I drove down Detroit’s Cass Avenue the other day, and in 10 city blocks I glimpsed the changing face of my hometown. For most of my life Cass Corridor was where the city placed all those things that didn’t fit into its plans, like students, Chinese restaurants, artists, musicians, derelicts, beat up vets, and those who cared for them. It was available, affordable and for some a free place to crash. The Cass Corridor was always just temporary. There have always been plans to fix it. It has always been vital to too many people to change it too fast.
One of my first memories was of spending time in an old Victorian house in the corridor where a piano player named Dewey broke all the ladies’ hearts with songs of unrequited love. I remember Dewey’s name because our friends named their dog after this singer. Their new puppy shared Dewey’s gift to control other people’s emotions. Dewey’s sparse piano playing didn’t get in the way of his charming smile and smooth delivery. He took all requests and immediately owned them. Few of the guests could resist raising a glass and ordering another. This was in a house near Temple which is no longer there. .. like so many other things.
Stretching from the the campus of Wayne State University to almost downtown was a neighborhood populated by some fifty to seventy-five working graphic artists, student musicians, their mentors and the kind of people who like to be around artists. Many of these artists were from Wayne State University’s art and music departments. Social life centered on local gathering places and bars such as Cobb’s Corner, whose owner Robert Cobb supported the local art scene and sometimes traded drinks for art. Cass Corridor artists developed a pride and affection for their area of the city, fostered by a shared sense of community and a passion for art.
The Cass Corridor created and showcased raw, gritty, and sometimes startlingly unrefined art. Cass Corridor provided Detroit a distinctly urban aesthetic that has continued until today.
Detroit artists carry an obligation to the history and character of the city with them throughout their careers. On a spring night one of these artists, Scott Gwinnell, stopped by my house to discuss a cover design for his new CD, The Cass Corridor Suite, which would soon be coming out on the Detroit Music Factory label. Scott played each track with an explanation of how the Cass Corridor inspired him to write, arrange and produce each piece. It was a powerfully moving evening. It left me with an understanding of how much a place can influence the creative process.
“Detroit’s Cass Corridor, the pseudonym for a section of Cass Ave., is the street running parallel west of Woodward Ave. through mid and downtown. In its modern years, the two mile long street developed a reputation for its embrace of poverty and crime.
I had, mostly, the pleasure of living in “the corridor” for two years in my young adulthood while I attended college. I lived in a location that demanded that I either walk, ride a bike, or drive almost the entire corridor to reach school. During my time there I saw what reality was, both good and bad. Being a child of a sheltered suburban community, the Corridor was my growing up, my awakening into adulthood.
I’ve always been an avid student of history, and wanting to learn about my surroundings, I discovered the rich past of Cass Ave; I started understanding its own identity from its more famous brother, Woodward. Besides being book-ended by Detroit landmarks such as the Masonic Temple and Fisher Building, the area boasted small music clubs, galleries, and an array of artists, shining through a spectrum of vocations.
The most wonderful thing I discovered about the Corridor was that its artistic influence was not designated to the pages of Detroit history books, it was alive in the many young artists and musicians, like myself who were living their passions.
If you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If you are seeking poverty in the Cass Corridor, you will find it; you may even pass negative judgment, and never give it a second thought. This is to your own detriment; I hope your listening to this recording, showing my impressions of this area will make you see it in a different light. The Cass Corridor is spark; it is legacy; it is pain, guile, patience, optimism, and most of all in my experience, duality.
I am a different person for having lived there, and I’d like to think a better one. The Cass Corridor Suite speaks in my clearest, most articulate voice, my jazz composing. I hope you enjoy it.” Scott Gwinnell.
Detroit is becoming a handsome city filled with galleries, restaurants and shopping destinations. It is becoming a great place to be, not a place to do.
Maybe it is a good time to step back and make sure that we aren’t going to lose something truly valuable, our creative juices. We have an opportunity to grow our city and still retain some room for artists on the rise, creatives who fine themselves living on the edge and who often lead our renaissance.