Archive for July, 2011

By John Q. Horn

Terrance Burney sees in people what they often have a difficult time seeing in themselves: greatness. And, with much success, he is using a somewhat unconventional but popular medium by which to convey the sentiment.

The 28-year-old Lake Orion motivator uses the text-messaging component of his Blackberry mobile phone to thrice weekly send inspirational and motivational missives to everyone on his contacts list. The messages are fewer than 138 characters and are sent out every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

So, some guy is sending out motivational messages to his phone contacts. Big deal, right? It is becoming a significant deal, actually, when one considers that Burney’s contact list includes local and national celebrities, including several current and former Pistons and Lions players, as well as members of their coaching staffs. The Rev. Jesse Jackson pulled him on stage when he was last in Detroit, and Burney has been contacted by the creators of the ABC drama Detroit 1-8-7 for a cameo in an episode next season, where he will portray a motivational speaker.

His phone list contains the names of professional athletes anyone would recognize, right alongside the names of strangers Burney has never met, living in states and other countries Burney has never visited.

His list contains more than 3,000 phone numbers and each one receives a text. A recent one read: “The longer you wait, the longer you go without. When we procrastinate, we just waste our time. Get your GREATNESS.” Come in contact with Burney and you won’t leave without him saying, “I see greatness in you.” Talk may be cheap, but Burney lives and breathes his belief.

“No matter what you are going through, or who you are, I see greatness in you. You really can achieve what you want to achieve,” Burney says.

His life’s work is called The TexTBook. The unique capitalization highlights Burney’s initials: TB. In some phone systems, when a string of Burney’s messages run together, it reads like a book, hence the name. According to Burney, the book is designed to be the first ever read, written and received via text.

Burney calls it “mobile mentoring,” and is using his phone to help uplift anyone willing to read it.

And that would sound incredibly corny if Burney was on your TV screen at three in the morning trying to get you to call an 888 phone number, or if he were trying to rope you into a Ponzi scheme.

But he’s not. Burney works 30 hours a week as a restaurant server. The rest of the time he is working on The TexTBook. He wears the only suit he owns everywhere he goes. He mentions the economic recession this region continues to try to crawl out of and says, “It seems like it has been a recession since I was born.” He shucks and jives financially, and when he does get a couple of bucks he shares. Eight months ago, he was living out of his car.

Burney tells a story of a trip to Dallas for a network marketing convention. The day before he left Texas to head back to Michigan, he was a little light on cash, so a good friend flipped him $50 for the return trip. En route to a convenience store, Burney saw what looked like a small homeless community beneath a freeway. At an additional glance, these guys were actually living in a sewer system below the freeway. Down goes Burney, all 6 feet 9 inches of him, dressed in his only suit. He wants to talk to them and tell them he sees greatness in them. Firm, to the point of being intractable, in his belief of giving 10 percent of his monetary possessions to those less fortunate, after engaging the guys in conversation, Burney ascended to the surface, only to return with five bucks worth of purified water in gallon jugs. Instead of having $50 to get back to Detroit, he has $45. He doesn’t flinch.

He says he sees greatness everywhere. Burney grew up in the Linwood-Puritan area of Detroit’s west side. A kid growing up in that neighborhood sees more than he really should. Burney, however, remains unfazed.

“There is greatness in that area, it’s just not being exploited,” he says.

Tom Gendich is the co-owner of Rochester Media, who is working with Burney to publish a book containing 30 of Burney’s most popular motivational texts. They are currently in the initial draft stage. Gendich says he heard about Burney while having lunch with former Detroit Lions defensive tackle Luther Elliss.

“We were talking about publishing a friend of Luther’s and he said, ‘I need to get you in touch with this guy called The TexTBook,” Gendich says. “Later that day, I called Terrance and we met a few days later.

“He is the same whether he is talking to Jesse Jackson or spending an hour with some homeless guys living down in a sewer. The message is the same regardless of who he is talking to. This guy is not out to make a million dollars. He is not out for self-promotion or running for office. He is literally out to change the world through inspiration.”

Where does the motivator go to seek inspiration? Burney looks to his own mentors, family and the composition of friends working with him on TexTBook, a group he calls “the team.”

Burney is initially reluctant to drop names. After some time, he proudly mentions his brothers Roland and Brandon; his sisters Sabrina and Kelly; his mom, Denise and his father, Ceci; and grandmother, Lelia. He respectfully mentions his 102-year-old great-grandmother who recently passed away.

