Detroit

Detroit Fasnacht – La Marche du Le Nain Rouge

An interesting holiday has been resurrected in Detroit called Marche du Nain Rouge. It has some historical roots in the French-influenced history of the city. Apparently (I know someone who actually talked to a woman who saw it one night) there’s a devil (or dwarf if you like) living in Detroit, and has been there for some time. On March 20th the good people of the city gathered together and marched down the street dressed in red to scare the devil from the city. I imagine that the devil then scampered over to Dearborn and there was a party at Shatilla to toss the Jinn out of Dearborn. Then for sure it went to seek refuge in Sterling Heights to deal with little old Polish ladies who tried to bash his head in with rolling pins. Anyways, it’s a reason for a party and from the timing has some parallels to the Carnival season and the Fasnacht festivals in the German areas of Europe. With that in mind, my girlfriend offered to help design and make with me a fine red devil mask for me to wear on my vacation to Detroit this year. I’ll arrived too late for St. Patrick’s day, but just in time for La Marche du le Nain Rouge.

The Mask


For the mask we decided to make a classic Fasnacht mask from plaster. The basic idea is to lay strips of plaster on your face and let it dry and then take that mold of your face and create the mask. This ensures that the devil will see your eyes, but not recognize you, making it impossible to take revenge on you later in the year. To make sure the mask doesn’t stick too much to your skin it’s good to apply a cream to your face before starting. So I closed my eyes and my girlfriend started spreading coconut fat on my face, and I burst into a laughing fit of a solid 10 minutes. Eventually I settled down and sort of fell asleep while she layered my face with wet plaster strips. In the end I spray painted the skin of the beast and let it dry for March 20th. As Fasnacht gear was being sold all over the Zurich area I picked up a sort of strange devil pagan skull on fine black stick to carry around the Cass Corridor. Sadly I had too much chocolate in my luggage and had to leave it in Switzerland. I imagine it will find an essential use at some point in my life, maybe for the next march.

I am the Despair of Detroit


Everyone met at the 3rd Street bar around 1:30pm, and then the Nain Rouge appeared on the rooftop. He had a viel red face with sharp teeth and a devilish smile. From the shadows he took responsibility for moving the Pistons to Auburn Hills and stated that he is the despair of the city, a beacon of depression to steal the hope and quash the dreams of anyone standing within the city boarders. Merde de Tete Monsoir! From there a decision was made to march the Nain out of Detroit, and ah, he complied and everyone headed down the Cass Corridor to Case Park where a Cadillac drove up and Coleman Young walked up with the Spirit of Detroit and took the Nain away. The Nain was outstanding, but took a backseat to all the excellent people I met and checked out on the street. The Detroit Marching Band played excellent beats and I happened upon such characters as a Steampunk dude with a mini-gun for an arm and iron fist of Joe Louis. However, at some level I feel like I’m on the wrong side of the conflict. The Nain Rouge was in the area before Detroit was settled (read it on Wikipedia), so in reality the Nain is just defending it’s land, is this the message we want to communicate to the world, that it’s ok to kick the Nain out of Detroit, or Nainland? Shouldn’t we all try to get along? The Nain is possibly a quite upstanding fellow, who simply wishes to enjoy a Cuban cigar on the banks of the river while watching the sun set? I’m looking forward to flying into D-town next year with a new mask.


Ruins of Detroit Matterhorn of Michigan

I don’t see ruins in Detroit, I see mountains and inspiration. The term ruins implies that something has not simply fallen into neglect, but is somehow lost to society. It is degraded beyond its intended state to such a degree that it is lost from redemption. The inspiration, the reason for creation has been lost and totally forgotten by those who built it, and no one wants to carry on the idea.  We don’t remark on the ruins of Notre Dame or the ruins of DDR Berlin, and we don’t talk about the ruined glaciers and mountain ranges in Colorado. Ruin is a physical and mental state of being. A building can be old, the walls crumbling and the facade faded, and we can call Versailles a monument to the pinnacle of French art in the time of Louis XIV. I think of the chateau west of Paris as ruined as any other tourist building in Europe, where the inspiration for its creation has long since been neglected and ignored. The buildings exist to what was, but speak nothing of the future. What good is a beautiful building if it doesn’t inspire? Keeping the outside looking nice is irrelevant when the purpose for being no longer exists. Nothing useless is truly beautiful. Everything is in flux, and it’s all falling apart in one way or another. The Duomo cathedral in Milan is in ruins from my perspective, and as it’s rebuilt and reconstructed it contains physical pieces of yesterday and today, but the idea of Rome is as dead now as it was when the Empire failed and fell because no one cared to keep it going.

