Sunday, July 20, 2008

Guest Blogger: Backintheday

Meeting cool new like-minded people has been a great unanticipated benefit of writing this blog.

Today's guest blogger lived in Detroit for years but is now on the west coast. One of the topics we've discussed in our e-mails has been the history of gay bars in Detroit, and I asked him to share some of his memories from back in the day.

In his first undertaking he shares a little history on the now-defunct Detroit eastside gay bar The Deck, which was located right at Jefferson and Alter on the Grosse Pointe/Detroit border.



The Deck – 1979

There have been national articles written about the Detroit-Grosse Pointe border. Perhaps no other place in America so graphically displays the disparity between the haves and the have-nots. It was even more so in the 70’s when property values in the Pointes were secure and Detroit’s East side was a virtual no man’s land. Sitting on the corner of Alter Road and Jefferson Avenue, tucked just inside this no man’s land was The Deck. I worked as a bartender there around 1979 before I hit the “big time” – T.N.T. and later, Menjo’s.



The Deck welcomes you! Well, welcomed you.

The Deck was a long-standing neighborhood joint. An old brick building, it had a long narrow room with a wooden bar and a row of small tables along the side. The front door had a one-way glass window and a buzzer controlled entry. Don, the owner, had “dolled the place up” with lattice over the windows and wallpaper with a sort of “forest floor” theme, but he couldn’t really hide its blue-collar origins. In the back it was a bit wider and opened up to a pretty nice little patio area. There were a few apartments overhead where Don “entertained” and Pete, the manager lived.

The Bar had settled into life as a place where straight locals, mostly retired, could gather around 3 o’clock and drink cheap shells of beer until the first of the gay clientele started to arrive off the buses they rode from their jobs downtown. The day crowd was pretty good-natured about the gays. The old married couples would look at each other and say “Time to pack it up, darling” and off they’d go, wobbling down the street to their apartments up and down Alter Road.

Miss Beverly had been a sales lady at Jacobson’s. Don had worked at “Dodge’s” while his wife Marge kept house. And Chuck was a 55 year old alcoholic stock boy at the party store two doors down. Even though it was more expensive, he drank his first beer of the day out of a bottle because his hands shook too much to hold a shell. They all looked forward to an appearance from Jean, the local bookie, as she made her rounds up and down Jefferson conducting business in the local watering holes.

Interior circa 1979

Week nights were never too crowded. A mix of Grosse Pointe boys and blue-collar East Side guys. This mix always seemed to tantalize. The blue-collar group turned on by a pair of khakis and a Polo shirt and the Grosse Pointers looking for a working class hero.

On the weekend the place was jammed with Topsiders, Brooks Brothers and Izod. Ralph Lauren had recently reinvented the preppy look with his Polo wear and the insular world of the Ivy League had never seemed so accessible. At the same time, while not exactly “out” gays were certainly feeling a sense of community with each other.

Being the only gay bar in the area meant that if you lived on the East side and were just cracking open the closet door, you’d probably do it by checking out The Deck. As a bartender there, I witnessed many an otherwise quiet weeknight when a somewhat terrified young guy would sit nervously apart from the rest of the customers and order a drink. It didn’t take long before he was sitting in front of half a dozen drinks paid for by a hopeful group of regulars. If he made it out of there alive it was on the arm of some old player who knew best how to pluck a chicken.

One quiet night a young Grosse Pointe kid came in and asked for a middle-aged regular by name. I told him I hadn’t seen him that night, thus unwittingly outing him. The kid replied in a fury “Well, I’m his son and I knew he came here. Tell him not to come home anymore.”

Like most gay bars, the place had its day and then it passed. There were attempts to extend its popularity – drag shows, piano players, Sunday brunch. But after its short stint as the “in” place, it settled into life as a cozy neighborhood hangout. This life too must have run its course, the last time I was in Detroit, The Deck was just another boarded up building waiting for whatever comes next.

The Deck today.

.

11 comments:

SupergayDetroit said...

Regarding the recent status of the building, I've heard that Grosse Pointe Park bought the buildings on that block with the intention of tearing them down, but ended up running into some issues with the fact that they are historic structures. This is only hearsay.

Currently the entire block sits empty.

Anonymous said...

Heard similar about the block, then told that wasn't true. Who knows. Other portions of the block have been leveled though. For what? Not sure.

As you seem to be a well connected and disappointed (with the nightlife) gay, I'd be curious to know if you've talked with any of the bar owners? Why are their establishments in such ghetto areas? Is it some sort of history/staying with the 'old neighborhood' or is it the only place Detroit will let them be? Backstreet was downtown at one point wasn't it?

Raoul Duke said...

Great topic for a historical book!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing! Very interesting.

Anonymous said...

Friends who used to go to the Deck have told me very similar stories. One who taught nearby was one of those after school early pm guys. He took me there once, but long after its heyday.

MenjosDJbc said...

Looks like I missed some fun, backintheday! Why didn't you tell me these stories then? All I can remember is the one about the old lady and the disposable douche. Guess I was too busy busy working at Meatland (Menjo's)on the weekend. I do remember some slow week nights that were livend up by the ledendary Enola Gay and entourage. Great Story Telling!

menjosDJbc (before Chad)

The Charlatan said...

