Fenster: The Preposterous Battle Over John's Carpet House





“Perhaps more than any other people, Americans have been locked in a deadly struggle with time, with history. We've fled the past and trained ourselves to suppress, if not forget, troublesome details of the national memory, and a great part of our optimism, like our progress, has been bought at the cost of ignoring the processes through which we've arrived at any given moment in our national existence.”
                                                                                                          — Ralph Ellison, 1964

I.

The city of Detroit will not stop fucking with Pete Barrow.

What began in the summer as a rash of tickets and citations for Barrow and some friends became in the winter a succession of city council meetings and canceled court dates, returned checks and bureaucratic dead ends.

But, with any luck, the long process—of pleading his case to council, of showing up to court to learn his date had been postponed, of being sent to this or that city department, only to be sent elsewhere—may finally end tomorrow morning. Barrow's final court date is set for Wednesday at 8:30 a.m., in Room 332 of Detroit’s 36th District Court building. (421 Madison Ave.)

Barrow is the owner of a small piece of land at the corner of Frederick and St. Aubin, on the city’s East Side, and the organizer of John’s Carpet House, the celebrated outdoor blues jam he hosts there every summer Sunday afternoon, weather permitting. Police visited the jam in July, issuing hundreds of dollars worth of citations to Barrow and others. They said he needed an entertainer’s license—something Barrow says he’s never heard of in the almost twenty years he’s been out there.

They left Rory Calhoun—a chef and caterer and a popular vendor at the Carpet House—with his first ever ticket in the seven years he’s been grilling there; it bore a $500 fine.

When I last spoke with Calhoun he was still trying to follow whatever rules the city could give him. He had submitted paperwork for a food vendor’s license with one department, including a $200 fee, but received a call a couple weeks later asking him to come back and pick up his check. The city couldn’t accept it, because they didn’t know what to do with it. It appeared there was no actual legal process for obtaining the permits he was told he needed. He would have to wait.

“That was a first for them,” he said. “They told me they’d never done that before, returned somebody’s check like that.”

Calhoun remained calm, even bubbly. “We want to work with the city. We want to do right by them,” he kept repeating. “We understand they’ve got a job to do. We all want to operate safely, and right, and on the up and up.” But Calhoun’s obsequiousness has not been shared by all.

“Oh, they’re doing a hell of a job on Rory,” Barrow said this weekend. “He still don’t know where he stands. They gave him this license, but not that license, canceled his dates.”

Barrow meant court dates. The city, or the various departments that have issued tickets to them, have been repeatedly setting and then canceling (at the last minute) court dates for them to contest or make right on their citations. Barrow was given a November date, but was told at court it had been postponed to Jan. 6; on Jan. 6 he was told it had been reset to April.

“Then,” he said, “about a month ago, I got a letter at my home saying that I missed my February court date!”

An attorney—a Carpet House regular—is helping, pro bono. He took the letter and was able to get them set back up for April 1st—this Wednesday morning. 

II.

John’s Carpet House sits in the middle of an area city planners had labeled Middle East Central in the 1951 Detroit Master Plan. It’s bounded by I-75 to the west and Gratiot to the south, extending towards what was Black Bottom and the legendary Hastings Street. It’s bordered to the north by the GM Detroit/Hamtramck Assembly plant.

Such borders frame a perfect snapshot of the trauma of Detroit’s last half century adventure in planning and development—the thrash and thrall of race and housing and city and citizen in urban American history.

The population peaked and began to fall almost as soon as the neighborhood was named, continuing downward for almost two decades prior to the storied year of 1967. Freeways and federal home loans pulled wealth from urban cores and established bases in racially secluded suburbs. First I-94, and then I-75, literally paved the way there—but not before destroying thousands of black homes and businesses—all of Hastings and Black Bottom—with little or no redress. One such business was a tailor shop, owned by the father of a boy who later became the city’s first black mayor, Coleman A. Young.

The highways severed neighborhoods, vanished community anchors. Population and average family income both plummeted; “city services deteriorated, crime mounted, and vacancies, abandonment, arson, and dilapidation became a general problem,” John J. Bucowczyk wrote in a slim history of the area. It gave future planners a sort of carte blanche. “Such decisions presumed it a blighted and expendable area. In turn, the presumption encouraged the spread of blight, which in the future would make the area more expendable.”

By 1986 the tailor’s son had been mayor for over a decade. Grabbing at any development that promised city revenue, he felt free to use eminent domain to remove over 3,000 residents in the area and clear 460 acres to make way for GM Detroit/Hamtramck Assembly. But auto plants proved a false hope by then.

In the late 90’s, a friend told Barrow about John’s Carpet House. At that time it was a wooden lean-to built beside the home of John Estes, a blues musician who lived on the other side of Frederick Street. He lined the juke with swatches of carpet samples for acoustics and insulation. Barrow quickly became a regular and a close friend of Estes’s. They would pass around a collection and use the money to buy gas for the generator, to pay musicians, or to buy a round of drinks for the band.

This is all, of course, a drastically condensed summary of a complicated history, full of individual human stories, but it is worth knowing in general form some of what has given shape to the relationship between the city and the people that live here.

