A Cultural History of the Cass Corridor
By D. Sands
There’s a quiet turf war going down in Detroit. Or maybe it’s a capital-intensive neighborhood re-branding campaign. It really depends on who you ask. Whatever you call it, one thing is clear: the area of Detroit that runs along Cass Avenue — from Cass Park to the south and Wayne State to the north — is changing. It isn’t just the rumble of bulldozers clearing ground for huge new projects like the Auburn Building or the much ballyhooed Whole Foods supermarket. It’s the history, the identity of the place, that’s being forgotten. The area once universally known as the Cass Corridor is finding that its memory, its very existence, is being erased, overwritten and systematically re-categorized under the name Midtown. In the interest of celebrating and reinvigorating the rich cultural legacy of the Cass Corridor, Critical Moment has assembled this brief history of the neighborhood, collected from those who have lived, innovated, struggled and partied there.
An Oral History Of the Cass Corridor
Many people think of the Cass Corridor as a poor downtrodden area, but the neighborhood actually started out as a rather upscale place to live, according to Ralph Hogg, a local blacksmith and elder Detroit activist. In the early days Detroit developed in a mostly unplanned fashion, spreading up and out from the river along the main drag of Woodward Avenue. Cass, which runs parallel to Woodward, sat close enough to this prime real estate to enjoy some of the city’s early affluence. This can be easily verified by walking through the neighborhood and observing some of the area’s more stately older homes.
As Detroit grew, new homes branched out further and further from this main strip, becoming gradually less grand in scale. As the city industrialized small homes and housing for workers began to develop east and west of Woodward. Eventually, the area now known as the Corridor became an academic center, adding Wayne State University, then known as the Detroit Medical College, in 1868 and the College for Creative Studies in 1906.
It was perhaps this proximity to intellectual thought which drew radicals to the area. Jean Wilson, a long-time local artist and activist, told Critical Moment that her aunt and uncle went to Wayne State in the 1930s and were involved in Communist politics. “They used to go to underground places like in Old Main and have communist meetings with a bunch of students,” she said. “They had alias names and stuff, but the groups were really small. They were afraid to agitate to too many people.”
Ralph Hogg remembers John Pinette, a old-time member of the Communist Party USA who grew up in Appalachia. The two met organizing in the movement against the Vietnam War.
“Johnny was a coal miner’s son when he was 15 years old. He tried to get a job in the mine and his father found out about it and beat the bejeezus out of him. And sent him to a Swedish school of mechanics,” he said. Eventually Pinette learned what he needed, got on a motorcycle and ended up in Detroit where he began to organize anti-eviction strikes. “The sheriffs would show up and they’d be stuck on the street. And a bunch of lefties would surround the police cars and the county sheriffs would say, ‘you can’t do this.’ Well, it worked. There were [always huge crowds of people] and it wasn’t worth the war.”
Origins of the Modern Corridor
According to Hogg, The Corridor really didn’t develop it’s modern identity until the 1950′s, when city politicians decided to clean up the slums over on Michigan Avenue, pushing a lot of the folks who lived there back to area by Cass Avenue.
“They wanted to clean up the area because every third doorway was a bar — and it was kind of cool in the fifties, when I went down to get a drink. No one asked you for any ID and you’d get a shot. Well they cleared that out and they didn’t know where to go. So they came back and into the Corridor and that was a lot of the people who lived in the tenements in the bars over Michigan Avenue.”
Jumbo’s Bar played a critical role in the cultural life of the neighborhood. Jumbo, the owner, was known as the Mayor of the Cass Corridor and looked out for many of the down-and-out vets who ended up in the area.
“They’d bring him their government checks and he’d give ‘em what they needed for their groceries, or whatever, and made sure they held enough for their rent and their utilities, said Hogg. “And he would bankroll them like a bank, and would take care of them literally. Jumbo knew every politician in Detroit and every cop in Detroit.”
Hogg said the vets used to mix with the university students back in those days.
“In the fifties it was a little bit different because a lot of the guys were coming from the war and the GI bill and they were hellbent on getting an education,” he said. “These guys had been around shooting and dying and stuff and they had a different attitude, a little swagger. A couple poking knives in the bars? You didn’t want to get in a fight with one of them. They were good at kicking ass. Maybe you were a nineteen, twenty-years-old, whatever, you better just buy ‘em a drink.”
Unlike the rest of the city the Cass Corridor never experienced “white flight” to the suburbs. Ron Scott is a video producer, radio host and a spokesperson for the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality who grew up in the nearby Jefferies Projects. He explained why he thinks the neighborhood avoided this crippling trend.
