A spliff's toss from the Wayne State University campus, Detroit's Cass Corridor has been one of the city's more turbulent, influential and creative neighborhoods. It was the home to all sorts of activist rock freaks in the '60s and '70s. Back in the day, the Corridor was a haven for writers, painters, sculptors and photographers. Black, white, gay, whatever. Just as long as you were on the level and bringing the funk. Joni Mitchell lived in the Corridor for a few years. In 1967, when Detroit set itself on fire, the Corridor survived. And in late '80s, when crack swept through the neighborhood like a contagion, many stood their ground and kept the boho spirit going. Just a few square miles, the Corridor maintained an international rep for the sheer number of auto thefts and carjackings throughout the '80s and '90s.
Then, slowly, things started getting better. Retail shops, restaurants, bars, music venues, and cafés sprang up.
In the face of the robust effort to rejuvenate the area in the last five years, including a rebranding of the area that encompasses the Corridor as Midtown, we have to ask: What does a Wayne State incoming freshman know about the complex and resilient funk of the Corridor?
It seems that some want "the Corridor" to go the way of Forest Arms apartments or old Cass Tech high. That is to say, up in flames or recklessly dismantled.
Neither of those fates will be and we need only point to the Corridor's annual music, arts and culture festival Dally in the Alley for proof.
Celebrating its 34th year this weekend, Dally is said to have been born when a group of neighbors thought it'd be great to get a bunch of beer, throw a few bands together, and party. They thought, "Hey, maybe we should ask all our other neighbors if they're into the idea, and if they are maybe they'll throw in for beer and bands." The neighborhood dug the idea. In 1977, a community group, which called itself the North Cass Community Union, threw the inaugural Dally. And, this Saturday, more than 10,000 people will attend it.
Felix Sirls, 64, moved to the Forest Arms Apartments (undergoing rehab after a decimating fire a few winters ago) in 1999. "I could hear the noise and the music from my window. I could not believe this was happening at my doorstep," he says of his first Dally experience.
"I wasn't here for the first Dally, but every year is a first Dally for me. It seems to be ageless and timeless. The spirit of joy, fun and people sharing fills the air. There is a freedom of spirit that seems to feed off the eccentric nature of the Dally."
He asked around and got involved the next year. Since then, Sirls has served as vendor chair for Dally. But this will be his last.
This year marks a passing of the torch, so to speak. A younger collection of Detroiters, one that's helped organize Dally for the last few years, have had the keys handed over to them.
"I think new ways need to be tried, new directions discussed, then implemented," Sirls says.
Along with co-festival directors Cass Higden, and Jenny Calhoun, Dally spokesman Adriel Thorton represents the new class of Dalliers.
"We're still young, but everyone involved in Dally was connected to this area when it was only known as the Cass Corridor. And we do so with pride," he says.
Each is intent on infusing this year's festival with some fresh energy. "I know some people think Dally's just about a bunch of middle-aged people throwing a block party," Calhoun says. "It's really not."
Fresh to Dally this year is a series of public art installations curated and partially created by artist Lauren Smith. There's also the much-anticipated resurgence of a music stage dedicated solely to electronic music.
The concept was carefully thought out, with consideration as to the placement, size, and decibel output coming from the stage, as well as who would be performing on it. "There are so many types of electronic music — dance friendly four-four, dubstep, ambient — we wanted to give listeners the opportunity to hear multiple kinds throughout the day," Thorton says. "A real experience. What's hot about Dally is that people who aren't even counterculture can come be a part of it for a day, whether they know it or not."
The 34th Dally in the Alley is Saturday (and Sunday, kind of) Sept. 10; the festival happens between Second and Third avenues, and Hancock and Forest Street. Music performers include Will Sessions, Phantasmagoria, DJ Minx, Dethlab, The Octopus, The Hounds Below, Kelly Jean Caldwell, I Crime, and lots more. For info, go to dallyinthealley.com.