My Metromode story about downtown Farmington playing host to the VegMichigan Free Festival

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Photo by David Lewinski

If you passed by downtown Farmington’s Riley Park on Sunday and spotted white tents, food trucks, and entertainers, you may have done a double-take and thought, “Wait … wasn’t the farmers’ market yesterday?”

It was, but the vibe of Sunday’s all-afternoon VegMichigan Free Festival had the same kind of energy and communal warmth.

With a variety of vegan-friendly vendors, a kids’ activity area, long tables set up under the pavilion (where attendees could sit and sample the vegan food on offer), and live music from Sinjon Smith, the festival drew a pretty big crowd, despite some raindrops.

“(My daughter) and my 10-year-old were mesmerized by (Clark the Juggler), who was quite the entertainer,” Farmington Hills resident Kristin Dwyer says. “They cuddled under the clouds watching, laughing, and talking. My son was even 45 minutes late to a play date because he didn’t want to leave the scene.”

This is the first year that downtown Farmington has played host to the four-year-old event, which previously called Livonia’s Madonna University home. Construction on Madonna’s campus this year necessitated a change of locale for the festival (which used to be scheduled in August and was then called VegMichigan SummerFest).

“We did a search,” says VegMichigan president Tom Progar. “When we looked at Riley Park, we just thought it was the perfect venue.” READ THE REST HERE

My Pulp review of Encore Theatre’s ‘Fun Home’

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Sarah Stevens and Dan Cooney in Encore Theatre’s “Fun Home.” (Photo by Michele Anliker Photography)

When I first read Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir Fun Home — the basis for a Tony Award-winning musical of the same name, now on stage at Dexter’s Encore Theatre — I immediately sent copies of the book out to my three closest girlfriends.

It wasn’t Christmas or anyone’s birthday, but I couldn’t contain myself. Bechdel’s groundbreaking, bracingly candid, and bittersweet chronicle of a family tragedy gripped me so profoundly that my first, undeniable impulse was to share her story with others.

The stage musical adaptation — with music by Jeanine Tesori, and book and lyrics by Michigan’s own Lisa Kron — necessarily pares Bechdel’s tale down to its essentials, but it’s no less poignant while depicting Bechdel’s gleeful, college-age “coming out” and, shortly thereafter, her closeted father’s sudden suicide.

At Encore, Sarah B. Stevens plays the always-on-stage, present-day version of Bechdel, who’s struggling to sketch out and narrate her family’s history. (The “Fun Home” of the title is the nickname Alison and her younger brothers had as kids for the funeral home that has long been the Bechdels’ “family business.”) As she draws, she remembers various moments from her childhood and college days as they play out in front of her, until she finally can’t resist inserting her present-day self into the last late-night drive she ever took with her father (Daniel C. Cooney), urging herself to say something that will alter the course of what’s about to happen.

Fun Home, while moving, poses some significant production challenges for director Vincent J. Cardinal and his Encore team. With an intermission-less run-time of just 90 minutes, the memory-driven musical requires numerous scene changes, given its lightning-quick jumps in time and place. At Encore, some of these changes are more awkward and clunky than others, and one of Alison’s flights of imagination as a child — an escapist, groovy Partridge Family fantasy — felt pretty murky in its transition from the family’s dark reality.

Even so, there are goosebump moments in Encore’s show, particularly surrounding the triumvirate of actresses who play Alison at different ages. Stevens’ reactions to watching her younger self are sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking — and that the actress must do this continuously, while sidelined during much of the show, is no small feat of acting. Plus, her self-flagellating, achingly restrained performance of “Telephone Wire,” in the show’s tensest scene moment, perfectly captures Bechdel’s helplessness in the face of certain, crushing knowledge. READ THE REST HERE

My Metromode feature at downtown Farmington’s Art 101

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(Photo by David Lewinski)

Art 101’s debut in downtown Farmington, in November of 2017, was – well – subtle.

How subtle?

One of Art 101’s classes that fall consistently had a roster of one.

“But Sophie kept that class alive,” co-owner and manager Kim Messing says with a laugh.

Part of the challenge, of course, was the art studio’s peek-a-boo location behind The Rocking Horse (now closed) and next to Neu Kombucha.