His TexTBook team is strong. Burney is quick to mention Mike Laperre and Dave Thomas, working in sales and marketing capacities, respectively. Sonja Murphy Gors provides support to the project, as does Burney’s best friend, Marcus Evans. Cousins Rudy and Amyre, he says, are also critical to the TexTBook’s support system. Burney is especially grateful to Facebook followers and everyone else online who has supported his mission. “I see greatness in all of them,” he says.

A quick glance of his phone shows the names of NBA players Chucky Atkins and Kwame Brown. MC Hammer receives text messages from TexTBook. Burney identifies Bill Peterson, a Rochester Hills real estate company owner, who has been a mentor to him.

“Terrance keeps searching for ways to help mentor and inspire people,” Peterson says. Peterson isn’t the only one recognizing Burney’s work:

  • “I believe that as much as possible, we have to find things that inspire us. If the inspiration happens to find you, then that’s great,” — Burney’s aunt and retired iconic Detroit newscaster Amyre Makupson.
  • “It’s like a God-sent message. We all need inspiration and something positive. I am thankful for the TexTBook. I read it whenever it comes to my phone,” — former Detroit Lions tackle Lomas Brown.
  • “The TexTBook provides powerful, clever and uplifting motivational messages to improve our daily performance. I see greatness in Terrance.” — former NBA player Tim McCormick.
  • “I have never had an experience with this type of motivation. It is a great thing. I am on my way back to Germany and I will recommend this to the players to use the TexTBook and to spread the message.” — Wiebke Redlin, high performance sports coach working with Euroleague athletes in Germany.
  • “The TexTBook really inspires me, especially when I really need it on those tough work days in the classroom and on the field. Thinking about my greatness really pulls me through.” — University of Michigan starting nose tackle Mike Martin.
  • “The messages that I receive from The TexTBook are informative, inspiring and very on point, relating to my life.” — Coco, radio host on 97.9-FM WJLB.
  • “Each day, I look forward to the enlightening, encouraging, often oh-so-timely, positive, motivating messages I receive from The TexTBook.”– Durand “Speedy” Walker, a Detroit Pistons coach.

In the short term, Burney will continue to message inspiration to those who want it, and will continue to tell strangers he sees greatness in them. Some inroads are being made with the people at Guinness Book with respect to the record for most text messages sent in both a day and a month.

And it probably won’t be long before Oprah is on the other end of the line, as well.

Published previously by Real Detroit Weekly Magazine. Photo by John Q. Horn



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By John Q. Horn

Nobody has paid the cost to be the boss more than Alan Markovitz.

Markovitz’s ascent into becoming a self-made strip club tycoon has encountered impediments that would have left most men dead, literally. He’s been shot on two separate occasions. In one ill-fated encounter, he was shot in the face; the other, in the chest. He had a Mob contract put on his head, and once lost $1 million to a shady business partner. He has been sued, harassed and once had a furious ex-girlfriend drive her Pontiac Fiero through the front door of a club, trying to use him as its new hood ornament.

On his left, his Eight Mile businesses in the ’80s were the subject of seemingly monthly police raids; on his right, religious leaders trying to shut him down in the name of morality. And yet, he stiff-armed his way through it all, in a rise to the top of the topless dance industry that could be described only as meteoric.

“The difference between a successful adult club and an unsuccessful one is that one is chaos and the other is controlled chaos,” Markovitz says. “You have to be number one now, because it’s a long drop from number one to number two. Number two is a long way down.”

He presently owns the Penthouse Club on Eight Mile, a sprawling, showy den of topless dance and unrivaled hospitality. Its exterior is lit up like Vegas. His fleshy empire also includes The Flight Club in Inkster, in addition to strip clubs in Florida and Philadelphia. At 50 years old, he has no designs on pumping the brakes.

“I always tell people, ‘as long as I love what I’m doing, I will do a first-class job,'” he says. “The day I don’t, I’ll turn it over to someone else and they can send me a check in Florida.”

Markovitz’s book, Topless Prophet, The True Story of America’s Most Successful Gentleman’s Club Entrepreneur, was published October 2009 and chronicles the story of his life, from his Auschwitz-surviving father, to his early inroad in the industry, to being shot by a dancer he had just fired. It’s a fascinating tale of drive, determination, learning on the fly and sustaining a vision of business success. Markovitz told Real Detroit Weekly that Hollywood is also calling. The book has been sold to a Hollywood producer who is in the process of writing a script and working on casting. An episodic cable series — not a reality program; Markovitz has turned down two such proposals — on HBO or Starz is in the embryonic stage.

Randy Greenberg is a Los Angeles-based producer and President/CEO of the Greenberg Group, an entertainment consultant group. He purchased the option on the book and is presently crafting the script with the intent of getting it green-lighted.

