Tag Archives: jazz

Detroit: The Train Station

4 Dec

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Finally…. For years Kris has avoided taking photos of Michigan Central station. It wasn’t that he didn’t love the building, the architecture, the history; he has fond memories of this place. The family vacation to Colorado in ’72, the Freedom Train in ’76, remembering the beautiful castle-like space from his childhood. But it had become the symbol of the death of the city, the ruin porn capitol, an iconic image of Detroit’s decline. Time after time we’d pass by watching the cars with Illinois, Ohio, Ontario license plates snapping photos and selfies out front, propagating the image of Detroit as the graveyard of skyscrapers… Kris, ever the contrarian, was having no part of the cliche’. Today all of that changes, today we’re going inside and for all the right reasons; the station will live again!!

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It’s Friday evening Kris and I have the unique opportunity to see a film inside Michigan Central Station (aka the old train station) in Detroit. Ford, History and the Freep Film Fest are hosting a special screening of Detroit: Comeback City inside the building that inspired the film.  The film explores the rise, fall and epic re-birth through a single building; Michigan Central Station. Detroit, once one of America’s richest city’s is now America’s comeback city. After the film we have about 45 minutes for a self-guided tour. I’ve never set foot in the building, I’m so excited!

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The temperature tonight is below average–it’s downright cold, an email suggests we bring blankets so I do. Standing in front of the building I am awestruck by the sheer size and grandeur; it’s beautiful. I have never been this close before, walking with my head tipped back I have to be mindful of where I’m stepping, Kris competes with other tourists taking photos. We pass through that grand arch, a smile plastered to my face, we sign waivers and are given packages of hand warmers, I only half-pay attention, the building and the exotic lighting are captivating. Rows of folding chairs are set up in front of a large screen, we sit in the back, there’s no escaping the frigid breeze that blows through giant window openings; I’m glad I brought a blanket. As I wait for the film to start I gaze at my surroundings, all of the rubble from years of decay and vandalism have been removed, a net clings to the ceiling in case a random brick comes loose, architectural details are highlighted by cool LED lighting. The film begins. Sit back and enjoy Kris’s photos while I tell you about MCS.

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Michigan Central Station opened in 1913. It was put into service before it was finished; the old train station caught fire, trains were rushed over to the new station where they came and went until 1988. Designed in the Beaux Arts Classical style it was the tallest train station in the world at that time. The main waiting room stretches the length of the building, it was modeled after the public baths of ancient Rome with walls of marble, vaulted ceilings, bronze chandeliers and massive Doric columns. A large hall called an arcade housed a cigar shop, newsstand, pharmacy, barber shop, telephone booths, baths and an info booth. Brick walls and a copper skylight surrounded the concourse, a restaurant was at the far end. Detroit was a thriving city, an industrial powerhouse; this is where it greeted its visitors and new residents.  I’ve looked at a ton of vintage photos; the massive main waiting room, broad coffered arches, the reading room with potted palms, leather chairs and wood-beamed ceiling, white table cloths in the restaurant, light streaming through the grand Palladian window. It made a statement about the city; when you stepped into MCS you knew you were someplace great.

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Soldiers heading off to forts, boot camps, WWI, WWII, Korea and Vietnam left from these tracks.   At the beginning of WWI more than 200 trains left the station daily, in the 1940’s more than 4,000 passengers a day passed through its doors. Whatever was going on in the city or the world the activity centered around MCS. Think about it, at one time the majority of autombiles came from Detroit, trains delivered them across the country. When the factories needed workers, trains brought a huge influx of men from the south. Presidents, movie stars, industrialists arrived in the Motor City by train. We were the Arsenal of Democracy, the capital of innovation, the Silicone Valley of the early 20th Century; from the Model T to music there was a feeling there wasn’t anything Detroit couldn’t do. And then it changed. Here we are today; after decades of decline the city not only survived bankruptcy, it’s thriving. It’s only fitting that MCS, which has become a major symbol for the city through both good and bad times will be restored to its original glory.  Ford Motor Company plans to move 2,500 employees into the building which will be Ford’s research campus for autonomous vehicle development and deployment. The main floor will be public space with shops and cafes.

