(Editor's note: J. Anton Blatz and Rene Wymer are serializing loosely-connected tales of city life in the form of an illustrated, non-fiction novel. Read the last installment here. For optimal viewing pleasure check out this month's full-sized illustration here.)
Chapter 7: We make 'the Scene' - or do we?
We first make our way through tall summer grasses, passing a house or two on each block, tracking down the source of some sweet blues music. On Summer Sundays, John's Carpet House on the East Side hosts a down-home blues jam for anyone who wants to come pull up a chair. This is my first time checking out the Sunday Jam, and the music's definitely a hit.
A generous crowd forms into a horseshoe, surrounding a mowed stretch of lawn that serves as a dance floor. Those with their act together form clusters of folding chairs around the perimeter, tending coolers and grills; others sip beer in paper bags and lean against the hood of their car. The smell of meat drifting off the grills makes me salivate just a little.
An electric blues band presides over the occasion, playing on a rolled out carpet, powered by a generator. Special guest artists drop in and play for a song or two. People step out onto the lawn for dance, and older ladies come around to see if they can coax a new face out onto the floor. This is not the kind of dancing we were taught in grade school, as a matter of fact there's some pretty R-rated, bedroom-style moves that come out from time to time, but it's all in good fun.
As the jam heats up, one of the lead guitarist starts hot dogging a little, playing his axe behind his head and falling to the ground at one point, mid-solo, still tethered to the amp and wailing on a blues scale, eyes closed and writhing on his back.
When the band breaks a DJ comes on to play a few hustle numbers and lines of grown folks form to work out their steps. A petition circulates, getting signatures of city residents who support John's Carpet House. Apparently the City has threatened to crack down on the Sunday blues jam, citing illegal vendors. It seems that if there's one thing this Holy Day tradition does not need, it's a hard time from the City. All walks of life are out here: young, old, black, white, and while they are not generating directly taxable revenue for the City, they do collect money to mow the grass, keep up port-o-johns, and run the generator. In fact, this whole Sunday scene is put on by a community that's dedicated to the long-standing tradition of blues in Detroit.
It's tempting to settle in for a while and soak up the vibe, but we can't. We've got a lot of ground to cover and this is just the first stop. On our way across town, dark clouds start to form, and you can hear the roll of thunder. By the time we reach Roosevelt Park, there's quite a gale blowing through.
Giant white tents have been set up for the Roosevelt Park Fest at the foot of the Michigan Central Station, the largest one sheltering rows of long picnic tables and a few hundred people. The storm threatens to lift this tent from the ground and some sort of intuitive drive to keep the beer line covered sparks up in a handful of people who grab onto the giant poles and act as human anchors. The beer line they were protecting is indeed something special. From thirty taps spout Michigan's finest beers: New Holland, Founders, Jolly Pumpkin, Shorts, Bell's, Motor City, Atwater and more; a literal fountain of handcrafted goodness.
The brave anchormen also helped protect some delicious food: Slows Bar-B-Q and the new El Guapo taco truck. Once the weather dies down, we mosey on over and start ordering up some plates.
As the rain begins to stop, kids pry themselves away from their parents' sides to get back to the jumping castle. Rodriguez takes the stage and plays a tight little set for his hometown audience. These beers are potent, and your friends start to say foolish things, and threaten to go join the dodge ball game, so I think it's best we move on. We don't need a trip to the hospital today.
Next up we'll have to hike up a hill. Yes this is Detroit and it's pretty hard to find a topographic change in the city, but the one we are going to is somewhat of an anomaly. In fact, I believe it's only been a hill for about three years.
It's Bastille Day, and a hundred or so people wearing moustaches, black and white striped shirts and their best smug Parisian expressions have walked to the top of this long, flat-topped mound in Milliken State Park. Proud Detroiters have picked this spot to tease out the French roots of their city, assembling against the backdrop of the setting sun and the lights of the Windsor-Detroit skyline.
This hill was formed by a massive excavation project that created a wetlands demonstration area along the riverfront. Here you can go visualize the process of wastewater being cleansed as it courses through a series of wetlands en route to the river.
It will take dozens of years for the willow trees on the banks of the lagoons to mature, but the landscape design is thoughtful and well-intentioned, definitely heading in the right direction, much like the first Bastille Day party on top of the hill.
With the sun completely down now, we get ready for our last leg of the trip. We're heading to Eastern Market, to see one of Detroit's wildest traditions that started some 25 years ago.
But I think we could use a two-minute beer break first. Just South of Gratiot, a friend is hosting a party that sounds like it will be a lot of fun, so let's get into that first.
The brick-lined alley of Service Street is home to artist's lofts, painting studios, recording studios and more. It's Saturday night and a friend is throwing her man a birthday party in their lovely home. They live in a former storefront on that's been transformed into a fresh apartment; sleeping quarters lofted above, a modern kitchen and living area on the ground floor. Art lines the walls, a cocktail bar has been stocked and a spread of dips and pickles fills the counter.
We settle in, meeting all sorts of people who are new to Detroit, wide-eyed visitors in town for the weekend and recent transplants slowly finding their bearings. Stories are swapped and directions given to places like the Packard Plant and 'Hipster Beach' on Belle Isle. Two minutes turns into an hour, and we finally slip across Gratiot around midnight, hustling up to the heart of Eastern Market.
I never saw 'The Scene' when it aired on Detroit television, but YouTube has since helped bring me up to speed. It's worth anyone's time to click through a few videos online to watch Detroit's answer to Soul Train. The show first aired in 1976 on WGPR, the world's first (and only) black-owned television station. It was popular for over a decade. A friend who lived here while the show aired told me that 'The Scene' was the show that everyone watched, but nobody admitted to watching. It was a jam-packed hour of new dance moves and 1970s and 1980s fashion.
In 1988, WGPR was bought and the Scene came to an end. It has been roughly 25 years since the show's host Nat Morris had a chance to change the name of this town from Motown to "Geektown" (which he did to kick off each show, so that everybody could throw down). But he would have a chance to this evening, at the Scene Reunion show at Bert's Warehouse.
Joining Nat, according to the bill, will be dancers like Fast Freddy, Cheryl Peoples, the Floor Masters and others, plus a performance from Enchantment.
Giant Batman-sized spotlights circle the midnight sky overhead and we shuffle in and pay our admission. People have pulled out their swankiest dress for the night. Top hats and canes are just the beginning. A DJ rocks some old school rap and the party cuts loose with some robot moves and such. We hit the dance floor and get down for a few numbers, but before long something starts to feel not quite right: the show's not going on. Maybe we've missed it?
We start to ask around, and sure enough, they've already wrapped up the program. This was definitely not the kind of party I thought would get an early start, but heck, I suppose it always was a daytime show!
Well, until next month… we'll see you around the town.
Now let's get back to that dance floor and make sure we get our money's worth!Check back next month to see what kind of trouble our adventurers can get into close to home.