Most city dwellers would agree: You see some strange things in Detroit. So how about a dancing devil in a red, pinstripe suit coat?
Sunday's La Marche du Nain Rouge was one part Mardi Gras, one part tent revival, one part catharsis. And it was all Detroit: a wave of people chatting, laughing, drinking and celebrating down Cass Avenue, taking over what once was the worst parts of the city and turning it into a Carnival.
Some 200 people turned up to banish the Nain, burning an effigy of the evil spirit in Cass Park. There were strollers, scooters, bicycles and wheelchairs. Kids wore dragon costumes and devil-horn headbands. Dogs strolled and sniffed. Marchers dressed in feathers, sequins, ruffles, crowns and wigs, united in the effort of banishing bad times and dark thoughts from the city.
“I've never seen anything like it,” said Danny Bass, who was standing across the street, loitering by the Masonic Temple when the crowd streamed by. “It brings a smile to my face.”
And that, to some degree, was the point of the whole affair.
Background: Organizers revived La Marche du Nain Rouge just in time to celebrate its 300th anniversary. Once an annual event, the march was held to banish that little dark cloud known as the Nain Rouge from Detroit and all of the bad tidings he is said to have brought with him.
This year's event was no different. It started in the parking lot of the Third Street Saloon with throngs of young, post-college kids dressed up in all manner of foolishness. I most admired a lady wearing what looked like a sombrero decorated with taxidermy squirrels on top. The parking lot drew its share of stares, mostly from three guys walking their pit bull who could not take their eyes off of the strange group of revelers.
We were greeted by the afternoon's master of ceremonies (organizer Francis Grunow), who noted that it was high time Detroiters “took matters into their own hands,” eliciting cheers from the masses. He introduced two symbolic characters (who looked like the guy from the Jack in the Box restaurants) whose outfits typified Detroit of old: apathy, violence and wreckage.
But the march was not about the past, our MC noted. It was about living in today – not Detroit with its riots and ruin. And not the city of the future, a place that only exists in imagination. Instead, the point was to celebrate this moment, this city. It is about greatness of today, not yesterday or tomorrow, he said.
Then, we saw the Nain for the first time. He danced high atop a nearby building, posing and strutting to a chorus of boos from the crowd. The MC bid him to draw near. He came down to mix among us. What a sight: furry boots, the aforementioned red pinstripes and a red demon mask. He started the parade marching, leading us down the street along Cass Avenue to the Park, where a small stuffed version of himself was set fire (did anyone get a permit for this? Who cares!) The Detroit Party Marching Band played a mix of dirges and spirited ditties. Afterward, everyone got a beer at the Temple Bar.
It was amazing to see so many people on Cass Avenue, arguably one of the roughest addresses in that neighborhood. Young, old, black, white. It was a divine thing, in a way. Here was a group of people not only celebrating Detroit's history, but taking the city into their own hands and claiming it for their own.
The surprising thing was in talking to the few city residents standing on the fringe of the party. Most I chatted up said they had never heard of the Nain Rouge. They mostly wanted to see why so many people were standing around Cass Park on a crisp, sunny Sunday. Some onlookers were just coming from the Salvation Army's Bed and Bread truck, carrying their evening meals. Others were just smoking an afternoon cigarette, wondering what happened to the neighborhood. A few simply shook their heads at just one more strange Detroit sight.
The Nain Rouge has been banished. See you again next year.
(Many thanks to photographer Dante Stella for letting me add his fine pix to my poor ones.)