Remnants and Ruins


I think of the remnants of the empires of Detroit as the mountains of Michigan, physically and philosophically, and should all be turned into parks for everyone to experience and to explore. Exploration of the natural world feeds the adventure centers of the brain. The unpredictable landscapes and oceans challenge us to survive outside of our comfort zones and the trappings of society. I’ve always found adventure difficult to have in a city environment, and it’s a primary reason why I live in Switzerland, where a healthy balance between cities and outdoor exploration is embedded into society. I like places that inspire me to do things today.


Standing at the gates of Versailles makes me wonder what it was like when an angry mob knocked on the door for the head of Marie Antoinette (or was that only a movie). Standing in the main entrance of the Packard plant in Detroit makes me wonder what I could do in life if I applied myself a little bit more. I don’t see ruins in Detroit, I see mountains to explore and to be inspired  by, and the main and most accessible mountain range is the Packard automotive plant. Packard is the Swiss Alps of Michigan, the Urbex Matterhorn of the Motor City. The feeling I have walking up crumbling stairs in Packard is the same sensation I experience descending down the ridge of the Zinalrothorn in Zermatt. The terrain is unsteady, you don’t know what’s around the next corner, and your sense of adventure is highly tuned to your surroundings.

Glaciers of Detroit


Packard is not a collection of ruins to me because I don’t feel like the inspiration which created Detroit is dead, but rather sleeping a little bit. Packard is a great collection of caverns to explore. Staring down the long dark halls is as mystifying as staring out across the width of the Aletsch Glacier in Switzerland. Cracks in the floor exposing the lower levels is like looking down into the long darkness of a large crevasse.  The  fallen ceilings and walls remind me of the car-sized boulders that litter the Oberaletsch Glacier. The plant is filled with the history of the city and the Empire era of Detroit. Like the glaciers telling the story of the ice leaving the landscape of Switzerland, Packard is covered with grafitti on the inside, telling different stories as time ticks by. The collapsed floors make me think of how the ice has carved images into the rock faces as it flows and then recedes.


Both are living in a sense, the transformation is due to weathering and to humans. Water flows into cracks in rock and concrete, expands upon freezing, and another little piece breaks off the walls and mountain peaks. Both are dangerous and deadly to the naive who venture there, and a helmet, boots, and rope would be advisable in both the mountains of Detroit and Switzerland. Walking through Packard in my Doc Martens, I feel I look like the Japanese and Korean tourists who head up to the Junfraujoch in tennis shoes and a light jacket. We’re all looking for the same thing I think, life isn’t as complicated as writers like to think it is. Exploration is an important part of life, and both urbex and mountaineering combine physical tenacity with mental stamina.


Packard is explored, Packard burns, it’s been gutted and probably there are sill bodies hidden away in dark corners, but it’s not a scary place to me. I stand there in awe.  I’m awed by how it crumbles, how nature is taking it  back to the earth.  Empires can fall as quickly (or faster) than they were built, and this is an important perspective to understand. Europe houses the ruins of Monarchs, Fascism and Communism to name a few. Detroit saw the birth of industrial empires, but the inspiration for a second coming of Detroit is all around. Humans build up large things and think the monuments should exist forever, but they’re all being knocked down by time and the desire of people to maintain the momentum of an empire.  This is perspective, this is the life and transformation of an Empire and everyone should see it. Empires are built and they fall. Huge masses of concrete can be built up and a few years go by and they are skeletons, just like you’ll be one day.


Packard looks like a city in the aftermath of a war, sitting on the far edge of the blast radius from a nuclear impact. Standing at that point where everyone gets vaporized and all the windows are blown out, but the buildings remains standing. I used to play paintball in Packard at a place called Splatball City, and if you look you’ll find remnants of those wars and happy times of my teenage years. People say it’s the fallout of economic war. They say that the result is the same as a military confrontation. Windows blasted out, nothing inside the walls anymore to support life – just places to hide away in from the wild life outside.

