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 1979Week 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.