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Cycles of change (9/22/2010)
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Mike Harnett leans back against the hood of his car, arms folded, eyes alert. It's early afternoon, and everything is still and quiet in the fields around him.
His job is to watch over the cars of the customers at the Ivanhoe Café, better known as the Polish Yacht Club, a 101-year-old bar and restaurant on the corner of Frederick and Joseph Campau, where part of Poletown used to be.
"I'm like a scarecrow, more or less," the 50-year-old says.
He's here as a reassuring presence to customers and a deterring one to criminals. "They say it's good to have somebody here when they come out the door," he explains.
Though he once thwarted someone trying to steal a catalytic converter off someone's vehicle, not much crime happens here because the location is so desolate. Most of the nearby residents are old folks, almost all the little stores that once were here are long gone, and this neighborhood fixture doesn't have much of a neighborhood around it anymore.
"Did you have a good lunch?" Harnett says gently to a pair of older ladies as they make their way out the door. Wonderful, they say. He escorts them to their car.
Once they drive off it's quiet again but for the buzz of the bugs in the grass. And it stays quiet. A stray dog snorts through an alley. A breeze makes the tops of the wild trees sway. The sun beats down and the shadows grow long as the day rolls on and not a soul comes by. It's serene as a country road.
Yet Harnett stays on guard out here, over not just the cars but also a part of old Detroit, still around after all these years, hanging on like a flower in the weeds.
Everything about the Polish Yacht Club is old-time. The name Ivanhoe refers to its original telephone exchange. The food is thick and rich, a throwback to an earlier style of dining. They serve big plates of perch and walleye and frog legs and kielbasa. Vegetables are scarce. Instead of a bread basket, you get a stack of pickles. The atmosphere is casual, the prices are cheap, and everything is made from scratch.
The decor inside reflects the look of restaurants a half-century ago. The wall in the main dining room is covered with autographed portraits of local celebrities from years back, such people as weatherman Sonny Eliot, sportscaster Ray Lane and Mayor Jerry Cavanagh.
Little candleholders with crosses on them dot the tables, as Polish as can be, as are the photos of Pope John Paul II that hang in one room. An antique piano sits near the kitchen. Nautical artifacts poke out high and low from the walls. Every room is small, reached through a narrow door, betraying the restaurant's origins as somebody's house. You're eating in the old living room one day, a child's former bedroom the next. It's home cooking in a real home.
The massive wood bar is the same one the locals drank at in 1909, under the same tin ceiling. Framed black-and-white pictures of neighbors who were regulars decades ago fill the rooms. Everything here announces that this place has a long history.
A man named Stanislaus Grendzinsk founded it in 1909. His daughter Agnes took over in the 1920s, adding a restaurant to what was just a bar. Her daughter's husband, Big John, ran it for 41 years after that. He was a legend around here, the big personality behind the bar. Everyone still talks about him even though he died 16 years ago. "My dad was awesome," says Patty Galen. Now, she and friend Tina Marks, both 53, manage it; her mom, Lucille Sobczak, Big John's 82-year-old widow, owns it. "The three girls," as Galen says. They're this era's familiar faces behind the bar.
Back in its heyday, the Ivanhoe anchored a block in what was a small town within a big city.
"There were a lot of places to park on the street because nobody had cars," Sobczak says of Poletown. "They took the streetcar or the bus. And there were stores all over. There weren't any real rich people, but there were cute little houses. They had a little bit of lawn and a porch, and people would sit on their porch. Detroit was a beautiful city."
For years the Ivanhoe was the neighborhood's place to be, where judges and politicians and businessmen let lunches stretch into the third or fourth drink.
"In the '60s and '70s this place was like crazy-cuckoo," says Galen. "There would be a lineup outside." Back then, Big John had to buy 300 pounds of fresh perch every week just to meet demand. Reservations were made not for the number of seats you needed but for how much fish you wanted.
But the neighbors started migrating out of the city, and the line outside dwindled. "Everybody that came here before the riots, they all lived close," Galen says. "Then they all started moving out to the suburbs, and it just got farther and farther to come to dinner."
This still bothers Sobczak, who, though she moved outside the city, never considered taking the restaurant with her. She grew up here, in the apartment upstairs.
"You know, there are some people that are scared to even come to Detroit," she says. "They're just scared of Detroit. But you know, bad things happen all over. A lot of places have problems." She still comes in every Friday to watch things over, say hi to old friends, be the link that connects then to now.
"People that we know have been coming here for 50, 60 years," she says. "And they come in still, and it makes it real nice."
Its common name came from one of those old Polack-style jokes. A guy drinking at the bar in the early '60s was dodging his wife, and when she'd angrily call there looking to see if he was on a bender he'd tell Big John to say he was over at the "Polish Yacht Club." This was a real hoot to his fellow drinkers, and the name stuck to the landlocked bar.
A few years later, though, the regulars decided to make it a real organization. They printed up silly membership cards, bought captain's sailing hats and jackets, held annual elections for a commodore and took a photo of the winner wearing the costume. A wall is now lined with dozens of these portraits from over the years, showing men whose closest connection to water was how much was used to cut their drinks. Members even once jokingly asked the Detroit City Council if a canal could be built from their doorstep to the river a few miles away so they wouldn't be landlocked anymore.
The club has monthly meetings and holds an annual gala dinner that raises money for such causes as juvenile diabetes and the nearby St. Hyacinth church. It still has more than 100 members, carrying on the kind of social traditions that have died off in so many other places around town.
Those traditions have helped Ivanhoe outlast everything around it. The nearby residents left and it stayed. Then the houses went away, leaving it standing alone on its block. Its bar lasted through Prohibition, its restaurant survived the Depression. All by keeping things the same even as everything around it changed.
As customers leave, nearly every one of them comes over to say goodbye to Galen, or give her or her mom a hug.
"It's still a family business and we treat our customers like family," Galen says. "When you have something that works and something is good, why mess with it?"
Detroitblogger John scours Detroit for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.