A guy dressed as a turtle stands outside Detroit’s Russell Industrial Center as windows above the parking lot vibrate with dubstep music. Turtle man holds the door as I approach, a ridiculously jubilant smile on his face like it’s some inside joke I’m outside of.
If he’s any indication of what’s waiting for me inside, it should be an interesting evening. I’m heading to Siren Farms, an event space on the fourth floor of the Russell Industrial Center specializing in uncommon houseplants with a zero-alcohol “smart bar.”
For those of us who don’t drink, Siren Farms is a welcome alternative to crowded bars filled with drunk people that charge $12 for a mocktail. Here, mocktails start at around $6 and are the focus rather than an afterthought.
Inside, pendant lights with exposed bulbs hang alongside paper lanterns and trailing philodendrons. Rows of staghorn ferns and boncel fingers sit in front of bright windows. Benches with plush pillows invite me to cozy up with a drink and stay a while.
Tonight is a “St. Psilocybin Day” celebration with the Michigan Psychedelics Society. In one corner, a woman with a massive Amanita muscaria mushroom hat sells her art. (The red mushroom with white dots on her head is reminiscent of the Super Mario character Toad.) Across the room, plant cuttings crowd a table waiting for roots to grow, undisturbed by the guy voguing on the dance floor.
Siren Farms opened inside the Russell in September of 2022 and is run by Michelle Donaldson, Lauren Osburn, Susan Rhodes, and Ted Sheets. Rhodes and Sheets also work at Ferndale gay bar Soho.
Donaldson, who moved to Michigan six years ago from Oklahoma, has been sober for two years. She previously ran farm-to-table restaurant Tallgrass Prairie Table and a breakfast joint called The Bramble in Tulsa. She came to Detroit to work for Union Joints opening Eminem’s Mom’s Spaghetti restaurant, but soon realized the corporate dining world wasn’t for her. She and the rest of the Siren Farms crew decided to open the “smart bar” as a place for sober people to build community as an act of harm reduction.
“At some point, drunk people get fucking annoying,” she says about typical bars. “I also went to [Alcoholics Anonymous] meetings and it was not for me at all. There’s a lot of sanctimony and pretentiousness, and it’s really easy to be ostracized from something that’s meant to be uplifting. The religious side of it was also very hard for me as an atheist and I didn’t feel like I was getting the support I needed. I sought that out in my group of friends who were sober, and wanted to have a semblance of an adult scene where we could meet people without alcohol.”
Siren Farms is also a for-rent space that’s often used for fashion shows, photoshoots, and music videos. Eventually, they plan to start offering classes on plant care like how to propagate in addition to their regular plant pop-up sale at The Congregation.
During this year’s Dirty Show, the space hosted its own erotic art exhibit for artists who weren’t accepted into the bigger spectacle happening downstairs.
At the bar, Donaldson and Osburn are inundated with orders. Drinks are carefully crafted with fresh herbs and fruit as Donaldson puts her culinary skills to work. I order a “Swingers Sing-a-Long” (in part because I like the name) made with lime, pineapple, coriander honey, and tonic. It tastes overbearingly earthy, like a fresh-picked flower thrown in a blender with the roots and dirt still attached.
Every now and then the voguer spins a giant staff around that looks like the ends should be on fire. He takes a knee as he rolls the tall torch over his shoulders and onto his back before it swivels around his neck. A slim man in a fedora swings his poi balls in front of a projector that casts an image of his silhouette in animated waves like a Windows Media Player visualizer. A second poi dancer joins him, then a third — it’s giving warehouse rave.
Donaldson assures me this isn’t the typical vibe.
“It’s usually pretty chill,” she says. “Usually there’s 20 to 30 people in here. Sometimes we have a curated playlist, sometimes we just play records or have a live band. We see a lot of the same people come in. At first, they don’t know each other but it’s interesting to see people start talking about what brought them here for a zero alcohol atmosphere and they end up making friends, exchanging phone numbers, and coming back.”
Donaldson went sober during the pandemic when her drinking, fueled by 20 years in the service industry, spiraled out of control.
“It got to a point where I was lying to my family and I could see it negatively affecting them, so I made the choice to stop,” she says. “The journey has been hard. There’s a huge amount of depression, anxiety, and guilt that comes with years of alcohol abuse. To deal with that, I turned to plants and plant medicine, and I don’t think I would be sober without microdosing to heal myself.”
Donaldson does fundraising for the Michigan Initiative for Community Healing, a group that’s working on a ballot initiative to decriminalize entheogenic plants and substances like psilocybin mushrooms statewide. In 2021, Detroit voters decriminalized entheogenic substances, and in recent years so have Ann Arbor, Ferndale, and Hazel Park.
She adds, “When you stop drinking, people tend to fall to the wayside and you lose friends because it’s hard for them to look in the mirror. I find a lot of my free time is spent outdoors, communing with nature and I don’t feel the need to seek out alcohol anymore. Having this space and being able to hold space for other people fills that need for me.”
As I sit on a bench the Siren Farms crew built out of salvaged materials, a book of Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic catches my eye. It’s on a bookshelf with Lovecraft Country, All Our Yesterdays: A Brief History of Detroit, and a deck of oracle cards that entrances me for the next hour. Somehow reading a book at a bar while people dance to a techno DJ around you doesn’t feel out of place.
The experience inspires me to write this poem on the spot, which I call “Is there a Meetup where all the poi swingers tell each other where to meet up that night?”
Siren Farms isn’t the only spot for a mocktail in metro Detroit, but it’s one of few places that are completely alcohol-free. In case you want to go out with friends who do drink, here are a few other options so you never have to feel left out.
2929 E. Grand Blvd., Detroit; dragonflydetroit.com
Dragonfly has creative mocktails and low-alcohol drinks, plus a killer happy hour where N/A drinks are only $6.
449 E. Milwaukee Ave., Detroit; kieslingdetroit.com
This swanky hangout in Detroit’s Milwaukee Junction neighborhood has a few mocktails, N/A beers, and kombucha on the menu.
Eastern Palace Club
21509 John R Rd., Hazel Park; epchp.com
Tiki vibes abound at this reimagined Hazel Park bar with a Key West theme.
47 Watson St., Detroit; greyghostdetroit.com
Grey Ghost offers a decent selection of mocktails for special occasions or hot dates.
Where all the poi swingers
Tell each other
Where to meet
up that night?
You know, poi
Those little strings with balls that people twirl around at Techno Fest
Whoever's singing on this track (if you can call it singing)
Keeps repeating, “I want your soul”
And I want to give it to her
The poi swingers twirl glowing lights
red, blue, and green as they dance a tango amongst swinger and swung
A girl with hair so green it matches the marijuana plants on her bell bottoms peruses a wall of plants
But the monstera she wants is just out of reach
The woman with the cat ears and spiked backpack
Snaps a pic of the DJ with her head cocked to one side
As if she’s just read the Book of Revelations
and is perplexed by the lines
“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. And he who was seated on the throne said, Behold, I am making all things new”
Where all the poi swingers
Tell each other
Where to meet
up that night?
And, if so, how do I join?
Because they look so happy
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