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With my blanket wrapped around my shoulders I follow Kris’s lead through the main floor of the building, I feel minuscule in the space. Historic photos explain what we are seeing, for the most part each area is still defined; the arcade with its inset spaces, the ticket windows, the restaurant. Much of the detail remains, surprising considering rain, snow, explorers and vandals have trespassed the building for 3 decades. The roof over the concourse has been removed, yesterdays rain lays in puddles on the floor, the brick walls are intact.  Volunteers are positioned throughout to answer questions, I enjoy listening to people telling their stories about the building; coming to see the Freedom Train, the trips they took or coming to pick up a relative, there are great emotional ties to the building. I stand off to the side to take it all in, just seeing the people here tonight it’s easy to imagine excited travelers arriving and departing. When it was announced that Ford purchased the building an anonymous caller told them where they could find the iconic clock that he had been ‘safekeeping’, there have been more than 2 dozen calls offering the return of a historic fountain, a plaster medallion and light fixtures, no questions asked. It’s a weird thing, somehow we Detroiters feel like the building belongs to all of us.

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We’re having dinner at Rocco’s Italian Deli in the Cass Corridor. The red-brick building has a parking lot on the side, very convenient. The interior is one big open space in white with concrete floors, open ceiling, retro lighting and table or counter seating. A pantry area features dry pasta, canned tomatoes, vinegar, oils and crackers. Refrigerated cases are filled with cured meats, cheeses and olives, the chalkboard menu is filled with delicious sounding sandwiches and salads. We sit at the counter and place our order, I’m having a glass of the house red wine to help warm me up. The chicken noodle soup is set in front of me, there’s nothing like a good bowl of soup! Kris digs into the Chop Chop Salad; cubes of cucumber, tomato, beet, garbanzo’s and carrot tossed in house balsamic, the veggies have a nice crunch, it’s delicious. The Breast Chicken Parm sandwich is a fried chicken cutlet topped with tasty marinara, mozzarella and grated parm on the perfect Italian bread, it’s so good. Easy parking, fast and friendly service and excellent food, a nice addition to the city.

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Willis Show Bar opened on the corner of Willis and Third in 1949. The facade of the building is burgundy and pink with a great curved entrance. It opened in the glitzy show bar era of live entertainment and Jazz, it was a Detroit hot-spot. Same old story; neighborhood declined, bar turned seedy, padlocked in 1978. Investors from California partnered with the Detroit Optimist Society to breathe new life into the old building. Upon our arrival we are greeted by the official doorman, the entryway is a wood-paneled circular space with a terrazzo floor, a big “W” sits in the middle. The waiting area is closed off from the main space by a thick velvet curtain, we pay our $7 cover charge, get handed glasses of champagne and are led into the bar. I love it.

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The only thing left of the original interior was the curved Art Moderne ceiling which has been completely restored, the new bar follows the same curves as the ceiling, the elevated main stage rests snugly behind the bar. One long banquette runs nearly the length of the bar with tables pulled up in front, a second level of booths sit against the back wall; every seat faces the stage. The band starts their set and suddenly it’s 1949 again; the decor, the music, the craft cocktails, the burlesque dancer. Waiters wear matching suits, service is top-notch, no detail has been left out.  Wills Show Bar is reborn.

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When the city of Detroit burned to the ground in 1805 Father Gabriel Richard said: Speramus meliora; resurgent cineribus. We hope for better things, it shall arise from the ashes. It seems that is the story of Detroit, a testament to the resilience of Detroiters. We rise, we fall and we get back up again. 

DETROIT: I Got Rhythm….

13 May

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It’s 2:00 on a Sunday, with no reason to rush out the door we’ve slept in late and are now in search of food. Why is it anything with eggs or maple syrup tastes even better after noon?  Craft Work in West Village is said to have a great brunch, we’re here to check it out. Located on the ground floor of the Parkstone Apartments, the restaurant is integrated into the neighborhood perfectly. That’s one of the things Kris and I really like about this area; restaurants, cafes and shops are intermixed with single family homes and apartments making it very walkable. Mature trees, gorgeous architecture and well-kept homes create a charming district.

