Back-alley fiesta

Sep 5, 2001 at 12:00 am

Shannon Lowell may appear relaxed, reclining in a lawn chair with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. But the young man with crazy wavy hair has a lot on his mind.

“The world ends at 11,” he announces to the 15 or so folks eating burgers hot off a backyard grill.

No one objects because they know Lowell’s right. Last year the world ended at 11:30 p.m. and the cops and neighbors gave them shit for it.

Their world, the world around which their lives have revolved the past six months, is the Dally in the Alley, a homespun music and art fair in Detroit’s Cass Corridor. And this eclectic crew of hipsters and hippies has spent half the year planning the event.

On this gentle summer night, just two weeks before the big day, the group meets for a barbecue and to make sure everything is set. But everything is not set, which is why Lowell, the event’s lead organizer, is stressed and giddy.

They need six volunteers to run the children’s fair and have only one. Lowell confesses that he forgot to get the event insured, but soon will. And they haven’t secured the stages where reggae, rock, jazz, punk and an array of other bands will jam all day.

Putting on a fair of this size — which they expect to draw 20,000 folks — isn’t easy. But this bunch and those before them have pulled it off for 23 years. And though it has grown from just a few musicians the first year to four stages, 35 bands and a handful of techno DJs, the Dally has maintained its grassroots feel. The founders are committed to keeping it homegrown, which means local musicians, artists, vendors — and absolutely no corporate sponsors.

Their other guiding principle is to respect the wishes of the cops and neighbors who ask that the fair finish on time, which means, in Lowellspeak, “the world ends at 11.”

The naming

Al Schaerges stands in the yard behind his law offices where he hosts this barbecue for Dally organizers. He tilts his head, recalling the fair’s first days. The semiretired lawyer with John Denver glasses is part local historian, part hippie. He has helped put on the fair across from his law firm since it began. His compatriots rely on Schaerges to tell how the Dally got started and he happily obliges.

In 1975, when the Young administration was set to tear down a group of row houses on Forest Street between Second and Third avenues, residents in the neighborhood formed the North Cass Community Union to fight it. Schaerges says the group wanted the city to assure them that it had something better to replace them. After about a three-year legal battle, only one house came down.

The NCCU, which sued the city over the housing, accrued a good-sized legal bill. Lynda Krupp, who lived in the neighborhood at the time and belonged to the NCCU, helped organize the first street fair to pay the community group’s debt.

“We also wanted to publicize how great the neighborhood was,” says Krupp.

The first couple of years the fair was held on Second Avenue between Hancock and Warren. Marcus Belgrave gave a surprise performance one year, recalls Krupp. Frustrated autoworkers were given the chance to take a sledgehammer to a Japanese-made car another year, she says. The pet show was the biggest draw. Folks lined up to show off their pooches, says Krupp. But the event didn’t generate that much revenue.

“It was hotter than hell and about 30 people showed,” says Schaerges about the fair’s first year. “We made about $260 on hot dogs and pop.”

In 1980, he suggested moving the fair to the alleys between Second and Third since the street was too wide for so few people and provided no shade. Garages were cleaned out and used as booths for food and vendors.

By 1982, Schaerges got a license to sell beer at the fair so they could raise more money and expand. It was also that year that the fair was given a new name. (The original one was “gallimaufry,” which means hodgepodge.)

A British woman who lived in the neighborhood suggested naming it after an old song, about a couple “trysting in the alley,” called “Dally in the Alley.” It stuck, says Schaerges.

True to its roots

In recent years, the back-alley fair has spilled into Forest Street and Second Avenue to make room for its growing number of visitors. Crowds of hippies, yuppies, bums and students make their way through a labyrinth of jewelry, vintage clothes and T-shirt stands. Long lines form for Middle Eastern dishes, soul food and Detroit’s own Motor City Brewing Company beer, the only brand served.

Major beer companies and radio stations have asked to sponsor the event, but the NCCU has refused. Paul Stevenson, who has helped organize the Dally for 16 years, fears that if the fair goes corporate, the community will lose control.

“I don’t want to see a music stage with Farmer Jack on it,” says Connie Mangilin, who is helping with the fair for the first time this year.

She suspects that local bands and businesses won’t be promoted if corporations are allowed to call the shots.

Annaliese Failla, who has helped put on the Dally about 19 years, agrees. She says that the grassroots effort makes the fair unique, as well as its location.

“Suburbanites think the Cass Corridor is the dregs of society, but the fair is a fun-loving time,” says Failla.

The Cass Corridor, known for drugs, crime and prostitution, is an unusual venue for a fair. But the NCCU is doing what it can to improve the neighborhood. Dally profits go back into the community. (Last year the fair, which cost $32,000 to put on, cleared $8,000.) When construction of the Detroit incinerator got under way in the early 1980s, the NCCU hired an attorney to try and stop it. Though they lost that battle, they continue to invest in the neighborhood. All year long, lawns are mowed and snow is plowed from the same alley and parking lots where the fair is held.

The biggest project under way is the reconstruction of the Dodge garage. Horace Dodge lived on Forest around 1905 and built a carriage house behind his home. During the Dally, vendors used the small building to sell their wares until it was mysteriously torn down in 1989, according to Schaerges.

The NCCU decided to rebuild it on the empty lot where the city tore down the row house back in the 1970s. Schaerges says it will be used to store Dally equipment. The remaining space will be made into a public park and garden. That’s if the group can convince the city to sell the land. They’ve been trying to purchase the property for six years and are in the final stages of acquiring it.

Until that happens, their focus is the Dally. And when it ends at 11 sharp this Saturday night, Lowell and the others will take a six-month break before they start gearing up for the next one. After all, it is their world.

Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. She can be reached at [email protected]