As ‘greater downtown’ rises, underground art moves on

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Maybe it was when the $863 million Little Caesars Arena opened this fall in the once down-and-out Cass Corridor, or when a downtown penthouse in a formerly blighted building sold for $1.8 million last summer, or when a new steak and caviar joint opened offering a $149 porterhouse this winter in the formerly derelict Capitol Park.

The Red Door Gallery, on Second Avenue near Prentis Street, was one of the first ’60s era counterculture arts spaces to open around WSU.

Whenever it was, the era of downtown as a haven for Detroit’s artistic underground is over, say many longtime cultural observers. The rent nowadays is just too high. With the increasing number of crowded office buildings, popular restaurants and residences — some with waiting lists — the amount of underground and experimental performance space and dirt-cheap housing is no longer there.

For decades, dating back to at least the late ’60s, big swaths of the area now described by real estate agents as “greater downtown” — the central business district, Cass Corridor, Wayne State University, Eastern Market, New Center and Riverfront — was steadily becoming a dump.

Many of the buildings emptied as office workers, shops and restaurants fled to the suburbs. Residents followed. Even the Pistons and Lions moved to Oakland County.


Amid that overall decline, Detroit’s reputation as a raw, creative place was being planted. A new genre of entertainment, Detroit techno music, bloomed in the empty Eastern Market lofts and storefronts on a then-desolate Gratiot Avenue. A young emcee with the moniker Eminem would hone his hip-hop skills at a struggling Chinese restaurant in New Center. And a former drag queen bar in the Cass Corridor would serve as the first stage for the upstart White Stripes and their soon-to-be homegrown rock institution Jack White.

All this occurred when most of the area “was a bit scary for many middle-of-the-road people,” said Vince Carducci, dean of undergraduate studies at the College for Creative Studies and author of the blog, Motown Review of Art.

Maybe because the area intimidated many in the mainstream that a counterculture took root, Carducci said. “Definitely the cheap rent and ample space helped” create the scene, he said. Carducci noted the area also had solid cultural and educational institutions, such as the Detroit Institute of Arts, Wayne State University and the College for Creative Studies, which created a steady influx of young and educated people even in the worst of times.

The Gories perform in 1989 at the Willis Gallery in the Cass Corridor.

“It was an avant-garde place if you could look beyond the vacant buildings, or knew what vacant building was the place to be for the party,” said Zana Smith, owner of the longtime Spectacles store, an urban fashion store downtown that also promotes local music.

Smith should know. It was three decades ago when she helped promote shows in an after-hours juice bar in a former shoe store at 1315 Broadway near Gratiot. The club, called Detroit Music Institute, featured a new genre called Detroit techno. Music critics say the club, which opened in 1988 and stayed in business for about a year, was the first to feature artists performing techno music. (The Detroit Institute of Music Education in downtown’s Capitol Park has no affiliation with the ’80s era club.)

Life in the past

The roots of the area’s underground date back to the ’60s counterculture movement. The city’s first artist-run collectives formed around Wayne State University and helped breed the Cass Corridor Art Movement among other things. Publications like Creem magazine, underground literary journals and anarchist newspapers sprouted up. In New Center, the Woodward Cocktail Bar debuted in the ’70s and it is now the longest continually open gay bar in the city.

Kevin Saunderson, one of the pioneers of techno music, fondly recalls his time living and working in the Eastern Market area in the late ’80s. “I lived in, like, a 3,000-square-foot loft and paid a couple hundred dollars” in monthly rent, said Saunderson, referring to his former residence near the corner of Gratiot and Riopelle. “That was cheap even back then. And the area was kind of empty — it could be a ghost town at night — so that you gave some freedom.”

With that freedom, he and his two of his high school friends — Juan Atkins and Derrick May from Belleville, Michigan, who were known as the “Belleville Three” — are credited for essentially inventing the electronic music genre known as techno. At one point, each lived or had studios on that stretch of Gratiot in Eastern Market that came to be known by some as Techno Boulevard.

