Cass Avenue runs from West Grand Boulevard all the way south to Congress Street for about 3 miles on Detroit’s West side, specifically 2-3 blocks west of Detroit’s main north/south artery, Woodward Avenue. Cass Avenue bisects the campus of Wayne State University, runs along side the Cultural Center and travels south into the new Sports parking hub for Little Caesar’s Arena and Comerica Park.
From the 1960’s to 1980’s there was a stretch of Cass Ave running from Temple Avenue (site of the Masonic Temple) north up to I-94 (northernmost edge of WSU and the Cultural Center). It became known as the Cass Corridor. Along the strip were bars, street people, low rent houses and apartments. A mix of struggling artists, students and workers began to populate the neighborhood and imbue the scene with drugs, prostitution, academia and grit. The Corridor became a cauldron forging art, activism and survival.
Ron Allen was born and raised on Detroit’s east side but this is the Detroit that Ron Allen returned to after a stint in Vietnam. The Corridor is where Ron dropped anchor and spent over twenty years living in multiple locations, cooking in multiple restaurants and moving in and out of sobriety. Ron eventually found his voice through writing poetry and subsequently writing plays. He became known as the driving force behind the burgeoning poetry scene in the Corridor by co-creating a long running open mike series (Horizons in Poetry) with John Mason and Wardell Montgomery.
Ron found his calling as a sobriety mentor and lived and breathed community. His spiritual journey was eclectic and he was donned a Community Minister at the Unitarian Universalist church at Cass and Forest. He often cooked meals for poets in his apartment and fed folks outdoors in the church yard. Before moving away he studied Buddhism at the Still Point seminary in Detroit and was ordained as a Dharma priest, Ron Bodhidharma Allen, in 2003. He moved to Los Angeles in 2006 and continued to write poetry, plays and connect with the sobriety and Buddhist communities there. Ron passed in 2010 while still in LA.
The Ron Allen Project began with a conversation between me and Donna Vinstra. We were musing about producing one of Ron’s plays after he passed in 2010. Donna and I are just two of the many people who Ron met and interacted with during his years in Detroit’s Cass Corridor. Our first conversation happened in 2015.That led to the idea that perhaps the best way to honor Ron’s memory was to produce a documentary film about his life and work in the Cass Corridor. We sent out a message to others and a number of folks were interested. Our first meetings included Jim Perkinson, Aurora Harris, Tuka Rivers, Gwen Winston, Dan Wiest, Kim Hunter, Andy Vinstra, Sarah Addae, Mary Lanphier, John Jakary, Wardell Montgomery and Willie Williams.
We held many meetings and gathered and collected memorabilia. We have Ron’s books, CDs, scripts, media clippings, magazines, video tapes of past plays, rehearsals , interviews, readings and talk backs. The group included poets, playwrights, friends, Buddhists, Unitarian Universalists, teachers, clergy, mentors and mentees. The decision was made to explore grant sources to fund our venture. In 2015, a Facebook page was set up to retain the archive and was simply named The Ron Allen Project.
We submitted to the Knight Arts Challenge for most years between 2016-2021. Early on, several folks participated in crafting the 150 word pitches. We also searched other grant sources to procure the matching funds that would be required. The group was so hopeful each year; breathlessly waiting each time we submitted. Again and again the project was passed over.
In 2019, Richard Reeves agreed to film interviews for the project. Dr. Cledie Taylor donated her Arts Extended Gallery for the interviews. Richard filmed over 20 interviews of poets, actors, friends and others in the Buddhist and sobriety communities.
In 2020, the Knight Arts Challenge did not occur due to COVID, but returned in 2021. The post-pandemic re-entry presented a make or break moment for the project. Interestingly, I was approached by David Sands, a local journalist who knew Ron Allen back in the day. He interviewed me, Carla Harryman, Sarah Cruse (west coast artist and collaborator) and Jim Perkinson. David published an article in the online magazine, Model D. At that point, I had grown weary of the submission/rejection cycle and was not sure the project would ever come to fruition. On the last day of the 2021 Knight Arts Challenge deadline, in the last hour of the deadline, I resolved to submit one last time. This is the submission that landed the project in the finals:
The Ron Allen Project
One individual who embodied the ethos of the Cass Corridor, nurturing the arts as a form of survival was Ron Allen. Ron strove, “to subvert language to teach and deconstruct social models and create visions of new worlds”. He co-hosted the iconic Horizon’s in Poetry open mike series. His Thick Knot Rhythm Ensemble produced several plays, most notably The Heidelberg Project: Squatting in the Circle of the Elder Mind. He published four books of poetry and two spoken word CD’s. After Vietnam, Ron returned to Detroit to deal with schizophrenia, addiction and diabetes. He worked tirelessly in the sobriety community. He was ordained as a Dharma priest at Still Point seminary. In 2007, he moved to LA and continued to create. Ron passed in 2010. The Ron Allen Project will be a multi-media installation featuring film, music, photographs, recorded interviews and live readings of his work.
Then the hard work of completing the final proposal ensued. A grant team consisting of five people was formed. We have been the most tenacious in recent years in holding the vision of the project. We are Carla Harryman, John Jakary, Jim Perkinson, Richard Reeves and Ruby Woods. Amazingly, we did not have to come up with matching funds and were awarded an additional $10,000 Tech Capacity grant!
Our first task has been to revive Horizons in Poetry in a virtual setting. We now have a youtube page for Horizons in Poetry. A multi-media exhibit will go up at the Hannan Center & Kayrod Gallery in Detroit in the fall of 2023. The exhibit will feature film, music, photographs, recorded interviews and live readings of poetry and/or scenes from Ron Allen’s plays. There will be a space for a Buddhist altar in homage to Ron Bodhidharma Allen.
It is important that the legacy of the residents and artists who survived and thrived along the infamous Cass Corridor be upheld, memorialized and sustained. Progress in the form of gentrification often negates past history with its short sight of making things new without regard to the foundational bedrock of artists who have gone on before. The Ron Allen Project will help fill the gap of lost history of the tremendous creativity which flowed throughout Metro Detroit when there were little to no grant dollars available. This is a crucial time because the wave of monetization in all aspects of American culture allows for mediocrity to rise with the end goal of making money more so than making art.
Ruby Woods 2022