Hazel Park: “The Friendly City”
Just a few miles east and a few hours prior to the opening of Ferndale’s big event, Pride month kicked off in Hazel Park with two much smaller, but no less significant ones: First, a flag-raising at city hall, then a book reading by Lambda Award-winning author, playwright and former Hazel Park resident Frank Anthony Polito.
Under sunny, early summer skies, a crowd of about 40 gathered. Among attendees were city officials, state Rep. Robert Wittenberg and state Sen. Jeremy Moss. Hazel Park residents of all ages attended — LGBTQ and straight alike — including Brian and Clinton Lane. They moved to the city a little less than a year ago, and said they couldn’t be happier.
“Hazel Park’s been a great place to live, said Brian Lane. “We got married shortly after moving in here, and when we came home, our neighbors decorated our lawn for us … with signs that said ‘congratulations,’ there were balloons, they had a rainbow strobe light — the whole nine yards. And our neighbors are all straight. We’ve found it to be a super supportive, welcoming community.”
It’s the kind of place they feel comfortable holding hands while walking their dog Connor, and have both applied for city appointments: Clinton for the Arts Commission and Brian, the Downtown Development Authority.
Ed Klobucher, Hazel Park city manager since 2002, made clear that tolerance and inclusivity aren’t new to Hazel Park — despite sometimes being referred to as “Hazeltucky” in the past.
“By raising the Pride flag in the city of Hazel Park, we are showing the world that Hazel Park is welcoming and tolerant. … This is the second year that we’ve flown the Pride flag in the month of June, but this isn’t the first time the city of Hazel Park has stood up for the rights of the LGBT community.”
Klobucher referred specifically to the resolution he authored in 2004, which was passed by the city council, in opposition to the Michigan Marriage Amendment. That was in response to a request made by Ferndale to join them in their efforts. While the amendment was opposed by the majority of voters in both communities, Klobucher was quick to point out that the referendum not only passed in Michigan, it was approved by the majority of voters in Oakland County.
“So I want everyone to know that while raising the Pride flag may be a relatively recent phenomenon in the city of Hazel Park, standing up for human rights is something that we’ve been doing here for a long time,” he said, adding later that a flag-raising ceremony would become an annual event.
A Masterful Job by the Master of Ceremonies
The festivities were organized by Mike McFall, vice chair of the Downtown Development Authority and a member of the Arts Council. Having recently announced his candidacy for Hazel Park City Council, McFall stands to become Hazel Park’s first openly gay elected official. He and his husband arrived ahead of the crowd to set up for the event, and McFall explained why he spearheaded the effort.
“It was kind of unplanned that we actually flew the flag last year. Jeffrey Olivier had presented the flag to the city the night of the proclamation, and our city manager, Ed Klobucher, decided we should fly the flag as well. So it was put up unceremoniously last year. And this year, I wanted a little more pomp with that, if I could,” he said with a laugh.
Olivier is a Hazel Park resident and founder of the Michigan LGBT Peer Support Network who was part of that morning’s line up and who provided an update on his group. McFall added that he felt the official ceremony was important for the community in order to promote inclusivity in Hazel Park and celebrate the welcoming, friendly city it is.
In his remarks, Sen. Moss announced his forthcoming meeting with Gov. Whitmer regarding the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. When the other speeches highlighting the significance of the day concluded, all stood for photos. Without further ado, the Pride flag was raised.
Then Hazel Park native Frank Anthony Polito stood at the lectern. Having lived for many years in New York, the writer and his partner now reside in Pleasant Ridge.
“I can’t even believe that I’m standing … in Hazel Park in front of a gay pride flag, because I grew up here 30-something years ago, and I felt so alone, and so isolated, and so unloved, and so un-proud to be the person that I was at that time,” Polito said. “And to have all of you here, in my hometown, celebrating with me, all of us together — it just means so much to me, and I want to thank you all. You’ve made a little gay boy’s dreams come true.”
After Party at the Library
At the library adjacent to city hall, about 18 people came to hear Polito read from his first novel, “Band Fags!” Reviewed by Between The Lines in 2008, it’s a coming-of-age story set in the mid-’80s about best friends from opposite sides of town who both attend junior high in Hazel Park. Aside from Varsity Band, the two have nothing in common — or do they?
Polito, who is also a trained actor with years of experience in theater, read from a chapter about the protagonist’s first experience at a local gay bar — think teenagers sneaking out the window late at night and underage drinking. Replete with period details, many audience members commented afterward about such mid-’80s memorables as the hairstyle of Simply Red’s lead singer, and every adolescent’s must-have: a Swatch watch. (writer’s note: mine was clear plastic.)
Polito chatted with city council member Alissa Sullivan and others following the reading. Elected in 2017 on campaigns that encouraged better representation of Hazel Park’s diverse community at all levels, both she and Mayor Pro Tem Amy Aubry were the top-two vote-getters and residents were clearly receptive to their message. Sullivan, who is also vice chair of the arts council, expressed interest in pursuing an idea that Polito proposed for a writing workshop.
Speaking to BTL as the crowd was leaving, Polito commented that the overall experience that morning was validating, not to mention emotional. That while members of the LGBTQ community can accept themselves and find support among chosen family, for him, Hazel Park’s public acceptance was different.
“For me, growing up, I wanted other people who weren’t like me to accept me,” Polito said. “And so now, to feel like I’m accepted by the larger community, it’s the best.”
It took but a few moments for the Pride flag to ascend the flag pole, but the spirit and symbolism of the morning will certainly be long-lasting, and deeply felt — not just for those in attendance, but for all who witness a rainbow flag flying over Hazel Park City Hall this, and every, June.