It was 6:30 in the morning. The streetlights were still on. I parked my car up against a garage door in a timeworn alley paved with red brick. It was more like a small courtyard, with wooden balconies jutting out from the assortment of apartments built nearly a century ago. In the center of the space was a large, graffiti-covered dumpster. I poured myself some coffee from a thermos and awaited further instructions from a friend. I was there to vend in the annual Detroit event known as the Dally in the Alley. There was already a bustle of activity. People in pink shirts were directing vendors driving in. Tents were going up, and cars were being unloaded. Vendors are amazing people to me. They trudge to some outdoor festival with a truckload of stuff, arrange everything, and spend all day in the elements talking to all kinds of people, then teardown, re-load, and go home after a 17 hour shift. I find their commitment admirable.
I noticed a large hand-painted sign informing fairgoers that everyone in the neighborhood parks elsewhere for the day allowing the festival to completely take over. I smiled knowing the spirit of sharing still remained strong.
I knew this neighborhood well. I lived around the corner in the ‘80s. At that time it was known as the Cass Corridor. My friends were hippies and musicians. There was a co-op and a few art galleries. Not too much else. A decade ago the Corridor was renamed Midtown, and new enterprises keep popping up.
Except for an awkward, and brief, first-meet date a few years ago, I hadn’t been to the Dally since 1986. I remember the one and only stage not having speakers back then. The Jug Band was one of the featured acts, and they were acoustic. A girl named Sally played the accordion and a man named Ralph played a washboard. I remembered there were a couple of tables with goods for sale, and artists displayed their paintings. It was an event by and for the people of the neighborhood. Back then the population was rather sparse; it was an intimate affair.
All I knew about the Dally in the Alley 2015 was I had to be there at 6:30 in the morning to meet my long-time friend, Zana Smith – owner of the urban boutique Spectacles. I wondered how the day would unfold. I was curious to check it out from behind the scenes, but I knew I wouldn’t do what I was about to do for just anyone.
I met Zana in 1986. I was working in an old fur-processing factory that had been converted to an indoor shopping mall connected to a newly built monorail loop. I walked to work to spend my day in what would become a failed experiment of retail stores downtown. Hudson’s was already closed and there weren’t very many businesses open. En route one day, I happened upon Zana’s store. We have remained friends ever since.
Spectacles is still located at 230 East Grand River, across from the new YMCA. Zana has kept her business going for 31 years. To me that is a feat among feats. Only a few stores, like Henry the Hatter, and Wolverine, have managed to maintain longevity in Detroit.
This year somebody bought the building in which Spectacles is housed. Eviction notices were sent out. Newspaper articles were published about the goings-on and the local community was in an uproar about the loss of a landmark business. A month later the owner requested Zana stay. After much ado, it turned out her store was just the kind they wanted in their building. But now the question was how to get the word out that Spectacles would remain.
I received a text from Zana a week before. It simply said: I’ve paid for a booth at the Dally. I knew she meant: Will you be there with me all day? I gulped. But I saw the brilliance of the PR, so I told myself if she could do it, I could do it, and volunteered. Zana scored a great spot just down from the Electronica Stage – perfect for us as we all like that music. The “us” included DJ/dancer Steve who works at Spectacles, and a new person I now call a friend- Corky. Having a booth at the Dally was his idea. He promised to help out and proved himself to be a man of his word. Three young entrepreneurs – Wink, Tracy, and Chinonye – shared Zana’s booth. Wink had photographs she had taken silkscreened onto shirts, Tracy sold purses, and Chinonye offered handmade apothecary. They exuded excitement and enticed all to share in their glee. It was a celebration of making things happen for one’s self.
The day was mellow for me. Most of the time I sat in a chair on the sidewalk behind our booth, drinking coffee, and eating my snacks. A constant stream of people walked down the street. Some came in to shop, say hello, or give a hug – old friends and new ones. At one point it looked like rain, but it passed.
Sometime in the afternoon a DJ took the stage and I couldn’t help but stand up, grooving to the beats. I shouted to Corky: Who is this spinning? It’s great! He shouted back: Come on, let’s go! We ran to the stage. As we came up on it I saw a familiar ‘fro. It was SuperDre! I was so excited! I had met her the previous winter. She was spinning at a fundraiser in the basement of the Historical Museum, but her volume was turned way down. She and I connected both having lived on the West Coast and sharing the astrological sign of Taurus. Her live mix was kicking – seriously fabulous layers of rhythms.
When twilight came I moved to the front of the booth to sit on a stool and watch the ever-growing crowd walk by. A good friend of Zana’s stopped and offered to buy us dinner. I went with him to help bring it back. I was happy to be moving as it was a little chilly. At this point I had only ventured as far as the original location of the Dally in the Alley. The food stalls and the third stage beyond that were new to me. Then it was decided we would walk to Cass Café to get food instead. On the way over I was completely blown away by how big the Dally actually is. There were two more stages and what looked to be thousands of people who had come down for it. There was performance art, sculptures being created, and lots of goodies for sale. For blocks and blocks. I had no idea all this had been going on all day.
The Dally in the Alley is special, from its humble beginning literally in an alley to what I witnessed this past weekend. It is an event that has been put on for 38 years by an all-volunteer staff, from the planning to the garbage clean-up. Everyone does it because they want to. It is well-organized and has a great vibe. And whenever so many people from all walks of life, maneuver around each other, elbow-to-elbow, and everyone gets along and has fun, well, that is a beautiful thing to me.
Elizabeth Pilar is an awarding-winning short story writer from Detroit. Her debut book, A Blue Moon in China, was just published. It is the memoir of the two months she traveled through China in 1988 when she was 21 years old. Her editor is Christopher Ross.