American playwright Arthur Miller once said, “There are no such things as stories, only characters.” In other words, people are important. They are faceted and complicated creatures full of fears, flaws, quirks and contradictions. That’s what makes them wonderful and it’s certainly what has always made things interesting — particularly in Detroit.
“Very few human beings besides my grandma are perfect,” Bailey Sisoy Isgro, founder of Detroit History Tours, says. “But that doesn’t diminish their significance or contribution.”
Bailey was born and raised in Detroit, just like her parents and her parents’ parents and their parents’ parents. The fifth-generation Detroiter grew up on coney dogs, Vernor’s floats and family anecdotes. These stories were her first introduction to the city’s infamous inhabitants.
“My grandpa was a great storyteller. He would take his time and had a way of making whomever he was talking to feel important,” Bailey says of the man who used to wear an I knew Henry Ford button and who loved sharing his account of an afternoon Ford rode by on his tractor and stopped to dig out a swimming hole for a bunch of poor kids.
“In Detroit, you walk in the shadow of all these ghosts,” Bailey says. “You can’t be here, either as a visitor or a resident and not wonder who was here before you.”
Bailey’s mother was quick to recognize and nurture her daughter’s curiosity. It was common for the family to take leisurely walks through the neighborhood cemetery, and if Bailey expressed interest in a particular gravestone, her mother would escort her to the library to read about the life of the dearly departed.
Fast forward a couple of decades, to a sunny Saturday afternoon in Detroit and Bailey is back in a cemetery — Woodlawn Cemetery. This time, with a microphone in hand and a bus full of 50 new friends hanging on her every word.
The Terrifying History Tour, one of several historical tours Bailey has charted, is a five-hour journey through Detroit’s dark side — each stop exploring the factories, pubs, parks and institutions where former citizens straddled the line between good and evil. Naturally, drinking and swearing are as much a part of the tour as they were a part of Detroit’s colorful past.
“This all started out as a hobby,” Bailey says. “A way to give back to Detroit, for everything it’s given me. I honestly thought we’d do four tours a year, and eventually, if things went well, once a month — max. Last year, only our second in business, we did 200.”
Bailey can and does rattle off dates and numbers with extraordinary ease, but she’s learned it’s the stories about real people that actually help others connect to the city and care about its future.
“I want people to walk away from our tour with a little more context,” Bailey says. “If you are reading the paper and see Fisher Body Plant 21 is being torn down, I don’t want you to see Fisher 21. I want you to see Howard Fisher, the youngest of the seven Fisher brothers, who was made to go sweep up the scrap metal on the factory floors every evening to be recycled. Because even though he was an executive, he was still the little brother. And though they were millionaires, the Fishers never forgot their humble beginnings and couldn’t stand to see a penny wasted.”
Detroit is special. There was, and is, always something happening here and Bailey has made it her life’s mission to share that fact, in the most interesting way possible, with whoever is interested. And according to the numbers, a lot of people are interested. Some 6,500 people a year come from near and far — as far away as Australia — to listen to Bailey and her ebullient team wax poetic on everything from Detroit’s wild women to its Purple Gang.
Patrons walk away understanding how Detroit changed the way the world makes everything, how it helped save the world during WWII and why you have the Motor City to thank for things like stop lights and peanut butter. If after the tour, you find yourself a little more in love with Detroit, and have a newfound kinship with its residents, past and present, that’s intentional, too.
“The Cadillacs, the Fords, the Dodge brothers, the Fisher boys, the Riveting Rosies — they may not be here physically, but these people are so tangible to me that I have crushes on some of them,” Bailey says. “I think Edsel Ford is just dreamy. John and Horace Dodge were a riot by all accounts and would have made for a memorable double date. I think Marie Therese Cadillac and I would have been friends, and I know I would have had some great heart-to-hearts with Sojourner Truth. Then there’s Harry Bennett, an evil goon who I can’t help but love because he made Walter Reuther fight harder for auto workers’ rights. Can you have Batman without the Joker?”
Despite the success of Detroit History Tours, Bailey hasn’t quit her day job.
