choice not circumstance; globetrotting; dripping with joie de vivre; scathingly blunt; broader than boxed; unapologetically flawed; bard with girded loin. Nomenclature in the face of oscillating truths is no easy business. To reconcile seemingly juxtaposed traits, especially against a backdrop of unrelenting misrepresentation perpetuated by those who have limited if any personal experience, requires synthetic aptitude foreign to many.

This place, long heralded for its exquisite sprawling decay, is an ever-fresh affair of making synonyms of antonyms and rallying against bell jar malaise to recreate resources into rejuvenating works. It’s a beeline through rush hour, pushing pedals past halted honks toward a three wig weekend because oh yes, we dress to party. We live for a wardrobe change. It’s initiation by indigestion – garlic sauce, doughnut, rib tip, wheatgrass shot, Mavrodaphne, tacos and a murder burger chaser.

I need a transfer but the broken fare box means I’ll pocket change until the next, I’m just glad the bus came.

It’s loving almost everyone while abandoning the hunt for someone to date/bone who hasn’t shamed Saturn with the rounds they make. No judgment. Just dang. Is nothing sacred?

From the Red Door to the BAK DØR, it’s the wee hours’ get downs, unprotected eardrums percussed numb by the music of – machine, sweating and smiling and getting lost like I don’t have to ride my bike home to shower, sleep too briefly, clock in by 8:30am. In that dance floor space pacts are made with selves, lids pressed like promises until we recall that the important thing is to flow, that we are not alone, are blood and bone beaten into conscious coexistence. We open eyes and get religion like no dogma can allow, sans bureaucracy.

Picture Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre’s Revelations…this place is like that.

#perfectbeat

Home from work and sitting in front of the computer catching up on more work, a little overwhelmed by a million little things. It’s been a long day, following many more before that. I prefer it this way – full days, full nights, full weeks.

As I often do I opened my music library and pressed shuffle. Alton Miller’s ‘Can’t Hide It’ starts playing. Nice deep, heartwarming beats. The kind of track that soothes your mind, makes you want to close your eyes and get lost in the rhythm. When he repeats “Touch my soul I can’t hide it”, he speaks the truth. This sound, this music does just that. It almost immediately resets my mind to a balanced state. Cancels out the noise. Lifts my spirit.

It’s a Detroit sound – with a taste that can only come when grown from Detroit’s soil. Music touches our lives from many directions and in many ways. It is the soul of our city. It teaches us, inspires us, relaxes and connects us. We find refuge in the rhythm.

I’ve spent my life immersed in the electronic music scene in Detroit – promoted parties, managed clubs, created art – mostly off the dance floor. The part of the culture that surrounded the dance floor consumed me.

Then something changed.

I can’t pinpoint the moment, the DJ or the party. I moved off of the sidelines and on to the dance floor. In this city, with these artists, this music, you have no choice but to be moved. Eventually it draws you in. It touches your soul, takes control of your body.

D Wynn titled his mix release on KMS ‘Souls in Motion’. On the dance floor, our souls connect, dancing in rhythmic movements. No one does this like D Wynn. He preaches from the DJ booth. At times it is spiritual, uplifting, soul cleansing. Peoples lives can be changed by the experience. Music is the medicine for the soul and Detroit artists are inventors. We incubate genres in our rough, beautiful, inspiring city.

In the late 90’s I was freelancing full-time. Sitting for hours by myself I often turned to the radio for company and inspiration. DJ Minx hosted a radio show on WGPR called ‘Deep Space Radio’. “Welcome. My name is Minx. Let’s Take a trip. A trip not in body but in spirit. Where transmissions from deep space come from within.”, the show began. It presented mixes and interviews with DJs from Detroit and beyond. Some of my best work was inspired by what I heard, and felt, while listening.

Today I position myself on the dance floor in front of an amazing array of new artists, originators and established DJs. They spin a web of beats, dance with me, share the experience. Detroit is still fertile ground for talent. It’s a new breed but just as inspiring. Rooted in the history of all that came before.

Snow Day

When snow continued most of the night
drifting to several feet in places
the weatherman got it right for once
but morning spills a blue blaze of day
kinetic as the breath that starts a song
into the Poletown amphitheater of I-75
pulling Detroit out of the jumble of night
picks out the Fisher Bldg. the incinerator
dark St. Josaphat’s spikey decal stuck
to the glittery grill of the RenCen.
Soft sculpture kids in primary colours
drive sleds and old tires and boxes
down the steep embankment
through the rambling tracks of dogs
and the evergreen flaming of juniper and yew
their dark faces glossy as berries.
They disappear into puffs of snow
or spin onto the empty x-way
unconcerned as mice playing in a rail bed
in the undefined moment between trains.

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