People places: Getting neighborly in Southwest Detroit bars

There’s one thing you should know before walking into one of Southwest Detroit’s many neighborhood watering holes: you’re going to drink way more than you planned. “What are you drinking?” is the greeting of choice at these establishments, and even if it’s your first time visiting -- and they’ll be able to tell, because these are the kind of joints where an unfamiliar face is noticed immediately -- you’re only a stranger your first time. 
Donovan’s Pub

One common refrain among each of these Southwest Detroit neighborhood bars is that it’s all about the people -- the owners say that about their customers, the customers say that about the bar itself, and the experience of the bar itself all comes down to precisely that: the people. The vibe of the bar, and what makes it a great neighborhood joint versus just another dive, is defined by the people who inhabit its stools. And the kind of people who hang out are in turn dictated by the owners themselves and the kind of atmosphere they choose to create. The bar and the people inside it are a direct reflection of the people behind it. What you see is exactly what you get.
What you get at Donovan’s Pub is no bullshit. (You will also get a big friendly welcome from Stanley the dog.) In fact, owner Shannon Lowell is extremely bullshit-aversive, and he doesn’t stand for it at his bar. "I don’t like riff raff or gang bangers. I will kick those people out," he says. "I will let (you) get away with whatever you want as long as you keep it together and obey my rules."
The rules are pretty simple: basically, don’t be an asshole. Treat Shannon and his bar with respect and you will in turn be respected. Disrespect him and suffer his wrath. Shannon has been in this business long enough to know what it takes to keep people in check and keep the experience a good one for everyone. "It's about getting people's respect. There are simple rules for them to follow and they should. Basically if you won't do it at your grandma's house or at a suburban bar, don't do it here."
At one point the Gateway Project construction had Donovan's, which is essentially its own little island on Vernor between Corktown and Mexicantown, totally blocked in. Lowell saw his business die, but it was through the help of his friends (which includes a lot of local musicians) that Donovan's, which has been in his family for close to 30 years, survived. "My friends are the ones saving this place. Everyone kind of chipped in because, I don't know, they like me I guess."
The guys from Motor City Brewing Works gave him the sound system that has brought in the decidedly eclectic hipster crowd -- if you bass it, they will dance. DJ parties are making Donovan's the latest hipster hot spot (its close proximity to Corktown also makes for some easy spillover). For his part, Shannon isn't quick to anoint his place the new trendy dive bar of choice (the Metro Times did that for him last year when they named it "Best Bukowskian Watering Hole"). "I don’t have any clue why they come into the bar." He pauses. "They come for the booze."
Abick’s Bar

There are a lot of old bars in Detroit. There are a lot of old bars that claim to be the oldest. Abick's Bar is one of them, with a 104-year-old liquor license that is still held by the same family, now in its fourth generation. But don't count out the second generation just yet: 89-year-old Manya Abick Soviak is still at the bar every single day and still lives right upstairs, just as she has since before she was married and was helping out her mother when she ran the bar and lived right upstairs.
Manya raised her two kids here. She raised her grandson here. She also raised generations of loyal customers and "adopted" children – she points to Debbie and Greg, who both work at the bar, and says she adopted them. She tells the story of the Irish-born Leah, a beautiful girl (Manya will show you her picture) who moved from Ireland so she could be a truck driver, then decided to join the Army at 41 years old and is now in the Air Force stationed in Afghanistan. They still talk regularly, and when Leah comes home to visit in July, Manya will throw her a big party at the bar. Manya adopted her too.
"I just love people," says Manya with a sincerity that would make even the hardest among us weep. She smiles broadly. "These are good people here."
In her 89 years, Manya has certainly been through her hardships. She lost her husband 44 years ago and never remarried (she jokes that she's been too busy, and that she had it too good the first time to try again). She also lost her daughter 17 years ago. But there's no sadness as she recounts her many life stories; only smiles and joy, thankfulness for what she has.
Abick's is a locals spot, and also a hangout for cops and fireman. It used to be mostly people from the Old Country, and boarders looking for a home away from home. In a neighborhood that has changed dramatically over the last century but has stayed consistently blue collar, Abick's has been shielded from the problems that have destroyed other bars. Manya says it's because of the good people that frequent her bar, then jokes, "The ones we don't like, we shoot!" It's an Old World kind of humor, and Abick's is an Old World kind of bar. Every inch of the place is imprinted with Manya's personality and love of people.
This Friday, March 15 starting at 6 p.m., Abick's is hosting its annual Children's Leukemia Foundation fundraiser. A tent will be set up out back and 300 people will pour into the place to bid on more than 50 donated prize packages (which include sports, travel, and pampering packages). Last year they raised $10,800 for the CLF. "People were so generous. They just gave and gave and gave," Manya glows.
This is the 11th year of the benefit, which started as a fireman's benefit but after one of the guys' children was diagnosed with leukemia, Manya decided to make it a CLF benefit. Manya talks of how difficult it is for families to experience something like that, and how unprepared anyone ever is for it. She likes to think of Abick's as a place of support. "You're never alone here," she says.
Be sure to come hungry on Friday: Manya's cooking enough for an army.
Giovanna’s Lounge