I had some involvement with this issue six - eight months ago, so what is below may be incorrect due to recent actions, but it is my understanding there has been no movement in what is effectively a Mexican standoff.

DDOT busses headed out from down town cross into Grosse Pointe and utilize a parking lot to turn around for the return run back downtown. They sometimes sit and idel there until their departure times arrives. GPP does not like this one bit and thinks there is value in the lot where the busses turn around. So GPP used a broker to keep themselves out of the limelight and bought the Deck and the clutch of little buildings next to it, all of which are in Detroit.

GPP did this with the intention of demolishing them, installing a paved lot and then giving the Detroit land to DDOT for turn around and staging space. Then GPP could terminate the lease on the GPP land and have the current vacant lot developed. GPP gets tax base and development and doesn't have those DDOT buses on their property. That makes them very happy.

Jefferson East Business Association and Fox Creek CDC figured it out threw up a COMPLETE shitstorm - as well they should have as GPP did not include them in the plans and did not inform DDOT of their plans until after the buildings were purchased. This was a completely unilateral move. JEBA had been making moves to puchase the building for rehabilitation when GPP closed on the deal without JEBA even knowing GPP was in the mix.

I can't recall if the building is already locally designated or if it was entered into the designation process by JEBA and FCCDC - in either case, GPP can't do shit with it until the Historic District Commission board approves their demolition permit....and HDC is unlikely to do that - until KK stacks the board in his favor.

SupergayDetroit said...

Hey what great comments!

Anonymous #1 - I think the gay bars are located where they are by default. They are kind of the historical locations, most of those areas weren't quite as jacked up when those places opened ... Backstreet "at large" was downtown for a while, but it was a night at a club, not the actual bar. Backstreet in its former and current location had closed for a bit.

Raoul Duke - I agree! A gay history of Detroit would be an awesome topic. Get on that!

Menjosdjbc - feel free to share the douche story, mbien?

Charlatan - THANK YOU for that very interesting backstory!

Anonymous said...

Am I the only person who remembers a great bar just west of The Deck called "My Fair Lady"??

Up and down interior with a marble greek-like naked lady in the middle of the dance floor. Great valet parking and lots of hot guys. Didn't last long.

Anybody remember??

Diane63 said...

I used to frequent the Deck back in the mid to late 80's and into the early 90's. I performed there as a drag king/queen for a couple shows featuring Hummin Helen and Krystal Blaze. I knew a lot of the regulars. I recall the bar owner Don Mazur lived upstairs and had a cat named Mother. I remember a really sweet bartender, Vince. Wish I knew how he was now. They had regular euchre there along with the show nights. I had a fabulous 25th birthday there with a big cake and lovely gifts. I would love some pictures of all the drag shows there. If anyone who frequented the Deck has them, I'd love to see them posted. I performed around 1986-87. I alwqays loved the Deck as a good starting place for a night out and a great place to go just for the heck of it and you'd always hav e someone you knew to chat with. I was always made welcome and made a lot of friends through the pub. It reminds me of Cheers, where everyone knows your name. Oh, the songs I did were Billy Idol's Rebel Yell, David Bowie's Blue Jean, Romeo Void's Never Say Never and Grace Jones Pull Up To My Bumper. Wonder if anyone remembers me.

Anonymous said...

I also preformed at the Desk with Hummin Helen In Drag (1986 - 1987) I was known as ISIS and Kelly LeMan's

Helen was my Drag mother and I remember her talking me into doing shows with her. I only did about 5 shows there a few times I did George Michael when he was in Wham! I remember guys actually coming up to me to feel if my beard was real (the shadow style that was in at the time)

As ISIS I was a Laura Branigan look-alike. And for my first show, I had a lot of my family there. I still laugh today because my childhood girlfriend was there and was amazed how much I looked like a woman at the time LOL!

I miss the DECK and bars like it because in fact you could go there and enjoy conversation and drinks. Even though the guys from the Points where there they never acted better then anyone and always were friendly to me.

Don, I remember always bitched about the low crowds because he felt the Detroit Bar Guild was ruining his business with their politics. Many of times he would threaten to close the place down.

The bar was indeed an east-side gem. And I for one enjoyed the place in and out of drag. I used to live in the Tuxedo area of Detroit and would walk through GPP to the bar when I wanted to go have a few drinks.

The Guy I was with at the time Mother actually worked at the Deck years way before. I remember he and I talking about it and she brought it up. We were both drinking a soda at the time and I remember it spitting out of my mouth when she mentioned it. This was before he came out to her.

As for the other Detroit Bars, The Gas Station ( I used to strip at the Gas Station) , The Outlaw, The E-Ramp! The Aruba on 7 mile would be between The Gold Coast and the Gas Station. And I remember the $5.00 Wednesday and Sunday nights pay $5. at the door and free well drinks all night.

The Detroit Bars I was told in the day where in the areas they were in because the police would not harass the bars as much and pretty much the only areas that residence would allow bars like ours.

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