Hipster history: Unpacking the stories of metro Detroit's legendary cultural scenes

Whether it's Hamtramck, Ypsilanti, or Dearborn, savvy metro Detroiters probably know where to find the hip, up-and-coming cultural scene closest to them. Although these communities can be as small as a neighborhood or as large as a whole city, they're places where artists and other innovators thrive, where visitors can find cutting-edge cultural experiences, and where it's often affordable to live and hang out.

Numerous metro-area communities over the past century have attracted the "hipsters" of their time and developed into cultural destinations that drew visitors from far and wide. Our local history is rich with the stories of cultural scenes that shone brightly for years or even decades—and then either changed significantly or fell dormant, often due to the effects of gentrification and development.

In an effort both to savor the stories of that rich past, but also to better understand our area today, Model D has teamed up with our sister publications Metromode and Concentrate to take stock of four venerable cultural scenes of metro Detroit's past. We spoke with historians, scene veterans, and residents to understand how these areas developed, what made them great, and how and why they changed.


1. Paradise Valley: Jazz club hub

Location: Definitions vary, and the specifics are especially difficult to pin down because of the way road construction and redevelopment deeply affected this community (more on that below). But Paradise Valley occupied a small strip between Woodward Avenue and Eastern Market in Detroit, stretching as far south as Gratiot Avenue and as far north as Mack Avenue depending on whom you ask. Part of the same area is today occupied by Ford Field and Comerica Park.

Cultural heyday: The '40s through the '60s saw this neighborhood become a bustling hub of nightclubs featuring some of the best jazz and blues musicians in the world at the time. Bert Dearing Jr., who grew up on Riopelle Street just east of Paradise Valley, recalls a vivid "red-light district" in the area that was full of music and other activity day and night. Dearing, who is today the owner of Bert's Entertainment Complex, recalls jazz luminaries like Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, and Charlie Parker playing in the neighborhood in his youth. "You had all the top greats," Dearing says. "They played from the heart, with their experience, in their songs. ... There'll never be another Paradise Valley. I can just say that."

Bert's Entertainment Complex Owner Bert Dearing Jr.

Biggest destinations: The Paradise Theatre at 3711 Woodward Ave., today known as Orchestra Hall, sat on the western fringe of Paradise Valley and was one of the main destinations for the top-flight jazz acts Dearing recalls. Nightclubs (and other businesses) were prolific throughout the area, with Hastings Street serving as the main drag.

The reason for the scene: The Great Migration of the '20s and '30s caused Detroit's black population to increase dramatically, and most of those new residents settled in Black Bottom, the neighborhood between Paradise Valley and the Detroit River. (Segregation barred black residents from crossing over to the west side of Woodward at the time.) Paradise Valley was where Black Bottom residents went to shop, be entertained, or make their own living running or working in one of the numerous businesses.

"[The black community] had some smart business folk that were porters and stuff on the train," Dearing says. "They would shine shoes, and they would sit and listen to rich white folks that did stocks and bonds or whatever, and they'd just take that information back and they'd open their own businesses up. Paradise Valley happened to be that particular area."

Reason for decline: Although there is still a Hastings Street in Detroit, you can no longer walk the portion of it that once formed Paradise Valley's main drag. That stretch of the street was bulldozed and replaced by the Chrysler Freeway/I-75, which began construction in 1959.

But Paradise Valley's decline had already begun, according to Marsha Music, a Detroit music historian and writer whose father's record shop served the Paradise Valley and Black Bottom communities. Urban renewal projects of the '40s, touted as improving housing and quality of life in Black Bottom, in fact resulted in many black residents having their homes destroyed and/or being priced out of the area.

Marsha Music

Although the freeway was the final nail in Paradise Valley's coffin, the district suffered a long, slow decline for years before that as its main customer base in Black Bottom withered away. "It was extremely dynamic," Music says. "It was extremely musical. And it was, of course, destroyed."


2. The Cass Corridor: Four decades of underground art

Location: Detroit, bounded by I-94 on the north, I-75 on the south, the Lodge freeway/M-10 on the west, and Woodward Avenue on the east.

