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Adventures close to home: (Meta)scheming on the open road


(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.)

Chapter 6: Kickstart this city

Once Detroit's raucous summer starts firing on all cylinders, there's never a good time to come to a complete stop and look both ways. Usually there's too much open road ahead to waste time looking back. But I suppose today I must, with the Adventures deadline just a day away.

Two burgers at a time, 4 a.m. dance-offs, street art murals and morels up north, these are the elements of summer. Sunday pool parties with my little baby girl, soccer matches, nights camping and summer flings, the 'what' of summer that coalesces into a fiery impression that burns well into the New Year.

Ted Lucas' is cued up on the record player, with his sullen baritone and clever one-man harmonies, and the oppressive humidity can't be spied anywhere through the glass wall of my living room. But I know it's out there, lurking, like Arnold in Predator. Yesterday, after scrimmaging the Downtown futbol team (of the Detroit City Futbol League), I physically wrung sheets of sweat from the shirt I played in. I know that's gross, but it's that hot. I can't help it.

There are a few notable outcroppings of Detroit's confident progress that have risen up this summer season, standing tall before us, like stalks of July corn. I'll describe two.

First. We're on a bike, speeding down Michigan Avenue towards Astro Coffee. It's Thursday, July 21. Our quick cycling is on account of the caffeine fix that will help get us the right amount of amped-up to delve into the evening's community conversation. Phillip Cooley, Karla Henderson and the Roosevelt Park Conservancy are staging the first public conversation on the imminent skate plaza that will be built at Roosevelt Park (at the foot of the Michigan Central Train Station).

The Conservancy has recently hired California Skate Parks (CSP) to produce three schematic designs for the project. CSP has completed over 200 skate parks to date, they are the authority on shaping rideable surfaces. In August, CSP will visit Detroit with their designs in tow to meet with the Conservancy, local architects Tadd Heidgerken and Noah Resnick, and other local designers to tighten the screws on each of the concepts, ensuring the community's needs are accurately met.

When I first came to Detroit in 2008, fresh out of grad school, I helped the core group of Roosevelt Park Conservancy re-design a crumbling asphalt traffic triangle at the corner of Michigan and 14th, directly on-axis with the train station. With the help of welders, carpenters, neighbors and a crew of 40 Daimler Financial volunteers, we turned around a design in a matter of days, received approval from MDOT, and rolled up our sleeves (or took off our shirts, rather) to get the job done.

The next year, we took on the arcing segment of the Roosevelt Park closest to the train station. We used marble pavers salvaged from Hart Plaza, steel borders and crushed slag (a by-product of the auto industry) to define pathways and places to gather. Around these we planted tall native grasses and sedum, constructing a landscape that requires low maintenance and provides a tidy, wild yet minimal landscape.

All the while, there was a plan in mind, a meta-scheme that would one day link the disparate puzzle pieces of the park, cut by the pen of a Beaux Arts draftsman, into a landscape that a person can actually walk across.

Commissioning CSP to produce three schematic designs for Roosevelt Park is a significant milestone in this process. Tonight's conversation will allow Detroit skateboarders, rollerbladers and bicyclists to chime in with thoughts and opinions, and to point out examples of ledges and inclines that can be ridden, versus what just looks skateable, but fails to function.

A second community meeting is set up for Aug. 19, at which point these designs will be rolled out. As summer turns to fall, keep an eye out for news on this ambitious project. We encourage you to drop in on the discussion and pipe up with thoughts of your own.

Now on to the second stalk of summer success…

By now, we've all heard the buzz about crowdfunding in Detroit. Your old pal Model D brought you the story recently of Kiva.org electing to launch a domestic arm of its micro financing biz after years of success abroad. Their city of choice? You guessed it, the birthplace of Robocop, D-troit.

Rene and I caught up with some folks who are immersed in the fan-based finance game, and tagged along for one of their missions. Not Mr. Paffendorf or the folks at the Imagination Station who are pushing the limits of this concept and gaining some national attention in the process, but some savvy visual and sound folks who recently waded into the crisp pool of other peoples' cash for the first time.

