The story of Detroit’s “Nain Rouge”

Nain-nain nainnainnain! My city’s demonic harbinger of doom can beat up your city’s demonic harbinger of doom!

What? Your city doesn’t have one?

Well, it kinda figures that Detroit does.

The Nain Rouge (French for “Red Dwarf”—but not that Red Dwarf) has become a sort of mascot for the city…a pet, even. But when Detroit’s first white settlers plunked down their little fort, church, and ribbon farms with the highest of hopes, the “Demon of the Strait” was a fright to them.

As far as we know from the lore, the first Frenchie to encounter him was Detroit’s megalomaniac founder, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac (mentioned in a previous post). On his way to Detroit, ol’ Antoine attended a party in St. Louis, Québec. A mysterious fortune-teller, mistaking this history for a fairy-tale, showed up uninvited and proceeded to tell people’s fortunes. When she got to Cadillac, she rightly guessed that he was on his way to found a city. According to the legend, anyway, she foresaw both the Battle of Bloody Run (Chief Pontiac’s attack in 1763), the War of 1812, and the fact that Detroit would eventually become U.S.: “In years to come, your colony will be the scene of strife and bloodshed, the Indians will be treacherous, the hated English will struggle for its possession, but under a new flag it will reach a height of prosperity which you never in your wildest dreams pictured.”

Her vision, apparently, only went so far as, oh, let’s say 1883, when the book that quotation comes from was published. But that’s not bad, considering this exchange happened in 1701. Cadillac pressed her for personal information: would he leave a large inheritance to his children? As every good fairy-tale hag has ever done, she offered him some foreboding advice: Should he encounter a fuzzy little demon with beady red eyes and terrible breath, he should avoid poking it with a stick. (OK, she just said not to offend the Nain Rouge. Apparently, he didn’t ask, “the what?!?”) Should he offend the creature, he would lose his fortune and reputation, and die penniless. Or sou-less, or centime-less, or whatever currency the French were using in Canada at the time. Cadillac, like every decent tragic hero ever, found this advice entertaining. The prosperity bit he could understand, but this demon talk was hilarious—er, amusant. He amused his wife with a retelling of it later, since she wasn’t at the party. But as downfall legends go, a spouse has to be let in on the secret.

So Cadillac went on to found Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit on the northern bank of the strait between lakes Erie and Huron. One lovely evening, he was out for a stroll with the woman who had been foolish enough to marry him, when a hideous creature appeared in their path. Non, Kwame Kilpatrick wouldn’t arrive for another 300 years, give or take. This was the dreaded Nain Rouge! Standing only a few feet tall, covered in reddish black fur, with glowing red eyes and rotted teeth, it was enough to make Mme. Cadillac gasp and remind her husband not to do anything stupid. At this point in their marriage, sans doute, he did not actually need to impress her, and even if he did, ignoring her advice was likely to have the opposite effect. So for no reason evolutionary psychology could have predicted, M. Cadillac struck the creature with his walking stick, laughing at it and telling it to go away. Which, apparently it did. To scheme perhaps. In the end, Cadillac did lose his reputation and died penniless, with nothing to leave to his would-have-been heirs. But something tells me that might have happened anyway.

CompatriotsThere’s no physical resemblance at all,
but they do have the same effect on Detroit.

And no one’s ever seen them together in a room.
Just sayin’.

The thing is, it’s unclear whether the Nain Rouge causes misfortune or simply turns up to (a) warn about it, or (b) revel in it. A few more sighting stories will illustrate that ambiguity.

Detroit’s first First Couple weren’t the only ones to see the Nain Rouge in those early days. One farmer claimed to have seen him on the roof of his barn, frightening the horses. Impish behavior, oui. But quite unworthy of a harbinger of doom, non?

But as time went on, the Nain Rouge found Detroit to be an excellent location for indulging in whatever his hobby was. In 1763, he was spotted the day before the Battle of the Bloody Run. In 1805, the city burned, and the Nain Rouge was seen dancing in the flames (although other reports say he was simply out for a stroll in the city the day before the fire). During the War of 1812, Gen. William Hull claimed that the Nain Rouge was grinning at him as he surrendered the city to the British in 1813.

William_HullGen. Hull was later executed for military incompetence.
(Who surrenders to the British? Geez.)

In the 20th century, the Nain Rouge made an appearance just before the ’67 Uprising, during which much of the city burned again. (Somehow he seems to have missed the ’43 riots—or no one noticed him, poor fellow.) In 1976, he was spotted by two utility workers who were eating their lunch in their truck. Seeing what they thought was a child near the top of a nearby utility pole, they ran out of the truck and called for the child to come down. He leaped from the very top of the pole to the ground and ran away. Presumably at some point they were able to see that it was, in fact, the Nain Rouge and not some kid we should’ve been sending to the Olympics. The next day there was a severe ice storm. Bad, but hardly worth a Nain Rouge sighting. It’s Michigan, after all. We get ice storms. Nearly every winter.