“I think because it was a class thing, the economics kind of necessitated that certain people felt comfortable in their neighborhoods and they didn’t want to leave. They felt connected to that community and a lot of them couldn’t afford to go and a lot of them felt very connected.”
He said the Corridor of his youth in the 1960s was a jumble of different ethnicities and they got along fairly harmoniously.
“No problems at all. I just can’t remember it. One of the best indicators of this was a little place near Selden and Third,” he said. “Fortune Records, which was an independent record shop… that catered to market and recording ethnic music… which was primarily R&B and Gospel and Country music, or Southern music which was then called Hillbilly music… they did some great legendary R&B records songs and that was a mixture of both those cultures.”
Scott said in those days the neighborhood was packed full of interesting places, personalities and creative endeavors.
“You had people like Lily Tomlin, the comedienne, came out of the neighborhood and of course we lived in the projects and groups like the Originals at the time went to Motown and others that came out of the projects. As kids, you know, we’d hang out on Third Street and so forth and forth and it was fun. Back in those days there were places like Anderson’s Gardens. We’d hang out and see all the old guys hanging out with the so-called beautiful women.”
A New Spirit of Freedom
During the 1960s the creative spirit of the Corridor also began to climb to new heights. Susan Sunshine is a local poet who moved down to the Corridor in 1963. During this time a lot of beatnik cafes and jazz joints like the Minor Key and the Cup of Socrates sprung up around the area. Sunshine said she hung out at many of these spots, as well as gay bars like the Hub Grill downtown. She described the atmosphere of the Minor Key, a jazz place that was located at Woodward and Clairmont just North of the Corridor:
“The Minor Key was really cool because there was a lot of jazz and people dressed like that. I wore the black tights and the turtlenecks. People they wanted change, and I think it started more from a creative and a sexual revolution than what we’re about today.”
Sunshine recalls poets being an important part of the scene back then; John Mason stands out particularly in her mind. Others banded together to work on projects like the Artist’s Workshop, a collective that featured founders John Sinclair, George Tysh, Doug Larkins, Robin Eichele and scores of other writers, artists and musicians. Ken and Ann Mikolowski came out of the Workshop and started a small publication called the Alternative Press that featured work by well-known national poets and created a national audience for Detroit artists like Jim Gustafson, Faye Kicknosway and the much loved Corridor poet, rock-and-roller and activist Mick Vranich.
Alongside and intertwined with this literary ferment, visual, sculptural and conceptual artists also emerged. Ralph Hogg spent a lot of time amongst this crew, sometimes called “The Cass Corridor Artists,” which he considered a fellowship of like-minded individuals. Gordie Newton, Sherry Hendrik, Bob Sestok, Arthur Wenk and Gilda Snowden are among the artists associated with the Corridor arts movement.
“They were doing everything. Painting. Sculptural work,” he said. “Everybody got along. It was cool. So you had pottery makers. Hard artists and sculptors… painting, ore work, everything you could think of. And women, as well, they were doing this stuff too. We all knew each other.”
Ron Scott recalls the energy of the times:
“My good friend John Sinclair was very instrumental in doing that. I’m thinking of Plum Street in 1966. And he had been active in the neighborhood forming Trans-Love Energies, which was located on what is now the Lodge Freeway at Warren, but moved over to Prentiss street. And Prentiss became then and is now sort of a beacon for artists because the rents were cheap. You had a lot of street activity. There were a couple little coffee houses that opened up from time to time there. Bronx Bar and so. It’s still there… Also the Cass Corridor Food Coop was started located over on Fourth Street initially. Moved over to Cobb’s, what became Cobb’s Corner on Willis and Cass. I mean there was just so much activity even from the guys like Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels were over in that area. and came out of that. It was just a real bastion. A lot of Jazz artists lived in that area. Charles Moore who was a good friend of Sinclair came out of the area… The Unitarian Church was really a social and political activist center. The South End was a much more political newspaper in those days. So were a lot of groups that I was affiliated with the Black Panther Party, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. Many of the people we knew and honestly worked with were in that area. The Fifth Estate was located in that neighborhood. If I remember correctly right near Forest and Second. And that’s just a smattering. I mean there were artists all over the place.”
Peter Werbe worked with The Fifth Estate, Detroit’s underground newspaper at the time. He said it was the voice of the counterculture for Southeast Michigan — and the Corridor was its cradle.
“We enunciated everything. Cultural stuff. You know those words: sex drugs and rock and roll. We were politically involved. Obviously, we not only enunciated the politics, in a way we reflected it, because we weren’t objective newspaper reporters. We’d go to a demonstration and dust up with the cops.”