“I bought Topless Prophet and was completely mesmerized and fascinated with his life,” Greenberg says.

“I told Alan that I thought his life would make a great pay cable or cable TV series, where he was the straight guy, the moral compass, the father figure, among all of the craziness, both literally and figuratively, that is the topless entertainment business. The project is still in the early stages of development but suffice to say, that if this series does get picked up, there is plenty of events from Alan’s life to fuel the creative of the series for many years to come.”

Foot, meet door

Markovitz’s path started in the very early ’80s in Oak Park. A self-described “greaseball” who once was kicked out of school for riding his motorcycle down the hallway, Markovitz turned 18 when that was Michigan’s then-legal drinking age. He liked the nightlife. It also helped that one of his neighbors, Sol Milan, at that time owned La Chambre, a topless club at Telegraph and I-96.

Markovitz, just out of high school, got a job bartending at the club. Once on the inside, his interest in owning and operating one grew exponentially. He was hooked.

“I loved going to those places and I always wanted to own one,” he says. “I said to Sol, ‘I would really love to get in this business. If I can find a location, would you be interested in going in on it? That’s how the Booby Trap started.

“I found a place that had fallen into disrepair, we picked the place up and it just rocked.”

When Markovitz’s finances dwindled, to keep his share of the club, he sold everything he had, including his prized Triumph motorcycle. His father, a used appliance repairman, reluctantly loaned to his son the rest of the money.

Markovitz would usher in a new approach to operating strip clubs. They would no longer be dank and dive-y. He spent the money to have nice wood and brass appointments, new tile and a spiffy look. The place would be clean, comfortable and secure. In short, business took off, and over the years, Markovitz would open, in order: BT’s in Dearborn, a BT’s in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Tycoons, Trumpps and All-Star (all on Eight Mile); and the Avenue Diner on Woodward.

He would later open The Flight Club in Inkster, 10,000 square feet of topless swank with 300 dancers. And in 2007, he would build his crown jewel, The Penthouse Club, after buying the naming rights from the bankrupt magazine, on Eight Mile. He opened another Penthouse Club in Philadelphia in 2009 and is presently working on a deal to open another club in Hallandale Beach, Fla.

Game changer

While ushering in a commitment to heightened style to strip clubs, Markovitz, almost by accident, saw the advent of the lap dance unfurl inside of the Booby Trap. Disappointed that his favorite dancer had to end her shift, a long-time regular (his nickname was Pac Man) persuaded her to dance on the tiny table in front of him, amid cocktail glasses and napkins.

Before long, dancers were moving from the stage and into the laps of customers.

Markovitz also improved the quality of a club’s menu. He stressed quality ingredients, top cuts of beef and brought in experienced chefs to work the kitchen. All of it, from the dancers’ curves to top-shelf liquor to improved interior design, Markovitz says, is designed with the customer in mind.

Strip clubs provide a decidedly specific type of escapism for visitors. Yes, it’s part voyeurism and erotica. It’s hard not to be when you’re two feet away from a pair of D cups on a 23-year-old blond who has no skin pores. For Markovitz, his calling card in this industry is part of a subtler nuance.

“The business we are in, we have great food and a great environment, but you have to have good-looking girls who are personable,” he says. “The bottom line? You get a guy who works in an office building, he has his cubicle and he’s making a good living. Maybe he has a couple of kids at home. He’s among a hundred guys at his company. He’s just a number there.

“He comes here a couple days of week, has a couple of drinks and it’s like ‘Hey John, how’s it going?’ A girl comes by, we know what he drinks; here’s a Grey Goose. The manager comes up and says hello. He’s appreciated. We feel he’s more than just a customer. We provide a fantasy, yes, but we want to provide to him that we feel he is important. Guy has a rough day; he comes to the Penthouse, has a couple of drinks and chills out. It’s stress management. I need to get some doctors to write prescriptions for this!”

Looking down the barrel

When Markovitz was 26 and running The Booby Trap, he discovered one night that a dancer was performing oral favors on a customer in a back room. He says she was fired on the spot. Hours later, at closing time, she returned and began creating a ruckus in the parking lot. When Markovitz stepped outside, she shot him twice in his chest. One .38-caliber bullet tore through his liver; the other collapsed a lung. He recovered and was back running the club in a matter of months.