Detroit and Berlin


Packard 2010 probably looks a bit like Berlin in May of 1945. You can imagine snipers hiding away on the roof tops of Packard and werewolves plotting in the shadows as Russian soldiers drag German women into empty rooms. Or you can imagine Bratz dolls roaming the halls and chilling on window sills, but that’s just my imagination filling the page with bullshit for an unwritten movie script. A fitting notion, given the booming movie industry in current-day Detroit.


Like the glaciers, the ruins of Detroit won’t last forever, they are mortal, and must undergo the aging process like everything else in this world. The ruins of Detroit are fading like the ice in the Alps, or the melting snows of Killamanjaro. If you have the motivation and the opportunity, go check them out while you still can. Urban exploration is something you have to do in the moment. Old buildings get demolished or closed off, or their innards gutted as they transform from majestic theaters to forgotten memories. I take pictures of the glaciers because I want to show my grandchildren what it was like, in that time long ago when ice covered the Alps. It’s all in flux, and Detroit is getting reworked like Berlin in the late 90’s.


It’s not a bad thing that Potsdamer Platz now has a Sony Center instead of a no-man’s land, but’s good that you can still find one of the last guard towers if you know which street to walk down, and deportation memorials are all over the city if you care to notice them. Thousands of bodies and still forgotten in shallow graves on the WWII battle fields around the city. I feel like I barely know some parts of Berlin anymore because it has changed so much between 2003 and 2010, but that’s not a bad thing, that’s just life. I hope Packard will still be there in 10 years. However, if the skeleton is still there it might be a shopping mall, or a set of affluent apartment studios, but I hope that a few graffiti walls are left standing – like that lone section of the Berlin wall at Potsdamer Platz with a peace sign on it. I should live long enough to find out.


Eternal thanks to gatsbyj who I met via Flickr for taking me shooting in Packard.


A Pure Detroit Fashion Experience

I grew up at a time when if you could buy a T-shirt promoting Detroit it would say something like, “Welcome to Detroit, Now Go Home.” Now when I travel back to Michigan I’m continually inspired by the shops and style I see in the city and surrounding areas. Few places say Detroit fashion like Pure Detroit, a home-grown fashion brand that takes the best of Detroit and infuses that inspiration into stylish things to wear.

Pure Detroit


If you walk through the Pure Detroit store in the Fisher Building one of the most iconic accessories to pick up is the seat-belt buckle belt. It’s genius in so many ways. The buckles are taken from, or at least sourced from seat belt buckles that used to protect passengers in Ford, General Motors, or Chrysler cars. I still have vivid memories of buckling myself into the family van (a Ford) and I just couldn’t say no to buying one. It’s sort of industrial and unique in a way I haven’t seen anywhere else.


Another staple of Pure Detroit is the fitted T-shirt. Detroit Rock, Detroit Funk, they’re displayed in 70’s-80’s colored script and result in a non-kitsch image of the city. Of all the cities I’ve visited in the world, Detroit has the coolest T-shirts. Prague is a close second, nearly tied with Berlin (and Berlin has the coolest sweater). This is actually not easy to do. I’ve seen the city T-shirts in Paris, New Orleans, Zurich, Prague, Tokyo, Boston, New Mexico, Las Vegas and a few other not so memorable locals. The Pure Detroit shirts are by far the most stylish and cutting-edge of any other place because they focus on the historical music style and well as the city. They’re cool without trying to spoon-feed anything to the person who looks at you walking down the street.

Spectacles


In the city, my favorite shop is Spectacles (230 E. Grand River Harmonie) . I was just walking around one day and heard some cool music pumping into the street. At first I thought it was coming from some apartment and pulled out my Zoom H4 to record the sounds. Then I realized it was coming from the shop I was standing in front of and decided to walk in and check it out. Spectacles is sort of beyond cool. You can buy homemade funk CD burned on a computer, new designers and T-shirts I wouldn’t know where to find anywhere else and the shop has an all around awesome feeling. I talked with the owner for a bit and walked way with two shirts and a couple of CDs. Whenever I’m in Downtown Detroit I head to Spectacles. The shop isn’t huge, but the ambiance inside is unique, and they sell real clothes there. If you stop into an H&M, you always have the feeling that you’re buying something fleeting, that will look cool for half a season and then it’s over with. The stuff at Spectacles has a sort of timeless cool funk feeling. They stock small designers, so if you’re looking for something unique, it’ll be there. On my last trip I found a fantastic hat that sits upon my brain with an authentic style the hats in Zurich just don’t have.

