Listen along to audio profile.
Near the corner of I-94 and I-75 on Detroit’s eastside, in the middle of an empty grass lot, sits a stage. In the warmer months this stage and the area around it spring to life as part of a regular outdoor music jam called John’s Carpet House.
WDET producer Laura Herberg and Detroit-based photographer Amy Sacka spent the summer there talking to folks and getting a sense of the place.
It’s been a hot summer day and the tiny stage is packed with members of the house band. In front of them, a crowded half-circle of folks in lawn chairs sit under umbrellas, tents and trees.
A man in overalls and a cowboy hat steps up to the microphone and asks, “How do you like the show so far?” The crowd cheers in response. “This is every Sunday we out here,” says the man.
His name is Albert “Big Pete” Barrow. He’s a DJ who manages this event where, right now, the sun is setting, and it’s cooling off, which means it is prime time on the grassy dance floor.
“Who’s your favorite dancer out there right now?” I ask a woman, watching from the sidelines with a drink in her hand. Her name is Martini.
“Mamma!” Martina says without hesitation. “She 80 years old and she be bustin’ it wide open. Look at her… she booty clappin!” Martini watches as the senior citizen rapidly shakes one butt cheek at a time, back and forth.
This longtime community gathering is known as John’s Carpet House. It’s named after John Estes, a drummer who used to live nearby.
“John used to have what we call like an after hour joint or a blind pig. That was back in the 80’s and 90’s,” says Big Pete. “A lot of the musicians, they used to come through there and we’d just sit around, have a few drinks, and we played a lot of blues over there. It was like a little shed… he had the shed covered with carpet. And that was good for the acoustics, you know, for the sound.”
Which is where the name John’s Carpet House comes from. But the house is no longer here.
Many different styles of music are played at this outdoor show. There’s funk, R&B, soul – but it’s mostly known as a blues jam.
Jock Smith is standing on the sidewalk. “As you can see, you don’t see too many young folks down here. It’s all older folks.”
“Why is that? Why does it attract the older folks?” I ask.
“‘Cuz they like the blues,” he says.
“So, why don’t you think more young folks come out? Are they not blues fans?” I ask.
“‘Naw, they into that hip-hop. We into the blues. We old people,” Jock says.
“Is there something about the blues crowd that keeps it mellow? Something about people that are attracted to the blues?” I ask.
“Yeah,” he responds. “They ain’t gonna let no confusion go down around here.”
Over at a folding table I hear utterances like, “Split ‘em like pickled pigs feet!” A group of old friends are playing a card game.
“What game are you playing?” I ask.
“Bid whist. W-H-I-S-T,” responds a 64-year-old fast talker who goes by Larry Outlaw.
“Why’s it called that?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” Larry Outlaw says with a smile. “I wasn’t around that long.”
Across from him sits Arnold Thomas. Arnold, also 64, now lives in Farmington Hills, though he grew up just down the street. This group of friends met here sixteen years ago. They’ve been setting up a table under these trees ever since. Arnold says his brother gets here early to reserve the spot.
“Who brings the tables and the cards, your brother?” I ask.
“No all of us. Everybody brings something,” says Arnold. “Everybody but Larry, he’s too cheap.” The whole group chuckles.
“Too cheap for what?” Larry asks, paying attention now that he heard his name.
“To bring something,” explains Arnold.
“I never bring anything!” Larry quickly agrees.
There are groups like this all over these lots. If they’re not huddled around a card table, it’s a grill or a vehicle. But when you ask how they know each other they usually say, “Family.”
There are also lots of couples here, too. And, of course, singles. Just ask Dianna Irene Lawrence.
“There are plenty of single ones out here y’all,” says Dianna. “They ain’t all taken. I just met one myself, 65, hot senior citizen.
“I just was on my way to the bathroom and here was… bam! He smiling, I’m smiling. [There’s] eye contact. Then I said, ‘Well hey, how are you?’ then I started the problem, you know me, I’m friendly.”
Dianna is tending a grill, cooking some steaks for her girlfriends. And she has some tips for you, in case you’re interested in coming down here.
“So, you gonna need to tell these people to remember you need deep fryers, grills, tents, ‘cuz the sun… and make sure you look decent now… And smell good!” she instructs.
If it sounds like Dianna’s giving you tips on how to get ready for a big back yard party it’s because, in a sense, she is. John Estes, the man who started the Carpet House, died in 2005. Afterward, his house was abandoned. But Big Pete says he and his friends still used to meet there.
“After John passed, we was sitting on the porch and his landlady wanted us to pay rent!” remembers Pete. “The house was rundown, there’s no electricity, there’s no nothing. And I said, ‘I’m not paying you no rent. For what!?’
“She said, ‘Well this is my place.’ I said, ‘Well, no problem.’ We moved across the street.”
With help from friends, Pete started running the show from these empty lots, which he eventually bought. So now the event is a kind of metaphorical back yard to John’s Carpet House. Donations put in a bucket help pay to cut the grass, supply the porta-johns, remove the trash, and pay the house band. Big Pete makes sure these things get done, but it’s a real grassroots effort here.
“What does it say about Detroit? Well, as far as I’m concerned, Detroit is alive and well,” he says, in response to my question. “Now, you can’t listen to all that nonsense that comes in the local newspaper or the news media. Because there’s a lot of good people inside the city of Detroit.”
John’s old house has since burned down and Pete has outlived the friends who helped him move across the street. But the decades old event is at its peak. It’s never before attracted so many people from all around Metro Detroit, even sometimes from other countries.
“What is this event gonna look like, say, a decade from now?” I ask.
“Oh if I’m still—you know what, I’m not no spring chicken now, I’m 73,” says Big Pete. He looks younger. “Ten years from now, shoot, ain’t no telling where we’ll be at or where I’ll be at. I just have to keep my fingers crossed. Hopefully everything turns out alright and I’m still around. And, we’ll see.”
The music jam closed down for the season a few weeks after Labor Day, on account of the cold weather. But Pete says the event will be resurrected again in late spring. He’s received offers on the land, but has no intention of selling it. He wants to continue to provide a space that showcases his hometown.