“I work full time as an automotive sculptor for GM,” she says. “While it’s a lot to juggle, I can’t quit because I’m one of those annoying people who loves both of her jobs. I get to work at the GM Technical Center in Warren, which is a National Historic Landmark. I get to walk the same halls that Harley Earl, Alfred Solan and The Damsels of Design walked. And when I get home, I get to scheme new ways to share Detroit’s rich, riveting past.”
Bailey not only hosts tours, but a wide range of historically themed events around the city. Like a scavenger hunt at the Detroit Institute of Arts, a Depression-era luncheon and discussion at Hamtramck’s iconic Bank Suey community space, and a historical fashion show in the living room of her Highland Park home, once owned by the infamous Motor City Madam, Helen McGowan. This December, she and her creative cohorts will recreate the Repeal Ball of 1933 at The Detroit Yacht Club in the very same ballroom Detroiters celebrated the end of American prohibition 85 years ago.
Somehow, in between sculpting the future and preserving the past, Bailey found the time to add another dream job to her resume: Author. In collaboration with her friend and fellow tour guide Nicole Lapointe, Bailey wrote a picture book titled Rosie: A Detroit Herstory. The book celebrates Rosie the Riveter and the women war workers of WWII. You wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Bailey wrote it in the very same bar that working women frequented after their shifts. Wayne State Press will publish the book this spring and the ladies have plans to release a new Herstory every year.
“Every morning, I wake up thinking I am the luckiest girl in Detroit,” Bailey says. “Where else can a 30 year old own a company like mine, while having a job like mine, while getting to live in a house like mine, with neighbors like these? And also be on a first name basis with every bar owner in town?”
Maybe Detroit’s the lucky one. It’s the wildly charming, extraordinarily clever and slightly rebellious characters like Bailey Sisoy Isgro who have always made living within these 142.9 square miles an adventure.
Pulling up to the corner of West 8 Mile Road and Livernois, you can see the sign from the street ‒ “Baker’s” ‒ in an elegant white font. The rectangular building with the black-and-white striped roof has the look of a zoot suit from the 1940’s. A matching striped awning reading “Jazz Club” welcomes guests in through the front door to revel in one of America’s oldest and purest art forms.
Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, billed as the “World’s Oldest Jazz Club,” has been a haven for jazz in Detroit since first opening its doors in 1934. Over 82 years later, the small Livernois club hosts live jazz and comedy entertainment seven days a week.
“[Baker’s] is widely known and accepted as the oldest continuous jazz club in the world,” says co-owner Eric J. Whitaker. “Baker’s is an internationally known brand because of its presence in the jazz community.”
The inside of the club is a step back to a time when big band, bop and swing were the gospel and horn players like Bird, Miles and Monk were its messengers. Separated into a bar area for drinks and a dining room with a stage, Baker’s is the definition of cozy. Small two-top tables make up most of the dining room, which has enough space for 99 guests. Framed photos of jazz greats like Charlie Parker and Sarah Vaughan hang on the walls surrounding the stage, a constant reminder of jazz giants who came before.
There is a smell of crispy fried chicken in the air that appears as soon as you drop your jacket off at coat check and lingers late into the night. It wafts from the kitchen which boasts a menu featuring catfish, smothered pork chops, roasted turkey and liver and gizzards to name a few. These plates come with a pairing of sides that include macaroni and cheese, black eyed peas, corn muffins, collard greens and dressing covered in gravy. If you’re coming to eat, odds are you’re not leaving hungry.
The intimate seating and carpeted floors make for an environment with top-notch sound quality. This has attracted some of the most talented names in jazz, including Dave Brubeck, Dizzy Gillespie, Gene Krupa, Nina Simone, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, to play the Baker’s stage over the years.
It is a few minutes before 8 p.m. on a Thursday in March and guests are dining underneath low lights. Most are dressed in dark colors, including one older woman who sits by herself in the booth in front of the stage. She wears all black, including a black ivy cap, and slips on dark sunglasses when the live music starts.
Three musicians onstage are setting up instruments ‒ a Yamaha keyboard, an upright bass and a small club drum kit. They tune strings, tighten drum heads and toy with tone settings in the moments leading up to show time. A Bob Marley tune, though not jazz, plays softly throughout the room from the bass player’s phone, connected from a cord that leads to speakers hanging from every corner of the club.
Tonight’s performer is Renee King-Jackson, a Detroit jazz vocalist who performs at Baker’s every third Thursday of the month. She is joined by Jaribu Shadid on bass, Brian Holland on drums and Robert Jones, her keyboard player of over 30 years.