Kevin Saunderson, one of the pioneers of techno music, fondly recalls his time living and working in the Eastern Market area in the late ’80s.

“Detroit always seemed like a sophisticated place, especially musically,” Saunderson said, during a telephone interview from Bali, where he was performing. He is among the many Detroit techno artists who play around the world. “Maybe it’s the legacy of Motown, (and) a strong African-American culture, but people always seemed to be open and ready for new sounds.”

The Motor City also provided “lots to rebel against,” said artist Cary Loren.

“It was a city where people wanted you to work in a factory, there was a lot of pressure to be a great consumer, there was racist government policies — that’s plenty to rail against if you have an artistic bent,” Loren said. “That’s why part of the cultural legacy of this town is loud, angry rock ‘n’ roll.”

Loren began to write underground zines, or homemade magazines, in the ’70s. He was a lyricist in the “noise band” Destroy All Monsters that was based in Ann Arbor and Detroit. Its original members included visual artists Mike Kelley and Niagara, who have gained international fame; a later version included members of MC5 and the Stooges. Loren and his wife now run the Book Beat store in Oak Park.

The sheen of the underground scene started dimming around 2010. By then, the city’s central business district contained 48 big empty buildings. The city’s populations, from 2000 to 2010, had dropped 25 percent, to 713,777. And the drop has continued, standing at 672,795, according to the latest census reports.

A local socialite who calls himself Mr. Detroit sits inside Bert’s Marketplace restaurant and jazz bar, a longtime survivor in the Eastern Market neighborhood.

But 2010 is when billionaire Dan Gilbert moved his Quicken Loans Inc. headquarters from Livonia to downtown. The move helped push greater downtown into an overdrive that even bankruptcy could not halt. The online mortgage firm and its host of companies now employ more 17,000 employees in the city. Overall, various developers and companies have invested billions in renovating the skyscrapers, historic mansions, a former X-rated movie theater. A gleaming new sports-entertainment complex, new residents, a Whole Foods market, and a Shinola flagship store have emerged.

In 2016 alone, at least 110 development deals, including an estimated 32 new restaurants and bars, were unveiled. This year will likely see similar numbers.

Now, there are commissioned murals and other street art, pricey art galleries, open air markets with licensed vendors, a public bike share program, skateboard parks, hacker spaces, a school for music training, and more. Many of these changes are pitched as selling points to lure more businesses like Google and Amazon and more young, educated residents.

The situation today is not the same as when the area was filled with desperate artists who needed bargain-basement prices to hone their vision, Carducci said. “The brand of Detroit is authenticity,” he said. “You see so many examples of companies using that brand and wrapping it in a nostalgic patina.”

Upbeat on upswing

None of the nine artists and taste makers interviewed for this story were critical of the increasingly upscale environment.

“The part of Detroit with skyscrapers is not supposed to be the place where all the cheap underground places are ... downtown is supposed to be the place where there’s lot of office workers and fancy restaurants,” said Jerome Mongo.

In the late ’80s and ’90s, Mongo operated a host of small venues in New Center and downtown that featured many aspiring hip-hop and techno artists, including Kid Rock, Eminem, Slum Village and Blake Baxter. He also is a business partner of Maurice Malone, a friend he met while in high school who went to become a well known hip-hop fashion designer.

Jerome Mongo, left, and his father Larry Mongo at Cafe D’Mongo’s Speakeasy on Griswold in Detroit. Now open only on weekends, the spot was also the former home of Wax Fruit Rhythm Cafe.

“Don’t blame Dan Gilbert. I remember when people used to complain ‘Why don’t the suburban people spend their money downtown and invest here?’ That’s what’s happening,” Mongo said.

“There’s plenty of space left in Detroit neighborhoods for you to go and experiment. Go do it,” he said. “And better yet, buy the damn building wherever you are doing your thing.”

Twitter: @LouisAguilar_DN