In 1997 inside of the Flight Club, Markovitz says a couple of off-duty Inkster cops had become drunk and unruly. Bouncers escorted them outside, where guns were drawn and the carrying-on continued. Again, stepping outside to check on the bouncers who were breaking everything up, Markovitz was shot again, this time by a .40-caliber Glock, and this time in the head. This recovery wasn’t so swift. It took a year before his face was even close to being put back together, thanks to more than a half-dozen surgeries, plastic and otherwise.

A lot of people, if they’re even lucky to be alive, never come back from something like that. The emotional tar pit one finds themselves in is as troubling as the physical trauma. Markovitz says he had to dig deep.

“When you’re down and you have 10 doctors over you and tubes sticking out, it’s a nightmare,” he says. “At first, you want to survive and stay alive. The challenges come mentally when you start feeling better. I should just say that I appreciate the fact that I survived this, but then you get mad and bitter. The challenge is to keep it in check. I’m not maimed, or disfigured.

“What carries me through the day is that, through both shootings, I had a feeling that I was unlucky, yet lucky that I came out alive. Others have been paralyzed, but I’m rocking. Mentally, you’re kind of fucked up for a while, but I looked at it as more of a challenge. The man upstairs, I would think, says ‘I got certain guys down here I want to challenge. I know they’re strong enough to make it.'”

City politics

Amid his accomplishments in the industry, and the adversity and setbacks he has encountered, Markovitz can say he’s done something not a lot of people can say: He’s sipped Hennessey with former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young.

Markovitz said the two had a good relationship, and that he had little problems with police during Young’s administration.

“He once told me, ‘as long as you don’t bring these bars downtown, I’m not going to run you out. Hey, we know these guys in town for conventions aren’t here for the ballet,'” says Markovitz of his conversations with Hizzoner. “He was blunt and to the point. We had no problems.”

Since then, Markovitz says he has made it a point to sit down with each mayor, including Dennis Archer (“he would say one thing and do another”) and Kwame Kilpatrick.

“The city suffered under Kwame,” Markovitz says of the former mayor, who is currently serving a five-year prison term. Laughing, Markovitz says, “He was obviously busy with a lot of other stuff.”

While maintaining relationships with city leaders, he’s also had the morality police trying to shut him down. People are quick to call strip clubs seedy and immoral. Area religious leaders and those interested in rights of women have made it clear that they think his is a business of exploitation. Markovitz says people can think whatever they want.

“If you close 40 titty bars, you put 7,500 to 10,000 people out of work,” he says. “What about the beer distributors, the meat guys? I don’t get it. If you close every adult club, are the security bars going to come off the doors and windows on the homes in the neighborhoods?”

And then there are political games topless dance operators have to play with those in power. It seems that the language in strip club ordinances change from one municipality to the next. While Markovitz doesn’t speak of former city officials accused of shaking down business owners to get permits pulled or to encourage necessary yes-votes from elected officials, he has seen the same processes contradicted time and again.

“In Detroit it took me two years and a court order to get a liquor license transferred,” he says. “We opened a Penthouse in Philadelphia. It took 30 days to get a transfer and we got a letter from the city welcoming us. There was no harassment and no problems with enforcement. I don’t get it.”

Published previously by Real Detroit Weekly Magazine.

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By John Q. Horn

For Detroit Pistons fans and players, the best thing to come out of last season was its end.

Detroit finished with a 27-55 record amid plenty of empty seats at The Palace on game nights. The Pistons quickly, and quietly, dropped out of a lot of people’s conversations long before season’s end.

The hangover of a 55-loss NBA season is tough to cure. A year like that exposed a Pistons team that was weak in pretty much every area — scoring, defense, team chemistry and keeping the right players in the right positions from one game to the next. Coach John Kuester had to Frankenstein together a lineup seemingly every other night.

As they ready for the 2010-11 campaign, Detroit’s players and top brass agree that redemption starts with chemistry and keeping players healthy.

“First and foremost, guys can never control injuries,” says Piston guard Ben Gordon. “One of my main hopes is that everyone stays injury free. You know, I think that was half of the problem right there.

“We have so many talented guys, just staying healthy is a big part of our success. Once we are able to play, I expect our chemistry to pick up and I expect us to be a playoff team this year.”

Gordon’s season last year crystallizes that very concept. Gordon, a dynamic shooter who came to Detroit from Chicago via free agency in 2009, started last season in a furious style. He averaged 24 points per night in the first nine games, including 30 in a loss to Toronto in late November and another 29 points four games later in a win over Washington.

A right ankle injury landed him on the injured list after that scoring frenzy and his production never recuperated. Gordon would miss 11 games with the ankle and, later, another eight with a strained groin. And despite dropping a team- and season-high 39 points against Miami near season’s end, he averaged less than 10 points per game from December through March.