Giovanna's Lounge is the kind of place where if you’re not a regular, you stick out. That isn't a bad thing – again, you're only a stranger once, and everyone wants to buy you a drink to welcome you to the bar (so many welcomes… so…many…drinks).
Giovanna Rodriguez is in her seventies now and is currently in the process of selling the bar that she has owned for decades. She is currently in recovery from surgery and while the regulars don't know exactly how long the bar has been open, it is generally agreed upon that "forever" sounds about right. Photos on the wall that show the building over the years corroborate that "forever" seems pretty accurate.
Giovanna's is a mixed place with a mixed clientele. There is a single pool table and they host pool leagues. There is also a huge patio out back built by Giovanna's son Frank that is a popular spot for people all around the neighborhood all summer long. Bartender Teresa calls it a Mexican bar, and that fits the bill on weekends -- the area's predominantly Mexican population comprise the clientele and there are Mexican bands, dancing, and plenty of Mexican beers and drinks. Spanish-language shows play on the two TV screens.
But the afternoon and early evening hours are a different story. "Gio's" regular Charlie, a city truck driver who speaks of everything from The Private Life of Chairman Mao to his granchildren, calls the clientele a mix of "truck drivers, factory rats, and locals."
On a Saturday afternoon all the bar stools are occupied and everyone in the room seemed to know everyone else. Lonnie, another truck driver, says he comes for the people. "I just like to hang around good people and there's good people here. I've made some good friends here."
Lonnie and Charlie both used to be regulars at Adela's Place, a Mexican bar on Fort Street that closed a couple of years ago. The Adela's crew all had to find a new haunt and found that same welcoming hospitality they had at Adela's at Gio's. (Adela herself even hangs out here now, and is friends with Giovanna and her family.)
Giovanna's is the easiest to feel out of place at when first walking in but the fastest to make you feel welcome. By the end I had to start turning down drinks just so I could still drive home. Everyone there wanted to introduce themselves, have a chat, and buy me a welcome drink. And this is really the essence of a neighborhood bar: places that aspire to that Cheers feeling where everybody knows your name. It's not just about booze but about community -- a place where you go for the people, and a place where you're never alone.
It doesn't hurt that all of these places also have really, really cheap booze.

Model D development news editor Nicole Rupersburg likes a good adventure along with her food and drink. This is the first of a series of stories on Detroit bars where locals make the neighborhood go round. 

Photos by Marvin Shaouni
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Nicole Rupersburg is a former Detroiter now in Las Vegas who regularly writes about food, drink, and urban innovators. You can follow her on Instagram @eatsdrinksandleaves and Twitter @ruperstarski.