According to Werbe there was no place like the Corridor in Southeast Michigan at the time. He said the politics ran deep then, and local activists could reasonably expect to gather around 20,000 people for an anti-war rallies.
“Then, it really was a counter culture. That is to say there wasn’t any reflection in the mainstream. So on the radio they had Perry Como and Guy Lombardo and Glen Miller,” he said speaking of the broader culture, “It was uptight. All white. Ozzie and Harriet.”
There were alternative institutions as well: a people’s printing press, an alternative school, a food coop. underground theaters. Werbe related these projects and the Corridor itself to autonomous areas that existed in Europe in the early 20th Century.
“It was the focal point of resistance and confrontational politics in that area. For instance, in the 1920s and 1930s in Europe until fascism took over, you’d have these enormous worker districts where the allegiance wasn’t to the mainstream society, but to revolutionary organizations and sometimes big trade unions. They had their own separate culture that was never absorbed by mainstream society.”
Perhaps for this reason, the Corridor reacted differently from the rest of the city when riots rocked Detroit in 1967. Ron Scott reflected on how this impacted the neighborhood:
“If anything it made the Cass Corridor much more dynamic. People wanted to be where the action was. They wanted to be where things were happening. They were the kind of people who were willing to take risks and willing to… just try and find a new way to live together… You were not suppressed because of your class distinction, and you were not raised up because of it.”
Hard Times and Good Times in The Corridor
The neighborhood’s political consciousness and activism began to recede in the 1970′s. Some of the folks interviewed attributed this to despair over the re-election of Richard Nixon, some to activist burn-out, others to authoritarian power plays by hardline activists within the anti-war movement. Yet, even as political activity began to wane, a great deal of the neighborhood’s cultural vitality remained.
The Fourth Street Fair, a legendary street party, began its nearly 30-year run midway through the decade. Laura Freeman lived in the area near the tail-end of the 1970s. She managed the music spot Alvin’s with her boyfriend during those days and has happy recollections of the era’s music and culture.
“There was music at the new Miami. There was music at Cobb’s. There was music at the Song Shop. There was music down at Alvin’s. It was really nice. It was a lot of live music. you’d see the same people and it was a real social scene. It was very fun for the people involved and we all got really close because we were all feeling ostracized from our families as anti-war people and the politics added to that camaraderie a lot. The use of drugs also bonded us, to be honest.”
Freeman also remarked that the Cass Corridor experienced an upsurge of violent crime during the late 70s and early 80s. She said many of her happier memories of that time are tempered by the tragic deaths of many of the unique individuals she knew at the time, people like Cobb’s Corner proprietor Henry Normile, artist Bradley Jones and activist Henry Thompson, brother of the famed Corridor restaurant impresario Honest John.
The economics of the city also went into deep decline as manufacturers left Detroit in droves. Eventually the crack epidemic hit and prostitution, homelessness and street crime increased, becoming deeply linked with the area in the popular imagination. Nevertheless, the neighborhood kept its flavor, its culture and — perhaps more then ever due to the bad press — its attitude.
Ron Scott said he moved back to the Corridor the year the Dally in the Alley, an annual street fair, started in 1977. He said by that time cultural life in the neighborhood had come into its own:
“The Dally in the Alley was the major expression of the Cass Corridor: eclectic, unique, artistic, interesting open and free. All of those things were reflected in it, reflective of the neighborhood. So that’s what I saw in the 80s. It was just a new generation of folks like the Red Door Theater at the Unitarian Church. They were open to LGBT folks. It really didn’t matter what you were, whether you were Gay, Lesbian, Black, White, Asian, Latino. It’s one of the most unique things in Detroit I can think of. It just mattered what you were about. You could go into the 80s and 90s and go in the Cass Cafe and see Ron Allen, a great poet, cooking and hanging out. Those were the kind of unique things that happened. So the cultural tradition continued and the people continued to be involved and it just was a new generation that developed itself. It wasn’t as cutting edge as it might have been in the 60s… It was just by the time the 80s and 90s rolled around. It was just: this is what we are. This is who we are.”
Another dramatic change during the 1980s, was the transformation of The Fifth Estate, the Corridor’s counter culture voice, which reinvented itself as an explicitly anarchist journal. The philosophical shift was due in no small part to Detroiter Fredy Perlman. Perlman, a native of Czechoslovakia, exposed the Fifth Estate crew to newer ideas from Europe like Situationism — as well a critique of modern technological overreach. Peter Werbe, who is still active with the paper to this day, said Perlman’s influence allowed the Fifth Estate to break new ground, while most of the papers former allies in the underground press went under and disappeared.
