It’s a typical Wednesday morning on Gates Street in the run-down, industrial Delray neighborhood of Detroit, where the Carbon Athletics Club has just opened for its members. The 57 mm antitank gun from World War II is still planted in its parking lot, designating the club as the meeting place of Jeep Gabrys American Legion Post 388. Heck, inside, it looks like it’s still a quiet morning in 1947. The bar is decorated with red-white-and-blue bunting. Ceiling fans sit idle under a canopy of embossed tin. Scads of amateur football memorabilia from the 1930s and 1940s adorn the walls. A few men sit hunched over cards at a table talking — at least until a deafening blast from the horn of a passing freight train stops all conversation for 15 long seconds.
Presiding over it all is general manager Charlene Kaslowski, a 67-year-old Polish-Italian cross from Wyandotte who’ll talk your ear off. She’s working the bar for the four customers who’ve come in this early. Bear in mind, the Carbon A.C. is no bar — though it has a nice one — it’s a social club. Kaslowski calls it a “key club” — you can come in with your key if you’re a member, or visit if you’re sponsored by one. It’s not a public house you can walk into, even if it often acts like one. For instance, friendly people knocking on the door with an earnest interest in it can often get a nice chat and a quick tour.
And it’s worth a look. It’s one of those timeless places that stubbornly refuses to change. There are no pretentious cocktails or flatscreen TVs. It’s a shot-and-a-beer bar where the TV is old, boxy, and often silent, and that’s something of a novelty for a sports-themed bar. Kaslowski says, “Probably in the last three to five years, we’ve gotten some younger professionals, and they like the old feeling instead of the new — which is nice because we’re not gonna change this into an ultra-modern place. That’s not gonna happen.”
Kaslowski says the newcomers have boosted income and membership for the club, vital to an institution that is losing its golden-era membership to old age. As Kaslowski puts it, “The American Legion used to meet upstairs. They can’t make those stairs anymore. They have their meetings down here. … I think they might have eight people left.”
Born on the gridiron
The building has only been the Carbon Athletics Club since 1947, but the club’s roots stretch back into the era of amateur Detroit football during the Great Depression. The “Carbon” in the name is a reference to the neighborhood’s gritty old carbon works, the nearby street that bears its name, and the football team spawned in this corner of Delray in the mid-1930s. Even back then, Delray seems to have been a tough part of town — tough enough to field a team of of the area’s ethnic Hungarians, Italians and Poles in those rough-and-tumble days of leather helmets. Under the leadership of trainer Vince Kaycza, the Carbon Football Team had a hot streak in the late 1930s, winning 1938’s state title, and even routing the bone-crushing prison inmate trusties of Jackson Prison in 1937, 1938, and 1939.
All those victories aside, it was a club without a clubhouse until 1947, when amateur sports boosters Anton and Anna Dusik all but donated 111 Gates Street to the gang, selling the building to the team for $1. The Dusiks had even thoughtfully added showers and rubdown tables in the basement. Those are gone, but the place still sports the same bar from the Old Blue Danube the club paid $2,500 for in 1950 — minus 10 inches.
Unfortunately, amateur neighborhood football became a casualty of the postwar years. In the 1950s, with the rise of television, pro football, and a steady trickle of residents leaving the neighborhood for the suburbs, interest in the team waned. With changing times, the Carbon Athletics Club decided to forgo competing altogether and focused on raising money to help fund youth sports leagues instead. Over the years, the organization also made space for diverse public purposes, with members interpreting for non-English speakers so they could gain their drivers licenses, or hosting gatherings of members’ wives and the women of the neighborhood. Of course, in those days, membership was restricted to men, and stayed that way until at least the 1980s.
A stubborn fixture
That stuck-in-the-past feeling of Carbon A.C. is only heightened by the decay of the neighborhood around it. The club’s fortunes never fell as low as the neighborhood it’s a part of, which disappears year by year to abandonment and arson.
“Across the street from us,” Kaslowski says, “there are, like, three homes that are inhabitable. And down the street, maybe six. On the street behind us, two. Other than that, it’s all gone. … There used to be five or six bars within an eight-block radius, and everything’s all gone.”
And the club’s little pocket of Delray isn’t exactly showered with fine city services. Kaslowski says scrappers stole the manholes right out of the road until they were fixed down permanently, and that some enterprising scrappers once even made off with the American Legion’s antitank gun. (It was later recovered from the shoulder of an area freeway.) Kaslowski describes how, a few years ago, a woman on Gates Street publicly hanged herself from a laundry pole. Kaslowski says when she called the 911, she was told there was no Gates Street. Finally, the fire department came and cut the woman down before the buses arrived to let the neighborhood children out.
