Dive Bar Dispatch: On The Road To “New” Detroit

By T. Cole Newton |

Late last summer, the United States Bartenders’ Guild (USBG) hosted their National Leadership Conference (NLC) in Detroit, Michigan. NLC is the USBG’s biennial gathering of overachieving bartenders, assorted producers of craft spirits and liqueurs, and other industry professionals from around the country. I attended as the Vice President of my local USBG chapter in New Orleans, and amidst the product pushes and seminars about sponsorship contracts, I discovered different faces of a re-emergent downtown Detroit.

When the airport shuttle arrived at Detroit’s stately and accommodating Westin Book Cadillac Hotel, I noted our convenient proximity to the charmingly named Bathtub Pub, a distinctly downscale bar just across the street. I immediately decided to make the venue my unofficial base of operations for the week.

First Impressions

Unpacking in my room, I did a little investigating to see what kind of bar I had decided to treat like home. Facebook reviews of BTP varied wildly.

  • “Went to the bathroom, got jumped by 6 people. Went to the guard for help and he kicked me out. Call for a cop and the guard left work. Assume he had warrants, most likely for robbery. DO NOT GO TO THIS SHIT HOLE”
  • “One of this city’s hidden gems. … Fantastic staff, wonderful beer selection, excellent crowd, a huge outdoor garden area … Ps ask about their parties, I guarantee you have a great night”
  • “Used to be a great place til ‘lady’ the dirt rat started working there.” (This review was posted several years ago by a woman who now lists BTP as her current place of employment.)
  • “Of all the places to party in Detroit … I mean go hard af … this is one of the best.”

Each review seemed to completely contradict its predecessor; it was hard to believe they were all written about the same place. The comments made me simultaneously less certain about making BTP home and increasingly curious. Matt, my roommate for the trip, texted his Detroit counterpart, Lily. When she heard that we were planning to meet friends at BTP, she just responded, “Why?”

I asked for a Coke, but I was instead given a flat cup of Faygo Cola

Opinions of other local bartenders at the conference seemed to match Lily’s. Some were surprised that BTP was open at all – apparently it had been shut down for serving after hours and had only reopened about two weeks prior. Others asked if we were going there to buy blow. (We were not.) Still others had warm, fuzzy memories of late nights there. Surely the locals knew which bars to avoid, but friends from across the country had already started to gather at BTP on our recommendation, and they seemed happy with the choice. We decided to join them.

Bathtub Pub is part of a dying breed. Around its beat-up storefront, downtown Detroit is experiencing something of a renaissance. Craft cocktail bars and upscale restaurants are now commonplace. Seedy, decrepit, lawless dives, meanwhile, are increasingly rare. BTP seemed to be one of the last standing. Showing a distinct preference for the new, upscale alternatives, the powers that be had begun to enforce liquor laws that had once largely been ignored, no longer turning a blind eye towards the venues that would defy them.

On walking in, the oxymoronic vibe was palpable. The main room, as well as all of its furnishings and occupants, was in considerable disrepair, but the high ceilings and vintage fixtures suggested a long-passed opulence. A single patron sat at the bar, a black man in his 30s, attended by a white female bartender of similar age. Both smoked cigarettes, a practice Michigan banned statewide in public spaces in 2010. Graffiti covered almost every inch of the walls; I immediately added my signature to the collection using the Sharpie I keep in my pocket. Tupac played several decibels too loud on the house speakers.

BTP by daylight (courtesy GoogleMaps)

There were only a handful of bottles on the back bar, but I spotted a bottle of sweet vermouth stored in a small fridge along with cans of Red Bull. (Had someone told them about the virtues of refrigerating open vermouth? This seemed like an uncharacteristically sophisticated choice.) Beer options were limited to Bud, Heineken, or PBR. Matt ordered a Heineken. I asked for a Coke, but I was instead given a flat cup of Faygo Cola. We joined our friends on the patio.

In contrast to the bar’s interior, the patio out back was beautiful. Not technically affiliated with the bar, it was actually a community garden, teeming with flowers, ripe berries, and edible herbs. Smoking was banned on the patio, giving BTP the dubious honor of being the only bar I know where smoking was permitted inside but not out.

Our inaugural visit was relatively uneventful. We finished our drinks and left to meet Lily and friends at Checker Bar a few blocks away. Checker Bar was also more blue collar than many of its newer neighbors but not nearly as down and dirty as BTP. (They also had food.) After that initial visit to Bathtub Pub, I found myself doubting that I would return. I did, however, late the next night.

Bloodsport

I hit Detroit’s 2am last call with my friend Jen at a spot called Bad Luck: a tiny, speakeasy-style modernist cocktail bar that, tucked down an unmarked alley, was infuriatingly difficult to find. We had been greeted with a house lime liqueur and shared a well crafted Negroni variation. After closing out, Jen and I walked back to the Westin together, passing by the still-open Bathtub Pub. We stopped in front of our hotel to talk when my roommate Matt and another bartender from the conference turned the corner towards us.

