by Jessica Carreras
Jon Witz knows a thing or two about discrimination: The Arts, Beats & Eats festival producer says he dealt with unnecessary negative stigma for years when his festival was held in Pontiac. Now that it will take place in Royal Oak for the first time ever Sept. 3-6, Witz intends to make sure that everyone feels welcome – including the LGBT community, which is expected to be involved in the annual Labor Day festival like never before.
No one quite knows what to expect when ABE takes over Royal Oak's Washington Street. Will it draw larger crowds? Gun-toters? More teenagers? Less Detroiters? Much remains to be seen, but local LGBT community members, businesses and nonprofits know one thing: they want in on the action.
"When we first heard about Arts, Beats & Eats moving to Royal Oak, we knew about the opportunities for charities to be involved as a beverage booth participant," says Carrie Copeland, special events manager for Affirmations. The Ferndale-based LGBT community center will be raising funds at a beverage booth along with 20 or so other nonprofits. Adds Copeland: "(The location) was definitely a motivator for us to get involved."
But more than just through Affirmations, Copeland is excited to attend as a member of the gay community – and she believes many other people will be, too.
"I definitely think the fact that Royal Oak is known as being a very gay-friendly city is probably one reason why so many LGBT people are really excited about participating this year as opposed to previous years," she says. "I see the LGBT community becoming a lot more integrated and confirmed within the larger community, and I think Arts, Beats & Eats is probably just going to be another representation of that."
Witz hopes so, and stresses that though the festival will now be held in the heart of LGBT life, it has always been welcoming and diverse.
"Even in Pontiac, (Arts, Beats & Eats) has been inclusive, just in its diverse offerings," Witz maintains. "I think we really have an eclectic event with many music forms presented, many art forms presented, and I certainly would call the gay and lesbian community on the cultural side of life. I think we've always been that way."
But now, Royal Oak natives are ready to embrace it as their own, including gay business owners. Five15 Media Mojo & More, which sits right in the middle of the ABE action, will be hosting NYC performer Gerry Visco on Sept. 3 to coincide with the festival. Steppin' Out, which hosts AIDS Walk Detroit every September at the Royal Oak Farmers Market, will also be hosting a beverage booth to raise funds to distribute to local HIV/AIDS organizations.
Pronto! proprietor Bill Thomas, who serves double-duty as board president of Steppin' Out, is especially excited that his restaurant and store are smack-dab in the middle of the festival, providing diners with a prime location for people-watching from the patio.
"What's so wonderful is that it gives our community an opportunity … to watch everything right at our windows," Thomas gushes. "Once you're in, we have a front patio, we have a back deck, we have ample seating for people – I think it will just give a bird's eye view of everything that's happening."
And, Thomas teases, Pronto! will sit right in back of a display of never-before-seen cars from lead ABE sponsor Ford Motor Company – including the new all-green Explorer.
"We're honored that Ford picked us and that our building looks so bright and festive with all the colors and ferns and everything," Thomas says with a laugh. "It's exciting for us and it's very exciting for our community."
Even though, Witz insists, the festival didn't gay it up to accommodate queer tastes. And why would he need to? The target ABE audience, after all, has always been diverse. Thus, this year's additions are aimed at expanding, not honing in on specific groups.
"Just based on the eclectic nature of the community, we've added more cultural attractions and more international music," Witz explains. "We just wanted to add more interesting and unique music forms, and it was specifically targeted toward the diverse and eclectic nature of the city."
Still, Witz admits, festival organizers couldn't ignore their inherent gay audience, many of whom will essentially be welcoming Arts, Beats & Eats into their backyards. Nor do they intend to.
"We are excited to be close to the gay community, and we're excited that a lot of members of the gay and lesbian community will be enjoying the festival," Witz says. "That's something that is a very positive thing for the event.
"We've always tried to be diverse and inclusive and eclectic," he adds. "I think people might not have noticed that as much in Pontiac as they will in Royal Oak, but when you walk around, the different sites, smells, sounds that you'll hear are enough that any human being would find something they can enjoy. I really believe that."
So do Royal Oak residents like Thomas, who is thrilled to have an event that not only stresses staying at home instead of skipping town, but also that diversity can be a beautiful – plus good-tasting and pleasant-sounding – thing.
"Diversity is what makes a successful event and embracing it just makes it stronger. It makes it all about the community," Thomas says. "We don't need to go away on Labor Day. We can hang out in our own backyard."