Nestled under the shadows of the massive I-75 Rouge River overpass and tucked into a long-neglected section of Detroit’s farthest southwest extreme, there’s a pig roast happening at Carbon Athletic Club. It’s a flawless mid-September Saturday. Outside an unassuming two-story building, simple wooden pallets are painted red, white, and blue. Strings of lights hang from a pergola. A train roars past about 10 feet away. Hours before the food is ready, the eclectic assortment of outdoor tables is filled with people from all over southeast Michigan ready for some epic barbecue.
The roast is $15 for a plate heaped with fresh pork and piled high with veggies and sides. The smell of vinegar and brown sugar that wafts from the grill is pungent and heady. Despite a forecast of rain and an ongoing pandemic, dozens of guests are willing to pay the entry fee for a temporary membership card. The obstacles of 2020 aren’t the first — and certainly won’t be the last — challenges to face the members of the club.
Southwest of Southwest Detroit, the Carbon Works section of Delray doesn’t get a whole lot of attention amid the reporting on the Gordie Howe International Bridge project. The bridge, scheduled for completion in 2024, will carve a massive slice through the eastern section of Delray and has spurred the relocation of entire households. But the decimation of the Carbon Works section of Delray, which hugs the Rouge River, Zug Island, and the industrial behemoths that litter the area, has been in progress for many years already.
This area of Detroit was one of the first to see industrialization on a grand scale. Decades before the car was king, the natural wetlands of the Detroit-Rouge River delta were scarred and developed into a maze of plants and factories.
The first of these industrial ventures gave the region its name: In 1874, the Michigan Carbon Works expanded to the area — then just a village — to break animal bones down into charcoal, used for fertilizer and sugar refinement, and glue. By 1884, it was the largest carbon works site in the world, encompassing more than 50 buildings on a 72-acre campus. A large proportion of the raw material was used in the processing of buffalo and American bison bones. Once plentiful on the prairie, these animal bones grew scarce due to the carbon industry and overhunting, which also permanently altered the landscape of the Great Plains and the lives of Indigenous people. The Michigan Carbon Works’ proximity to the Detroit River, Rouge River, and the multiple railroad lines that wove through the area made shipping millions of tons in from the western U.S. even easier. Burnt, boiled, and broken down, the resulting carbon was used for decades as an ink ingredient; the term “bone black” for paint and ink is still used to this day.
In the 1890s, the Carbon Works employed more than 750 workers, mostly recent Polish, Hungarian, and Armenian immigrants. The industrial landscape and the houses built to accommodate the workers there sprang up simultaneously, alongside small corner taverns, greengrocers, and churches for the growing number of Catholics in the area. And each of these taverns had a devoted sports team.
Like other Detroiters, the young men of the neighborhood developed a passion for American sports like football and baseball, and club teams sprang up all over the city. In Delray alone, at least four separate athletic clubs were participating in statewide competitions by 1905. Packard Plant auto workers, for example, played Sunday baseball against workers from Dodge Main, fighting bitterly season after season for bragging rights. Club baseball’s heyday in Delray was the 1900s and 1910s. World War I and the professionalization of the sport slowed the popularity of club baseball, but Carbon Works neighborhood athletes were more than happy to bowl or play football instead.
Over the years, the Woodmere Social Club, named for the nearby cemetery, evolved into the Carbon Athletic Club (CAC); club members aren’t quite sure when the change happened, but it was likely due to the number of Carbon Works employees who were members of the club. After another lengthy hiatus caused by World War II, the Carbon Athletic Club’s baseball team was successful enough in the late 1940s to draw a committed, paying crowd to its games. In July of 1947, the Carbon Athletic Club incorporated as a nonprofit, members-only organization devoted to sponsoring athletic competitions, including youth sports. The names of CAC’s founding members is a tongue-tying tribute to the tough Hungarians, Poles, and Armenians who settled the area in the early days: Wasik, Korycinski, Slowick.
