by Paul Abowd
More than 1,000 Detroiters described by the Detroit News as “hip urbanites” came out for the second Marche du Nain Rouge. The costumed crowd gathered outside 3rd Street Saloon to banish a malevolent red dwarf from the city. They danced, sang, chanted, and got drunk enough to feel like it was spring.
Like last year, people arrived with bikes and baby bjorns, a marching band materialized, and a man in colonial dress bellowed anachronistically from a bullhorn. This year’s march down Cass tripled in size and featured Bacchus, a gilded superbike with a boombox danceparty float in tow, a primitive propane torch manned by dudes in Viking helmets, and a notable police escort.
Detroit native and Midtown resident Francis Grunow was an originator of the effort to create “a sort of Mardi Gras tradition, a chance for catharsis after the long winter.” It is a noble motivation complicated by the narrative Grunow and company have latched onto.
The Dwarf, The Myth, The Legend
The Nain Rouge, French for “Red Dwarf,” has haunted Detroit since the city’s founding. The dwarf attacked explorer Antoine Cadillac in 1701, along the strait that had only recently been given a French name. Cadillac chased the red menace with his cane, but soon after fell from fortune—a fate attributed to the Nain’s curse. Later, the legend continues, the Nain danced on the graves of 56 British settlers after Ottawa Chief Pontiac led an indigenous rebellion in 1763. He also appeared in 1805 when a fire burned most of the city’s British settlement down.
Grunow went French colonial retro alongside a posse of settlers in tri-cornered hats, puffy shirts, overcoats, the works. The march could not begin until a local restaurateur and the Hygienic Dress League captured the Nain from the roof of the saloon to cheers from the crowd. Then the chase was on—through a Midtown neighborhood undergoing redevelopment and into the lower reaches of the historic Cass Corridor.
The party crossed Martin Luther King Jr. heading south into Cass Park. This boulevard is where Wayne State Police mark the southern border of “campus.” North of MLK, the 2,800 residents living between Woodward and 3rd Avenue are 45 percent white and 25 percent black. Seventy percent of the 1,800 residents below MLK are black and median annual household income is $8,317. People moving into Midtown are upwardly mobile: the average income of new home buyers between 2006 and 2008 was $113,788.
Suddenly it was the city’s privileged marching past homeless shelters, food banks, and the residents of Chinatown’s old apartment buildings. Former Mayor Coleman Young (played by his son), the Spirit of Detroit statue, and a redeemed Antoine Cadillac restrained the Nain, loaded him into a blue Caddy, and drove off to flashbulbs. Overcome by a somewhat admirable will to party, the crowd saw little irony in banishing one of the few people of color involved in the event—the Red Dwarf himself.
Before joining the march with the Detroit Party Marching Band, Mike Blank sought to ease concerns about the racial, class, and colonial dimensions of the event. A spokesperson for the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians told Blank that area tribal lore contains the story of a bad spirit residing along the banks of the Detroit River—a mythology that precedes the French. A marcher whose family is of Northern Great Lakes Potawatomi heritage confirmed this, adding that the story was conjured to scare settlers away from Detroit.
Blank writes that because the myth is actually of indigenous origin, “any arguments about the racial overtones of the modern celebration are mute.”
Really, this opens up more questions around the modern-day march. It appears that none of the organizers took Blank’s research into account. No part of the march’s literature mentions that the Nain Rouge existed before it was called that. Yes, settlers eventually conferred a French name to the native belief. And they chose a little red menace to represent the “bad spirit” haunting their colonial project. What they didn’t do is hold annual banishment marches (that was every other day).
The march’s website, however, cites a “purported first march” by French settlers in 1710, “to drive out the evil spirit.” Several organizers of the event admit they made that story up.
Luckily, there were some more creative interpretations on the Nain this year: a small contingent marched against a Nain they claimed represented the evil intentions of banks, speculators, developers, and “wrong-sizing” city officials. Others equated the Nain with Governor Rick Snyder’s Emergency Management bills. For the second year, a small but growing contingent stood on Cass and Canfield in defense of the persecuted Nain.
