Arts & Culture » Culture

Fun under the sky

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Oh, the humanity of it all. Masses and masses of humans. People everywhere. People of all shapes, sizes and colors decked out in every costume imaginable. Strolling, eating, perusing vendors’ wares.

It’s the street fair. The great free gathering of joyfulness. The democratizer of entertainment. Because at the street fair, all are welcome, and nobody stays away just because they couldn’t afford a ticket.

It could be one of the major municipal affairs such as the Michigan TasteFest or the Ferndale Art Fair, but it could be as small as your neighborhood block party or a group of kids deciding to decorate their bicycles and have a parade.

"It’s the attraction of being outside under the big sky and the all-inclusive nature that’s not discriminating of who comes," says Rick Steiger of Huntington Woods. "I like the ones right in the city. They have the multicultural vibe that I like."

Steiger, a saxophonist and member of the Sun Messengers band, often performs at street festivals with the Motor City Street Band. "Onstage there’s a division between the audience and the performers. On the street there’s much more parity. The audience and performer always feed off each other, but when you’re on the street with people all around you, it’s a more direct sensation."

Street fairs tend to be annual parties that bring out some of the same characters. There are the artists who make their living traveling from fair to fair, the food vendors, the entertainers, and the people you might not see so often.

"There are a whole bunch of people, we meet each other at the fair and say ‘see you next year,’" says Njia Kai performing arts coordinator for the Detroit Festival of the Arts. "I don’t have a lot of Latino friends, and so (Unity in the Community) gives me an opportunity to hold conversation and develop relationship with some of those people … They’re always a great opportunity to run into co-workers you may not normally talk to or long lost high school friends."

Not only do you meet people, you can watch people. In fact, a street fair is a people-watcher’s paradise. Some folks get slicked up in their nattiest threads. Others might wear their most revealing outfit. And then there’s that very personal fashion statement that nobody else could possibly wear. There’re cute kids and adolescents with attitude. There are mature folks who carry a vestige of decades-old sensibility.

Even the smaller neighborhood affairs have their share of characters.

"People who don’t fit in the usual productive capitalist citizen motif," says Nkenge Zola, WDET-FM newscaster and fan of neighborhood parades. "They’re always at those things walking along marching like they’re in it. … People seem to be looser. At these small things, if you bump into someone it’s no problem. Something is just touched in me at these places."

Njia Kai sees the resurgence of community in the street fair, whether it’s a block party where neighbors who don’t usually speak to each other interact, or a larger fair that draws from many neighborhoods. "Now that we don’t exist as neighborhoods and neighbors anymore … what I like about them is it breaks a lot of the hype that’s being created about the safety of our streets, about the value of common people."

The people are there, but they come out for a reason. There’s food. Even if it’s not a food fair, there’s usually food involved – from little snacks to full ethnic repasts and, of course, cool drinks to fight the heat. There’s also entertainment and often art.

"My attraction to street fairs is twofold," says artist Regina Steiger. "I like the entertainment because you can generally get up close to the stage and really feel it. And I like the art fair aspect. I like to see what’s out there. Being a creative person, it fuels ideas for what I can do. It fuels my creative spark."

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