Showtime


Outside of downtown and near Wayne State University is Showtime (5708 Woodward Avenue). What’s Showtime? More or less it’s hands down the coolest Rock-oriented fashion spot in the world. Sounds like an exaggeration, but I’ve shopped in San Diego, Tokyo, Zurich, Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, and a few others, and it’s just a fact that Showtime is the coolest of them all. Well, to be honest it’s borderline between Spectacles and Showtime for my favorite establishment, one is hip hop and the other rock. If you want to dress like a rockstar then head to Showtime, don’t ask about the prices and let the clothes find you, it’s an experience I’ll never forget.

The Burbs


Outside of Detroit is Royal Oak, once the trendy alternative area of the metro area, now an upscale nesting place for young professionals and those who want to look trendy, the city still has a lot of cool shops, like Indigo. I stopped in just to be different (from my boring perspective) and left with a T-shirt and sweater, the likes of which I wouldn’t be able to find in Zurich and probably neither in Paris. This is kind of the point, because I’m not likely to run into someone sporting the same look while strolling down BahnhofStrasse in Zurich.


Shoes are the make-or-break addition to any wardrobe. Onitsuka Tigers are the most fantastic shoes I didn’t know existed until I started paying attention. These shoes are coveted items in Zurich, and generally can’t be had for less than 120-160 CHF per pair. The situation is blissfully different in Michigan (and the US in general), and I picked up a nice pair of white Tigers at the Summerset Collection in Novi for like $60. I also got a pair of Levis 507 jeans, another item which carries an obscene markup in Europe. Shopping at the Summerset Collection (located in Troy) in the hardcore white-collar suburbs of Detroit lacks the feel of the actual city, but the selection and prices (compared to Zurich) are nice.


Detroit is my new fashion shopping Mecca in the world. The stores aren’t all in the same place and you might have to search around for the things you want – but when you find them you can rest assured that the merchandise will be fresh and unique. My sister says I look European now, even though many of my clothes are from Michigan (or from We in Zurich), and in Europe people might think I look American, but I say the style is pure me.


If you’re heading to Detroit and don’t know where to start, head to the Downtown Welcome Center (1253 Woodward) and check out an Inside Detroit tour, highly recommended.

A Tourist in Detroit – the Real City

Editor’s Note: The following words have been writing themselves for over a year, but the author is a lazy one and finally we had to shackle him to a coffee shop table in a location just out side Zurich, Switzerland and beat the sentences out of him. This is the first in a series (which were promised us), and who knows what we’ll have to do to get the last installments written.


Detroit_08-8103-Edit.jpgI’ve been to many cities in the world. Zurich, Berlin, Tokyo, Barcelona, La Paz, San Diego, Paris, Geneva, Budapest, Krakow, and the one that always sticks in my mind is Detroit. I love cities that inspire me – they stay in my head and energize my being in ways that other places just “don’t”. Each place is different and everyone is special, but Detroit is the one which sticks in my mind. Detroit inspires me. Detroit feeds my soul. I’ve been living in Switzerland for nearly 6 years now, but I was born in Detroit and I grew up in Michigan, in the suburbs of the City. As such I lived in a State with a divided society. When you grow up in the suburbs you spend your days in strip malls and communities like Birmingham, Royal Oak, Ferndale and all the satellite metro areas. These places aren’t bad (although down right evil from a city planning standpoint), Royal Oak was a cool alternative area during the 80’s with punks in mowhalks standing on the street corners. The place got “civilized” in the 90’s and the cool alternative scene eventually moved to Ferndale, although the “feeling” remains.


The perception of Detroit is one of failure and vulgar fear for the suburbanite. Many who live in the burbs work in Detroit and head out to the occasional Tigers, Lions, or Red Wings game, but the city is not a central part of the Michigan experience – which is sad. Detroit is one of the few beacons of real idea exchange and thought evolution in the suburban urban-sprawl hell of Michigan. In general Detroit invokes fear – fear of the place. After living in Switzerland for five years and visiting Michigan a few times here and there I realized what a pathetic connection I have to the city, so during Dec. 2008/Jan. 2009 I decided to be a Tourist in Detroit, and started filling a Moleskin journal with scribbles and impressions.