Later “sightings” are completely dubious (assuming earlier sightings aren’t). In recent decades, one couple claimed they saw the Nain Rouge trying to break into a car downtown one night. The couple were, at the time, leaving a bar. He was supposedly seen by some Wings fans leaving Lafayette Coney in the wee hours of the morning, yelling “Awooo!” and smelling particularly foul. The Wings fans tossed him some change and left, only making the (improbable) connection later. Another person claimed to have seen him outside Dutch Girl Donuts muttering something like “cruller” under his breath. He’s also been reported trying to volunteer for “Angel’s Night” (better known as Devil’s Night), busking at Eastern Market, and one local claimed it was the Nain Rouge who went around tagging TRTL in the ’00s.

He’s up to no good, that’s for sure.

These days, the Nain Rouge is better known as the unwelcome guest of dishonor at the annual Marche du Nain Rouge, a huge party celebrating Detroit’s history and possibilities.

So what is this thing, this Nain Rouge? A demon, a cryptid, a figment of imagination?

In older texts, he’s been linked to a mythical creature from Normandy (where Detroit’s first settlers also came from), the lutin. Remember the story of the farmer’s frightened horses? That sort of impish behavior is typical of a lutin, but the lutin also tended to be helpful to French farmers, doing silly but apparently useful things like stirring their food to make it taste better or pinching their children’s toes when they misbehaved. They also braided people’s hair and horses’ manes. The Nain Rouge seems hardly like a lutin to me, although it could be a category French immigrants from Normandy might have used to interpret or recount strange experiences.

Also, according to that Wikipedia page, they abhor salt, and Detroit is located atop extensive salt mines.

Being Catholic, they also might have used the category of demon, especially when (a) dealing with what seemed an evil presence, or (b) trying to evangelize (or “evangelize”) the locals—the Native Americans, mostly Wyandot and Huron in Detroit at the time. Old stories even claim that the Native Americans warned their new friends to beware of the “demon of the strait.” It seems unlikely the Hurons or Wyandots would have used the word “demon” (or “démon“), unless perhaps they were speaking in French and it was the only French equivalent they could find for whatever it was they were trying to describe. Some have proposed that, at least in the Native Americans’ eyes, anything like the Nain Rouge would be a land spirit, and his appearances before tragic events should be appreciated as friendly warnings.

I’m inclined to believe that the Nain Rouge is a melding of these myths, perhaps reflecting the collision of different cultures in the area. I would love, some day, to do the kind of cultural analysis of this that my late academic advisor, Alex García-Rivera, did in his book on St. Martín de Porres. (Seriously, read that book.) At any rate, it has been suggested that the Nain Rouge was a manifestation of racism against the “Red Man,” or Native Americans. The recent “sightings” in which the supposed nain was seen busking, breaking into a car, or mumbling by a Dutch Girl could reinforce that theory—the racism being transferred to African Americans and the homeless poor. It’s hard to tell from anonymous email accounts (see the link to Model D below to read them).

Detroit is not defenseless against its demon, however. Historically, the Nain Rouge was seen being chased by the spirit of early Detroit resident Pierre Livernois, a.k.a. the “Spirit of Detroit.” The statue known as the “Spirit of Detroit,” located in front of the Coleman A. Young Municipal Building (a.k.a. city hall), was never actually named, but, given his popular name, can be identified with Livernois, shining the light of God on a family (meant to represent all human relations). Maybe the Nain Rouge is now warded off by this statue. It was dedicated in 1958, but there wasn’t email back then, and Detroit is rather large; it could be the nain didn’t stumble upon it till much later, when, let’s say, he was so scared he ran up a utility pole.

When Livernois isn’t busy chasing the Red Dwarf, he enjoys rooting for the local sports teams:

Seems the Nain Rouge has gotten the upper hand in the Stanley Cup playoffs the past few years…

Read more about the Nain Rouge:

http://www.modeldmedia.com/features/seeingred.aspx

http://www.michigansotherside.com/articles/TheNainRouge.htm

http://archive.org/details/legendsofledtr00hamluoft

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nain_Rouge

A story of Detroit as told by its street maps.

 Satellite view of Detroit and Windsor, showing Lake Erie (bottom) and Lake St. Clair
Detroit’s street map has often been described as a palimpsest. I’ve called it the broken hub of a wheel dumped beside the river (which isn’t really a river; it’s a strait), but my metaphor actually leaves out most of the streets. How the map came to look as it does today is a story of…well, palimpsest, really: the occasional plan, destruction, expediency, and economic interests. (Neglect and decay affect the look of the map on Google Street View, but so far don’t seem to play a huge role in altering the map itself.)
 
