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Saving Detroit by banishing 'a little red imp'

This past Sunday was the first after the vernal equinox.

That’s the day Detroiters gather to banish a little red imp that’s bedeviled the city for more than 300 years.

In other words, it was time for the fourth annual Marche du Nain Rouge—a Mardi Gras-like celebration that’s about welcoming spring, and battling Detroit’s demons.

A quick history lesson about the Marche du Nain Rouge

Legend has it that Detroit’s founder, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, battled with a red dwarf (in French, “nain rouge”) on the banks of the Detroit River back in 1701, when the city was just a French trading outpost.

The details of this mythical encounter are a little fuzzy. But the basic idea is that the Nain cursed Cadillac, and also Detroit—and has been responsible for the city’s many ill fortunes ever since.

So Detroiters gathered every year on this day to symbolically drive the Nain out of town. They did it in costume because (the story goes) that way the Nain couldn’t come back to seek revenge.

That tradition petered out at some point many years ago, and had been largely forgotten. But it was revived by some serious Detroit history buffs four years ago. Now, it’s part nod to Detroit’s French past, part spring cleansing ritual, and part creative way for people to vent frustrations with Detroit’s grim conditions--but also hope for better times.

A moment to celebrate in a hard hit city

It’s also an excuse for people to dress up in costumes, play music, have a few drinks, and just have fun in the streets of midtown Detroit. It brings out a side of the city—and its people—that you don’t see on a daily basis.

“What are you dressed as?” I asked Yvette Newell, who wore a red velvet cape, devil horns, and lots of beads and jangles.

“Yvette Newell,” Newell  answered. Then she laughed. “No seriously, we’re local belly dancers.

“This is good, I like this. It feels like New Orleans down here. It’s good to see good things happen around here every once in awhile.”

Heather Miller was disguised behind a homemade mask featuring disgraced—and now imprisoned--former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s face.

“This comes from an old Kwame poster that said ‘Moving Detroit forward,’ that was mailed to our house during his first term,” Miller said. “And I thought it’d be funny to photocopy it, and put little red horns.”

Another person, wearing a sandwich board made up to look like Detroit bus, told me his costume mourned the loss of night bus service.

"I'm the ghost of the night bus service that was cut, and I'm coming back to haunt the Nain Rouge who cut my service." - 'The Ghost Bus'

“I’m the ghost of the night bus service that was cut, and I’m coming back to haunt the Nain Rouge who cut my service,” the Ghost Bus told me, his voice muffled by a mask.

So, yeah. Things in Detroit have been pretty terrible lately. The Nain Rouge is winning.  And he knows it.

“I’m back, losers!” the Nain shouted at revelers gathered before the march.  "Look at you jokers here, gathered to get rid of me. There’s never enough goodwill in this town.”

As the marche wound its way through the streets, the Nain’s disembodied voice kept taunting the revelers, claiming responsibility for many of Detroit’s daily frustrations:

“I keep the streetlights on during the day, and burn them out at night,”

“I raised your water rates.”

“I extended parking meter hours until 10 pm.”

The marche ends with a ritual banishment

In the old days, that meant burning the Nain in effigy or throwing him into the Detroit River.

That custom is toned down a bit these days. Everyone gathered outside Detroit’s Masonic Temple, where local TV host Devin Scillian plays the role of Nain-defeater.

This year, one running joke was that the Nain was trying to become the city’s emergency manager (oddly enough, Detroit’s real emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, officially starts his new job Monday).  A giant “Nain Rouge for emergency manager” banner was unfurled.

“Last year, you stood at this very spot, and announced your candidacy for emergency manager,” Scillian told a masked Nain. “Nice campaign you ran. That didn’t work out. What exactly are you telling us you’re doing this year?”

“I wasn’t running for EFM last year, Devin,” the Nain retorted. “I announced I was managing your emergency into the biggest catastrophe possible!”

"I am the bogeyman you are all afraid of. Your government has collapsed, your democracy is in ruins, the Tigers lost hard... About the only thing you can count on in this town is getting a parking ticket." - The Nain Rouge

As the crowd booed hardily, the Nain went on: “I am the bogeyman you are all afraid of. Your government has collapsed, your democracy is in ruins, the Tigers lost hard… About the only thing you can count on in this town is getting a parking ticket.

“After 300 years, there’s only one thing left for me to do... I’m going on vacation! Sayonara, suckers!”

But Scillian told the Nain he couldn’t quit--he was being fired.

“We don’t stay in the ashes in Detroit, we rise from the ashes,” Scillian said as the crowd cheered. “In 2013, this will be the year that Detroit goes from hoping for better things, to making better things happen.

“To quote the famous John Blutarsky in Animal House…nothing is over ‘til we say it is!”

And that was that. Everyone went their separate ways, after a rare afternoon of festivity and fun in Detroit.

Afterward, I asked Nain-goer Josh Diskin why he still believes in a city that so many have fled.

Diskin thought for a moment, then said: “I’m from here. I kind of feel like the rest of the people who came from here, who aren’t here right now, are in the diaspora. The rest of us are building it for them to come back.”

Will people start coming back? Will Detroit avert total catastrophe and really stop its downward slide? Will the Nain return to keep up the havoc he’s wreaked for over 300 years?

You might want to check back on that the first Sunday after the vernal equinox, 2014.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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