Injuries raided the Pistons’ roster of any chemistry. Guard Rip Hamilton missed 36 games with a sprained right ankle/sore hamstring medley. Forward Tayshaun Prince was lost for 32 games with back problems and a sore left knee. Ben Wallace missed 11 games with bad knees. And already this year, second-round draft pick Terrico White, a fierce dunker, is out with a broken foot. Starting forward Jonas Jerebko is out five months after blowing out his right Achilles. Both had surgery recently.

It’s impossible to establish and sustain cohesion when the core of the team is not playing together consistently.

“With the number of injuries suffered last year, we never really got to see what type of team we had because our coaching staff had to mix and match lineups for a majority of the season,” says Joe Dumars, the team’s president of basketball operations.

“I think this year we’ll have a much better idea of what kind of team we can become if we stay healthy. With that, we give ourselves a chance.”

Dumars improved the team’s chances with a solid NBA draft this year, taking 6’11” center Greg Monroe with the seventh overall pick, and White in the second round. In Monroe, Detroit gets a big man with uncanny passing skill. Dumars also signed veteran free agent guard/forward Tracy McGrady this off-season. McGrady, 31, is a seven-time All-Star but has battled injuries in recent years and is coming off major knee surgery in 2009. The move may or may not pay off.

Still, for Gordon, team health and chemistry will be critical if the Pistons plan on making a ruckus in the Eastern Conference. The Central Division alone will be difficult to navigate. Teams like the Bulls have improved on an already solid nucleus.

“Chicago will be tough,” says Gordon. “They already have a good, young, talented team and they just added Carlos Boozer and Kyle Korver in the off-season. If we are able to stay healthy I think we are going to surprise a lot of teams.”

An off-season of rehabbing has given Gordon some time to drink in his new-ish surroundings.

“Michigan is great, it has great weather,” he says.

You know what else our great state has? Thirteen percent unemployment right now, down from the 20 percent that choked the region and the state last year. A lot of Real Detroit Weekly readers are on tight budgets. With an average ticket somewhere around $30-$35 each, plus $10-$20 to park, what incentive does a fan have to come out after what happened last year?

Dumars says that despite the tough economic times around here, he expects the Pistons to do what’s right on the court. He hopes fans respond.

“Our goal is to put a team on the floor that is hard working, passionate and committed to the core values of our organization,” Dumars says. “We have a number of quality players and people on our team, and I hope our fans will get behind them.”

Gordon, who will make $10.8 million this year, has a message for fans: “We are going to come out and play hard every night,” Gordon says. “People in Detroit, in this blue collar city, going through this time, it’s important that we stick together. We are building toward trying to get back to that championship level. We plan on coming out every night, fighting and scrapping until we get back to the top.”

Fighting and scrapping? Not sure if it gets much more Detroit than that.

Published previously by Real Detroit Weekly Magazine. Photo courtesy of the Detroit Pistons.

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Facing Detroit

Photo Exhibit Captures Beauty In City’s Residents

By John Q. Horn

If Detroit had an actual face, Bruce Giffin would have already taken its picture.

Giffin has been taking photos in Detroit for 25 years. And when you spend that much time in the city, you start to get a clear view of Detroit’s identity.

That very identity is showcased fearlessly in Giffin’s 11/6 photography exhibit, The Face of Detroit, held in conjunction with the group Detroit Exposure. The exhibit of roughly 60 images is held in a collective gallery workspace on Rochester Road in Royal Oak. The Face of Detroit is the space’s first exhibit.

Giffin’s work lately is a compelling series of up-close photographs of various people he has met in Detroit. Some of them are a little rough-looking; others, not so much. But the raw detail that comes from taking a picture a few inches away from the face of a man or woman with decades of hard living carved all over it yields a photographic image with a distinct type of power.

“I was looking for a project shooting people,” Giffin, 62, says. “I love getting people. We all attract the weirdos, I just engage them. I don’t blow them off. I will talk to them. And then, just suddenly, I had this project.”

This all developed more than a year ago, when Giffin was showing an Italian photographer around the city. When Giffin saw someone on the street who looked like a fascinating subject, he’d approach the individual and go from there.

“I hit it hard,” Giffin says of the project’s early days. “I was out every day. I’d just jump out of my truck and approach them. I try to offer them a buck or two. Otherwise, why would they bother letting me take their picture? I always get their names. Sometimes they won’t give it.”

These are strangers who don’t know the photographer, in an environment where the unfamiliar isn’t exactly trusted. Many of Giffin’s photo subjects are of the few remaining people that make up Delray, a well-worn part of Southwest Detroit that seems to defy overall perception of just who makes up Detroit.