The club members had been meeting at the Carbon Inn, an early 20th-century tavern with an attached butcher shop, general store, and ice cream parlor situated on Gates Street with easy access to the railroad tracks and nearby Delray Junction. The inn’s owners, Anton and Anna Dusik, were longtime friends of the club and supporters of the team. In fact, during the CAC’s greatest winning streak, in the late 1930s, the Dusiks installed showers and rubdown tables for their favorite athletes in the inn’s basement. It didn’t take much for the CAC to convince the Dusiks, who owned several properties in the area, to sell the building to the newly minted organization. The Antons did so for the lavish sum of one dollar. The CAC finally had its own permanent headquarters.
When the nearby Blue Danube Bar closed down and unloaded its back bar in 1950, CAC members brokered a deal with Vincent and Freddy Crudo of Crudo Brothers Cabinet Shop. The Crudo brothers had been storing the back bar, originally from the 1930s, in their shop. A nearly identical Streamline Moderne-style bar, typical of the interiors of these industrial-era bars at the time, can be found at Tommy’s Detroit Bar downtown and at Charlie’s Bar in Springwells. For $2,500 (approximately $27,000 today), the club bought and installed the bar. They also bought the front rail, but had to shave off 10 inches to make it fit into the intended space.
The Carbon Athletic Club gradually focused more on youth sports than adult teams after the late 1950s and 1960s, but Carbon members remained active. The police department taught English language classes from the CAC regularly, even occasionally hosting drivers’ license exams right inside the clubhouse. The American Legion Jeep Gabrys Post #388, a veterans’ organization named for the first young man from the neighborhood to be killed in World War II, shared the second floor beginning in 1952. Dances, massive Christmas parties, fish fries, and many other gatherings kept the space on Gates Street busy. But as the years went on, attendance dwindled.
All the while, the remaining members of the Carbon Athletic Club polished worn floors. They bricked up windows in compliance with insurance and city regulations. They dusted off the bottles and the decades’ worth of sepia-toned team photos scattered across the walls. They carefully maintained the property and several nearby abandoned lots. They remained.
The area had long been the site of an uneasy truce between residential and industrial interests; in addition to the carbon works and the Marathon oil refinery just across the Rouge, the addition of a wastewater treatment plant surrounding the Catholic parish and school St. John Cantius in 1974 was a blow to residents. Declining population numbers in Delray — and in Carbon Works in particular — meant lower membership levels, which led to less money to host large events — the kind that might draw new members.
Change came gradually but inevitably to the building hunkered down beside the tracks. The CAC officially began admitting women as full members in the late 1980s, after decades of unofficial but vital activity by the “Happy Hookers,” the group of female crocheters and knitters who gathered with their needles and decks of playing cards upstairs. Current club secretary Barb Sullivan remembers those days: “They [the male members] tried not to let us in, but we got in anyway,” she laughs. Eventually, the children of the club’s original members grew curious about the bar and began to return. New residents from Southwest Detroit and Downriver heard about the club’s welcoming atmosphere and laid-back bar, or were brought there by neighbors who were members. Membership grew again, if very slowly.
Despite the challenges unique to its location, the club is poised for a revival.
Tom Sandusky’s father was a member, and his mother bartended here in the ‘90s. Now, he’s a regular bartender and a board member. “The industry around here is so miniscule compared to what it used to be,” he says. “There’s, what, three or four, maybe a half dozen occupiable houses on the block.” But now, despite the devastation to the immediate neighborhood population, a new generation hungry for history and belonging is eager to explore what Carbon has to offer.
In Detroit, and especially in recent years, the cachet of belonging to a members-only club in an emptying neighborhood could turn insufferably precious. Yet Carbon has maintained its no-nonsense approach. Trendy cocktails are not on the menu, but beers and generous shots are. Visitors must sign in with the massive guest book, especially when secretary Sullivan, affectionately nicknamed “the pit bull” for her adherence to rules (and dues-paying), is around. Everyone is welcome, so long as they respect the rules and the space and its members.
Over the last few years, a devoted group of under-40 Detroiters, including bar manager MaryBeth Beaudry and member Dua Yacoubi, have added to the rolls and brought some new ideas to Carbon. “There’s a lot of different people that will come up to the events, you really have a nice mix of people,” Yacoubi says. “We have pretty much members of every race, class, age, sex, sexual orientation.” Adds Sandusky: “We’re equal opportunity assholes.”
