A Eulogy for TasteFest

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The Fourth of July means different things to different people: patriotism, grilled meats, ramparts, dawnzerly light. Whatever future Fourths may hold, I will forever carry a Rosebud-like association with, affinity for and attachment to that rarest of institutions, one that showed us the richness of the past, power of the present and potential for the future: TasteFest.

After 21 years of filling Detroit’s historic New Center with delectable sights, smells and sounds, TasteFest, like little Jackie Paper, did not return last summer — nor will it be back this year. Yet, like a mosquito trapped in amber, the DNA of TasteFest is eerily preserved for posterity on the Internet.

(Facebook hasn’t gotten the memo, so TasteFest is still “a five-day outdoor food and entertainment festival in Detroit’s New Center during the Fourth of July weekend, featuring free live shows from national performers, great food and more. All proceeds from food and beverage sales go toward community development projects in Detroit.”)

New Center’s own site notes, “So long, Comerica Cityfest [a latter-day name change to which I never subscribed] — Hello, New Center Park!” But you can still hear a medley of the ’09 performers — ranging from Mike Posner to Buddy Guy to De La Soul — and see the lineup on each of the four stages.

More important than the trace evidence left online, though, is the indelible impact those two decades of tasting and festing left on West Grand Boulevard. New Center is arguably part of the newly branded “Midtown” area that is currently the source of so much energy and optimism in Detroit; New Center Council and the University Cultural Center Association recently merged into Midtown Detroit Inc.

But, as General Motors and the Fisher brothers intended back in the ’20s, it is very much a city center unto itself. While Saks Fifth Avenue has been gone for a while now and GM ironically moved to the RenCen after pioneering the area north of downtown, there is a new vitality in New Center that certainly owes a debt to TasteFest.

My TasteFest experience may have been a unique one, but I think the festival’s creative, inclusive spirit had a similar effect on many of the half million people who passed through and partook each year. I stumbled upon Tastefest in the midst of a post-collegiate existential crisis when then-Director Randall Fogelman saved me from the mean streets of Bloomfield Township by taking me in as the manager of volunteers.

The three years I spent with TasteFest were notable less for the sweet treats and tunes than for the extraordinary people who gravitated to Grand Boulevard. Video I shot there in ’05 sums up the personality of the event perfectly through the volunteers, carnies, performers and festival-goers from all walks of life who took a moment to help me wish my wife a happy first anniversary.

And perhaps no moment captured TasteFest’s harmony and diversity better than Isaac Hayes’ concert, where half the audience was there to see Shaft and the other to see Chef.

I don’t mourn TasteFest’s passing as much as I celebrate its life and legacy. Over two decades riddled with trials and tribulations, TasteFest laid the groundwork for what is becoming a truly dynamic city neighborhood where people live, work and play all year round. And there’s still music and food. New Center Park (newcenterpark.com), a vibrant, verdant space right on the “Boulevard,” has concerts all summer. More and more, you can come to hear — and contribute to — the rhythmic, everyday music of urban life.

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