King-Jackson wears an orange-and-green long shirt that sparkles underneath the dim red stage lights. Her smile radiates over the room as she joins the band and jokes with members from the crowd.
“Thank you for 82 years of iconic jazz history,” the club’s manager announces through the house speakers. “Please welcome Renee King-Jackson.”
The atmosphere of the room shifts from dimly lit seriousness to a vibe that is more lighthearted. Feet start to tap and heads begin to bob in time as the bass player takes a line for a walk and the drummer swings out a classic ride cymbal pattern ‒ “Ching-ching-cha-ching.” King-Jackson sings her first notes, loud and proud, and the diners perk up from their plates. Tonight’s celebration in the joy of jazz has begun.
Two men sit at a small table in front of the stage. They stare intently at the musicians, hands tapping on their table, heads shaking from side to side in time with the music.
“I like to take them on a trip,” King-Jackson says of her audiences. “For the time that they’re in my presence I want to hold them captive. They never know what I’m going to say or what I’m going to do and I think that’s why they come back.”
One of the men requests “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66”,” an old rhythm-and-blues standard from Nat King Cole that loosely fits into the jazz spectrum. King-Jackson smiles at the men and obliges. This is a good singalong number.
“Won’t you, get hip to this timely trip?” King-Jackson sings from a chair at center stage, never losing her smile.
More songs follow, including numbers from Donny Hathaway, Ben E. King’s “Spanish Harlem” and a request for the band to play Dave Brubeck’s masterwork in 5/4 time, “Take Five.”
As the night progresses, couples start to sit a little closer in their booths. King-Jackson’s sultry voice makes for a very romantic environment to wax nostalgic for jazz of the past.
“There’s nothing like live entertainment and that’s why Baker’s has held true,” said King-Jackson. “People come from all over the world because of the tradition of Baker’s Keyboard Lounge. It is still a comfortable place to come even though it is 80 years old. The original character is still intact.”
“We want to continue to enhance the interior structure of the building with updates to older equipment, seating, flooring, bar area and lighting,” Whitaker said. “We don’t want to change the exterior. Because we’re historical, we have to preserve everything according to how the city wants it.”
Whitaker mentioned re-installing an old giant sign that used to hang in the parking lot but was struck by lightning as another future improvement.
“We want to expand upon what we have here,” Whitaker said.
Baker’s Keyboard Lounge offers live jazz entertainment six days a week, Tuesday through Sunday. Monday is comedy night at the club. For more information on their event schedule and hours of operation, visit their website at theofficialbakerskeyboardlounge.com.
It’s dusk and the lights twinkling over the bar look like fireflies flitting about in a firehouse. What was once the Detroit Fire Department headquarters is now the recently opened Detroit Foundation Hotel, the lively bar sitting where fire engines once rested between calls.
Earlier in the day I meet up with Amber Rose Powers, Director of Lifestyle and Programming for the Detroit Foundation Hotel, to talk about how the hotel aspires to be more than just a hotel in Detroit, but a hotel of Detroit. We grab freshly brewed iced teas from the bartender and head across the lobby to the Foundation Studio, where we kick off our shoes − because this is the kind of place you can − and curl up on the tufted velvet sofa to talk about this unique boutique hotel sitting at the corner of Washington Boulevard and Larned Street, in the shadow of Cobo Center.
“Of course we want to be a place of comfort and familiarity for intrepid travelers,” says Amber, who sums up the idea with the term “trans-local hospitality.”
That drives a vision that goes beyond the traditional restaurant or gathering place, she explains:
“A place for a great meal, sure, but also to gather colleagues around our work table for a meeting, cozy up in one of our lounging areas to get lost in a book, or just spread out with a laptop and get some work done.”
After the interview, roaming the bar, we bump into chef Brad Greenhill and Courtney Henriette, just a month from re-opening their restaurant Takoi, which suffered an arson fire in December 2016.
“We’ve been having meetings and getting work done here all day, and now we’re back for dinner.”