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Housed in a space that was originally a pharmacy, then occupied by the Harlequin Cafe, Craft Work has kept the old-world charm alive and well. Dining room tables are full when we arrive, there’s plenty of room at the community tables in the bar area. Everything on the menu sounds appealing; we choose one sweet and one savory dish to split. Before long, large plates piled high with breakfast foods arrive at the table. Lets start with the savory; tender bacon fat biscuits are literally smothered with house made sausage gravy nicely seasoned with tender chunks of sausage. Next to the biscuits are two perfectly fried eggs; I put mine on top of the biscuit, eggs Benedict style. Cutting into it, golden liquid yolk drips down the biscuit and combines with the gravy, delicious! Golden french toast made from eggy, tender, slightly sweet challah is stacked high, pats of butter melt slowly and eventually slip down the stack, a cup of syrup shares the plate, Kris is in his glory, it’s exceptional.

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Now for the entertainment portion of the day. Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church (JAPC) is hosting “A Gershwin Rendezvous” as part of their free concert series. The building itself is stunning, designed by architect Wirt C Roland (Guardian Building) in the English Gothic style, it was completed in 1926. The interior is a medley of wood carvings, plaster castings, stained glass windows and stone carvings. The Sanctuary itself is elegant, understated, with colorful stained glass windows, simple chandeliers and stepped buttresses. The Skinner pipe organ is one of only three, large, four-manual instruments that remain in their original form.

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We park in the lot behind the church and follow the other attendees inside. Wooden chairs have been set up in rows facing the black piano, volunteers are busy setting up refreshments to be served at the conclusion of the performance. After placing our jackets on the back of our chairs, we have a look around. There are several lovely rooms in the Parish House; stone fireplaces, leaded glass windows and decorative plaster adorns each of them. The church has a very welcoming feel to it, members are friendly and chat eagerly. Though this is not my neighborhood or my church, I feel a part of the community gathered here today.

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Back in Dodge Hall we take our seats as the concert is about to begin. Penny Masouris will be performing many Gershwin favorites today; pianist and vocalist, she will also weave in a bit of Gershwin history and stories between songs. A number of reproduction paintings rest on easels, our hostess introduces each of George’s paintings and tells us a little about them. She’s a wonderful lecturer and fascinating to listen to. It’s evident she has studied the composer and pianists life and career extensively. Taking her seat at the piano she kicks off the afternoon with Gershwin’s first big hit (1919) Swanee. Penny shares stories of George and Ira’s early days in New York, how George became the composer and Ira the lyricist, then she plays and sings some more.

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We are sitting in the back row with the vantage point of being able to see the physical reactions audience members have to songs like “Someone to Watch Over Me”, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off”. Some close their eyes and sway, others mouth the lyrics. Once in a while there is a joyful gasp, a body sitting  a little straighter in the chair, a tapping foot. Music has that effect on people. “Rhapsody in Blue” is probably the piece of music most associated with Gershwin, it’s hard to believe it came out in 1924, it’s magnificent. George wrote pieces for stage and screen, American in Paris (1928), Porgy and Bess (1935) along with Jazz, opera and popular music. George Gershwin died when he was only 38 years old during surgery to remove a brain tumor. His career was short but brilliant, filling the pages of the American songbook.

Time has passed quickly, the concert comes to an end. Enthusiastic applause shows our appreciation for the performer.   The concert series continues through June with performances on Sunday afternoons at 4:30 pm. Be sure to check out the website for all the musical programs at JAPC. It has been a wonderful afternoon, Detroit-style, I can hardly wait for next weekend!

CINCINNATI: Back in Time….

17 Feb

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It’s our last day in Cincy; we’ve still got a list of things to do. No trip to the Queen City is complete without a visit to the Cincinnati Museum Center, formerly Union Terminal. Everything about this building is amazing from architecture and history to its present-day use as a museum. Work started on the building in August of 1929, completed March 31, 1933 it is one of the last great train stations built and one of the finest examples of the Art Deco style. When it opened it was served by seven railroads; designed to accommodate 17,000 passengers and 216 trains a day, it was a transfer point for soldiers during WWII, Amtrak still runs a train from the station. Union Terminal cost $41 million to build including the land and readjustment of railroad facilities, the complex and rail yards take up 287 acres with 94 miles of track.