Estes passed away around 2007, and it wasn’t long before the house, like so much of the neighborhood, was scrapped and then burned. Some time later, Barrow and some friends decided to reinstate the jam in John’s honor on the open lot across the street. They cleared the field of debris and began maintaining it, and Barrow eventually purchased it, eight lots in all. On a jerry-built stage they keep a single square of carpet tacked on.

Because John’s sister could not afford a funeral, she had him cremated. Barrow and friends spread the ashes over the field, so John can still enjoy the jam.

After they moved it outside and across the street, it got bigger and bigger.

III.

The sudden crackdown on the venerable neighborhood fete has been alarming to many east-siders and long-time participants. The difficulty Barrow continues to have in getting straight answers, or even coherent responses—any help at all—from the city, has only made many people’s suspicions worse. The city’s new master plan is a 2013 document called Detroit Future City, which suggests plans for “green and blue infrastructure” for much of the east side. This could mean water retention sites, reforesting and bioremediation, etc.

Barrow says he has seen plans for a water reclamation project where the Carpet House is. Others in the neighborhood are convinced that a large, urban farming project wants the land.

Barrow was explaining some of the police complaints to the host of an AM gospel radio show last week—too many people, too many cars—when she cut him off. 

"Come on," she said, "let's be for real! It's not about the number of people, or the music! It's all political...It's right in the middle of where a certain business wants that whole property—and they are not people of color. Let's be honest, and put the cards on the table!" She added: "His function is not the only function that is being targeted. It seems that people of color’s businesses are being targeted.”

It's a valid suspicion given the area's history. It's also worth considering that there might not be such easy villains. The city needs to find new ways to restore the health of city land and services, and blue and green projects in lower density areas make a certain amount of sense. One white-owned business with expressed interest in Pete's land even has a strong social and racial justice component in it.

But, ultimately, it should seem preposterous to let John’s Carpet House be sacrificed at the alter of development. It is a nexus of all the hope and anxiety of Detroit’s current moment—a city trying to understand what it’s willing to lose of its past for a vision of its future.

IV.

On a Thursday night last September, in an auditorium of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Council President Brenda Jones called a community meeting to order. She opened with a short thanks to the museum for hosting the meeting, then proclaimed the importance of the museum to the city’s history and future.

The Wright had stood to lose a lot in the bankruptcy that year, depending, as it does, on the city for much of its financing. And while major donors and foundations had pledged and campaigned for the solvency and sovereignty of the DIA, the future of the Wright had seemed for a moment to be shockingly, devastatingly precarious. Jones beamed with pride and gratitude for the museum’s survival, and affirmed the city’s commitment to its continued existence.

Barrow had gotten himself on the agenda for that evening; as he approached the microphone, he spoke with fire, and with none of Calhoun’s calm deference. For five years he had owned the land and had never had a problem, and now he couldn’t get answers. He was fed up. We’ve got a lot of support, he told a glassed-over looking council. A lot of people out there love what we are doing. A couple of those supporters approached to reiterate (full disclosure: myself included).

It was ironic to see the vacant look on some council member faces, feeling unheard, after listening to them talk about the significance of preserving African American history in Detroit.

There are few things as charged with meaning as the blues, few things capacious enough to approach encompassing the African American experience. Amiri Baraka, the poet, dramatist, and critic, thought the blues might be able to do just this. “That there was a body of music that came to exist from a people who were brought to this side as slaves and that throughout that music’s development, it had had to survive, expand, reorganize, continue, and express itself, as the fragile property of a powerless and oppressed People. What was so powerful and desperate in this music that guaranteed its continued existence? Even beyond its creators’ existence? This is what pushed me. But as I began to get into the history of the music, I found that this was impossible without, at the same time, getting deeper into the history of the people,” he wrote in an introduction to his classic study Blues People.

Ralph Ellison thought it might have been asking too much of the humble song. “The tremendous burden of sociology which Jones would place upon this body of music is enough to give even the blues the blues,” he wrote in a review. Elsewhere, Ellison wrote, “(the blues) are the only consistent art in the United States which constantly remind us of our limitations while encouraging us to see how far we can actually go. When understood in their more profound implication, they are a corrective, an attempt to draw a line upon man’s own limitless assertion.”

I'm not asserting it this way or that. The point is only that no small amount of ink has been spilled over the blues. It is a well deep enough with meaning, and with historical import, for eternal conversation.

“The American environment which produced the blues is still with us, though we all labor to render it progressively smaller,” Richard Wright wrote in 1959. “The total elimination of that area might take longer than we now suspect, hence it is well that we examine the meaning of the blues while they are still falling upon us.”

Nowhere is that truer than on the east side of Detroit. I found out about the Carpet House from the journalist Edward McClelland, who wrote about it in his 2013 book Nothin’ but Blue Skies.

“We could take a picture” Harmonica Shah, a Carpet House headliner, told McClelland, “and say, ‘This is a blues festival in Mississippi,’ and now people wouldn’t know the difference.” (Perhaps Baraka was on to something.)

All of my circumlocutions mean to say something McClelland said with much more brevity and directness:

“By showcasing African-American culture in a setting that was at once inner-city and pastoral, John’s Carpet House is not just quintessentially Detroit, it is uniquely Detroit. These blues, this barbecue, the empty fields, the cars…composed a scene that could not exist anywhere else in the world.”







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