By F. Philip Barash
I greeted the millennium from a former laundry factory near the old Tiger Stadium. It had been indifferently converted to lofts and managed with the lightest of touches. On game days, the neighborhood did brisk trade in beer and parking. Otherwise, it felt as if the rapture had happened and only we few were left behind to indulge in sin. The whole city felt like that, and you sensed that if you stuck around Detroit long enough, you’d know every last sinner by his Christian name.
The loft, which I shared with a roommate who was always either between jobs or girlfriends, served as a headquarters for a constellation of friends and acquaintances who, although not yet out of their teenage years, had been thrust into worldly knowledge by the very fact that they were daily immersed in Detroit, a fact we all carried with us like a dark and tattered halo. The first night in the loft, as we were unpacking records and blasting jazz, a neighbor came by to tell us to knock it off. We discovered later that he was the great Detroit DJ Stacey Pullen. Our other next-door neighbor was a woman approaching middle age and possessed of the calm and poise of a spiritual guru; she ran a porno studio from her two-story loft. It was decorated with floor-to-ceiling fabric panels that seemed to never cease billowing, a few leather settees, and not much else. On weekends, when her young daughter visited, the space would fill with the smell of baking. Once, they left a platter of fresh cookies at our door.
A neighbor down the hall was imbued with an intense, Mephistophelian, charm; slight, dressed well but without flash, and invariably polite, he traveled flanked by a pair of Rottweilers. Because he was a well-known drug dealer, the unit he shared with his dogs and lieutenants was not infrequently raided by the cops. He always knew when a raid was coming and was exceedingly apologetic when he informed us of them. “I hate to be presumptuous,” he’d tell me after knocking on the door, “but I’m expecting a visit and wonder if you might spare room in your refrigerator for”—and here he would enunciate especially clearly—“a volume of acid.” He handed over a pickle jar filled with pure liquid LSD and invited us to use as much as we might want, and so we praised him as a good neighbor and stayed awake for days.
We’d eventually be evicted, but not before journeying to the four corners of Detroit, slanted senseless, to seek adventure in a place that was more surreal than real, a laboratory for lawlessness and vice and unqualified adolescent joy. These are our itineraries.
West of the old train station is one of Detroit’s most functioning neighborhoods where gruff blue-collar workers share stoops with recent immigrants from Latin America. Factories, churches and diners set the tone there. Manufacturing still run on shifts, and there’s no better place to watch a late-night shift-change than Duly’s (5458 Vernor Highway), a twenty-four-hour diner so narrow and with a counter so low that it’s easy to feel like a giant. Duly’s doesn’t serve, but Los Galanes (3362 Bagley), in the heart of Mexican Village, more than makes up. Sit on the porch, watch the low-riders go by, and confidently order a Blue Motherfucker, which improves on the Long Island Iced Tea by replacing cola with Blue Curacao. Being tipsy is the correct posture at the Riverside Park (West Grand at West Jefferson), a patch of busted asphalt and sickly grass underneath the Ambassador Bridge. The noise from trucks overhead and barges along the river constitutes a kind of transit zen. I remember the park having impromptu tailgate parties, which may still be the case.
Just the other side of the Grosse Pointe border is a neighborhood that once aspired to be the Venice of Detroit (Alter at Riverside). Navigable canals run alongside streets and most houses have boat sheds or launches, though most have long been in disuse. When I first started coming there, a shantytown—lean-tos, trailers, tarpaulins, old boats on the hard—was still thriving in a park across from the bait-and-tackle store, which has since been torched and abandoned. The park is still full of men casting silently in the Detroit River where it meets Lake St. Clair. Across Alter Road, but fenced off, is Grosse Pointe Park. It’s said to be the most heavily policed street in the metropolitan area, and crossing over it is as uncanny as stepping into a wardrobe and emerging into a fantasy. Drive back and forth a few times for the thrill of the experience and flash the bird to the cops who watch your maneuvers. When you get fatigued of reflecting on inequity and racism, reprovision at Cadieux Cafe (4300 Cadieux) where the ancient sport of feather bowling is still practiced.
Going up Woodward Avenue, which bisects Detroit into East and West Sides, is an object lesson in urban history and car culture. A respite from the ninety or so lanes of traffic that cleave the city into halves is La Dolce Vita (17546 Woodward). The uninitiated will be hard-pressed to find its entrance, hidden off a back alley. Inside, a courtyard anchored by a fountain and fine Italian fare got me through plenty of successful dates. A nightcap at the Baker’s Keyboard Lounge (20510 Livernois) is mandatory. Baker’s claims to be the longest-operating jazz club in the U.S., but the real charm is in its cramped dining room that’s been mercifully unremodeled since more swinging days. If your date is likewise swinging, drop by Adult World (13705 Eight Mile Road), one of the few remaining porn shops on Eight Mile, where you may still be able to get your filthy mags along with model glue and whippet refills.
Much of Detroit’s central area has been refigured by new development and rising rents. But vestiges of my youth remain. In the Eastern Market, where every meat locker could become a spontaneous rave, a spirit of drinking and music still prevails. You can still worship at the front door of Transmat Records (1492 Gratiot), a legendary studio founded by DJ and producer Derrick May. Detroit’s own rails-to-trails conversion, Dequindre Cut, is still as cavernous and graffiti-filled as I remember it. But in the clean-up, the city removed the burnt-out cars, packs of feral dogs, and gypsy caravans that once defined the old stretch of railroad. Today, joggers and strollers are more common. Another holdover is Pure Detroit, a clothing store whose current digs in an art deco skyscraper are a far cry from its beginnings on Woodward Avenue. Its owners are just as committed though. When I first met them, they told me that they refused to hold a gun behind the counter as a gesture of good faith in their customers.