Rebel with a Cause
This article was originally published in Ambassador Magazine.
“Damaged goods make history” was about the only phrase I could comprehend from the lead singer, his shaggy brown hair just long enough to cover his eyes. He thrashed around the cramped stage of Corktown Tavern, avoiding the random displacement of cement blocks and ironing boards. Punk rock with a psychedelic flare: Sid Vicious, meet the Beach Boys.
It didn’t matter that most of us couldn’t understand what he was saying. We felt it, and we celebrated it. Jumping up and down, some of us twitching wilding in the corner and others of us simply escaping into ourselves.
The last time I was at Corktown Tavern was about a year ago for one of the illustrious Dorkwave parties. “Les Infants Terribles,” they called it. You could dance your pants off there – or, wear a giant lobster suit and do the robot on stage, or, even dress in drag and bring your straight boyfriend with you. Sadly, the boys of Dorkwave moved on to new places, and I always wondered if when they packed up and left, they took the Corktown scene with them.
Most people didn’t know what the band was called – even the guy working the door assured me he didn’t know. Eventually, a lanky kid in his early 20s told me they were called The Frustrations. His name was Frank. He was in a band, too – a group called Red China. Frank likened his band’s music to that of The Frustrations: “Experimental – anything that no one else is doing.”
I soon discovered that even the neighborhood’s daily initiatives were created with that philosophy in mind.
I met Timothy McKay, executive director of the Greater Corktown Development Corporation, the next morning in front of the abandoned Michigan Central Train Station. McKay and his crew – a group of Corktown residents – were busy sorting household materials and loading them onto a truck. Despite the city of Detroit’s refusal to recycle, McKay and other residents fought hard to employ a local vendor, Recy-clean, to help meet their community’s demands. Now, Corktown has a series of “drop sites,” the first and primary location being in front of the train station, where residents commune on a monthly basis to recycle their trash and clean up the neighborhood.
I joined McKay and his head volunteer, Lynn Lutton, for an official tour of Corktown. The excursion lasted about an hour, with McKay stopping along the way to say hello to residents and provide a historical context for each building we saw. His passion for the community was both surprising and inspiring.
As we turned off Michigan Avenue and began heading south on 6th Street, we entered the historical district – an old church and a group of homes from the mid-19th century that were all refurbished in the early 1980s by a group of former activists.
“It was the activists from the ‘60s who saved this area from demolition,” McKay said. “Those who used to hang out on Plum Street – the Haight-Ashbury of our area back in the day. He continued, “I know you’re going for what’s here now that seems to be attracting people, but I think it’s this fabric – the fact that this place is so in touch with history – that even our hipsters are somewhat fascinated by the continuity.”
The age group of those choosing to live in Corktown is diverse: 25-45 years old from varying backgrounds and professions. According to McKay, the community is comprised of doctors, lawyers, artists, musicians, singles and families. Some have money and some don’t. But, in his efforts to rebuild the neighborhood, McKay and the Greater Corktown Development Corporation are focusing much of their attention on the younger crowd: the activists of today.
“When you’re young, you always rebel against your parents,” McKay explained. “Who’s rebelling now are 25 year-olds tired of hearing their parents berate and drag down the city. And that age group is saying, ‘You don’t understand what’s going on … get over it. I’m going to move here, and I’m going to have a good time. And, I’m going to survive.’”
Corktown’s roots of rebellion run as deep as its inception. In fact, the town received its name for the dense population of Irish immigrants who settled there, all hailing from County Cork, or “The Rebel Country,” as it’s often called. It was left for dead years ago but proved dead-set on defying the odds.
Today, Corktown truly is an incubator for experimentation. Its non-conformist spirit resonates throughout the entire city – confined not by the brick walls of avant-garde nightspots, but free and alive, making real noise in the daylight, too.
– Mary Abraham