Detroit lies on the northern side of the Detroit River, a strait (in French, un détroit) running between Lake Erie (a Great Lake) and Lake St. Clair (a Still-Decent Lake). It’s the only city in the US where you head south to get to Canada. That means that Canada is beneath us. On a map, anyway.
Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit was founded in 1701 by a rather colorful character, Antoine Laumet de la Mothe Cadillac, whose achievements also include (in no particular order) inventing a fake noble lineage (the “de la Mothe Cadillac part)—complete with a fake family crest, a simplification of which you can see today on the Cadillac next to you in the parking lot; losing his entire fortune (reputedly by ignoring a fortune teller’s admonition to not do anything foolish like poke the Nain Rouge with a stick); and moving to Detroit’s younger, more popular sister, New Orleans. Couldn’t stay put, that Antoine. Physical and social mobility, and reinventing yourself were things you could do quite easily in the “New World” where no one knew you. They became popular hobbies in Detroit, where people came for opportunity and left when it dried up, often reinventing themselves in the process.
 
 A statue of Cadillac in Hart Plaza. On the right, he stakes his claim on a Lexus.
I took these photos in 2008, I’m not too proud to admit..
 
The city’s original white settlers brought with them from their native Normandy a method of divvying up land. That method was to lay out “ribbon farms”: very thin, long strips of land that gave each farmer his own access to the river. The oldest roads in Detroit mostly reflect the locations of the ribbon farms and/or are named for their owners. That’s why so many of Detroit’s streets have funny French spellings, despite no one pronouncing them in French anymore.
 
Ribbon farms: Notice they did the same thing on the other side of the river, too.

 

Fast forward about a century, and in 1805, Detroit stakes its claim as a city by doing what all cities do at some point in their history: burning to the ground. (Just ask Chicago. Or San Francisco. Or London. It’s a cliché, really.) Two major Detroit tropes occur with that fire: (1) the Nain Rouge is seen dancing in the flames, the bastard; and (2) Father Gabriel Richard, co-founder of the Catholepistemiad (later sensibly re-named the University of Michigan) and priest at Ste. Anne de Détroit Church, said something along the lines of “Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus,” which, being translated, means, “We hope for better; it will rise from the ashes.” Whatever language he actually said or wrote it in, it was such a great line it was eventually made into the city’s motto, and has been kept ever-relevant by generation after generation of Detroit pyromaniacs (the bastards).
 
Detroit city flag, incorporating the motto and the 1805 fire, as well as the three national flags that have flown over the city.
 
In 1806, Chief Justice of the Michigan Territory Augustus Woodward produced a plan for rebuilding the city. He laid out broad avenues in interlocking hexagonal patterns with parks or plazas at the intersection points. The plan was supposed to have been expandable with the city’s future growth: just add more hexagons! (W. Hawkins Ferry calls the plan so French in its geometric precision.”) Woodward’s plan inscribed a new pattern over the surviving traces of the old ribbon farms. Residents hated it at the time, because they no longer recognized their hometown.
 
The Woodward Plan. Grand Circus Park makes more sense now, doesn’t it?
 
Someone drew up this image of what the interlocking hexagons would have looked like,
had Woodward’s plan been expanded.
 
Woodward’s plan was never expanded, though, despite the city’s growth. Through the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution was taking place throughout the U.S., and Detroit was no exception. Thanks to its location in the Great Lakes system, Detroit became known for ship building, making stoves, and doing all manner of things that involved bending or shaping metal. (That eventually proved useful when the automobile came along.) As the city expanded, thanks to industry, it did so according to the demands of economic interests. Detroit was not alone in this. There was a growing sense throughout the U.S. that its booming industrial cities were dirty and unpleasant, organized as they were around industry rather than civic life. In Detroit, for example, the river front was crowded with shipping yards, with no public recreational access to the river.
 
 
In the 19th century, most U.S. architects trained only by apprenticeship. The few that did pursue academic study had to go to Europe to do so. Even then, most of them didn’t bother to finish their programs; a diploma was simply not necessary to their practice back home.  The fashionable place to study was the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, which urged a return to classical architecture, and other things you can read about on Wikipedia.
 
But something happened at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The fair’s Director of Works Daniel H. Burnham saw an opportunity to showcase his ideas about making Chicago the sort of place people might want to live in, so that the Midwest’s nouveau-riche might settle there (i.e., spend their money there) rather than just pass through on business trips. So he assembled a team of artists, architects, and landscape artists and had them apply the Beaux-Arts aesthetic and ideals to the fair’s site on Chicago’s lakefront. With this project, Chicago’s lakefront was beautified and reclaimed, Chicago’s reputation for its architecture began, and the City Beautiful movement spread like a cliché through the nation (but one that renewed rather than destroying cities).
 