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  The Jeep is parked and we approach the building on foot; no matter how many times we come here, I am still awed by the magnificence of the structure, so grand, elegant, sophisticated. The clock is mounted front and center, two bas reliefs flank the rotunda, one represents transportation, the other commerce. In 1932, Maxfield Keck and his team stood on scaffolding and carved the figures directly into the limestone exterior, it took several months. Inside, the rotunda’s interior dome spans 180 ft with a height of 106 feet, it’s stunning! A series of murals depict the heritage of the US and Cincy. German artist Winold Reiss is responsible for the design of the murals; glass mosiac tiles, roughly the size of a nickle were pressed into a colored-plaster background. Glass tiles were ideal, the colors are brilliant, they will not fade and are easy to clean and maintain, especially important back in the days when smoking in public was the norm, not to mention the smut and smoke from the trains. Reiss also had input to the color scheme of the rotunda dome, a rainbow of yellows and golds, as well as the terrazzo floor patterns.

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A sign guides us to Tower A, we’ve never been, so we’re excited to check it out; a ride on an elevator, a few steps up and we’re in. This my friends, is the control tower, the train director would sit at his desk, look at the control panel and determine the path of travel of each train through the terminal, lever men would align the switches down at the track level to keep all trains moving safely. The original control panel hangs on the back wall, it’s huge, it has been rewired and is programmed to show how it looked back when Tower A was in full operation, amazing. Showcases are filled with memorabilia from the glory days of train travel, silverware, china, menus and photographs. Parents rest on old train station seats as youngsters ring the (very loud) train bell, bookshelves are cramped with volumes on the history of trains, lanterns and traffic lights hang above. Standing on the viewing platform we see the Queensgate Yard to the right, every day a CSX train brings orange juice from Florida to the Tropicana plant just north of Cincinnati. Straight out is the CUT yard, rows of tracks are filled with freight cars, the Amtrak passenger train uses the platform just below the Tower. Off to the left is the Ohio River and many bridges including the Norfolk Southern Bridge, that route runs from Cincy to Chattanooga. The Control Tower is also the home of the Cincinnati Railroad Club who funded the renovation of Tower A, thanks guys!

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Back on the main floor we enter the Museum of Science and Natural History. An exhibit honors the memory of Ohio native Neil Armstrong, the display includes a moonrock collected during his Apollo 11 mission in which he became the first man to set foot on the moon, along with a replica of his spacesuit and tools. As we proceed further we find ourselves in a re-creation of real caves found in Ohio and Kentucky, covering two levels and 500 feet of dark, narrow passages. Floors and walls are textured, it’s chilly and a little damp, walkways open into chambers filled with stalactites and stalagmites, there’s an underground stream and a waterfall, they even have a bat colony. Next thing you know we’ve traveled back roughly 19,000 years in the Ohio Valley into the ice age and pre-historic worlds. There are dinosaur skeletons, fossils and casts, we walk through a re-created glacier with its Caribbean blue light eerily lighting our way, we follow the ice age trail to the stream table all rocky and uneven. Here the land is barren but for a few trees, wolves roam the landscape, more dinosaurs lurk about.

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Back in the Rotunda we ramble through the building a little more, because of the crowds they have opened several dining room spaces usually reserved for private meetings and events. French artist Pierre Bourdelle is responsible for decorative ceiling designs in the dining rooms and hall, the formal dining room’s ceiling mural is a map of Cincinnati bounded on the edges with all forms of transportation and landmarks of the city. Bourdelle’s artwork consumes 5,496 sq ft of the building, his largest commission. Back in the day, public buildings were always designed to impress, local history and landmarks were often used in decorative ways, a means of connecting people and their community. Union Terminal is an architectural treasure, in November 2014 residents of Hamilton County passed a millage to provide funding for renovations of Union Terminal to keep it functional, now that’s money well spent. 