Cultural heyday: Debatable. There's an argument to be made for the late '90s leaving a particularly notable cultural imprint at both the local and national level. The White Stripes literally played their first show in the corridor while techno culture was also having a big moment. But the area was a creative hub for decades before that. "I would say there's a consistent line to be drawn from the '60s to the '90s ... even into the early 2000s ... where the Cass Corridor was a zone of creativity, of affordability, of transience and transformation," says Walter Wasacz, a Hamtramck-based writer and veteran of the metro area's cultural scenes.

Walter Wasacz

Biggest destinations: Some, like the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), have been constants through the years. Sculptor and longtime Cass Corridor resident Robert Sestok fondly recalls seeing beat poet Allen Ginsberg at the DIA and meeting photographer Robert Mapplethorpe through DIA curator Sam Wagstaff (then Mapplethorpe's lover) in the '70s. The Willis Gallery, which Sestok co-founded at 422 W. Willis, was a major artistic destination in the '70s and '80s, long before galleries proliferated in the area. In the '90s, the Gold Dollar hosted the White Stripes' first show and countless other iconic local garage bands at 3129 Cass Ave., and Zoot's Coffee House at 4470 Second Ave. offered shows ranging from techno to punk.
Adriel Thornton and Aaron Anderson standing outside the former Zoot's location
The reason for the scene: Cultural and educational institutions in the area helped draw young artists, and most importantly, Sestok says, "the rents were really low." Sestok recalls paying $25 a month for rent when he moved to the corridor in 1967. Adriel Thornton, who was a student, promoter, DJ, and corridor resident in the mid-'90s, says there was also something special about how "intermixed" the various cultural scenes were. "It could be punk, early hip-hop, early rave kids, people who were just participating in sort of an underground lifestyle, period," he says. "None of us really cared what uniform you were wearing. It was all the same to us."

Reason for decline: In one word, Midtown. In the early and mid-2000s, the corridor was one of the first areas to feel the radiating effects of downtown Detroit's redevelopment. Loft apartments and chic businesses have arisen in the area, which has more or less successfully been rebranded Midtown despite the protestations of many longtime Detroiters. Cultural activity still abounds – but it tends towards the upscale.

Thornton, who recently learned that the three-bedroom apartment he rented in the '90s now goes for double the price he once paid for it, says the new development is "a benefit to the neighborhood" but "it's not just populated with the funky people anymore." Sestok, who has lived in the area almost constantly since the '60s, has mixed feelings as well. He appreciates new cultural institutions like the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, but rising costs pushed him to establish his newest studio space on Detroit's east side. "There's no room for whatever the equivalent of a punk scene would be right now," Wasacz says. "Whatever the next big thing is in terms of subculture, the push from underneath, it's not going to happen in Midtown."


3. Ann Arbor: Radical hub

Location: Scattered throughout the city of Ann Arbor.

Cultural heyday: The mid-'60s through mid-'70s marked a period of intense counterculture activity in Ann Arbor. And as the hippie era waned, bands like the Stooges and Destroy All Monsters also helped make the city a punk-rock destination.

Biggest destinations: Many of the go-to concert venues of the time are still well known today. Canterbury House, at 721 E. Huron St., and The Ark, then located in a house at 1421 Hill St., were both major destinations in the '60s. Gallup Park, West Park, and other parks were the site of many free concerts.

And in the '70s the Blind Pig, at 208 S. First St., and Chances Are/The Second Chance (now Necto), at 516 E. Liberty, became popular spots as well.

The reason for the scene: College campuses nationwide became focal points for youth activism and countercultural activity in the '60s, and the University of Michigan (U-M) was no exception. But law enforcement in Ann Arbor was particularly lax in a way that made the city even more inviting than Detroit for some local young artists and activists.

Frank Bach and members of his band, the Up, relocated to Ann Arbor from the Cass Corridor in 1968, moving next door to their friends in the legendary rock band the MC5. Bach says life in Detroit at the time had become "stressful," partly because of the then-recent riot and partly because police had become particularly aggressive towards hippies and those who associated with counterculture movements.

Frank Bach

Bach and his friends were pleased to receive a comparatively warm welcome from an Ann Arbor Police Department detective who stopped by shortly after they moved in. "[He] said ... 'As long as you don't cause any trouble and mind your own business, we won't bother you,'" Bach says. "It was a much more progressive relationship than we had in Detroit."