Poor city services are something the club has become used to, but the fees and tickets the city hits the club with can make Kaslowski’s dark eyes glow. She says, “I don’t even want to tell you some of the stories. … I’ve got, like, nine different departments that have to come and inspect us every year at $425 a pop or more. It’s so ridiculous. We’re the only ones that cut the grass and keep the place up — and I ended up having a ticket one morning on the door for blight. I’m like ‘That’s it. I’ve had it. I’m gonna fight this one.’ That’s crazy. You don’t get on the railroad. You don’t get on anybody else. We cut the grass and keep the place clean and you’re gonna give us a ticket for blight? So that’s when the Italian comes out. I’m ready to fight.”
In fact, the lack of city services in Delray has some longtime residents convinced the city wishes the people would leave. If that sounds paranoid, it happens against the backdrop of the recent expansion of the Marathon refinery, as well as plans to locate the American side of a new international bridge there. Kaslowski says, “They’ve closed so many things around here. … It’s too bad but now the Marathon is kind of creeping in from the other side.” It also doesn’t help that both the Jefferson and Fort Street bridges over the Rouge River are closed. When the Dix Street bridge closes, as it does from time to time, members coming from downriver have to take a six-mile detour around the Rouge complex. Kaslowski says, “That’s really cut into the business.”
Off the beaten path
The bridge closures are just one more thing cutting the bar off from the rest of the city, but there are more. Kaslowski puts it bluntly: “We’re really off the beaten path.”
You can say that again. Some parts of Delray seem to have more railroad trackage than sidewalks, with the Norfolk Southern, CSX, Canadian National, and even the tiny Delray Connecting Railroad Company running freight through the area. Long, slow trains on the Norfolk Southern track block off the club from the rest of Delray for significant periods. The surest way to reach Carbon A.C. is to drive west to the end of Fort Street — which now a maze of pylons as it’s being rebuilt — make a left, a left, and a right down a road cut with the battered remains of a couple ancient railroad tracks and surrounded by old railroad right-of-way so overgrown it looks forested. At the railroad, there’s an inconspicuous spur leading off to the left just before the grade crossing gate. One can safely cross that single track even when a train is running and drive right into the parking lot. It’s that easy.
Kaslowski says, “We have a lot of train traffic, and sometimes they park there for an hour, so you learn to maneuver different ways to get here.” The club members take a philosophical view when trapped by a train for a while. “You just learn patience,” she says. “ A lot of times if you get a big enough group in here, they’ll say, ‘Oh I hear the trains, so it’s time for another drink.”
And trains aren’t the only heavy industry that impinge on the bar’s serenity. Apparently, the bar is almost on top of Detroit’s underground salt mines. Kaslowski says members could sometimes feel the blasting down below from their barstools. She says, “You can actually feel the rumble. We used to be able to set our clocks every day at 3:30 p.m. They’d blast three times. And you could feel it. It was great!”
A new notoriety
These days, some new faces are appearing at the club. Some are drawn by the stories of the old amateur football team. Some are curious to see the place their grandfather or uncle went to. But some of them are young people who see the old shot-and-beer place as a charming novelty, especially when it’s as hard to find as Carbon A.C. Recently, Eric Lakeman of Abick’s Bar, itself a venerable Detroit watering hole, introduced the people at Detroit History Tours to the place. The group has since brought three busloads of sightseers to the bar, one loaded with more than 50 sightseers.
Kaslowski loved it, though she was initially a bit concerned about what Oakland County barhoppers would think of the Delray club. She tells us, “I said, ‘Where are you people coming from?’ And she said “Troy, Birmingham.” And I said, ‘Oh my god, how are you gonna bring them in?” because for a while we had tires over the open manholes in the street and a lot of debris and burned-out cars and I didn’t want them to get frightened and say, ‘Oh my god, don’t ever take me back there again!’ But they came here and had a good time. As a matter of fact, on that very first bus tour, they asked if they could skip a stop so they could stay here longer. That really made me feel good.”
If the public-spirited athletic club can draw enough new members, it might keep battling the odds for another generation, but the odds against Carbon A.C. are still daunting. But haven’t they always been? What is it that makes Kaslowski and others show up every day and keep it open?
She doesn’t hesitate. She says, “I like the camaraderie. They are really so tightly knit and it’s something nice you just don’t find anymore. The people here look after each other. These days, people are ‘Hurray for me and screw you’ and it’s unfortunate. That’s not how life is supposed to be. You’re supposed to help each other out as much as you can. That’s just the way I feel about it. That’s what we do. … I don’t charge for my time here. We don’t charge for anything like that. It’s just it makes people happy. It makes people come and want to get together. You can’t ask for more than that. If you don’t give, it’s a lonely existence.”
Carbon Athletics Club is at 111 Gates St., Detroit; 313-554-3518.