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For dinner we are crossing the Ohio River into Covington Kentucky and the MainStrasse Village neighborhood to Dee Felice. On the corner of Main and 6th Streets stands the 18th century orange brick building that began life as a pharmacy. Inside, the ornate tin ceiling, black and white marble tile floor and old-fashioned details remain. Long-time Jazz drummer and band leader Emidio De Felice opened the restaurant/Jazz club back in 1984, today his wife and daughter carry on the tradition of serving up live Jazz and Cajun food. We arrive to a nearly full house, musicians are perched on the stage behind the open bar playing Sweet Lorraine. After a quick scan of the menu we place our order, the music continues, many of our Jazz favorites are played. The Pasta Dante arrives; blackened strips of chicken over peppers, onions and linguine sauteed in white wine and topped with feta cheese, it’s delicious! We sip on cocktails, the music comes to an end, time to go.

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It’s still early, we walk Main Street the length of downtown, buildings are distinctly southern in style, narrow fronts, deep in length–shotgun style. With elevated front doors, some have ornate cornices, others leaded glass, they’re snuggled close together. Restaurants and taverns are doing a good business, the neighborhood was originally German, the 6-block district still retains its charm. Kris drives the car over to the riverfront, this is one of our favorite places to walk.  The Kentucky side of the Ohio River was relatively shallow compared to the Ohio side, making it unusable as a public landing for boats and steamships; instead beautiful mansions were built overlooking the waterway. Today a series of parks and pathways line the riverside affording visitors a  view of the best of both worlds, the vibrant city skyline of Cincinnati and the picturesque charm and grandeur of Covington. Until next time…….. 

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DETROIT: Music Mecca

19 Aug

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Have you ever stumbled upon something super-cool and asked yourself, how did I not know about this? That’s exactly what happened to Kris and I a while back when we showed up for a tour of the United Sound Systems Recording Studio on Second Ave in Detroit. Turns out this place was one of Detroit’s first independent recording studios. Early on it was used for industrial and promotional film production, then it became a full service recording studio that gave artists, musicians, writers and producers the ability to record music, cut the record and get airplay without being signed to a major label. You may be asking yourself, I wonder who recorded there? Are you ready for this? Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Miles Davis, John Lee Hooker, Jackie Wilson, The Rolling Stones, Muddy Waters, Isaac Hayes, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bob Seger, Luther Vandross, Aretha Franklin, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Marvin Gaye, MC5, and Whitney Houston…….to name a few! For more than 70 years some of the best vocalists, musicians and sound engineers came together at United Sound Studios to record an astounding variety of successful Jazz, Rock, Soul, Blues, Rockabilly and Funk records.

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It’s a gorgeous afternoon, we have driven by this building a hundred times over the years and never realized what it was. From the outside it looks to simply be an old house with dark windows on the second floor; a blue sign splits the levels with the name United Sound Systems in white letters. We park in the adjacent lot, walk to the front door; finding it locked I give it a knock and it opens immediately. Explaining we are here for the tour we are welcomed inside and ushered to the gift shop where we purchase tickets. The interior is still a work in progress as tours and events are being established. We wait for the tour to begin in the basement level with a number of other visitors; framed album covers from MC5 and Aretha Franklin hang on the walls. We are led up to Studio B as our guide gives us a bit of history, United Sound is a recording studio, not a label; initially commercials and advertising jingles were recorded in the building. Upstairs, a large window divides the space between the engineering room and studio, the large console is a sea of levers buttons and switches, walls and ceiling are covered in soundproofing materials. Our group gathers in the studio area; folks take turns putting on earphones and make-believe they are singing into the mike, making their own record. A photo of a young Whitney Houston, taken in this room, hangs on the wall.