Loose enforcement of marijuana laws was particularly attractive to members of Ann Arbor's counterculture community, but their lifestyle was about more than just playing music and getting high. The left-wing Human Rights Party (HRP) and White Panther Party were both heavily active in Ann Arbor at the time, with several HRP candidates winning seats on Ann Arbor's city council. The city drew national attention in 1971 with the John Sinclair Freedom Rally, a concert protesting White Panthers cofounder John Sinclair's imprisonment for marijuana possession. Bach, who helped organize the rally, says he and his friends wanted to make clear connections between civil rights, the anti-war movement, marijuana usage, and music. "It really was all one thing with many different aspects," he says.

Reason for decline: The hippie movement nationwide ran its course in the '70s, and in Ann Arbor it was replaced by a punk scene that simultaneously disdained hippies while also including some of them among its ranks. ("At 14, I was a hippie," says Wasacz, who remembers first being fascinated by the counterculture during a visit to Ann Arbor with his dad. "At 21, I was a punk.") But in the '80s, as U-M and Ann Arbor's business community grew, Bach says the influx of money permanently changed Ann Arbor into something "much more well-heeled and corporate."

Wasacz similarly laments, but expresses understanding of, the change. "A city has to be a driven place to keep attracting people to it and to keep maintaining an elite level of performance," he says. "Ann Arbor has a lot of pressure on it to maintain its level of success."


4. Palmer Park: LGBTQ haven

Curtis Lipscomb at LGBT Detroit's offices

 The strip located along Woodward Avenue from McNichols Road to Seven Mile Road in Detroit, as well as Palmer Park itself and the apartment buildings in the national historic district south of the park.

Cultural heyday: The '70s and early '80s marked a high point for the neighborhood in terms of the number of diverse entertainment venues and general destination status. However, as noted below, the neighborhood has never ceased to be a vital landmark for many gay Detroiters.

Biggest destinations: A 1972 promotional map of the neighborhood proclaimed it "Michigans Gayest Square Mile" (sic), and destinations for the gay male community abounded. Gagen's (later Bookie's) at 870 McNichols Rd., Menjo's at 928 and 950 McNichols Rd., and Tiffany's at 17436 Woodward Ave. were all popular gay bars. The park itself was a cruising destination and all-around "sexual playground," according to Tim Retzloff, who teaches history and LGBTQ studies at Michigan State University and wrote his dissertation on the neighborhood.

The reason for the scene: After bouncing from downtown to the Cass Corridor, Detroit's gay community gravitated to Palmer Park in the '70s in part because of the area's high concentration of historic apartment buildings. "At least some of them loved living in an old English Tudor apartment or an Art Deco apartment or even a more modernistic apartment," Retzloff says.

The neighborhood became a destination for both Detroiters and suburbanites, and its robust music scene drew gay and straight visitors. Bookie's offered not only disco and drag shows, but also what Wasacz describes as "the best stuff happening in the punk universe back then." Although the word "gentrification" was hardly in the popular lexicon at the time, Wasacz says the influx of suburban visitors and mostly white Palmer Park residents clashed with the primarily black population to the immediate south in Highland Park. "There was tension," he says.

Reason for decline: "I want to be careful about calling it a decline, because ... I think that's a disservice to the reality," Retzloff says. The Palmer Park community's racial makeup shifted dramatically from predominantly white to predominantly black in the '80s. According to Retzloff, the residents who claimed the neighborhood in the '70s aged out of the apartment lifestyle and fled from spiking street crime, even as the AIDS epidemic began to take its toll. Bookie's, Tiffany's, and other destination businesses eventually closed. Many former Palmer Park residents moved north to Ferndale, which remains an LGBTQ hub today.

However, when he first visited Palmer Park as a young black gay man in the '80s, LGBT Detroit executive director Curtis Lipscomb says Palmer Park was still "golden"—and it's continued to be a destination for the local LGBTQ community. Hotter Than July, an annual picnic and black LGBT pride event in the park, will celebrate its 23rd year in 2018, and Menjo's is still thriving.

But Lipscomb says the neighborhood it's okay for the neighborhood to change. "An 18-year-old who comes to the park now, his way of expressing will be different from mine," he says. "So we just have to welcome change and know that nothing stays the same and make sure that people like us have this wonderful opportunity to communicate, share, and connect."

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer for numerous publications. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere.