If you’re local to the state of Michigan, you are most likely familiar with Detroit. However, you might not know about a specific area located on the outskirts of downtown. I present to you the Eastern Market, a local hub of vendors, street performers and Detroit residents interacting among one another. This magical place offers a variety of goods ranging from freshly farmed vegetables to intricate hand-made jewelry. Whether you’re interested in supporting small businesses or need a plan for an extremely nerve wracking first date, this neighborhood market will meet all of your needs.
The Eastern Market was introduced to me a few years back when my boyfriend’s family asked if I’d like to wake up at the crack of dawn to come on an adventure of sorts. For some reason I had agreed, although it always escapes me as I am most definitely not a morning person. With that in mind, I managed to roll into their car half asleep, but somehow on time, for us to drive into the city.
I was immediately taken aback by the sights and smells that hit me as I walked onto Russell Street. Pre-COVID-19, crowds milled about on the sidewalks. Some people had already completed their shopping as they had woken up even earlier than I had, a mastery I shall never know, and others were entering the networks of large sheds that housed a wide range of vendors. It was exciting. As someone who’s family had previously only ventured into Detroit for Detroit Tigers baseball games, I was unaware of communities that made up the backbones of the city itself. There were murals painted on the sides of buildings by local artists, sculptures littered about begging to be pondered, and most importantly of all, there were goods made with the utmost care and love, something that seems to have been lost in the average capitalistic lives of Americans.
But what makes this market so special? Allan Love is the owner of Love’s Custard Pies. He explained to me how Eastern Market has played a big role in rebuilding the community after the 2008 financial crisis. “What I love about the Eastern Market is that we’re part of the rebirth of Detroit, which started a few years ago when we came, which was twelve years ago. We’re going on our thirteenth year actually. We’ve seen how the Eastern Market has helped the community, helped health-wise, nutrition-wise and just really helped the people in the community.” Love makes homemade pies selling anything from chicken pot pie to apple cobbler. Freddie Dancy, who sells a variety of flavored butters (including a vegan butter!), echoed Love’s point. “I enjoy the customers that come and see me and in general.”
But the Eastern market isn’t just home to bakers and local craftsmen; it is also a hub for talented street performers. In 2019, while I was out wandering the Eastern Market alone, I noticed a man drumming on the sidewalk. As I drew closer, music began to fill my ears. To my amazement, this street artist was drumming on pots and pans, a sight and sound that was new to me. Inspired by his creative ingenuity, I stopped to ask if I could take photos of him. A smile broke out across his face and he said yes, which was quite literally music to my ears as this was my first time I asked a stranger if I could take their picture.
“Music is a lifestyle, not a hobby”
-Aaron McAfee, Saxophonist
As he played, I couldn’t help but be in awe over the passion his body exerted throughout his performance. Speakers bellowed a song and his arms swiftly began to match the beat. Every so often an enthusiastic chain in style would ring across the corridor. It felt as if this person had some otherworldly sense for musical notes as it was clear everything was being made up on the spot. Eventually, I thanked him and bid farewell to my new friend as I continued with my day and he with his. Unbeknownst to the both of us, one of the pictures I had taken of him that day would end up being entered into the National Portrait Gallery Teen Portrait Competition.
This happenstance led to a frantic Reddit search for anyone who could recognize him from my photo and Googling “Detroit street drummer” over and over again until I finally got a hit. Deon Forrest is his name, and it’s one worth remembering, so take any writable surface (even if it’s your damn hand) and write this man’s name down right now! Eventually, the two of us were able to connect, and I got his permission to use the image in the competition. His photo went on to earn an honorable mention.
Now it’s 2021, and I set out to interview him, not only to offer him my most sincere gratitude, but also to shed light on his talent. Forrest has been performing for around 15 years. He explained to me how he got started as a street performer. “Well, I was homeless and I’ve seen other street performers doing different stuff and I was like ‘What can I do?’ basically that way I don’t have to pan handle and just work for something I’m good at.” Forrest ran away from home as a child. “I had to find a way to survive and to get me out of the streets. I just wanted to drum; it made me happy.” Forrest is the personification of the Detroit mantra “Hustle Harder,” letting his passion drive him to success.
But success can be hard to come by. With this in mind, Forrest sought to set himself apart from other street drummers who rely on buckets to create their music. Forrest began using old pots and pans as his instruments. The choice largely stems from his desire to express himself through his art. “Well, I always been different so I just wanted to be original, something that I was good at that I can perfect.” His performances are deeply personal. His talent escapes the influence of others, charting its own path in the beats of his heart and the hearts of his audiences.
His work to create his own sound eventually paid off. Not only did Forrest have a video of his drumming go viral on Facebook, he also got the opportunity to collaborate with well-known artists like Big Sean. In fact, Forrest is even featured on the cover of Sean’s “Detroit 2” album doing exactly what he loves: drumming. I asked him how it felt to go viral, a trend that many people experience in this new age of social media. “It feels amazing. Just to walk around and go places [where] everyone knows who I am, just to be labeled on Detroit Legend it’s crazy.” But what he said next stayed with me: “I just want to try to stay humble, help my community, help street performers out here get better, help make it easier for street performers to perform.”
“I just want to try to stay humble, help my community, help street performers out here get better, help make it easier for street performers to perform.”
Forrest is proud of his Detroit roots and wants to give back to his community. He is continuing to fulfill his role as a street performer and is currently working on an album spanning multiple musical genres. This is something that Forrest says, “I’m going to take to Heaven with me.” If you would like to experience a live Deon Forrest concert, you can find him around the Eastern Market and Greektown.
Staff Photographer Megan Ocelnik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org