Winter probably isn’t the best time to vacation in Detroit, but it was one of the most fantastic trips of my life so far, and I’m going back for more. I stayed at my parent’s house in the burbs and tooled around Detroit during the days and nights for a week. I was at an advantage, my friend works at the Detroit Free Press and she introduced me to Jeanette Pierce, who helps run INSIDE DETROIT. In short, I was hooked up. INSIDE DETROIT is an essential doorway into the coolest parts of the city. The biggest problem with tourism in Detroit is that no one from the outside knows where to go or what to do. Detroit was developed around the automobile as a mode of transportation, and for this reason, the city is very spread out. If you don’t know where to go, it’s a little hard to just tool around and explore (although I do as that’s my “thing”). INSIDE DETROIT was setup to fix that, and it is very effective in communicating what to do and giving alternative tours of the city.


I generally hate generic city tours. I’ve been on a horridly boring group tour of Florence, and despise the spoon-fed cultural education of listening to someone lecture to me in a city square. The coolest city tours I’ve been on were in Berlin and Detroit. Fat Tire provides an excellent bike tour of the city and Berlin After Dark gives the ignorant night seeker an excellent experience of Berlin nightlife and clubs (including free shots on the trains). I got the same sense of alternative expression and unplanned for inspiration and adventure on the Inside Detroit tour I did. Basically I spent New Year’s Eve on a Detroit bar tour. We hit up three different places and ended up at the Filmore Auditorium to ring in the new year. I Never had to find the Real Detroit. You stand in greatness here, not the shadow of what was (like in Paris) or what will never be (like in Tokyo), but stark and undeniable greatness (as in Berlin). I don’t say this of every city. Geneva is beautiful, but it doesn’t carry the same weight as Detroit. Tokyo is full of eye candy, but lacks the soul I feel in the Motor City.


What does it mean to find the real city? I once had a horrible pizza in Sienna, the little city in Italy where they have the horse race in the city square, now even more famous from the opening scene in Quantum of Solace. People tell me I should go to a local place, not a tourist restaurant to eat. But what do I know, I’m just there for a few hours. I never have to worry about finding the real Detroit, it’s all real, and out there for the tourist to experience and be inspired by. Where is the Real Paris? The Real Florence? Is the Real Milan defined by the churches no one really prays in any more? Search hard enough and you might find the real Prague between the hookers and gelato stands. You can visit some cities and never find the real place - just the manufactured tourist areas. In the real city you don’t have to worry about being fleeced with tourist prices for a coffee or being annoyed by professional beggars. If people ask for money on a street corner in Detroit, it’s probably because the genuinely need it.


R0013273-Edit-2.jpgYou can write a lot of vile things about Detroit, you can cite the riots of 1967, just like you can cite the Final Four riots at Michigan State University. I don’t really understand it. In Zurich there’s the occasional soccer riot, sometimes the fans get crazy every other weekend. The police come out, the tear gas is launched, the crowds are dispersed. Are riots a bad thing? Yes, they happen anywhere and everywhere and like avalanches it’s just best to get out of the way when they’re coming down on you and move on with your life afterwards.


I’ve been through many parts of the world, sometimes I get the feeling that I have no center, no place that calls back to me and that I always feel 100% comfortable in. But that’s the point, to take yourself from your comfortable living environment and place your body and mind in a new sphere of experiences. I’ve aimlessly wandered the corridors of Europe, I’ve walked around the peaks of Bolivia, slept on the White Sands of New Mexico, watched the sunset and then the sunrise from atop Mt. Fuji, jumped off cliffs in Greece and ate tempura in Osaka. But Detroit, this city is a special place in the world.


There is a feeling of determination when I walk the streets of Detroit. I get a sense of enlightenment when I look up towards the sky. The music, the people, the bars, the buildings, the food, it all comes together and floors me when I drive down Grand Blvd. I’ll take DEMF over the Zurich Street Parade and the pastisio in Greek Town over the offerings in Athens (I’m not the only one). The only other city with such a sense of ghosts and recent history echoing the streets is Berlin. The inertia I feel in these two population centers sticks with me, it inspires, it invokes philosophy, and it gives me a center in the world.


Editor’s Note: This was only the first installmet, Detroit City of Inspiration and a Tourist in Detroit articles are being written and rewritten, the photos are being edited and publishing deadlines have been set in limestone.


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