Magic, Liberation, and Architecture: Placekeeping Musical Space in Detroit

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The Architectural Gaze Goes Clubbing

September 12, 2019

“The Blue Bird was a magical kinda place. I call it magical because it was about the only place in the world where it closed at 2 o’clock and 1:30 if Sarah Vaughan or somebody would walk in, an empty place would suddenly be full. So it was like really magic.“

Barry Harris, pianist and teacher 

“The sound at Club Heaven created a place of liberation.”

Damon “Magic” Percy, writer and activist

Founded in 2012, the grass-roots nonprofit Detroit Sound Conservancy is dedicated to preserving all of Detroit’s musical legacies, especially those left out of the standard story of Motown, Bob Seger, Jack White, and Eminem. From oral history interviews and audio recordings, to physical artifacts and historic preservation of musical spaces, we call our work placekeeping, as opposed to placemaking, because of a basic humility instilled through community-driven activism. We hold musical space. 

Two spaces we have committed ourselves to are the Blue Bird Inn and Club Heaven. 

The Blue Bird Inn (or Bluebird Inn or Clarence Eddins’ Bluebird Inn or The Legendary Blue Bird Inn or, more simply, “The Bird” to the community that gravitated to the club after World War II) currently sits closed-up, roof collapsing, and silent on the City’s Old West Side, at the center of a working class Black neighborhood that goes back to World War I. It lies across the street from a stretch of single family homes and duplexes and between a party store and towing service. 

Club Heaven (or Heaven or “Heavens” in the vernacular of the 1990s teens and twenty-somethings that came of age there) is gone, originally sitting at the edge of Detroit’s longtime 7 Mile Chaldean neighborhood and Woodward Avenue, Detroit’s main north-south artery. In its place, in a converted McDonalds, is an Asian Corned Beef restaurant. 

The Bird, which began as a beer garden before WWII, went through a major redesign in the 1950s with a new bandstand being built especially for the club. Heaven was an attempt by its owners to offer a new after-hours experience in the 1980s and featured a unique sound system built by local audio company Audiolight which still operates in Northwest Detroit. The Bird is known for the emergence of bebop jazz in Detroit while Club Heaven is known for the rise of house-techno music in Detroit. 

Both clubs emerged from movement and gave birth to movement. Artists performed and club-goers moved while civil rights struggles roared outside. The Bird lay at the edge of what then was a “Mason Dixon” line. It was seminal in providing a place of refuge and imagination before, during, and after World War II when Blacks in Detroit and throughout the country were looking for the “Double V”—victory in Europe and at home. Heaven lay at the center of a civil rights struggle for LGBT youth struggling for a place, any place, of their own within the whirlwind of the AIDs epidemic and ongoing discrimination.

Earlier this year, we purchased The Bird from the City for $8,500. Two years ago we were gifted Heaven’s sound system by Detroit longtime techno producers, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, and last year raised $15,000 through a Kickstarter campaign to restore it.

The jazz and house/techno scenes have struggled to keep their spaces. The Bird was one of a number of clubs that peppered the West Side of Detroit. Though there are still a handful of jazz clubs in the City, only The Bird remains on the West Side. Club Heaven was just one of dozens of gay spaces in the City at the beginning of the AIDs crisis. Over 75% of Detroit’s gay bars since that time are now gone. 

There is much to be done to preserve the memory of these spaces and their potential meaning for the future of the City. The scale of the need can be daunting. 

But there are clear, warm, Labor Day Saturday mornings, like the one we just had, with coffee and donuts and thirty or so placekeepers standing in front of The Bird. Amongst those gathered, was Clarence and Mary Eddins’s nephew who helped manage The Bird but also, in a synchronicity not lost on this writer, loved and attended Heaven.

The photographer organizes us, frames, and shoots….

Photo by Iian Tarver / Courtesy of Detroit Sound Conservancy

Carleton S. Gholz, PhD, Founder and Executive Director of Detroit Sound Conservancy