The uninitiated could call it “that pocket of the city with the white, backwoods weirdos,” but it’s just another neighborhood in Detroit. And much like too many parts of Detroit, Delray’s landscape is composed of old, tattered buildings and trailers; odd-looking characters with a challenging employability; and a sometimes overwhelming sense of learned helplessness. Giffin sees it differently in his exhibit.

“There is a statement that I make: one-third of these people are homeless, two-thirds are not, and it’s not really important to know which,” Giffin says. “You and I, and everybody, are about an inch away from being homeless ourselves. Sometimes, you can’t stop it.

“It doesn’t really matter if this guy is homeless. Sometimes I don’t even know. Sometimes they surprise me.”

Giffin illustrates an example of a man he saw hanging out in Hart Plaza on Detroit’s riverfront, wearing a suit and handing out business cards. Turns out, the cards were written in pencil with no address or phone, only the words: “AKA Mr. Suitcoat.”

“He’s sitting in Hart Plaza and he looks like a salesman but he’s really homeless,” Giffin says, “and he’s out of his fucking skull.”

Delray, downtown, up Chene Street, along Hamilton Avenue — this is Giffin’s roadmap in the city, streets he doesn’t just drive along, but gets out and walks, talking to people and capturing their images in their most natural environment: the street.

“I can engage people instantly,” Giffin says of the trait that enables him to get close to people. “I have about a minute with them and take about six or eight pictures. I may get the shot. I may not. But I have to engage them and warm them up instantly.”

Detroit is no place for the soft. But its accessibility to the unfamiliar is wide open, and some of the rewards can be magnificent. In his former position as a photography instructor, Giffin would take groups of students through the city on weekends. One Sunday, he would guide a group of eight or 10 community college students through the Michigan Central Station or the empty Fisher Body Plant. Everyone takes photos. For some students, it was their first time in the city, despite growing up less than 30 minutes away from Michigan Avenue or Highland Park.

That lack of curiosity with Detroit speaks to a concern reaching back generations: suburban kids growing up with strict orders from their parents not to cross Eight Mile.

“If you’re afraid to go into the city because you might get murdered, then you’re already dead,” he says. “We all have fears and thoughts about where to park our cars, but you’re not living if you’re not taking any risks. You’re going to Olive Garden and then you’re going home.”

His passion for imagery and respect for the city has yielded a bounty of photographs that will hang on 11/6 at Detroit Exposure. The exhibit’s uniqueness pairs ideally with both the venue and the group behind the space.

Detroit Exposure is a collective of young, local photographers who have pooled their resources to give themselves their own home. There are nine photographers and they split the cost of the Rochester Road studio nine ways, from rent to utilities. And inside, they can create their own work environment. From exhibits to photo shoots to events and workshops, the potential of the space is limited only by the collective’s drive and imagination.

Photographer Philip Southern is a member, as well as a former student of Giffin. He says The Face of Detroit exhibit is emblematic of not only Giffin’s work, but the landscape of the city.

“As long as I’ve known Bruce, he’s been taking pictures of the people of Detroit. He’s a great, charismatic guy,” Southern says. “It’s inspiring to see how Bruce has found really beautiful images in places we don’t perceive to be so beautiful. To see beauty in places not always thought of that way, maybe people will change their perceptions, to see areas they haven’t really gone to before.”

Published previously by Real Detroit Weekly Magazine. Photo courtesy of Bruce Giffin.

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Hardcore Pawn shows America how Detroit does business

By John Q. Horn

The pawn shop.

The very words elicit an array of imagery and preconceived ideas, which include everything from thieves selling the stereo they just boosted from your Jeep to fiends trying to get a few bucks for their momma’s toaster.

Pawn shop-based cable TV programming has taken America into the day-to-day operations of the country’s biggest pawn-brokers. And a Detroit shop is at the forefront of this landscape.

American Jewelry and Loan — at Eight Mile and Greenfield — is the setting of truTV’s show Hardcore Pawn, and is now in its third season. And owner Les Gold and his family say you can forget everything you thought you knew about pawn shops, their customers and the way they do business.

“The pawn shop has become mainstream,” Gold says. “We are an important part of society, not just in Detroit but nationwide.”

Gold’s operation works a couple of different ways. You bring an item for sale, pocket the cash and move on. Or, you can borrow a specific amount of money, using the item as collateral. You come back, repay the loan with interest and retrieve your item.