On the particular sunday morning we set for our adventure, the gang behind Single Barrel Detroit (SBD) had risen early, making their preparations inside a staggering Detroit mansion. A giant, stately manor filled with goodies of all stripes: armors and paintings, carvings and chandeliered rooms. Rene sketched quite a handsome rendition of the scene, visible at the top of this page.

This magnificent home had been purchased a fraction of what it might cost in another city. Property taxes aside, this was a total steal. Inside, we met the SBD crew hard at work. if you have not spent time clicking through their catalog of music videos before, then you must. Just wait till you finish this article first, don't go getting jumpy now.

Also present was the experimental pop band, Prussia. These guys are another Detroit act poised to leap onto the national stage, the next Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. I'm no music critic, you can be sure. But I suppose I can try my hand at describing their act, especially since I dig their act. They have a percussive sound; I know that for sure. They also hit harmonies in a somewhat strained, but powerful way, like if you had a great glam rock voice and sang in the shower all the time and your shower was actually in a locker room with rows of shower stalls, and suddenly other voices piped up to back you, matching you on your eccentric keys, note for note.

Josh Epstein (from Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.) helped produce two tracks on the 'Four for Attention' album. The record is a keeper. If you have not scored a copy yet, today is the day you must.

Back in March of 2011, Single Barrel launched a Kickstarter campaign called 'Four Films for Attention,' designed to garnish financial support from Prussia's fan base, fans of the SBD website and fans of all-things Detroit, and use this money to film, you guessed it, four films to promote the band. The first is a slick music video that will be circulated to Pitchfork and other national music outlets. Next, a SBD video (which is a music video shot in say, the abandoned Lee Plaza Hotel, or on the People Mover, or surrounded by the Rivera murals at the DIA); always raw, these videos showcase Detroit's enigmatic locales just as much as the music. The third film will capture a behind-the-scenes take on the making of the music video. Finally, SBD's mics and cameras will hit the road with Prussia to catch their live act, 'in the act,' so to say.

It was the Spaulding Court rehab project that first raised SBD's brow to the curious power of Kickstarter. According to SBD executive producer Andy Martin, "Detroiters want to invest emotionally and financially in people with vision."

But when all was said and done, their success surprised even themselves.

"We were humbled by the support. Detroit's an insanely generous lot (in all respects) when you put yourself out there," Martin says. "When you combine all kinds of unique thinkers with the palpable feeling that you can start anything in this town, crowdfunding sites don't just add fuel to the fire, they help the most genuine and deserving ideas hit the jackpot. If you don't believe in it, don't invest in it. It's a completely voluntary, self-policing kind of thing."

Succeed in their campaign, they did. SBD producers Martin and Jared Groth ponied up a donation from their own pocket that matched the kickstarter cash (how's that for genuine?), allowing the four-film show to go on.

Inside the mansion, the scene was somewhat familiar to me, but only because I've been running around Detroit for a few years. Young people streaming in and out carrying loads of cables, lenses, and pillowy white lights of all varieties. The average age of the crew was no more than 30, tops. Yet the gang was tidy, focused, and carefully plodding through the long day's work.

They had set up gear and equipment in rooms throughout the house, like climbers staking out a base camp. The dining room table was set with a delicious feast fit for a band of knights. I had to force myself to look away from the ham.

Boom mics crossed the room, avoiding a delicate chandelier. Flanking one long side of the table, the Prussians sat patiently, sipping PBRs from chalices, careful not to spill on their ornate costumes.

Me, you, and everyone else have to wait, patiently sipping our own PBRs until these videos come out. Perhaps it will be the beginning of August, perhaps a bit longer. But my hunch tells me our patience will reward us.

For more info on the incredible mansion we occupied that day, check out Single Barrel Detroit's blog when the Prussia videos come out. I promised them I would not steal their thunder.

OK, that's it for now. On with the summer. On with the swimming. We'll be back at you again before Labor Day.

J. Anton Blatz is not afraid to get his feet dirty in a neighborhood pitch near you each month in Model D.

Illustration by Rene Wymer.

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