But outreach efforts, online marketing, and word-of-mouth soon brought many more kids and teens to Art 101 for (pay as you go) classes, so that now, they occasionally have to turn students away.

“That first year, we had about 80 students a week, and by the second year, we were at over a hundred a week,” says Art 101 co-owner Kevin Messing (who met wife Kim when they were both art students at Wayne State University). “ … We’ve constrained our growth because we’re so big on quality. … There’s no point in growing if the instruction’s not as good.” READ THE REST HERE

My Metromode story about how Farmington’s Dressbarn came to feel like a local business

Screen Shot 2019-08-24 at 8.13.54 PM.pngUsually, when a national chain’s CEO announces that its 650 stores will be shuttered by year’s end, the news doesn’t feel particularly personal.

But then, downtown Farmington’s beloved, high-performing Dressbarn store has – since its late ‘80s launch – come to feel more like a local business than a corporate retailer.

“I remember years ago, my father passed away, and I needed the proper clothes for the funeral before I flew out of town later that day,” wrote Farmington Hills resident Barb McHenry on NextDoor. “I got (to Dressbarn) early and knocked on the door because the store wasn’t open yet. A saleswoman came to the door, and I explained the situation. She let me in and put me in a dressing room. She and the other saleswoman kept bringing me clothes to try on until I had what I needed. I will never forget their kindness that day.”

“It’s definitely a neighborhood store,” says Stephanie Clement, store manager of downtown Farmington’s Dressbarn. “We’re unique because we’ve got this 11,000 square feet corner spot in a strip mall, but it doesn’t feel like a strip mall, because right outside, there’s the farmers market and there are all these other community events happening year-round. I don’t know of any other stores that have this kind of atmosphere. … It’s not like being part of an outlet mall, where there’s this quick turnaround time, and people are only there to shop. Here, people sometimes come in just to say ‘hi,’ because it’s been a while since they’ve come in to see us.” READ THE REST HERE

My Metromode Farmington story about PLUSkateboarding’s summer camps for kids

If the shredders at Riley Skate Park appear shorter than usual lately, it’s because PLUSkateboarding – a downtown Farmington store founded by owner Rob Woelkers in 2003 – runs week-long summer day camps that are so beloved, many kids not only attend year after year but ask to register for multiple weeks in a single season.

“Anytime a kid learns a new trick, and one of their parents comes to pick them up for the day, you’ll hear the kid say, ‘Watch this! Let me show you what I can do now!’” says Randy Smith, who’s worked as a counselor for PLUS’ camp for more than a decade. “I take pride in being part of that. … But on a deeper level, the kids are learning real-life lessons, and they don’t even know it. Lessons like, when you fall down, you get right back up and try again. … For me, that’s the biggest takeaway.”

PLUSkate Camp. (Photo by David Lewinski.)

About 35 to 40 kids, ages 5-15 (and of varying skill levels, including lots of beginners), attend each of the six offered weeks of PLUS’ summer camps. Also, though Riley Skate Park opened just 10 years ago, this is PLUS’ 15th season of camps. (An earlier iteration of the camp happened at Heritage Park.)

Woelkers’ history goes even further back, though, having started – at his former boss’ urging – a skateboarding camp while managing a skate park in Brighton in 2000.

“At first, I was against it, because that’s not really what skateboarding is about – (having) a coach or teacher,” says Woelkers. “Once we started doing it, I realized how fun it was, and it really wasn’t any different than just skating with your friends and encouraging them to push themselves.” READ THE REST HERE

My Metromode story about how urban planning resulted in outdoor dining (and more) in downtown Farmington

These days, when you walk or drive through downtown Farmington in the evening, you’ll often see crowds gathered outdoors to enjoy a meal or drinks together.

You’ll hear conversation and laughter (and occasionally live music); smell the just-prepared food on the tables, and see dog-walking locals stop to hug someone they know.

But downtown Farmington hasn’t always had this inviting, energetic vibe – and it’s no accident that it’s developed over the course of the past decade or so.

“We’ve been talking about this for at least fifteen years – from the time I got involved with the Planning Commission,” says Farmington Mayor (and architect) Steven Schneemann. “ … At that time, there was a real need for a downtown center. There was no big gathering place downtown. … This led to the development [in 2005] of that big area where Sundquist Pavilion and Riley Park is. But there was no street life, either. There was nothing to draw people out.”

