Detroit, exported

For the second time in less than a month I was on the road up north. The first time, in mid-May, I thought I might hit a snow squall in Bad Axe, just as I reached the detour that took me briefly off Van Dyke, aka M-53, one of Michigan's most efficient travel routes.

No, it didn't snow, but sheets of cold rain did come sideways as I rolled upon the pigeon on the side of a barn and a group of wet artists huddled in a car with the engine running. Lousy weather meant we had to cut the first visit short. The second drive started with menacing clouds and a few droplets of rain, before the skies cleared and rays of sun led me to my destination. Much better. That was the Saturday of this second annual event that brings north and south together with food, drink and all around good times. 

Now back to Van Dyke.  

You can, as Detroit Up North organizer Jim Boyle pointed out at this weekend's pig roast, take this impressive road from his home in lovely West Village all the way to its end in sublime Port Austin. When all roads are open -- there are current detours at I-94 in Detroit, and in Romeo and Bad Axe -- that's a drive through the sadly vanishing urban East Side, and the commercial chaos of Warren, Center Line and Sterling Heights streetscapes until you reach the bliss of Michigan farm country as you cross the Macomb and Lapeer county lines.

Go up a ways and you're in Almont, then Imlay City and then Marlette, which has the kind of downtown that resides in a sort-of permanent 1955. It gets even better. The rest of vast Sanilac and Huron counties also appear timeless. There are roads called Mushroom and Severance and others named for 19th century German and Polish settlers that disappear in the distance as you glance left and right. They entice with their mystery, you want to explore them, but your mission is to continue heading north, where a culturally exportable piece of Detroit awaits. From village to village it's a nearly perfect 150-mile trek.

So why, for my second ride to the tip of the thumb, am I heading east on I-94 toward Port Huron? Did I take the wrong pill this morning? No, the drive along the Huron lakeshore on M-25 is exquisite. It is the same route taken by braver souls who cycled up to Port Austin with organizers from Wheelhouse Detroit. The towns are just as lovely, perhaps more so because of the beauty of the Great Lake.

I have sentimental attachments to Lake Huron. I love both the Michigan and Ontario sides unconditionally. Before I was born, my mother told me, when their love bloomed, she and my dad would go to beaches on this rugged lake. Friends had cottages in Lexington and Forester, there were parties in Caseville. Later, I hiked and camped on Bruce Peninsula and Georgian Bay on the Canadian side. These memories kept me company as I drove through Port Sanilac, Harbor Beach and Port Hope. 

I also wanted to come this way to pass through Grindstone City again.

Last time I was there was in 1986, when Ann and Ken Mikolowski's Alternative Press -- publishers of Amiri Baraka, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Tuli Kupferberg, Norman Mailer and other bygone literati -- was still up and running. The Mikolowskis were artists and documenters of Detroit's Cass Corridor scene, who retreated to the thumb in 1969 and stayed until the mid-1990s. By publishing "free poems" and mailing them out to subscribers, they helped connect the creative scene in Detroit with the Beat movement on the coasts and the experimental Black Mountain school of poets in North Carolina. Rich history, artistically speaking. Really rich.

This Detroit-Lake Huron connection, its creative legacy, was not lost on Jim Boyle. After all, he's the guy who penned Did the Gories Save Detroit?, one of Model D's best read stories last year. He understands the power of art to build community. He and other Up North planners thought of a way to bring street art provacateurs the Hygienic Dress League into the party mix.

Here, in his own words, is how Jim did it: "They came up one weekend this past winter and we drove all over Port Austin looking for the perfect barn for a project. We found one that we loved and got doubly lucky in that A) it just happened to be owned by the parents of a girl I went to high school with, and B) the mother in that couple is on the Thumb Area Arts guild.

"Steve and I drove up and one Saturday morning and sat at the farmer’s table for what can only be described as a wonderful and weird experience. She baked us cinnamon roles, and we talked about Detroit art, gas masks, and the idea of a corporation as an art medium. Not your everyday meeting. They have been absolutely supportive from that day forward."

No, this was not a condescendingly snotty urban hipster ambush of unwitting rural America. Far from it. Port Austin (actually Kinde, a town a few miles south on Van Dyke) is where Jim and his brother Brian (Model D founder and group publisher of Issue Media Group) grew up, and where their parents still live.

Jim continues: "It was important for us to contextualize the work for the local community. To that end, we shared some of the imagery with key influencers, had an art-talk with members of the arts guild at a local restaurant, and (later) had a local school visit the site and talk to Steve and Dorota Coy (of Hygienic Dress League).

"We also worked with the local reporter on a story that ran on the cover of the Huron Daily Tribune and helped provide some context around the HDL and their work. All great stuff, and very helpful. The Detroit art community was a critical piece too, as they were very supportive and contributed funds (after an evening presentation at Public Pool) for supplies and materials. I love the back-and-forth between communities."

Well said, Jimmy. A natural, easy-going back-and-forth rhythm between people, all kinds of people, is precisely what I experienced at Saturday's dinner, featuring a pig roast prepared by Supino's Dave Mancini. Everyone talked. Folks in their 50s and 60s talked with slightly younger folks in their 40s, 30s and 20s. Beautiful young parents played soccer and cornhole with children even more beautiful. Hungry mouths stuffed themselves, picking off pieces of skin and fat, as Mancini and helpers cut up the pig at a table. A hat was passed to pay for the food. A generous amount was in there, when I snuck a look. A single red Fender amplifier kicked out David Bowie and Motown jams. Pre-school youth danced to the music.

Jim Boyle silenced the revelers with a toast to Detroit. And another to Port Austin. And still another to Van Dyke, the road that brought most of us together. It was time for dinner.

Walter Wasacz is Model D's managing editor. He's sorry he had to eat and run and could not stay the night in Port Austin. He'll be back.    

Photos of Hygienic Dress League by Andrew Miller

Photo of Jim Boyle by Tom Wendt

All other photos by Walter Wasacz

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Walter Wasacz is a writer and the former managing editor of Model D. You can find more of his writings here.