It would be an understatement to say that Albert "Big Pete" Barrow is into the blues. Barrow, 71, is a lifelong Detroiter living on the northeast side who put in 43 years at General Motors. He's also the owner of the city's most unusual blues venue, John's Carpet House. The "house" in this case is actually an outdoor space, a string of lots on the north side of Frederick between St. Aubin and Dubois, where live blues can draw hundreds of guests, who dance, picnic, and soak up music and sunshine.
Originally, the informal concerts started behind a house adjoining the block, until it burned. Then Barrow and others cleaned up the block, removing trees and rubbish, creating a home for the weekly blues shows. A few years ago, Barrow purchased the lots, and now legally owns the land where the free shows take place.
This summer, however, Barrow has been fighting the city, which has been ticketing him, sending police to his house, and attempting to shut the Carpet House down. We spoke with him about his battle with City Hall.
Metro Times: So what's going on with the Carpet House?
Albert Barrow: You know, we've been having a lot of problems with the city. What's happened is, when we bought that property a few years ago, we were told that we didn't have to have event permits or any of that stuff. Because I own the property. It was like having something in my own back yard. And we've never had any problems out there. Now, this year, the city comes around, within the last two months, and they shut it down for one week. So when I went down to the city-county building, the police said that they didn't shut it down, but they lied. And the City Council asked the appropriate department, "Since he owns that property, does he have to have an event permit?" They said, "No, that's his property." So then they were yelling about that I was selling food and stuff. I'm not selling nothing out there. What is happening is, since the event has grown, you have a lot of vendors popping up everywhere, but they're not on the property I own. They're across the street and everywhere else. They've also said something about, "You've got too much traffic over there. You're blocking the streets." I told the police department, "If somebody's blocking the street, give them a ticket. If they're parked illegally, give them a ticket. If they're doing something out there that they're not supposed to be doing, give them a ticket. That's not my job. I'm only responsible for where I'm at." And we've been going around and around in circles.
MT: So what's going on here?
Barrow: It's a harassment thing. We don't have any problems out there. We clean up behind ourselves. I cut the grass out there. I even cut the grass across the street. I wanna say it's the mayor. We got all the council on our side. We got police officers who come out there and jam with us. Same thing with the fire department. We were told that they were given their orders, and those orders come all the way from [Police Chief James] Craig and the mayor. Every other week they've been sending me tickets in the mail. They said that I didn't have a vendor's permit; I'm not selling any food out there. They said I didn't have an event permit; I'm not having an event — I'm just having something in my own back yard. [It] just so happens I have a big back yard! And then they said something about a noise level; if you look in the area, there ain't nothing over there.
MT: There are two houses on the block. They don't mind?
Barrow: No, the one house on Dubois, he plays with us sometimes. And the other house on Kirby, we cut his grass.
MT: Are you able to pay the musicians who play?
Barrow: Here's the thing about it: Everything is free. And what happens is, we have to cut the grass, the garbage pickup, the maintenance of the place, you got the generators, everything. So what happens is, some of the people, they'll take up a collection. And they divvy it out amongst the people. And they might get $10 or $15. That's it. There's nobody on no salary or nothing over there.
MT: So this is a labor of love for you?
Barrow: If you want to call it that, yeah. The people who come out want to see us keep doing what we're doing. If you look at the average age of the people out there, it's 55 to 86. It's an older crowd. We don't play that hip-hop stuff. We try to keep to the blues. And we advertise, "Keep your bad habits at home, don't bring them over there."
MT: So the police started coming by this summer, right?
Barrow: We open up in May. In July, on a Friday, the police came to my house. And he said, "You can't be doing what you're doing out there." He said, "You're going to have to close this down, man. Otherwise, we gotta ticket you." I said, "First of all, I can't close it down, because all this stuff was pre-planned for the weekend." So he gets on the phone, and he calls his sergeant over at the headquarters, and I explained it to him, and said that first thing Monday morning I was going to go down to City Council and try to resolve it or do whatever I had to do, and he said, "OK, go ahead on." So we didn't have any problems on Sunday. Then ... I went down to City Council on Monday to see about getting this so-called event permit they kept saying I had to have. So I get over there and the clerk said, "You don't need that. Because you own the property." So I said, "Well, good and fine." Then I went before City Council and I told them the exact thing I told you, about me owning the property, and, since they had the police there, the licensing department there, all of that, and they agreed that what I was doing was not illegal, when I left there, I thought everything was resolved. Then, that Friday, I get three tickets in the mail. Then the following Friday, I get three more tickets in the mail. So that's why I've been running back and forth to council trying to get this stuff straightened out.
MT: We've had a number of different events around Detroit get shut down by the city. It seems to be a kind of crackdown on these kinds of unusual events that exist outside official channels.
Barrow: Here's what the deal is: When I have the number of people who come out there, the city officials feel threatened. They're making an assumption that this gives me power. They're not going to have that. And not only that, since I'm not charging anything, you know, and I'm doing it for the public, and it's in a neighborhood where there's nothing there, they don't want to see that, because the word gets around. We're in Rolling Stone, every blues magazine, on television; The Detroit News, two or three weeks ago, gave us a page and a half talking about what we're doing out there, how nice it is. And they don't want to see it happen, period. People aren't going out to Belle Isle, and they're not going to pay all this outrageous parking and everything to go down to concerts over at Chene Park. Same thing with the stuff at Eastern Market. And they feel we're taking their clientele, and they're not getting no money. Now that's what I believe. Because we're bringing them these concerts for free, and I'm talking big-name artists, top-of-the-line musicians, and that atmosphere, the ambience of the place. They're not going to find that anywhere else.
MT: You sound like a man who believes what he says.
Barrow: Well, first of all, the city does not intimidate me. And that's another thing that bothers them. And then I have access to a lot of friends and different groups who've come out there, including attorneys. They know, "Don't push him," because I'll push back.
John's Carpet House can be found on Sundays on the north side of Frederick Street between St. Antoine and Dubois streets, Detroit. — mt