Detroit's veteran bartenders reflect on over 30 years behind the bar

In bartender parlance, it's called "behind the stick": getting to work, holding down the rail, slinging shots and beers. Most seasoned bartenders will tell you that the more things change, the more they stay the same. But for these tenured tenders, each of whom has logged 30 years or more at the same bar, the view from the bar illustrates the story of Detroit’s dynamic transformations.

[A warning to our readers: some of the language here reflects the colorful characters both in front of and behind the bar; salty language and stories follow]

A lot can happen in one building in the span of 40 years, especially if you ask someone who's been there the whole time. Charleen Dexter, the undisputed queen of the Cass Corridor bar scene, started at the Bronx Bar in January 1977. In between pouring drinks and exhorting her young staff to "eat the damn pizza I got you," she takes a moment to ponder the changes in the corridor. The biggest difference? Midtown developers, she says, "got rid of the hookers and the pimps."

George Boukas, who bought the Temple Bar on Cass Avenue in 1988 after a 14-year break in his family's ownership, agrees. Boukas calls the area back then "heroin heaven." That was the dark side to the "anything goes" spirit of the 80s and 90s. But there were positives, too.

George Boukas, owner of Temple Bar

"[The Cass Corridor] was the most diverse neighborhood in the city," says Boukas. "It was the he most accepting because there were artists, hippies. We had the Gold Dollar Show Bar, which was a drag bar. Everybody was in here, and everybody got their respect because nobody cared."

Boukas treasures this diversity, and tries to foster it in both the newer guests and his regulars.

For Mary Aganowski of the Two Way Inn on Detroit's northeast side, the most noticeable change has been socio-economic. "Our clientele has been physically hard working people," she says. "I would say in the last 12 years or so, after my dad passed away, that it started changing. People are more educated, with better jobs, doing more desk work."

Aganowski's father bought the Two Way in 1976 when the bar about 100 years old (the Two Way might be Detroit's oldest bar). At the time, Aganowski was 17. She's worked there ever since, becoming a bartender in 1981.

The bartenders I talked to agreed on two things: the crowd is cyclical, changing about every ten years, and they drink much less than they did twenty or thirty years ago. "Most people are more sensible drinkers now," says Ron Gurdjian of Tom's Tavern.

Robin Page, a staple at Z's Villa since 1981, remembers the old lunchtime drinker. "You used to have martini lunches and whatnot. Those days are gone."

Robin Page has tended bar at Z’s Villa since 1981

Even the Wayne State students have become less rowdy. "Every time Pike Night came, something was getting broken," she says. "The stall doors would get ripped off or the kids would be hanging from the awnings."

These days, the patrons at Tom's Tavern are mostly from the nearby Palmer Woods neighborhood, along with bus tours that bring in hordes of bar hopping night-trippers seeking the novelty of Tom's unvarnished aesthetic. "We're much more a destination bar now," Gurdjian says. "We used to have a crowd of down-and-out regulars who came in and drank every day."

As for what the future holds, and what Detroit's recent revitalization efforts mean to the life of the bar, opinions vary. Page finds the M-1 light rail construction as a temporary hassle; a slight dip in business hopefully resulting in income potential down the road. Z's already offers shuttle service to major sporting events, and the new arena district will put her bar in prime real estate territory for Red Wings crowds.

Aganowski finds hope in the small signs of her struggling neighborhood's revival. "I see right now a lot of little shops opening up like they did when I was young," she says. "And I can see more people walking down the streets. Now, everybody's talking about Detroit coming back. We're kinda stuck in the corner over here, not being downtown Detroit, so hopefully things will start picking up in our neighborhood, too."

Recent city demolition of abandoned buildings, she says, is one sign of the area's improvements.

Ron Gurdjian has tended bar at Tom's Tavern since “the late 70s”

Gurdjian is more ambivalent. Although he finds the nascent startup culture promising and enjoys the offerings of new restaurants, he's disturbed by what he calls the "congruence of incompetence and corruption" in the escalating licensing and regulation fees for small businesses. He's also concerned about what these changes mean for low-income residents -- his old regulars. "There has never been a plan for the underclass other than to push them out of the way," he says.

Boukas worries, too. As one of the few remaining businesses in the looming shadow of the Arena District development, Temple Bar faces an uncertain future. “The city doesn’t want me here. The Ilitches don’t want me here," he says.

He'll stick it out as long as he can though, keeping the doors open for all comers -- longtime locals and suburban tourists alike. "I never wanted a pretentious bar," he insists.

After nearly forty years at the Bronx, Dexter is unabashedly blunt about how some of the newer businesses treat the old neighborhood residents. "Somebody from the neighborhood goes into a new business and they follow them around like they don't belong," she says. "It pisses me off. If you're going to think that, then why the fuck did you come down here?"

According to Dexter, Midtown has reached critical mass for new businesses -- enough is enough. Of course, Dexter uses more colorful language to express this opinion: "How many more fucking bars they gonna put down here?"

All photos by Nick Hagen.
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Read more articles by Mickey Lyons.

Mickey Lyons is a Hamtramck-based writer and historian. She is the creator of Prohibition Detroit, a blog about Detroit's historic drinking establishments.