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Marche du Nain Rouge

4444 2nd
Detroit, Michigan 48201

Francis Grunow

By MJ Galbraith 
March 14, 2014

It's an idea that was born over beers, as the greatest ideas so often are. Somewhere in the cold winter months between 2009 and 2010, Francis Grunow took a break from writing a paper for law school and got into a conversation with Joe Uhl, musing on the Mardi Gras festival in New Orleans. Seeing that Detroit and New Orleans are both French cities in origin, Grunow and Uhl started to wonder what a Detroit Mardi Gras would be like. Thus began the modern revival of the Marche du Nain Rouge.

Since its inaugural run in March 2010, the Marche du Nain Rouge has grown more popular by the year. Attendance estimates for the first year hovered around several hundred people. In 2013, attendance figures came in at around 4,000 people. Grunow expects attendance to reach 5,000 in 2014. As attendance grows with every year, it further establishes the parade as a bonafide Detroit tradition.

Aside from a few street names, Detroit's French heritage has been all but forgotten. The festival reintroduces the Nain Rouge, a French mythological character which, as legend has it, appeared in the dreams of Detroit founder Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac and has supposedly been spotted at the scene of nearly every major Detroit disaster since. The devilish red dwarf is a harbinger of doom and Detroiters of yore would “chase” it out of town every year on the Sunday after the spring equinox during a parade when an effigy of the imp was burned. Today's festival-goers similarly chase the devil out of Detroit, and wear costumes that range from head-to-toe red to Detroit-themed costumes like “Detroit Monopoly” to...whatever.

“History is cool,” says Grunow. “It goes back to the whole idea of Story. How do you tell a story about a place and how do you have people feel like they're part of a story and a narrative? You tap into some of this stuff that is older than you, that's deep, human, emotional stuff that doesn't relate to your cultural awareness.”

The parade utilizes a healthy dose of dark humor and what some may call disturbing imagery as part of its message. It doesn't shy away from any of the city's problems and, in fact, makes a point to mention many of them. Revelers march through Midtown to the Masonic Temple, where the impish creature pokes at festival-goers by pointing out everything that's wrong with their city, thereby uniting them and inspiring them to kick the Nain Rouge out of town. And then the party starts.

What Grunow has achieved with the Marche du Nain Rouge is something he's been working towards since returning to his hometown in 2001. The Cass Tech graduate originally returned to film a documentary on the city, eventually going on to help form Detroit Synergy, a networking and community organization in the days before social media that held speaker series, coffee talks, preservation efforts, and conversations about public transit. He was also instrumental in forming Declare Detroit, a more politically active community organization. Grunow has been a part of Detroit community advocacy groups for over ten years now.

“It's interesting when I think back. It's not that long ago but it's kind of getting to be long ago when you think of a decade. It's a different time. Especially in Detroit. We wouldn't be sitting (in this cafe) and a lot of things we see would not be the case,” says Grunow. “Some things are worse. A lot of things are better. I think the issues that we have been struggling with are coming more to the fore and are more in people's faces. And not just in Detroit—Detroit's a microcosm of a lot of bigger issues.”

Most recently, Grunow started the Corridors Alliance. Formed in response to the announced hockey arena planned north of downtown, the group is advocating for a development that benefits the community as a whole and not just the property owners. Corridors Alliance has been working to get developers to agree to a community benefits agreement that ensures fairness for those living in the surrounding neighborhoods.

“If it's going to happen then make it the best possible version of itself that it can be,” says Grunow. “It's not a green field. There's history there. There's people there. There's businesses and institutions there. For as much as has been lost, there still exists a spirit and impetus there that we know better than to just push aside. Because in the long run it'll be better for everybody if that's the case.”

All photos by Doug Coombe. 

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