Guided: Dally in the Alley

Written by Steve St. Germain

A magical place, this dirty flooded alley is.

A place for longtime friends and neighbors, and for reunions; an environment for new friendships to blossom. On any other day, the space sits as a beat-up cobblestone thoroughfare and parking alley for low-rent student housing at Wayne State University. However on Dally Day—the first Saturday after Labor Day—it is transformed into something far more unique.

A near-religious tradition among Cass Corridor residents and Wayne State alumni and a rite of passage for many other Detroiters, the Dally in the Alley is now heading into its 41st year of operation. Since 1977, the single day event has been organized and promoted (mostly via word of mouth) by a gang of uncanny neighborhood volunteers under the charter of the N.C.C.U. (the North Cass Community Union). Thanks to their hard work, the event remains free for all ages, sponsorship- and advertising-free, and about as non-corporate and grassroots as a festival of 80,000 held in the alleyways of the Cass Corridor can be.

The event remains as grassroots as a festival of 80,000 people held in the alleyways of the Cass Corridor can be...

Beginning at 11 a.m. on September 8th, in an alley bounded between the intersections of Forest & Second and Third & Hancock, the sounds of local and eclectic music will start booming across all corners of North Cass, echoing down the street across the facades of the brick townhouses as crowds begin to march in from all corners. Five stages with over 45 music artists will perform this year throughout the 12-hour event. While the music selection has never about capturing the hottest or most popular acts, it’s about embracing those who have yet to be discovered. I’ve personally discovered many amazing local acts through incredible Dally sets including Tunde Olaniran, Jessica Hernandez, Passalaqua, Daniel Zott, and many others.

Aside from great music I've heard over the years, I’ve also witnessed some truly strange but beautiful moments: marriages and proposals, pop-up parades, dance circles, poetry slams, public readings, performance art, fashion shows, live paintings, and individual displays that all remind me over and over again nothing is ever out of place at Dally. It’s a bit of a come as you are with smiles all around. High above decorative lights, handmade flags, and hand-painted signage, all are stung about the space glowing down and setting the tone for “Night Dally” which occurs after sundown. Expect a cool and calm atmosphere with more people, more partying, more personality, and a bit tougher of a time getting around.

Overall, the Dally serves as a celebration of life, and an event built to highlight a spirit of originality within the most creative neighborhood the city of Detroit has to offer. The festival’s home, North Cass, sits just a stone’s throw away from the Art Center neighborhood and the College for Creative Studies, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the Museum of Contemporary Arts (MOCAD). History is not easily forgotten when past Cass Corridor creatives include educator Gilda Snowden, poster artist Gary Grimshaw, and musicians Rodriguez and Jack White. The Corridor’s now defunct Gold Dollar was home to the White Stripes’ first show.

Attendees can discover nearly 200 local merchandise vendors, selling anything and everything from books and records to handmade jewelry and clothing. Political vendors and local community organizations are no stranger to the festival, either; outside of common citizen canvasing, politicians have also used the event as an opportunity for outreach. In 2013, the now-Mayor of Detroit, Mike Duggan, and his opponent, Benny Napoleon, were both seen wandering the alley hours apart from one another, shaking hands ahead of the vote.

Over the years, apart from putting on the Dally, the non-profit N.C.C.U. has given back through a number of ways: though the funding of music scholarships, providing volunteers and funding to the Fourth Street Farm, supporting neighborhood soup kitchens, and environmental litigation against the Detroit Trash Incinerator. The group continues to act as a political and community organization for the betterment of the North Cass area.

In many ways, the Dally in the Alley serves as a flashback to earlier days, a remembrance and honor to the traditions of the city that came before so many new Detroiters. Be sure to always come with an open mind and you’ll be sure to be delighted with what you find.

Dally in the Alley occurs annually on the Saturday after Labor Day in the alleyways of the Cass Corridor in Detroit.