Patio life in downtown Farmington. (Photo by David Lewinski)

Back then, John Cowley & Sons’ Irish pub and restaurant was one of the only places you could dine outdoors while in the heart of downtown; and before Farmington’s $3.2 million Grand River Avenue streetscape improvement project – which expanded sidewalks, added crosswalks, benches, bike racks, and landscaping – began in 2009, there was little room for growth.

“The whole thing comes down to how you design it,” says Schneemann. “Before the streetscape project, we just had two big sidewalks of concrete separated by three and a half lanes of traffic,” says Schneemann. “Even if there had been more places where you could sit outside, why would you want to? Now, with the fencing and the landscaping – yes, you’re still just 5 or 6 feet away from the cars going by, but there’s a row of shrubs, and trees, and curbs, so there’s more of a sense of security. It feels more comfortable, like a place where you can really sit and relax.” READ THE REST HERE

My Great Minds Think a Lot blog about UMS President Matthew VanBesien

Screen Shot 2019-08-24 at 8.08.09 PM.pngThis profile is part of Destination Ann Arbor’s Great Minds Think a Lot series, highlighting influential leaders in Washtenaw County who make a positive impact within our community.

Former University Musical Society President Ken Fischer left some pretty enormous shoes to fill when he retired in 2017 – and Matthew VanBesien may be one of the few people in the world whose metaphorical feet were big enough for the job.

For VanBesien – who’d begun his career as an orchestra musician (playing french horn) – served as President of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and then the New York Philharmonic before making the move Ann Arbor; so to say he’s accustomed to a high profile in the performing arts world would be a bit of an understatement.

But in an effort to get to know VanBesien more personally, I recently asked him some questions about his new life in Ann Arbor – which led to some surprising confessions involving workplace polka bands and the nostalgic pull of A&W Root Beer. READ THE REST HERE

My Metromode story about outdoor live music in downtown Farmington

Everything’s coming up live music in downtown Farmington these days.

Yes, throughout the summer, you can head to Farmington’s Sundquist Pavilion for Lunch Beats on Wednesday at noon; Family Fun in Riley Park on select Wednesday evenings at 7 p.m.; and Rhythms in Riley Park nearly every Friday, from 7-9 p.m.

Tom Birchler, who emcees and runs both Lunch Beats (now in its second year) and Rhythms, went from performing in Riley Park – with his band, Paisley Fogg – to taking Rhythms’ reins in 2014.

CHANGES IN RHYTHMS

“The first year I did it, … Riley Park, at that time, was under construction,” said Birchler. “The compass in the middle, the paver paths, the steps leading down into the park – they were in the midst of doing all that construction that summer, so my first year, we were down on Grand River, in the gazebo across from the high-rise senior living space.”

Back then, Birchler only emceed, and bands would bring their own sound system – so the series only sounded as good as each artist’s equipment.

Rhythms in Riley Park. (Photo by David Lewinski)

But Birchler wanted the series to have consistently good production quality, so when it was time to draw up a proposal for the following year, Birchler offered to supply and oversee the sound equipment at each Rhythmz show (which is where you’ll usually spot him every Friday night).

“I just put on another one of my hats,” said Birchler. “My roadie hat, my sound mixer hat. It was nice because I was able to get a better quality of sound every week. … And it was easier for the bands to just show up with their guitars and amps and stuff. It allows them to work cheaper, too. So it’s worked well, and the budget for the talent goes further than it otherwise might.” READ THE REST HERE

My Metromode story about brunch spots in downtown Farmington

Screen Shot 2019-08-24 at 9.34.09 PM.pngThe first in an occasional series on brunch spots in the metro region. We begin in downtown Farmington.

Weekends are for sleeping in (provided you don’t have young children or pets providing unwanted wake-up calls).

They’re for taking the time to recover, awake, arise, and start the day.

So it’s little wonder that brunch has become such a popular dining trend in recent years. As busy as everyone is, a civilized meal with a reasonably late morning start time sounds about as irresistible as a bubbly, refreshing mimosa.

Where can you meet up with friends or family members for brunch (or just late breakfast) in downtown Farmington? This week, Metromode highlights four spots that offer some delicious options for those lazy weekend mornings. READ THE REST HERE