The main march, however, has carried out a series of racially-coded rituals in one of the city’s most highly-contested spaces. Last year’s march culminated with a barrel fire in bedraggled Cass Park. Marchers circled the flames and threw effigies of the red dwarf into them. Little red paper cutouts floated away as white ash, then disappeared.
Last year’s fire was replaced by this year’s larger, catered encampment which remained in the park for hours. The park’s regular crowd wandered through, confused, amused, and hungry.
TIME magazine’s Karen Dybis inadvertently leveled a critique while praising last year’s march down Cass Avenue, “one of the roughest addresses in the neighborhood.” “Here was a group of people,” she wrote, “not only celebrating Detroit’s history, but taking the city into their own hands and claiming it for their own.”
Living, Breathing, Selling Midtown
While Detroit’s census numbers plummet, the Midtown brand charts a slow rise. Just north of downtown, bounded by I-75 to the east and south, the Lodge Freeway to the west, and I-94 to the north, Midtown actually lost 1,900 residents between 2006 and 2009. A study by Social Compact, a non-profit “breaking down barriers to investment in inner-city neighborhoods” attributed the loss to the “closing of two major public housing projects” in those years. Social Compact’s authors continue, optimistically: “A more in-depth look at the Midtown neighborhood suggests the population loss has been mostly concentrated among lower-income residents.”
Phew. We thought Midtown was losing its rich people!
Redevelopment in the city, and in most cities, aims for the hearts and pocketbooks of upwardly mobile professionals and artists. Wayne State University, the Detroit Medical Center, and the Henry Ford Hospital, with help from Kresge and Hudson-Webber Foundations are pushing a “Live Midtown” program, offering rent subsidies to its employees that relocate to the neighborhood. In his state of the state address, Governor Snyder praised efforts by foundations and “anchor” employers in the area “to bring 15,000 young educated people to live in Midtown Detroit by the year 2015.”
Attracting people to Detroit is not a bad thing. To some extent, migration is an inevitable part of a city’s evolution. It matters, though, what compels those migration patterns in and out, and how newcomers relate to existing communities. It matters how the existing power structure—major employers, city government, the police, and the foundations—choose to criminalize some communities and coddle others.
Imagine a northward march of shelter-goers, the homeless, the residents of Peterboro and Charlotte and Henry, up Cass and into Midtown holding effigies of a pesky white dwarf. Making their claim on Midtown. It is hard to see the police escorting that march, or saying it is “good for the city,” as one officer remarked as his squad car blocked traffic for the paraders.
A “we’re just having a good time” rationale was heard throughout the day. These strains of tourist mentality don’t fit the participants. Most of the marchers are making a life here, not a vacation. And many of the Detroit settlers are re-settlers, returning to family histories amidst a flood in the other direction. “I grew up here,” says Grunow, a Cass Tech graduate. “I went to Chung’s. That’s my neighborhood.” This crowd is indeed doing something privileged people don’t tend to do: stay in the city.
Now Grunow’s old neighborhood is being eyed for redevelopment by kingpin Mike Illitch. The “artist” influx is often manipulated to lay the groundwork for empires of the Illitch ilk. Low-rent, industrious types inhabit the ruins and bring “life” back. But they often end up getting priced out by larger commercial forces with high-end, lofty goals. This might not be true in Detroit for a long time, but gentrification has to start somewhere.
In the meantime, weak “cool cities” campaigns place the artist on the front lines, confronting them with choices: whether to take sides with the history of a place, or its latest branding technique. More to the point, it’s a question of which histories to embrace and carry forward.
Our city is deeply divided by race, class and the past. These divisions confront everyone’s work and play with the challenge of defining community without being insular or exclusionary.
Grunow would like the march to grow citywide and have neighborhoods eventually take up their own interpretations. At the end of the day, Midtown’s revival of a settler narrative is actually rather honest.
One marcher proposed scrapping the “banishment” part and reverting back to a yearly appeasement ritual in line with indigenous traditions. Grunow spoke of honoring Native American sites in the city during subsequent marches. This too has its own pitfalls, but the idea is right—the Marche du Nain Rouge cannot continue as it is.
Let’s banish a ritual that celebrates the privileged as colonizer. In its place, how about a spring tradition that unites Detroiters with something more honorable than our city’s history of conquest, segregation, and inequality? That shouldn’t be too difficult.