When I pulled up to Gabriel Richard Park on Detroit’s east side at 5:55 a.m. last Wednesday, it was dark and just over 40 degrees. I had two thoughts: “I’m glad I wore a hat instead of a headband,” and “Am I the only person here?”
It took me a moment to notice the woman seated on a bench between two cherry blossom trees, but as I walked closer to the river, I saw the glow of two fire-orange orbs marking the welcome circle for Sunrise Club – Detroit.
What I got isn’t what I expected. There was no requirement to introduce myself to strangers at an hour when I’d rather be in bed. No whispering affirmations as our heads collectively looked toward the rising sun. Instead, I was greeted by the club’s organizer, Sarah Gallimore, and encouraged to commune along the riverfront in whatever way worked best for me. Color me grateful. I’m no introvert, but if you see me early in the morning and get a cheery hello, it’s not genuine.
Inspired by artist Hunter Frank’s League of Creative Interventionists project, Sunrise Club – Detroit is an iteration of a club by the same name that meets on Mondays in southern California. That Sunrise Club was started by Joanna Miller, a native Detroiter and Gallimore’s friend. Miller and a group on the West Coast had begun to periodically gather on a mountain to watch the sun rise together.
Those meetings were conceived as special events, where guests wore fancy attire and organizers booked a musical guest, as Gallimore explained. Gallimore learned about them from her friend and in 2017 decided to start hosting gatherings with the same intent but different vibe.
“I was interested in creating some more accessible opportunities to get outside in the city, where the thing wasn’t a sports activity with a physical commitment you had to make,” she said. “And, I didn’t think I’d want to make everyone get super dressed up in the morning.”
The Detroit River provides a meditative and gorgeous background for each meetup. Gabriel Richard Park offers benches, manicured grass and well-maintained bathrooms for comfort.
Detroit’s more informal club still shares some traits with its California cousin. There is always a musical guest, and pre-COVID, there were snacks. Gallimore’s commitment to nurturing the space shines through there: Snacks and stipends for performers are paid for directly from her own pocket. But there’s no requirement to RSVP and certainly no directive on dress. It’s just a cool way to spend the first hour of your day five Wednesdays per year. Due to Michigan’s seasons, the club only meets May through September.
The day I went, nine people attended. I thought to attribute that to the cold, but Gallimore said, “It just flows that way. Sometimes five people show up and other times it’s 30.”
The first guest I encountered was also a first-timer, with her own ideas of what to expect. Shawn Whitsett drove from Ypsilanti for the gathering. “I was on Facebook and saw ‘sunrise club’ and then a post that said entertainers and stuff. So I thought, ‘Oooh, an open air sunrise jam session.’”
Whitsett comes from a musical family and was expecting to share that gift at the meetup. She came prepared with a song — “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong — and printed lyrics for us to sing. While she didn’t end up leading a performance, Whitsett and Gallimore agreed she’ll return later in the summer as a guest vocalist.
Instead, we heard from Jordyn Davis, a vocalist and jazz bassist also known as ComposeTheWay. She decided to celebrate earning her master’s from Michigan State University by challenging her norm and rising before dawn to serenade the sun.
“I wouldn’t normally do this and guitar isn’t my primary instrument,” Davis said. “I just picked it up for the sake of the art I love and decided this was a good time to do something different.” Davis sang a handful of original songs and was surprised by an unexpected fan in the audience. At least one of the sunrisers drove in solely to hear Davis perform.
The hour-long experience was full of communal moments like that. A self-described introvert talked to me about her shoes and shared that the Sunrise Club is one of her favorite ways to start a Wednesday, especially when she’s working from an office. The regulars, easily identifiable by the pop-up chairs and blankets they carried in with them, welcomed me with a nod and returned my exit wave. Even the seagulls seemed quieter and honored the space.
I can’t say that I’ll be there on another chilly morning, but look for me in July. It felt like a nice way to welcome the second half of the year.