They were coming from BTP, drunk and visibly upset. Matt’s friend described a patron deliberately groping her chest as she tried to find the bathroom. After an angry confrontation she decided to leave, and Matt was making sure she made it safely back to the hotel.

Immediately upon hearing this story, Jen silently took off for the bar. This took me by surprise. I, myself, was torn. On one hand it was late, almost 3am, and I was planning on getting up early the next day. On the other, people we knew were still at the bar, so I trusted Jen would be kept relatively safe. That said, it felt wildly unchivalrous to allow Jen to walk into who-knows-what situation unescorted. FOMO tipped the scales. I hustled across the street to catch up with Jen.

The time was over an hour past Detroit’s official last call, but BTP was playing music loud enough to be heard from across the street. The door was kept locked, but whenever guests would open it to leave, others, like me and Jen, were allowed to enter. A bouncer was posted just inside the door, a young, heavy white man with a scruffy beard. I walked in a few seconds after Jen and sat next to her at the bar.

The scene was raucous. One patron rolled a blunt on the bar top. Nell, a conference friend, was drawing dots on the head of an older, bald man. “Look,” she said, admiring her work, “You’re a bowling ball!” He seemed to be enjoying the attention, and she seemed to be enjoying having everyone in the bar eating out of the palm of her hand. Jen ordered the three of us – she, Nell, and I – a round, three Budweisers and three shots of whiskey. “The only whiskey we carry is Fireball.”

“Okay, then make it Fireball,” Jen said, and pulled out her card to pay.

“Cash only.” Of the three of us, I was the only one with cash, so I picked up the tab. It came to $60 – $8 each for the beers and $7 each for the shots, plus tip. (For perspective: at my bar back home, this same round with the same percent tip would cost $32). I drank a sip of my shot as the girls took theirs and left most of it on the bar. I have nothing against Fireball, but I was not in the mood.

The cop knocked again. There was no reply. “Make them open the door.”

Jen did not seem as amused by the bar scene as Nell, so we went out front to continue our earlier conversation. As we talked, Nell and most of the remaining conference attendees left the bar, heading next door to buy hot dogs at the adjacent all-night diner and leaving only one of our cohort inside.

While Jen and I chatted and sipped our beers, a police cruiser pulled up to the curb in front of us. A uniformed officer got out, a stocky, scowling white woman, perhaps in her late 30s. She knocked hard on the door, but the noise was barely audible over the music. Turning to me and Jen and pointing at our beers, she asked, “Did you buy those here?”

“Yes ma’am, we did,” I replied. I don’t like being a narc, but lying seemed like a worse option. She took our IDs and handed them to another officer, who remained in the car.

A second and then a third police car pulled up. Our terse policewoman, very much in charge, directed the officers to strategic positions around the building and continued to pepper us with questions. “What are you doing here?” she asked.

“We’re in town for a conference, staying at the hotel there across the street. We were walking back and decided to pop in here for a nightcap.” I strategically neglected to mention that it was a bartender conference, as I did not think this information will help our case.

“It’s after last call. They don’t have last call where you’re from?”

“No, ma’am they do not.” In that moment, I was very relieved to live in New Orleans. ‘The ways of your people are strange and different to me,’ I wanted to say.

The cop knocked again. There was no reply. “Make them open the door.”

“I don’t know any other way than what you’re already doing,” Jen said. Eventually a guest opened the door to leave, and the police streamed in. They told us to follow and sat us in bar stools near the door, directly under my own autograph on the wall.

Police swept the building. The alpha policewoman clearly knew the bar’s layout and directed the others methodically. Once she was confident that everyone in the building was present and accounted for, she instructed her subordinates to confiscate the cash from the register, seize all unopened containers of alcohol, and pour any open ones down the drain. (As they carried out their orders, I noted that they overlooked that odd bottle of vermouth in the fridge.) She also chided the staff for continuing the behaviors that had gotten them temporarily shuttered so recently. “You’ll be closed down for good this time,” she predicted. They proceeded to arrest the scruffy white doorman, an older black man who I don’t think was actually staff but who was casually sweeping the floors when they entered, as well as another black male patron.

Jen was quietly apoplectic throughout. She felt guilty for dragging me into a nightmare scenario. Having run afoul of the law fairly recently, Jen was certain that we were both on our way to jail.

I tried to assure her otherwise. I’ve had my share of encounters with the police, and they have almost all ended without consequence, largely thanks to the myriad privileges I enjoy as a well-spoken white man. I was confident this night would be no different; in fact, I found the whole scene fascinating. I’d never been in a raid before!

Also, it was 4am and Bloodsport, Jean-Claude Van Damme’s finest, had just come on the TV over the bar. I sipped my beer, watching an old favorite film and simultaneously enjoying a front row seat for what may have been the most enlightening learning opportunity of the entire conference.

At the same time, I felt guilty about the inherent unfairness of the situation. I’m sure the police saw through my “ignorant visitor” routine – I had clearly broken the law buying a drink after hours, but I knew I was essentially safe. So there I was, having a grand old time, while people who work in the same industry as me were having their livelihoods disrupted, perhaps permanently. Once people get caught up in the criminal justice system, it becomes increasingly difficult to escape. Meanwhile I’ve engaged in my share of illegal activity, but, again thanks in part to my considerable privilege, I’ve never faced severe consequences and am still highly employable.