A decade later In 1993, the spirit of anarchy would echo even more soundly through the neighborhood with the founding of the Trumbullplex Theater, a DIY space and anarchist collective that popped up just west of the Corridor across from the Lodge Freeway. The Plex, as it is sometimes know, enlivened the nearby Corridor with a new wave of activism from groups like Anti-Racist Action and Food Not Bombs and publications like Babyfish and Active Transformation. The Trumbullplex was followed in turn by Idle Kids, a DIY space and zine shop on Second Avenue.
As the 80s turned into the 90s, the Corridor continued to serve as the matrix of a lively art scene. Many of the creative people involved with today’s Detroit Artist’s Market were active at the time at the Willis Gallery, located on the spot the Avalon Bakery now occupies. The 404 Willis, a punk rock venue shared the same street with the gallery and a communist book store called Revolution Books. The artist Jean Wilson, hung out with many of the folks in the Willis arts scene starting in the late 1980s.
“Every other Friday in Detroit there used to be art shows all over the city. Everyone would just come out and you’d just go to hit as many as you could. There were 6 galleries by East Grand river where the “Y” is now and Jim Puntingham started an art show called the Space Gallery we hung out with homeless artists. And we had art shows where homeless artists drew on furniture and painted on stuff. And we put it up. We called that the furniture show. Then we started the painting of coats and jackets and stuff. There’s a picture of one guy called James the Bagman. He was a good friend of ours cause he used to hang out on that strip… he’d walk up to the Cass Corridor artists like: ‘You want baby dolls? I got baby dolls! You like teddy bears? You like old rusted wires? What are you building a radio?’ He had everything. He was the guy on the street. Instead of going to the five-and-dime, you’d go up to James!”
Music and poetry continued to have a presence as well even as the corridor began to feel the increasing hand of gentrification around the turn of the millennium. The poet and singer David Blair, who recently passed away, was a popular younger figure in the Corridor arts movement. He ran the “open mic” at one of the most memorable cafes of the time, The Bittersweet.
Wilson described the look and feel of the place:
“The Bittersweet was very unusual. There was a lot of good poetry and hip-hop going on in a place where it was kind of not like that — it was the deeper side of Detroit. It was really cool. It wasn’t open all the time, and we knew the nights it was open. It was really dark and seedy. The carpeting was brown, multi-colored brown, and it was always mysteriously wet, even though it was twenty feet off the ground. It was a crazy little place.”
The Corridor Now
Although the Cass Corridor has changed dramatically in the last few years. Many of the folks who remember it’s heyday still frequent remaining local hot spots like the Bronx Bar, Jumbo’s and the Old Miami, as well as newer additions like the Cass Cafe, Avalon International Breads and the Motor City Brewery.
Recently there have also been sparks that could lead to a cultural resurgence. The Thistle coffee house down on Second Avenue has become a hot spot for many of the artists, activists and everyday people who live, work and relax in the neighborhood. The North Cass Community Union, which organizes the Dally in the Alley has been rejuvenated by a new generation of youth. The Unitarian Church now operates as the Cass Corridor Commons under the guidance of an organization called the East Michigan Environmental Action Council which houses several social justice groups and works to preserve the the ideals of the Corridor. Young activists calling themselves the Detroit Underground Initiative and members of the Industrial Workers of the World meet regularly to share food and good times with the hard-struggling folks who live around Cass Park. Many of the young activists from Occupy Detroit frequent the venues old and new in the Corridor. Perhaps with the cooperation of Corridor elders and the participation of these newer actors the Corridor can shake off the challenges of historical revisionism and gentrification.
Peter Werbe summed up the importance of this effort, calling the Corridor the source of our region’s wisdom, adventure and culture.
“It’s always served a purpose where the rebellious and the weird and the radical and the misfits can get together,” he said, “and, golly, I love those folks because normal people are so boring!”
A special thanks to Laura Freeman, Ralph Hogg, Ron Scott, Susan Sunshine, Peter Werbe and Jean Wilson who made this work possible. This is of course an incomplete history. The excellent website Tribes of the Cass Corridor offers many more historical accounts of the neighborhood. Please watch this site for additional interviews from this oral history project.
Correction: An earlier version of this article made reference to a beatnik cafe named Winwell’s. Winn Well is in fact the name of a person, a bohemian poet who lived in the city at the time. Our apologies for this confusion.