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Musical Mystery: Piano turns up in pedestrian tunnel

Trevor Maghakian plays the piano left in the pedestrian tunnel underneath Highway 31 in Petoskey on Friday, May 5.
Michael Livingston
Trevor Maghakian plays the piano left in the pedestrian tunnel underneath Highway 31 in Petoskey on Friday, May 5. (Photo: Michael Livingston/IPR News)

There’s a pedestrian tunnel that runs underneath Highway 31 that connects downtown Petoskey to Bayfront Park. People walk through it all the time - especially in the busy summer months.

But recently, residents have heard music coming from the tunnel, sometimes it's loud enough to hear from multiple streets away.

That’s because, sometime in the last few weeks, an upright piano appeared at the center of the tunnel - and nobody knows how it got here.

It’s a pretty old Grinnell Bros. piano, likely made in Detroit. It’s got a bright, smooth finish and one brass foot pedal.

Petoskey resident and self-taught pianist Trevor Maghakian tries to play the piano as often as possible. He said something about the acoustics in the concrete tunnel makes the old thing sound amazing.

“Just the echo and everything, I mean, it sounds awesome. You would never need a speaker down here,” Trevor said. “Somebody told me they can hear it clearly downtown.”

Search “Petoskey Piano” on Facebook and you’ll see dozens of people performing and posing with it. Those posts started during the last weekend of April.

Since then, the tunnel has become a hub for local talent – and it's not just musicians.

Sometime last week someone decorated the piano with what looks like a homemade blanket and flowers. Someone else left chalk behind for people to draw all over the walls and floor of the tunnel. Now it's covered in smiley faces, cartoons and messages.

It’s almost as if the piano is its own art exhibit for anyone to add to.

“People are stopping to listen. It's just kind of bringing the community together,” said Mandi Maghakian, Trevor’s mom. “We saw a woman with her daughter and you could just see the excitement in her face because she had her piano book. And you knew she was coming to play the piano. All different kinds of people are coming to try it.”

Many residents, like the Maghakians, are passionate about keeping the piano right where it is.

But that ultimately falls on the City of Petoskey to decide. While the piano has not appeared on any meeting agendas, there have been some concerns shared internally.

City Manager Shane Horn said he’s worried the piano could set a bad precedent when it comes to policy around dumping.

“Whether it's musical instruments, pool tables, or ping pong tables, we just don't want things just to show up in our community spaces without really giving it some good thought and analysis,” he said.

The piano is obviously past its prime and Horn said there’s a chance it could take on more damage.

The pedestrian tunnel also doubles as stormwater drainage during extreme weather. Horn said it would also need to be protected during the winter months.

“We don't want to become a ground for people just dropping off their used equipment or furnishings or anything like that,” Horn said. “We need to have a kind of a game plan for what we want this community to look like going forward.”

But Horn said the city has also admired the outpouring of support for the piano.

Officials have already been working to form a committee that would oversee community art projects for the past year. Horn said the piano would be exactly the type of dilemma the committee would work to solve.

Megan Dewindt, president of the Crooked Tree Arts Center, would help oversee the committee. She said the mystery piano has served as an excellent social experiment.

“What a wonderful way to create a conversation about public art in our community,” she said. “I love the idea that, because it's a piano, you can sit down and play it, you can look at it, you can draw around it, all of those things. What we would want public art to be in the community is accessible.”

Until the committee is formed, which should be in the coming months, the city says the piano will stay where it is.

There’s a chance it could be moved or even scrapped but the old piano undoubtedly started a conversation about community instruments in Petoskey.

Until that happens, the Maghakians will continue to visit the tunnel.

I think the core memories that are being built by the moms that take the time out of their schedules to bring their kids who want to play, that’s something they’ll keep for years to come,” Mandi said. “Whoever dropped the piano off created that for them.”

Michael Livingston covers the area around the Straits of Mackinac - including Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties as a Report for America corps member.