This process, and the colorful folks involved on both ends, has turned out to make very interesting television. The numbers don’t lie. Hardcore Pawn premiered on truTV in August 2010, scoring the network’s biggest series launch. According to network officials, during its second season, the show averaged 2.2 million viewers, a 23-percent increase over the first season. The current season has also generated the network’s biggest telecast to date and has helped truTV attain its best Tuesday night ever.

“Hardcore Pawn” just started its third season and airs Tuesday nights at 10 p.m.

The show follows the Gold family — Les, along with his son, Seth, and daughter, Ashley — as they operate their 50,000-square-foot shop in northwest Detroit. Les runs the show here, with an iron fist inside of a velvet glove. He’s matter of fact with slicked-back hair, is unafraid of sporting eye-catching jewelry, has a contained intensity to him and drives a hard bargain.

Les is all business; a requisite for this line of work when you have 1,000 people per day coming in to your store, looking to either buy or sell jewelry, tools, electronics and anything else. “In the pawn business, you take in everything,” Les says.

Since 1978, Les has been providing loans and buying/selling merchandise. He has seen it all, including the evolution of the pawn broker’s image in the eyes of society. Gone are the days, says Les, when people came to the shop incognito, with their heads down, not wanting to be seen. With Hardcore Pawn and shows like Pawn Stars, the community’s perception appears to have shifted.

Les took some time to debunk some common stereotypes about his line of work, including:

  • Most of the stuff at the pawn shop is hot: “When you pawn an item, we get positive ID and then fingerprint you. We then forward that to the police department.”
  • Most pawn shop customers are selling their stuff for drug money: “Our customer is not worried about planning their next vacation. Our customer is worried about feeding their family and putting gas in the car to get to work.”
  • Buying from the pawn shop is lower class than a traditional retail store: “A diamond is 3 million years old. If you reset it into something else, it’s a brand-new ring. When you go to the store, you think nobody has worn it before you. Not true.”

In the 30-plus years Les has been doing this, he has seen it all, from people trying to pawn prosthetic limbs, to someone trying to sell to him the skull of an elephant. He has an alligator someone sold to him; several antique swords; two Bentleys (a ’61 and ’65); a tour bus; Camaros; and a coat made out of monkey skin.

“People who need money will pawn anything,” Les says.

And it’s not just a place to take out a loan against your TV or gold watch. The items available for purchase at American Jewelry and Loan range from snow blowers and fur coats to a cello, crystal vases and power tools.

The show became a reality after Zodiak Productions made a short, eight-minute demo tape of the characters and environment of the show in 2008. According to Hardcore Pawn Producer Tony Horn, two pilot episodes were ordered after the demo made the rounds.

“Those aired on the network and did well,” says Horn. “That lead to an order for a larger number of shows. The future of the show looks promising.”

Horn added that different dynamics come together to make Hardcore Pawn work.

“People are more intrigued by other ways people are making money,” Horn says. “There is also the inherent mystery of the object. People watch these shows and they think they know the answer. They want to hang around and see if they’re right.

“Les is a strong character in a fun and intriguing sense, but he’s also an expert. He’s an impressive negotiator who knows the values of things. The family sometimes gets to battling about things, and this is interesting to watch those play out against the backdrop of the business.”

Published previously by Real Detroit Weekly. Photo courtesy of TruTV.

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Jacques Tacos

Executive chef comes home; operates gourmet taco truck

By John Q. Horn

Hot, delicious tacos are a wonderful thing. Not having to walk any farther than the parking lot of your work place to enjoy one is even better.

Wesley Holton makes such toothsome dreams possible for RDW readers. Holton is the owner, operator and chef behind Jacques Tacos, a gourmet taco truck making the rounds in metro Detroit.

Holton uses unconventional main ingredients (by some taco enthusiasts’ standards) to create vibrant, delicious taco-inspired fare for hungry customers.

“The taco is a good vehicle for anything you wanted to create,” he says. “I take a lot of time with my specials and flavor combinations.”

And that patience and creativity is generating some of the best tacos around, truck or no truck. Who else is going to serve you up some fresh tacos with braised short ribs (prepared en daube-style with bacon, orange zest, fennel and coriander)? Or a lamb taco paired with goat cheese mousse, pickled radish and candied pistachios and grapes?

“Most taco meat is random cuts and chopped up; for me, it’s too dry,” he says. “This meat pulls apart and melts in your mouth.”

And for first-time visitors who come to the truck expecting greasy ground beef in a corn shell with some cheap, dry, shredded cheese?

“Just try it,” he says. “Just get one. I’ve had people come up who are leery, get just one, sit in their car and eat it, and then come back and get another.”

