Giles Rosbury is lugging a gallon of flammable liquid down the block. He’s preparing to engulf his body in flames, just a few doors down from his residence on Fourth Street.
The self-immolation act is part of Rosbury’s fire-breathing troupe, Fire Fabulon, and the performance is one of many at this year’s annual Fourth Street Fair.
Possibly the single most charming, zany, disorganized and quintessentially “Detroit” event of the year, Fourth Street is part block party, part rummage sale, part music festival — and it has always been, and, organizers say, always will be, free.
Once a year in July, the eccentric neighborhood off Fourth and Holden streets opens its arms to the public for 12 hours on a Saturday. From noon to midnight, several dozen Detroit bands play on three stages, and vendors set up shop on the sidewalk, selling everything from old-fashioned home-cooked food to vintage clothing and odd knickknacks.
Rosbury, an organizer of the fair, moved onto Fourth Street four years ago, drawn by the annual event and the unique denizens of the neighborhood.
“I moved there because I was fond of the block,” he says. “It’s really an amazing group of people. There’s a strange sense of community that I haven’t experienced anywhere else. You don’t have the typical gossip mill or undermining of fellow man type of stuff. It’s refreshing.”
The official name of the event is Positively Fourth Street, but no one calls it that. First rule of the Fourth Street Fair: there are no rules.
No one is even sure of the fair’s longevity. Rosbury ventures a guess of 25 years.
“Sure, that sounds about right,” drawls Billy Ebersberger, an instantly likable wise-ass who has lived on the block for about 25 years (he guesses) and has been dubbed the “Earl of Fourth Street.”
Ebersberger says it all started back in the late ’70s or early ’80s, when a resident’s band decided to practice outside.
“There was also a card game going, and a volleyball game going, and people hanging out on their porches. The volleyball people started dancing to the band, and the card game joined in, and then someone decided to go on a beer run, and then another beer run, and another beer run, and somebody said, ‘Hey, we should do this every year!’”
When pressed for an exact date, he responds, “Oh, I can’t remember — I drank too much beer.”
The fair has grown over the years, but the grassroots spirit of unconventionalism remains solid. From the beginning, Fourth Streeters didn’t want their event to be like Dally in the Alley, the other annual Detroit summer block party, which is larger, more organized and has corporate (local) sponsors.
“We don’t want it to be 6,000 people walking around in a circle, with ‘Here, eat this, buy this, here, eat, eat, buy, buy, consume! Consume! Consume!’ We get enough of that at the mall. I like the Dally and all, that’s just not what we wanted to be,” says Ebersberger. “Here, you still have a quiet place to go off and catch up with an old friend. It’s more about life than consumption.”
One year, a brewer approached organizers about the possibility of sponsoring the fair. He was unceremoniously dismissed.
“I’m not exactly proud of it, we weren’t polite,” grins Ebersberger. “I think we just said, ‘No, get the hell out of here!’”
The fair has also rebuffed advances from touring bands.
“We had this one out-of-town, big-name band who wanted to play,” says Ebersberger, “and we just told them ‘Nah, you see, we have this kid, who does this thing with a couple of five-gallon buckets and some sticks, and he’s local, so we’re gonna give the spot to him. But you can still come to the party, though.’”
All vendors pay a small fee for their booths, and are asked to donate 10 percent of their revenues. The money goes back into the fair, to upgrade sound equipment. The fair has acquired a decent system that’s safer than the original method: a series of extension cords run out of someone’s home.
Developers have periodically made noise about leveling the neighborhood to make room for a new street or a series of cookie-cutter condos. Each time, they are met with the characteristic resilience of Fourth Streeters, who unite to protest and pass out fliers and harass the developers until they finally slink away in defeat. This block ain’t going anywhere.
Fourth Street is never organized. No one knows what’s happening when, and no one cares. You just show up and have a good time — that’s what is positively Fourth Street. It’s about the people in attendance, and Fourth Street never fails to bring everyone out of the woodwork. It’s a multicultural reunion of misfits and miscreants of all ages; it’s friendly with an edge; it’s playful, good-natured anarchistic fun; it’s a punk-rock quilting circle; it’s the compression of the spirit of Detroit on two blocks; it’s a quirky little pocket of humanity that refuses to leave, conform or sell out.
Sometimes Detroit really gets to me, and I feel as burned out on this city as the torched, abandoned buildings I pass each day on the way to work. I get so sick of the omnipresent potholes, the crumbling urban decay, the abhorrent lack of functional services, the constant harassment from panhandlers.
Standing in the center of Fourth Street, surrounded by the most vivid characters this city — or any city — has to offer, drenched in the stripped-down sound of great Detroit bands, filled with an intense wave of freakish community spirit, I am reminded why I love this disorganized, imperfect, oddball city so damn much.Sarah Klein is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org