The name, Detroit Foundation Hotel, is a nod to the brick and terracotta structure that has been standing on a solid foundation since 1929. It is a sturdy and commanding building, “much like the city itself, it is strong and proud, and not going anywhere,” says Michael Kitchen, Vice President of Acquisitions and Development for Aparium Hotel Group. The hotel’s owners felt it was important to honor the Detroit skyline and the heart and soul of the building.
As we tour the hotel, Amber enumerates some of the materials that have been restored.
“We salvaged much of the original structure, paying respect to its previous tenant, the Detroit Fire Department,” she says.
The glazed bricks throughout the Apparatus Room restaurant, named for the area that formerly housed the firemen’s gear, are original, as are the red fire doors, much of the metalwork, marble trim, terrazzo flooring and the stunning mahogany paneling in the former commissioner’s office, which is now the luxurious Commissioner’s Suite.
Using the city’s rich history as their muse, the guest rooms are beautifully appointed and remind guests why Detroit is called the Motor City. The headboards in each guest room are covered in a car paint finish and on the wall behind them is a colorful, floor-to-ceiling stripe, a reference to Fordite or Detroit agate—cut and polished automobile paint that has pooled and hardened on the paint room floor when cars were spray-painted and heat-cured in the factories here decades ago. Because Detroit has always been a city of makers, local talent created much of the guest room furniture and accessories.
The rooms are stocked with warm, Michigan-made woolen blankets, and the private bars are stuffed with Germack nuts,
Our/Detroit vodka, special truffles from Bon Bon Bon and more luscious Detroit-made treats along with a growler from Kickstand Brewery that can be filled at the bar with the hotel’s signature Commissioner XPA.
The retail area in the lobby offers jewelry from Rebel Nell, clothing from 1701 Bespoke and Detroit Denim, accessories from Detroit Is The New Black and candles from Detroit Rose.
The collection of locally made goods is ever-evolving.
“We want all of our visitors to get a taste of Detroit, and leave wanting more,” Amber says.
Which is why the Detroit Foundation Hotel has four Detroit Bikes − the Slow Roll model − on the property.
“We want people to get a glimpse of what treasures the city has to offer and then go out and explore Midtown, Downtown, Corktown, and Eastern Market to find more of what they experienced in the hotel,” says Amber.
Matt Eaton, from Red Bull House of Art near Eastern Market, curated the extensive collection of local artists on exhibit throughout the hotel, much of it created exclusively for the building. No space goes untouched, including the former fire hose shaft that now houses an incredible glass installation by local artist and College for Creative Studies instructor Kim Harty.
In the hotel’s boardroom is a mural by Dino Valdez that is a homage to Charles McGee’s colorful, geometric mural that has been on the Shelby Street side of the building since 1974.
The artists are often found in the hotel showing their works of art.
“We want them to feel like this is their space,” Amber says.
Case in point, Jordan Zielke, owner of Golden Sign Co. recently worked with Charles McGee on one of his new murals on a building just around the corner from McGee’s earlier work on the hotel. Jordan also did the beautiful 23-karat gold lettering on the windows of the Detroit Foundation Hotel, but his connection to the hotel doesn’t end there. Jordan’s grandfather was the Chief Fire Inspector working from this very building in the 1960s . . . when 23-karat gold lettering was commonly used on the fire engines.
The Foundation Studio is a cozy spot that is both nostalgic – with furniture that reminds me of my parent’s 1970s townhouse – and incredibly modern. There is a podcast studio in the middle of the room.
There are also the things that dance right on the line of what’s-old-is-new: on a retro sideboard are a turntable and speakers, a gift from Shinola, as well as a growing collection of vinyls. Also in the room is a beautiful Wallace Detroit electric guitar, made from wood reclaimed from the building.
Amber hopes to get an amp for it soon so that, “musicians can just come in for a jam session.”
If musicians are surprised at such an open-invitation to use the space in that way, Amber wants them to understand it’s completely consistent with the vision of the Detroit Foundation Hotel.
“It’s meant to be used, just like everything in this space. We want people to embrace us. Be creative. Find ways to engage each other. Start a conversation. Gather.”
She’s talking about the hotel, but she could easily be talking about the city.
In the next year several more boutique hotels are scheduled to open and Amber says they are truly excited about that.
“Our commitment is to Detroit and all the incredible, hard-working people that have spent decades here, toiling to make this a better place. There is no room for competition – we are all about community and collaboration. When this great city wins, we all win.”