The Beaux-Arts style prefers to give its buildings and statues a great deal of “look space.”
 
Today you can drive (or ride a train) from Chicago to Detroit in about 5 hours. Apparently it took the City Beautiful movement nearly two decades to make the trip around the turn of the 20th century. In 1910, Detroit’s mayor, Philip Breitmeyer, founded a City Plan Commission, which immediately set about bringing Daniel H. Burnham and his similarly-middle-initialed associate, Edward H. Bennett, to Detroit to do some much-neglected city planning. Nothing much had been done since the Woodward plan (which was designed for a population of 50,000; Detroit had reached 700,000 by the time of the Burnham and Bennett plan) other than Michigan Governor Lewis Cass’ 1830 development of old “Indian trails” into military roads radiating out, outstate even, from the city’s center: Fort Street, Michigan Avenue, Grand River Avenue, Woodward Avenue, and Gratiot Avenue. (Poor Fort Street, only a street…) 
 
 I can’t find any images of the Burnham street plan, so instead, enjoy this photo of Daniel Burnham, left, and Lewis Cass, right. Burnham’s eyes look so sincere, but surely he’s hiding something under that moustache. Cass is either reaching for his wallet or having chest pains.
 

The Burnham plan, completed in 1915, emphasized parks and public spaces, much as Woodward’s had done. Detroit’s Cultural Center, which boasts the Detroit Institute of Arts, Wayne State University, the Detroit Historical Museum, the Charles H. Wright African American Museum, the main branch of the Public Library, and the Detroit Science Center (and the Cathedral Church of St. Paul) is credited to the Burnham plan. Not much of his plan actually was implemented, though. For example, Burnham planned two major avenues radiating river-ward from the Cultural Center: one leading to Belle Isle, and the other to the then-new Michigan Central Station (completed in 1913, abandoned in 1988, and currently being stabilized, finally). 
 

 
 I took this photo in October, 2012.
 
By the early 20th century, Detroit had an extensive and efficient streetcar (trolley) system—at its peak, in some locations, streetcars arrived every sixty seconds! But with the popularity of the automobile and the even greater popularity of moving to the suburbs, the streetcar system fell into disuse and was closed in 1956. It is rumored the streetcars still operate in Mexico City, which purchased them from Detroit. (No, San Francisco, which has the hobby of collecting other cities’ steetcars, doesn’t have them.)
 
 >sigh<
 
Also with the rise of the auto industry, the need for efficient freight transit into, out of, and across the city led to freeway building. As with many other projects, from the Michigan Central Station to general “slum-clearing” (read: corralling non-white people and poor white people to less desirable locations), the freeways saw the city exercise “eminent domain,” condemning buildings and displacing many people from their homes, and disrupting or effacing historic neighborhoods.  I-75 famously had to go right where Paradise Valley, the Black cultural center of the city, was, destroying world-famous jazz and blues clubs among other important sites. Corktown, Detroit’s oldest neighborhood, was widely razed for the Michigan Central Station and its Beaux-Arts requisite of a really big park in front of it to set it off. Freeways also disrupted Corktown and neighboring Mexicantown, the latter of which has also had to put up with the Ambassador Bridge dumping ¼ of the commercial traffic between the U.S. and Canada right into its residential areas. But thankfully, both neighborhoods are seeing renewal in recent years.
Children enjoying the fountain by the Ren Cen on the Riverfront on a hot and muggy summer day, 2008.
So, as with any city, the street map will continue to change, as will the landmarks and features on that map. Happily, in recent years, the riverfront has been transformed into delightful public space, where children play in fountains or ride the carousel, and people of all ages bike, walk, take lunch breaks, just hang out, or even fish in the Detroit River. All while looking down on Canada.

 

We’re watching you, Windsor.

(Actually, I have nothing at all against Canada. Vive la Windsor!)



  
 


Sources for this post include:
  • Having lived in Detroit
  • Ferry, W. Hawkins. The Buildings of Detroit: A History.Revised ed. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1968; 1980.
  • Historic Detroit
  • Herron, Jerry. AfterCulture: Detroit and the Humiliation of History. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993. 
  • Sugrue, Thomas J. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.
  • and various websites, newspaper articles, and other sources absorbed over the years – especially regarding the city’s early history.
  • Ferry, Hawkins. The Buildings of Detroit: A History. Revised ed. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1968; 1980.
I’ve linked to wikipedia often here for convenience. The interested reader is welcome to google other sources.