Sunday, May 8, 2011

Road trip: Detroit

Pixies live in Detroit
When the Pixies announced they would play their "Doolittle" album live this spring, a group of us quickly committed to go.  They didn't have a Chicago stop, so seeing them at the Fox Theater in Detroit was the next best thing.
I grew up 30 minutes south of the Motor City, but haven't spent much time there since leaving Michigan.  I've followed the recent news stories with curiosity; the urban decay captured in glossy photo essays, the vicious city politics, the spread of urban farming, and the tales of an artistic resurgence.  When I've heard talk of Detroit's comeback, I'll admit to feeling skeptical.  If you're from Michigan, you know that the problems in Detroit are not new - it's been a rough, hard place for a long time.

My quick visit was like peering through the car window while passing by a place you used to know.  I caught only glimpses, but they were telling.

Inside the Fox Theater
The weather was typical of Michigan in April - cold, damp and grey.  I think there were even a few hail balls.  But with the Pixies show, a Tigers game and another music act at the Magic Stick, the people were out roaming Woodward Avenue.  We ducked into the Fox, a welcome shelter at that point.  I forgot how stunning the 1920's era theater is.  It's hard to believe that my grandparents used to come here to see movies.  "Going to the show," they called it.  The building is grand.  In the lobby, it seemed all concert-goers were looking up, at the giant faux organ above our heads, at the ocean blue ceiling.  Inside the theater, we were shown to our seats by tuxedo clad ushers.  The proscenium is decorated with golden flowers and exotic animals and topped with an elephant, his trunk curving up.  A huge crystal chandelier hangs over the audience.

 I am old enough now to appreciate a rock show held in an elegant place.  And the Pixies more than lived up to the historic stage.

Pixies at the Fox Theater.  Detroit, April 2011.

We celebrated after at Grand Trunk Pub with some fancy microbrews, and then went slightly less fancy with coney fries and dogs at Lafayette Coney Island. It was late - we reached Lafayette by 2AM - but each spot was cozy and dense with activity.  Outside the pub, groups of smokers congregated and packs of twentysomethings teetered by, dressed in their Friday night best.

Lafayette Coney Island at 2am.
Lafayette was packed.  The restaurant is a cavernous and warm place.  My Detroit friends had argued its merits over the next door arch rival, American Coney Island, and I was anxious to see what the fuss was about.  The kitchen is located right at the front, by the entrance, so a wave a hot grease greets you the second you walk through.  The cooks work with rhythmic precision, even at that late hour.  Sizzling fries and hurried voices carry into the dining area, a modest, brightly lit room with standard cafe tables and chairs.  We slid into a window seat and ordered our coneys.  A large group sat in the middle of the room, laughing and telling stories.  They looked like a family.  At the end of the table was a young African American couple who also joined their conversation.  I couldn't tell if they were a part of the group or not, but at the end of the night, just before they left, an applause rippled round the table.  "They're getting engaged!," a woman shouted, gesturing at the couple. Our coneys were delicious.

I snapped this shot just before we left and a cook, watching me, smiled.  "Good photo," he said.

Who knows if a transformation will take place in Detroit yet, or what it will look like if it does.  I read somewhere recently that the city could be viewed as a "blank canvas" for young artists looking to make an impression.  At the time, the remark irritated me.  How can a place that holds sentimental value for so many be viewed as blank?  Detroit is still a rough, hard place, but there are people there who sell drinks in tuxedos, who serve up microbrews and slap together coney dogs, who become engaged in crowded late night restaurants.  Those were the images I saw, bright and vivid.   The city ain't blank.

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