Holton’s resume is no joke. A Schoolcraft graduate, he has worked high-end kitchens in New York City, Palm Beach, Fla., and most recently, as executive chef at the Wynn in Las Vegas. He is also Michelin-rated (a rating system recognizing elite chefs worldwide).

An executive chef moving here to operate a taco truck? That sounds a little like Dale Earnhardt Jr. moving to downtown Detroit to become a cabbie. What gives?

“Family,” he says. “I got sick of moving from place to place; seeing nieces and nephews grow up and you’re not a part of the family anymore; talking to all of them on the phone on Christmas while you’re working.”

Via Facebook, Twitter and word of mouth, popularity began to spread, after the mid-summer 2010 launch. Business has remained steady, that is, until the snow started flying.

“In the summer, obviously, more people are out,” Holton says. “I’m optimistic. We had a really good start and I’m looking to spring when the weather lets up a little bit.”

Another short-term goal is to expand evening hours. Presently, the Jacques Taco truck is available in afternoons. Holton is hoping to keep bar crowds nice and full after they’re done with a night on the town. Still, his vision remains long-term.

“I’d like to someday open a restaurant somewhere in the Detroit area,” he says. “This was a prelude to that; to get my foot in the door, make a name for myself and hopefully something takes off.”

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Marche du Nain Rouge

Driving the devil out of Detroit

By John Q. Horn

By John Q. Horn

It’s symbolism at its finest.

The Marche du Nain Rouge — now only in its second year in 2011 — is a colorful, festive parade/march through the Cass Corridor, whereby participants banish the mythical deity believed to be the root of Detroit’s problems.

The “Nain Rouge,” (English translation: red dwarf) is an imaginary-being-come-to-life that, through folklore, is identified as the little devil that has haunted Detroit for more than three centuries. Revelers gather in the Corridor to march down Cass Avenue mid colorful costumes and, this year, hand-crafted chariots, chanting and taunting this red beast, until they arrive in Cass Park, where the effigy is burned and the party begins.

It works this way:

  • Participants meet at Third Street Bar at 1 p.m. on 3/20. An individual dressed as the Nain Rouge will appear in costume and will be playfully chased down the Corridor as the march begins.
  • In a new twist this year, no less than 10 chariots — hand-crafted and non-motorized — created by various community groups, will lead the way, along with the Detroit Marching Band.
  • The Nain will taunt them as they go, until they reach Cass Park at 3 p.m. A quick ceremony will follow, and an effigy of the Nain, long-believed to be the symbol of the negative events that have haunted Detroit for approximately 300 years, will be burned.
  • The Cass Park Festival will begin after that. The same drinking and mirth that started the march at Third Street Bar will continue in the park through 7 p.m. Individuals, families, well-behaved dogs on leashes and those with rich imaginations are welcomed.

Peter Van Dyke is the organizer of the 2011 March. He says they expect close to 1,000 people, up considerably from last year’s inaugural event, where approximately 300 attendees turned out. He looked to community groups when considering the chariots.

“We wanted to get the community involved,” Van Dyke says. “We wanted to have them create chariots that were appropriate for the folkloric atmosphere of the Marche. They can make the chariot any way they want. The only requirement is that it is man-powered.”

The event itself is richly unique. Where else can you find revelers marching down Cass Ave., in full costume and regalia, heading to the park to torch the very effigy that represents the ills that plague the city? For Van Dyke, the Marche is all about what the Nain represents and the crowd’s reaction/response to doing away with what they feel is the little devil on the city’s shoulder.

“The symbolism is rooted in a negative story. The Nain Rouge is the impetus behind Detroit’s most notorious events. It’s taking the most negative parts of Detroit and making it a positive,” Van Dyke says.

Following the ceremony, the festival will include performances by DJ Big Time America, as well as bands Golden and Car Parts. The Detroit Brewing Company will roll out the event’s signature beer, Detroit Dwarf. Food, courtesy of Avalon and Slow’s To Go, will also be available. Other restaurants/community businesses will have special events and discounts. For more information on who is doing what, visit marchedunainrouge.com.

There is no cost to participate in the Marche and festival, but food and beer tickets are $3 each. Two tickets get you a sandwich; one ticket, a beer.

Canton resident Jenna Petroskey was at last year’s event, and plans on attending this year as well.

“I love the quirky, uniquely Detroit nature of the Marche,” she says. “One of the other things I loved about the Marche is the diverse crowd it drew. ”

Story previously published by Real Detroit Weekly Magazine. Photo courtesy of  Peter Van Dyke.

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