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Up a flight of stairs we are now standing in what was the original reception area; Rolodex cards that once sat on the secretary’s desk, bear names and phone numbers of Ike and Tina Turner and Bootsy Collins, I love that kind of memorabilia! Through the door is a small theater room, we all take a seat; a short film shares the story of United Sound. Founded by James (Jimmy) Siracuse in the 1930’s it was moved to this residential space on Second sometime in the early 40’s. In 1947, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Duke Jordan, Tommy Potter and Max Roach recorded “Klaunstance” for Savoy Records, 1948, John Lee Hooker records “Boogie Chillen”, Dizzy Gillespie records tracks here in the 50’s, Jimmy Work recorded his hits “Making Believe” and “That’s What Makes The Jukebox Play” here in the mid 50’s. United Sound was around before there was a Motown; Berry Gordy recorded Marv Johnson’s “Come to Me” at United Sound in 1958 and later released it as the first single on his Tamla 101 label. In the 60’s Bob Seger recorded “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” and “Heavy Music”, MC5 recorded “Back in the USA”. Don Davis purchased United Sound in 1971, the studio continued to thrive; 1985 brought Aretha Franklin to United Sound to record “Freeway of Love”, Anita Baker’s Grammy winning album “Rapture” was recorded here too…….. I know, amazing!

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When the film ends, we pass through a room; commercial records cover the walls, upstairs, we check out yet another tiny studio, before heading back downstairs. In the kitchen area, framed and autographed gold records hang on the wall, below that, the echo chamber that helped create the ‘Detroit Sound’ is cut into the wall, a set of blue silky costumes worn by The Dramatics, have been donated and are on display; we take notice of renderings depicting how this space will be used in the future. On to Studio A……. it’s huge! Tons of fancy looking equipment fills the engineering space, the recording console looks as if it could launch spacecraft. Today only, studio A is hosting a Rockabilly reunion; authors of the book Detroit Country Music Craig Maki and Keith Cady are joining some of Detroit’s veteran Rockabilly musicians for some music and memories. Our group files into the performance space, five musicians are busy playing an old Rockabilly tune; pieces of vintage equipment and black and white photos connect the past to the present. When the song is finished Craig Maki introduces the guys who were instrumental to Detroit’s country and bluegrass music scene in the 1950’s; Jimmy Kirkland, Jack Scott, Dave Ronelier, Johnny Powers and Dave Morgan. Each of these men recorded here back in the day; they played in bands that drew big crowds in southeastern Michigan cities like Mt Clemens, Sterling Heights, Pontiac, Utica, Troy, Flint, Detroit and throughout the Midwest.

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The family of Chief Redbird is on our tour; Redbird organized several bands, played fiddle, sang and wrote songs, he was extremely popular. Jobs in the auto industry brought many southerners to Detroit in the early 20th century, making the city a natural for the creation and enjoyment of this genre of music. We listen as musician’s fingers move across guitar strings, vocalists sing the same lyrics they sang more than 50 years ago, everybody is having a great time. This studio was in constant use until 2008, the list of people who have crossed the threshold is mind-blowing; it’s wonderful to see it up and running again! More of Detroit’s incredible past preserved, I’m so happy we came!

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Hygrade Restaurant and Deli was started over 60 years ago on what was then a busy section of Michigan Ave; today, not so much. About a mile outside of Corktown, the deli is definitely worth a visit. The current owner’s family bought the place in 1972, looking just as it does today: metallic gold, blue and red chairs, Formica tables, light wood paneling and white globe lights that dangle from the ceiling; this is not retro, it’s original! There’s still a decent lunch crowd when we arrive; we choose a table along the wall that affords us a great view of the interior, yellow paper menus are already on the table along with glass salt and pepper shakers and the old-fashioned glass sugar dispenser. There’s really no need to look at the menu, the Reuben is the house specialty, can’t argue with that. We do add a cup of mushroom barley soup and a side of potato salad.

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A few patrons sit at the counter, it’s way cool with its low counter, multi-colored stools and great colored panels behind; the work area is all stainless steel and sees a lot of action. Before long our meal arrives, the sandwich is split onto two plates, each with its own pickle spear. The corned beef is fantastic; cooked to perfection, it is so tender and lean it just falls apart, there’s a good ratio of sauerkraut and dressing too. The soup was flavorful; the barley makes the broth silky. The potato salad is the traditional mustard-style, exactly what you’d expect from an old-school deli. There’s no shortage of nostalgia in Detroit!