Abick’s Bar is that corner joint where you meet your neighbors and share a drink with your priest 

Southwest stalwart

Abick's Bar is one of the oldest bars in Detroit. Uncle John Benske, aka "Bo," came over from Poland and built the bar in 1907, when the future Sts. Peter & Paul Orthodox congregation was still contemplating its first wooden church. In 1919, it became Abick's, and in the old photos on the wall, it seems a manly domain. In one shot, a row of proud business owners stands out in front, including two barbers, because Abick's was a place to get drinks and then walk through to the barbershop next door. There was even a shoeshine stand and cobbler in the basement.

That masculine identity changed with World War II. That's when Lakeman's grandmother, Marie Abick, better known to longtime customers as "Manya," took over the bar with her mother. With the men off at war, the women served drinks and they'd collect the neighborhood's ration stamps and cook up feasts for the locals.

These days, since the death of the bar's fabled matriarch a few years ago, it's managed by Manya's grandson, Eric Lakeman, who bears it with all the grace of Atlas. Which is to say he grumbles quite a bit about his burden. On the afternoon we meet, he's running from the bar to the creaky, trouble-prone, 117-year-old house he owns. He's a wise-beyond-his-years 36-year-old who says he only longs for his restful piece of lakeside real estate at Woodmere Cemetery. But it's all gallows humor that's said with a smile. Lakeman bears his affliction with affection.

You see, Lakeman was raised by his grandparents, and so a lot of his dearly held beliefs are rooted more deeply in the past. His upbringing involved picking out his own switch in the back yard and having his mouth scrubbed with Fels-Naptha soap, but he says he wouldn't change a thing. And having skipped a generation, so to speak, he's definitely the right person to shoulder the responsibility of running the century-old bar.

"It's a family place," Lakeman says. "The day that changes, I'll fold up and walk away. Honestly, I don't care if I break even at the end of the year. This place embodies what the neighborhood used to be. I am willing to spend my last red cent to keep this bar open if it can help somebody."

Not to overstate the "family" quality of these local bars, but neighborhood publicans keep coming back to that word for a reason. People find family here, metaphorically and quite literally. One night, the bar hosted a barbecue competition where two middle-aged competitors were discussing their Maltese heritage at the bar and were dumbfounded to discover they were related.

"They were from the same neighborhood, but they never knew their connection to each other until they had a conversation at the bar," Lakeman says in wonderment.

That kind of chance encounter probably wouldn't happen without a place like Abick's Bar. And the bar couldn't exist without the dense, close-knit neighborhood around it. It's a classic symbiotic relationship. They have something special in Southwest, something other parts of the region are trying to emulate but fail to re-create.

"We had it perfect with a bar, church and stores within a few blocks of each other," Lakeman says. "And everyone is starting to realize this works. Plymouth and Northville are trying to create little downtowns like this area. This bar needs to be here to host and facilitate interactions between people and the betterment of the city."

Today, places are called "co-working spaces" or "business incubators," but the public space of a tavern offered that long ago. "When you needed something, you came to the bar," Lakeman says. "The bar was a cornerstone of the community. It needs to exist for the community and needs to continue on."

For instance, the ornately carved back of the bar is decorated with pilasters that have recessed panels just large enough to hold a bent business card — and they're lined with them. It's a kind of community Rolodex, with contact information for electricians, plumbers, lawyers, nonprofits, and much more. "This is an honest place to get advice on local people that can take care of the needs you have," Lakeman says. "We provide a link between someone who needs services, and the people we trust." So the bar is also a hiring hall and better business bureau? That's just the way it is at Abick's. When a place is there for more than 100 years, people begin to rely on it, to treat it as an institution.

And it feels historic, and not at all contrived. The framed Detroit Times issues marking the beginning and end of World War II weren't bought in an online auction, they were found in the basement. The cigar room still sports the original mirrors from the barber shop that opened in 1916. "We throw nothing away," Lakeman says. "It's why we have been able to donate a lot to museums over the years"

But Abick's doesn't just rest on its laurels the way a historically Polish establishment might. During our visit, we see black, white, and Latino customers. Where Manya used to serve Polish smorgasbords, there are now fresh tacos delivered from a nearby truck. Southwest Detroit's diversity is palpable.

For instance, regular customer Lex Zavala offers his story. He's a third-generation patron of Abick's, and his family has been in Southwest Detroit since the late 1800s. His family includes people of Mexican, Polish, and Maltese heritage. Zavala says, "The area feels like a small country town in a big city. It seems like every time you buy a beer you're supporting some cause. This is somewhere you can come and feel like you're being served a beer by your uncle or aunt."

At Abick's the connection to the neighborhood and its history isn't news. It's just the way it is. Zavala asks where else you can have a drink with your local firefighters, cops, and even your priest. Bartender Kit Lindamood points out that a few of them.

The drinking crowd includes parishoners from the nearby Orthodox church who come in most Saturdays after services. But that connection goes the other way too: The Abick family sponsored some of the art in the church, which makes for a bit of irony.

As Lindamood points out: "You can't participate in service at the church without noticing a connection to the bar because there are two murals behind the altar that were donated by the Abicks, with their name shown prominently.

"You can't help but to sit in this beautiful church and think about the bar," Lindamood says, laughing.

Abick's Bar is closed Sunday and open 9:15 a.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Saturday, at 3500 Gilbert St., Detroit; 313-894-9329.

More by Michael Jackman

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