Around 4:30, a cop noticed and confiscated my remaining beer. Around 4:45am, Jen and I were abruptly handed our IDs and told to leave, along with the one remaining conference attendee in the mix and a young black man with a backpack and a Tigers cap. As we walked back towards the hotel, Jen was resentful. Referring to the alpha policewoman, she said, “Did she have to be so mean?”

Thinking about it for a minute, I answered, “Probably.”

The young man was positively giddy. “We just walked out of a raid!” he exclaimed, and then, more quietly, “I’ve got, like, a pound of weed in this bag.” As we parted ways at the corner, he gave Jen a celebratory hug, at the end of which he casually touched her breast.

After that night, Bathtub Pub remained shuttered for the duration of our trip.

Detroit the Dancer (Courtesy T. Cole Newton)

Detroit, The Dancer

None of the official conference programming took place in dive bars. We were mostly shuttled between our posh hotel, grand old mansions and theaters, and the chic contemporary bistros decorated with taxidermy and edison bulbs that typify the “new” Detroit. Meanwhile, it was hard to escape the feeling that, while the Motor City is seeing what appears to be a remarkable economic turnaround, there are people getting left behind.

The mayor, a white businessman who has been embraced by the black community, seems, to his credit, to be well aware of this. He is willing to engage in difficult conversations on the legacy of redlining and other discriminatory practices, and as a rich white man, other white people actually listen to him. His plans for urban renewal take into account the experiences of other cities, like my hometown of Washington, DC and my current home of New Orleans, where economic renewal has been accompanied by widespread gentrification. (Also, as the owner of a hipster bar in what was, until recently, a predominantly black neighborhood, I am conspicuously aware of my own role in that process.)

One gets the feeling that businesses like Bathtub Pub are navigating increasingly hostile waters. I can’t imagine that they have changed all that much over the years, but the space they occupy must feel less and less familiar.

Despite the push to “clean up” downtown, as in NOLA, widespread panhandling is a sign that for many not much has changed. Like other US cities that have had a similar economic trajectory, downtown Detroit was a ghost town after dark not too long ago. Now it is frequented by a monied elite, and the disparity between this population and the itinerant one, which perhaps had this space largely to themselves until recently, is striking. I have stopped giving money to panhandlers in New Orleans, instead helping by volunteering at a local homeless shelter, but I resumed the practice temporarily on my trip to Detroit. As an outsider drawn, in part, by all of the shiny and new attractions, it felt like the least I could do.

Two nights after the raid on the Bathtub Pub, the conference was in its final throes. By 3am, most attendees were partying somewhere in the multi-story hotel lobby. A group of loud and rowdy bartenders (Lily included) had been directed to the fourth floor, which they were told was free of security cameras. Another group, quieter but equally drunk, lounged around a seating area on the second floor, passed bottles of wine, and talked about art theory and the difficulty of making money in the absinthe game. (Matt was among their ranks.) A few people at a time would break off from either group to go outside and smoke.

I was with a group outside the hotel when we were approached by a man who identified himself as Detroit The Dancer. The group seemed set on ignoring him, but I felt compelled to engage. We often treat the homeless as invisible, perhaps because it is easier to ignore the problem than to acknowledge the deeply troubling struggles of many of our fellow humans. Simply taking the time to see people and recognizing their humanity can have a considerable impact.

Detroit, rather than asking for a dollar, seemed eager to earn one. He wanted someone to take a video of him dancing and to put it on what he called “the Instagrams”, so that we could both become famous. I told him that, in fact, I had a YouTube channel where I would happily share a video of his performance.


After a short dance, I asked him to share a little bit about himself. His name is James, he dances and tells jokes, and he had just been released from prison the month before after 27 years. I congratulated him, thankfully catching myself before asking what he had been imprisoned for, and asked if he would like to tell a joke. He checked to make sure I was planning on “blessing him pretty good”, and I told him I would. After he shared his joke, a yarn about being hassled by the police while dancing on the street, I ended the video and “blessed” him with $25. He seemed to find this very generous, so much so that he asked for the opportunity to tell another joke.


Before leaving, he insisted on sharing one last joke, which, sadly, I did not record. “Please, take me home with you,” he began, earnestly. “I’ll wash your car, I’ll cook, I’ll mow your lawn. In the morning, you’ll find the dishes have been done, the laundry has been folded, and your lawnmower has been stolen.”

I thanked James, gave him a hug, and we went our separate ways. A few weeks later, curious, I asked a friend if the Bathtub Pub had ever managed to reopen. For now, at least, they have.

 

While this story is true to the teller, all people’s names have been changed, except for James.

Author T. Cole Newton is the owner and proprietor of Twelve Mile Limit in New Orleans and is currently president-elect of the local USBG chapter. He co-hosts the podcast A Round With Steve and Cole with fellow industry veteran Steve Yamada and occasionally updates a tumblr blog called Big Fat Cocktails.

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