True Bohemia

Detroit is a city of immigrants and migrants, and their legacies are seen in our music, in our food and even in our buildings.

It’s fitting, then, that the Michigan premiere and DVD-release of a movie about a migration of sorts will be at the Bohemian National Home, a place that once was a center for Bohemian immigrants in Detroit.

Dan Rose’s film, Wayne County Ramblin', tells of a road trip from Detroit to Mississippi, mixed with sexual tension and West African spirits. Rose is something of a migrant himself — the Detroit-area native recently moved back to the Motor City from Katrina-devastated New Orleans.

Rose says the Southwest Detroit home, dubbed the "Bo House" for short, is a more-than-appropriate venue for his film’s local debut. Having spent the last 15 years writing, filming and editing Ramblin’, he sees some kinship between the making of his movie and the ongoing transformation of the building. “It’s been a work in progress — it feels a lot like how our movie does. … It’s going to feel like a kindred spirit.”

Bo House through the years

With notable exceptions to be found in Hamtramck’s Polish clubs and Corktown’s Maltese and Irish clubs, many Detroit neighborhoods are populated with buildings constructed for groups of people who have long since sprawled away — buildings like Delray’s Hungarian Club and West Vernor’s Lithuanian Hall are examples.

The social halls once hosted parties, weddings, meetings, language and dance lessons, and even potluck dinners. Back when people walked everywhere, these ethnic hubs were a “third space” for the neighborhood, falling somewhere between churches and pubs when it came to wholesomeness.

Bohemians fleeing Prussian persecution first arrived in Detroit in the late 1800s, originally settling on the near East Side. In the 1910s, in order to accommodate their still-growing community, they constructed the Bohemian National Home west of Corktown and north of Michigan Avenue in the old Western Market area. Situated at the northwest corner of Butternut and Tillman, the three-story, 16,000-square-foot building served as home base for the Bohemian community until it was sold to the Detroit Lithuanian Home Association, which used the building until the early 1990s.

Recent history

Now the Bo House is home to a new community, one made of artists, musicians and performers. Joel Peterson says Bo House has evolved into a “cooperative venue for any arts discipline including, but not limited to, music, dance, theater and visual arts.” Peterson, who can be roughly described as the building’s co-owner/event producer/public relations and marketing director/facilities manager/maintenance guy/door man, says the goal is to “curate performances and gallery shows based on quality as opposed to genre.”

It’s been a long road. Another of the four co-owners, Scott Martin, bought the building about 10 years ago to save it from demolition. He brought Randa Haurani into the ownership fold about five years later. Over the decade, a sporadic slate of events financed improvements needed stabilize the building, but the whole thing really started taking off about two years ago, in part because Peterson joined the team.

Martin and Haurani also had secured a façade improvement matching grant from the Michigan Avenue Business Association. The money went towards second-floor art stained glass windows, exterior brickwork, a double door on Tillman and a new roof. Sweat equity from friends and family went towards plumbing, electrical work and plastering. “There are 50,000 pounds of plaster we put up on those walls,” Peterson says.

There’s still work to do, but Peterson and friends are able to host all manner of events in the space, which has fast become one of “the” places in Detroit to see art, hear music, dance and even play basketball. (A hoop installed in the gym located right off the ballroom is an irresistible draw to some event-goers, and has even prompted talks of a Bo House basketball league.) The rehearsal space/studio/living quarters/gallery has hosted a diverse line-up, including Odu Afrobeat Orchestra, Quintron, SSM, Blowfly, a screening of Blue Velvet, Ectomorph, Frank Pahl, Charles Gayle and Thollem McDonas. Peterson savors the McDonas show the most, calling him the “best improvising pianist that I’ve seen.”

It is to this type of polyphonic, discordant, non-mainstream music that Peterson wants to give a home. “I feel like there’s a lack of venues in the city that consistently support creative artists,” he says. “We’re trying to build Southeastern Michigan’s scene by making this stuff affordable to all segments of the community.”

Bo House events

But the Bo House isn’t just about music. Artist (and the fourth and, so far, final Bo House co-owner) Jerome Ferretti curates the building’s gallery, where local sculptor Chris Turner’s show opens on Friday, June 23. Jeremy Kalio, a dancer who lives in the building, is helping to put on the Bo House’s very first dance show, B.E.R.M.U.D.A., on June 17, featuring choreographer Jo Anna Norris’ Detroit debut.

In the future, Peterson envisions large shows held in the ballroom, acoustic and chamber performances in the library, and smaller bands and DJ events held in the still-under-construction bar. Peterson also hopes to accommodate dance and music workshops, music lessons, a regular ethnic folkloric music series and community meetings.

In the meantime, Peterson et al have two big events on the near horizon to keep them busy. First up: the Bohemian National Home’s First Annual Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music. With some saying the Detroit International Jazz Festival is stretching too thin (Chaka Kahn is jazz?), Peterson wants this festival to “provide people with [music] that is more adventurous but is also based more in tradition,” and he hopes to segue this event into a major regional festival in the coming years.
The festival’s headliner, the Sam Rivers Trio, is of certifiable jazz-legend status. Rivers, born in 1923, has played with all the giants: Dizzy, Sassy, the Bird, Lady Day, Herbie and Miles, to name a few. He had a big role in launching New York City's loft scene in the ’70s. He takes the Bo’s stage just two days after being awarded the 2006 Vision Festival Lifetime Achievement Award. The Jazz and Improvised Music Festival will also feature local free-jazz icon Faruq Z. Bey’s Kindred Ensemble, Spectrum Two, an adventurous drum and tenor sax duo, Afro-Cuban orchestra Grupo Escobar and Middle-Eastern improvisers Ara Topouzian/Mark Sawasky Duo. (General admission is $18. Reserved seating is also available.)

The other big event is Rose’s Wayne County Ramblin’ local premiere and DVD release on Saturday, June 24. (Admission is $15; show starts at 7 p.m.) Music is central to the movie, which employs local icons such as Iggy Pop, Mick Collins and Nathaniel Meyer.

In the spirit of the film, the event will feature musical performances from diverse genres and geographies, including Memphis rock 'n' rollers The Reigning Sound and Jamaican-born Detroiter Eddie Kirkland. It’ll also be the Detroit debut of Mississippi farmlanders The Rising Star Fife & Drum Band, which performs West African-influenced pre-jazz music.

“Detroit is a big music town because of this migration,” Rose says, reflecting on the Bo House, the city and his movie. “[Ramblin’] backward-traces this migration in a sense.”

Such events fill the Bo House with people from all over who've found their way to Detroit. Nearly a century later, it all comes full circle: Built on immigrants' sweat, kept alive by artists’ perspiration, the Bo House is still a cultural force, still keeping a community together.

For more information about the Bohemian National Home, call 313-737-6606 or e-mail [email protected]. For more information about Wayne County Ramblin’, click here.


Bo House Performance Space

Bohemian National Home

Joel Peterson

Jerome Ferretti

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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