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Cycles of change (9/22/2010)
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West Jefferson starts downtown and takes you to the middle of nowhere, from the city's skyscrapers into the wilderness of the Delray neighborhood, the closest thing to a ghost town within a city that, in some places, often resembles one.
Kovacs bar is one of a few places in Delray with the lights left on, an outpost for the handful of people who still work or live here, at Detroit's wild edges.
In every direction around it there's emptiness — barren fields, empty buildings, quiet streets. Crumbling little houses dot the blocks.
"The neighborhood? There isn't one," says Bob Evans, the bar's 72-year-old owner. "Just a few neighborhood people on a street on this side and that side, but basically it's all vacant."
Bob and his wife Delores, 64, bought the bar 13 years ago, after she retired from Ford and he wound down a career in real estate. "It was a fling," he says of the purchase. Now it's a long-term relationship they want to end but can't.
They thought they'd retire once their bar was bought by the state to make room for a new bridge to Canada. But delays and a challenge by billionaire Manuel Moroun, who insists on building another bridge next to his Ambassador Bridge a few miles up the river, have left the project — and the area — in limbo. All they can do is wait for the disputes and delays to be resolved.
"We can't put it up for sale," Bob says. "What are we going to tell the people — 'Oh, we don't know when the bridge is coming through?' Who's going to deal with that unless you give it away? So we're stuck."
Their stunning bar, two stories of bricks and old wood, is 120 years old. Back then, Delray was an independent village growing through a steady inflow of Poles, Armenians and Hungarians. West Jefferson was still River Road, lined with tall maples and small businesses end to end. Dense housing sprang up to accommodate the immigrants.
The Solvay Process Co. opened a chemical plant here in 1894 and provided the village with jobs, paved streets, sewers, and a horse-drawn, four-wheeled fire truck manned by company employees, who also built the neighborhood's first hospital. In 1901, Detroit Iron Works built two blast furnaces for iron-making on nearby Zug Island, added to later by Great Lakes Steel Corp.
Detroit annexed the village in 1905. By then, companies were flocking here, drawn by the access to river transportation and natural resources. The small town gave way to factories and chemical plants.
As industry concentrated here so did the pollution. The wildlife along the shore died off. River Road's trees stopped producing leaves in the spring. Powders from the factories would drizzle from the sky at night, leaving a thin film on houses and cars.
Residents who could afford to move away did so, starting a population exodus that continues today. By the 1950s, the I-75 freeway plowed through and took hundreds of houses, as did the construction of the wastewater treatment plant. Between that and the industries still in town, the air in Delray maintains a foul stench.
Only a few thousand people still live here, according to the last census. Some would be relocated to make room for the second bridge to Canada, with a planned plaza to go right where Kovacs bar sits. But the project start date came and went while the dispute between Moroun and the state rages on. Now everyone just waits.
Bob pours himself a drink. He and his wife are their own customers tonight after a handful of steelworkers finished their drinks and headed home. An old-time neon sign glows in the window. There's baseball on TV.
Despite wanting to leave, Bob smiles with pride when he talks about the place. It was even in a movie once — Hoffa — back in the '80s. "There's a lot of history here," he says.
The building the bar is in was built in 1889. It began as the Angus Smith Hotel with a restaurant and beer garden selling cigars from a manufacturer on site. After Prohibition and a few name changes, a Hungarian named Micl Kovacs moved to Detroit from Ohio, bought it and turned it into a tavern. His son Steve took over when he returned from World War II and the old man died. "He marched all the way through Europe in the infantry," Bob says. "He was a great big guy, a strong son of a bitch." Kovacs died in 1996, and his wife put his bar up for sale. Bob snapped it up.
"When I first bought it, sometimes I'd sit down at the end of the bar and just look at it — 'Man, look at this place.'"
It's undergone few changes in its life. The walls are pine, the ceilings are high, the doors are thick, and the mahogany Art Deco bar is massive. The walnut bar surface itself is made of a single piece of wood, reputed over the years to be the longest one-piece bar in the city. "I looked at it and said 'God damn, this is one hell of a piece of tree,'" Bob says.
At first, he tended bar while Delores planned and cooked the lunches, which drew dozens of hungry steelworkers and truckers every day. "This would be filled in here and the overflow would have to go in the back," he says. "You ask anybody, this was a good lunch. We did spaghetti and meatballs, goulash, beef stroganoff. We always tried to keep the price down, keep it reasonable." In their time they've hosted retirement and Christmas parties, even a wedding reception.
But many of Delray's last holdout businesses were felled by the economy the past several years. U.S. Steel took over Zug Island and, after imposing layoffs a few years ago, the company prohibited the remaining contract workers from leaving for lunch, fearing they'd come back drunk and create liability issues. "They even got so bad they would send security around to check the cars at the bars, not only ours but from here to Wyandotte," Bob says.
Now the dining room sits empty, its tables and chairs neatly arranged but almost never used. "Losing the lunch trade was a big thing," Bob says. "That was 50 percent of our business."
They close the place before dark nowadays, mostly because the last steelworkers have left the area by then. Bob works days, Delores usually works evenings, though he'll stick around with her sometimes so she's not alone. "She gets the dock workers and city drivers, and some of the truck drivers; they pull in at night and they sleep in their trucks, so they park and come over here, have a few beers and go back, and they head out in the morning," he says.
They'll still sit and have drinks and talk with customers, and stay open later if someone is still thirsty or there's a good conversation going. But they're often alone, watching TV and waiting in case someone comes in for a few.
"It's so slow and it's so upsetting," Bob says. "I just go from day to day right now. It's a lot of stress. I would rather have somebody walk in and say, 'Hey, I'll give you this much money,' and I'll go out the door. But I want to keep them away from my wife 'cause she'll take a lot less. She's tired."
As with any fling, even one that's run its course, there's still some affection for the place, and they don't want to simply end things for good.
"You keep hanging on," Delores says. "You still pay your bills and you don't walk away. You just keep it going and you do what you have to do."
They finish their drinks. The sun is setting and the last customers are long gone. "You ready to go?" Bob says to her. She turns out the lights.