Current membership levels are as high as Sullivan can remember for decades. Around 250 have paid their dues this year. Says Beaudry, “We get comments like, ‘Oh, I used to come here as a kid. My dad was a member’ … so people are resurfacing.” The appeal of a historic building and its century-old photos and fixtures, the allure of the members-only bar, and the genuinely welcoming clientele have combined to draw in newcomers eager for membership.
Although the club is still fine-tuning its hours of operation, in general it is open Tuesday and Thursday from 4 p.m. until at least 8 p.m., and always later if club members are still around. On Wednesdays, the building opens at 10:30 a.m. for the dedicated old-timers who have been coming in for decades at that time. On Fridays and Saturdays, official club hours are 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., but again, it’s typically open quite a bit later. How late the building stays open is generally up to whoever is there.
When there isn’t a pandemic or a club event going on, a typical evening at Carbon sees a few members and a guest or two trading jokes and gentle insults. The occasional muffled boom from 1,200 feet below the barstools travels up from the Detroit Salt Company mines, where salt is pulled out of the ancient seabeds where it was left millennia ago. Members have discovered every possible side street and alley to take to avoid the frequent trains blocking the parking lot. When all else fails, members joke, at least there really is a valid excuse for being late for home or work, so you might as well grab another drink and wait it out.
In spite of the current health crisis, club leadership has continued to schedule a slate of events for members and guests — all outside on the patio. Every Saturday night in October is a different event: a Nicolas Cage movie night on the 24th, with freshly washed blankets, movie-theater candy, and a giant projection screen on the side of the building. Nightly bonfires, weather permitting. A steak dinner on October 17 is highly anticipated, as is the Halloween party on the 31st.
The patio is a constantly evolving space, and a good example of how the club works. For many years after the Carbon Inn’s butcher shop and ice cream fountain were demolished, the side yard of the Club was just a patch of grass to be maintained by members. But once the COVID-19 crisis hit this year, the resourceful club members saw an opportunity. Pea gravel was found, trucked in, and spread to create even ground. Abick’s Bar, another centenarian bar just a few blocks away, donated dozens of concrete pavers to the project. Every piece of furniture and light and fixture outside has been donated and installed by club members.
On the night of the pig roast, a club member who owns a garden center in Taylor donates two gigantic potted mums, while Sullivan brings a dozen loaves of zucchini bread, baked from the overabundance that Yacoubi planted earlier this year. MaryBeth Beaudry slings Buds and Crown Royals as fast as she can while a jazz trio sets up. Long-absent members who’ve come in from the suburbs wave hello and chat with old acquaintances.
The event has the feel of a family reunion. Sandusky mans the grill in a Trump hat, trading political jabs with club member Ken Reid, who is wearing his Veterans for Biden mask. Although conversations can get heated among long-time members, especially lately, there is a mutual respect that prevents personal lines from being crossed. “We’ve had heated debates,” admits Beaudry, “and then we all cool down and come back in the morning.”
Finally, the pig is fully roasted, pulled whole from the grill and brought inside to divvy up. The crowd files into the bar to get their food, table by table. Laughter is drowned out by the Canadian Pacific freight train rolling by, but picks right back up once the train passes.
The future is uncertain for the Carbon Works neighborhood and for the club, but that’s nothing new here. There’s always been some sort of looming threat to Delray, to Carbon, to the residents and members of the club. “The bridge, with the expansion, we don’t know what the state and corporate entities are going to want around here,” Sandusky says. “If we lose the building, yeah, we could probably find someplace else and put the name on it, but it just wouldn’t be the same.”
Right now, though, there’s not much sense in worrying over it. The Carbon Athletic Club’s stubborn, loyal members will grab a drink and listen to the rumbles from the overpass and the mines underfoot and the trains trundling past. They’ll wait it out. There are worse places to be.
Mickey Lyons is a Detroit-based researcher and writer. She holds a master’s degree in Irish studies from Boston College. She’s proud member of the Carbon Athletic Club whose behind on her dues and working on a series of stories about the history and future of member bars in Detroit.
Gabriella Csapo is a freelance photographer working in the city of Detroit and an associate photographer with Gerard + Belevender.