May 27, 2012 at 1:00 am

Donna Terek: Donna's Detroit

Detroit's 'Night Market': Secret box truck party on empty industrial lot

Detroit's Night Market
Detroit's Night Market: Detroit's Night Market is a fleeting convergence of art, music and trucks on a desolate post-industrial lot near New Center. Don't worry about where exactly because if there's a next time, the location will be different and , once again, secret.

The wide-open spaces in Detroit have inspired many an underground art and performance event. From legendary raves in abandoned buildings to the outdoor spectacle of the original Theatre Bizarre, creative folks have eyed empty buildings and lots and said, "Let's fill these with something fun — and a little unconventional."

And so it was that on a recent Saturday night around 8 p.m., half a dozen box trucks converged on an empty lot abutting a train track near the New Center area. Ramps lowered and disgorged a coven of artists, musicians and performers who scurried to set up their "stages" inside the vans' bellies.

This was the clandestine precursor to the Night Market, a guerilla carnival that got its start in New York, swung out to San Francisco and now has begun to grace Detroit with its secretive, insider-y air of a bunch of kids trying to pull off a prank on their teacher, tittering behind their hands all the while.

As darkness fell, music started pumping from the vans that formed a semicircle around a bonfire and spectators began to arrive. Standing in the center was like peeking into the frames of six shadow boxes, each with a different theme.

One was a mini-boite, or nightclub, with a Dixieland house band; one held a reenactment of the Tea Party from "Alice in Wonderland" where a hookah-smoking Caterpillar greeted guests and a Cheshire Cat served cupcakes.

There was a discotheque and a space-music-laser-light environment and an interactive sound environment where visitors triggered tones with laser pointers. Then there was the hacker truck, where a miniature boxing ring enclosed tiny robot tanks programmed to fight each other to the death.

Don't talk about Night Market

"The first rule of Night Market is 'you do not talk about Night Market,'" says Dave Morrison, 33, of Hamtramck, stealing a line from the cult film "Fight Club." Morrison and musical buddy Neal Ingram, 32, of Detroit, created their musical laser light show in a truck borrowed from Green Safe at Recycle Here, where they both work.

The hush-hush nature of the Night Market makes it attractive by definition to certain Detroiters who like to run on the inside track. All information is word-of-mouth, or as one participant who preferred not to be named says, "There were three emails, and it happened." Those in the know are discouraged from sharing on social media or blogs.

Morrison learned this the hard way. "We were telling everybody" and made a Facebook post "and they got really mad," he says

The mysterious "they" revealed the Market's date to participants, but didn't text the location until a couple hours before the event.

"Because it's a secret, people want to know about it, so they're amped up to know when and where it's going to be," says Morrison, "which is kinda cool because it makes it more exciting."

"The coolest part is that no one is in charge," adds Ingram.

Brigadoon meets urban DIYers

According to several online posts, the first box truck caravan convened in Brooklyn in 2009 under the name Lost Horizon Night Market . Since then, Oakland, Calif., joined in and there are rumblings that other cities want their own incarnations.

It's the second year for Detroit's Night Market. Last year's encampment hosted three trucks. On the coasts where the markets have had a few years to build a following, there might be as many as two dozen wheeled venues.

In Detroit, the trucks arrived about 8 p.m., and by 2 a.m. they were gone.

"Everyone shows up, we do our thing and then drive away and leave no trace," said Larry McMann, of Novi. He's a 10-year veteran of Burning Man, the annual city of art that rises from the Nevada desert each summer and disappears eight days later. Many night market participants are "burners" and bring with them the burner principles of communal effort, gifting, participation and the rejection of commercialism. You will find no brand-name anything at Night Market.

There is nothing to buy, no cover to pay — just free-form fun to be had and a hope that someday in the future, at a location yet unknown, the Night Market will appear again.

Spectators crammed into a truck tricked out as a miniature night club with performances by Grace Detroit, Laura Finlay and the Detroit Pleasure Society. / Donna Terek/The Detroit News
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