I’m currently organizing and installing an exhibition called Lost Cultural Venues of Detroit: Social Spaces and Playgrounds.
This has me thinking, poetically, about lost spaces and quiet places. Many of the buildings which housed them have been torn down or are sitting empty. Others are inhabited by other businesses.
The Tele-Arts Theatre is now a nightclub. The Michigan Theatre is now a parking garage. The church in which the Catacombs Coffee House was held sits empty and may end up being demolished.
I’m thinking about Detroit, but not just Detroit. There are lost and missing places all over the United States and all over the world. Ghosts and history both linger in the rubble.
I think about all the old joints. They’d get pretty noisy and lively. Sometimes they’d be jam-packed.
You used to be able to smoke. Some people had comments wondering “how can the horn players play without gas masks?”
Bars specialized in beer, wine and liquor. Coffee Houses served coffee, tea and snacks. Restaurants or Supper Clubs would offer both of these, plus meals. You could usually get snacks or meals in the taverns too.
The music was often sublime. Great figures in jazz, soul, blues, rock and more performed. They played and sang, spinning magic. It was pure gold.
There would be dancing. Sometimes they were dance clubs. Other times “discreet dancing” would be allowed in normal bars. With some music you had to dance.
There was sweat, a lot of sweat, especially in the Summer. In the Winter you could find a spot and get out of the cold.
People fell in love. They got together and they broke up. Some stayed together.
Lovers, friends and acquaintances rubbed shoulders or elbows and shot the bull. Largely, everyone got along. Yet sometimes there’d be fights or arguments. When these got out of hand it could lead to shootings, stabbings and murders.
Some places were safer than others. Yet some of those with the greatest music were often a little risky. Sometimes you’d want a quiet, low-key space. Sometimes you’d want something lively and even rowdy.
Leaving home and going out “on the town” was always an adventure. For some it was a regular thing. Others went out less regularly or just on special occasions.
It all comes back to love. People thrive in friendly, magical and conducive spaces. They go to spots that they connect with. There’s something in the air. People love good music, poetry, cinema and theatre. They love good company. Great spaces breed great culture.
This relates to the idea of the cafe too. The Paris model is hard to replicate. There was a lively cafe scene in Vienna as well. There was a golden age of culture in New York too, in its way. People talk, get together and connections are made.
It usually happens accidentally and often doesn’t last for long. Yet some of us keep searching for it and hoping for it. There a sense of a lost Utopia. You can practically taste it, but it’s just out of reach.
A vibrant and powerful cultural scene can change and uplift human lives. It can also help and revive cities and neighborhoods.
I’ve experienced several such scenes in Detroit. I’ve lived in the magic and dwelled in autonomous zones.
They’re long gone now. I keep trying to find something similar. I haven’t much luck. Detroit has a lively arts and music presence. Yet it seems to be divided into cliques. Some of these work better than others. Everyone has their own tastes and preferences. The little pockets of life and energy sometimes take on a life of their own.
There are two are three spots around here which intrigue me. They’re already good. They have, at least, the possibility of mutating into something truly special. Hopefully there are others as well.
It would be great to have a time machine. You could go see people like John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Sun Ra, Cannonball Adderly, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Mary Lou Williams, Andrew Hill, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Holly, Sam Cooke, the Velvet Underground, Griot Galaxy, the MC5 and on and on.
We have to settle for audio recording of films of concerts. Some of us have our memories. If we could replay our memories so clearly as if we were reliving them, than it would be like a real time machine.
Thanks to Dave Toorongian for the images here from matchbooks and old ads.
Thanks to Dave Toorongian and Lutz Bacher for loaning items for this exhibit.
Thank you to library at the University of Detroit Mercy for continuing support of this and other exhibitions.
More information is on this accompanying facebook page, more images and related material: