#1 2014 Recap: Cops Shut John's Carpet House, Legendary Detroit Blues Venue
December 31st, 2014, 7:39 AM
This summer news, which drew wide attention and support for the community project, is our choice for #1 article of the year. Earlier selections in the Top 10 countdown are at the end.
Update: The music site reopened July 27, the following Sunday, but remains in legal limbo. A Sept. 25 post on its Facebook page says: "We are closed for the season, and are still trying to work out something with the mayor and the city. Hope to see everyone next May when we will reopen."
The speakers were silent at the corner of Frederick and St. Aubin this past Sunday [July 20], site of the popular weekly outdoors blues jam in East Poletown known as John's Carpet House.
"The police department shut us down," said Pete Barrow, the organizer of the event and owner of the eight lots on which it takes place. Officers had come by that morning saying the gathering was illegal, that vendors didn't have proper permits. Police said John's Carpet House did not have enough portable bathrooms or proper security.
It's unclear at this point if this is just a temporary setback or the end of the legendary venue.
About four or five years ago, Barrow said, the city had made similar demands. One patron of the jam was a practicing lawyer working for the state attorney general at the time. She helped Barrow through bureaucratic hurdles and licensing processes, which led Barrow to buy all the land outright.
"Now they've got something new," Barrow said. "They say we need an entertainer's license—they ain't never had that before. And they say the food vendors, they have permits but not licenses or something—I don't know, they shut everybody down."
John's Carpet House has become an institution on the east side, a weekly display of vibrant, thriving life in an otherwise seemingly desolate area. (See 2013 video below.)
Crowds gather on lawn chairs, on coolers and on blankets, in a wide open ring around a makeshift stage on Pete's land, where a stable of venerable Detroit musicians have been playing blues, soul and R&B tunes every Sunday for years. Famous names from Motown and soul music's past and present have been known to show, including Smokey Robinson and members of the Contours and Dramatics.
It began with a blues drummer named John Estes, who had invited musicians to his home to jam. Fans listened across the street from the current site. He built a shed in front of his house and lined it with squares of carpet for acoustics—hence the name.
After Estes passed away his home joined others in the neighborhood as refuge for criminal elements and scavengers, until his whole house burned down. Like so much of the neighborhood, all that remains is a verdant lot.
On Sundays, it's filled with cars, campers and lawn chairs.
Tamala Sneed still remembers the original.
"I've been coming here for 15 years, every Sunday. I tell people all over the world to come here. This is a big old family picnic. Everybody enjoys each other and the music."
"Nobody is a stranger here. Everybody here is family," Sneed said. "If you're hungry, somebody's gonna feed you; if you're thirsty, somebody's going to give you something to drink. Whatever you need."
Liza Bielby arrived as a newcomer on Sunday, and was disappointed there was no band.
"It doesn't make sense to me to shut down things that are citizen-initiated, something like this, that runs itself. It's an enjoyable thing that isn't hurting anybody," she said.
It may be about more than just a Sunday picnic, too. The resilience of Detroiters and the DIY ethic the city has garnered and is lauded for exists largely in these sort of efforts—the communal repurposing of the seemingly empty spots on the city's map, the informal networks of musicians and artists and showspaces. Many communities have established their existence in the absence of a functioning city, and some are fearful that, as the city rebuilds its own capacity, it may knock down what its people have built in its place.
"This is probably stabilizing the neighborhood in ways that you can't even measure," said Bielby's friend, Shoshanna Utchenik.
"It's a sad precedent to set for other arts and cultural groups that have their own things going on and don't need city involvement," said Bielby. "These cultural and artistic groups understand their neighborhoods and have been working there for a long time."
"I'm very bummed," she said, looking at the empty stage.
People still set out chairs, barbecuing and kibbitzing, but the crowd was thinning. Barrow said police had promised to come back by 5pm and ticket any illegally parked cars, but by 5:30pm I had not seen any officers.
"They said we need more licenses. They said we need to have a certain amount of Port-A-Johns. We got to have security. They come up with a bunch of stuff," said Barrow.
"So, that's where we're at right now. Everything is out in limbo. We need the ear of the mayor, the police chief," he said. "They're talking about a $500 fine out here."
Tamala Sneed began gathering names and signatures for a petition that grew to a handful of pages by the time I left. People are planning to attend the general meeting at Detroit City Council on Tuesday July 22, at 10 a.m. to show support and raise the issue during the general comment period.
On Monday afternoon, a message on Barrow's Facebook page encouraged people to call the office of the mayor, Council President Brenda Jones, Council Pro-tem George Cushingberry, and Council member Mary Sheffield, the representative of the district covering John's Carpet House.
"Vent about the closing down of our outdoors blues jam on Frederick and St. Aubin," the post reads. "We have been doing this for years, and have not had any problems."
"We were told a couple of years ago we did not have to have a permit since we own the properties, it was like having something in your own back yard, so for the last two years no permit was taken out," Barrow said. "Now all of a sudden we have to have a permit, an entertainment license, and are not given time to obtain one." Barrow said he has begun the required paperwork for obtaining new licenses.
"What is happening to us is a damn shame, perpetrated on us by the mayor's office and the police department. We need to have our voices heard," Barrow's Facebook post concludes.
Top 10 Countdown so far
5. Detroit_Pupils’ Video_of_’Happy’ Goes_Viral, March 15