Touring the Town

A ride on an old school bus can reveal the secrets of a city we all think we know
Photographs by Martin Vecchio

When someone new moves to town, they can end up knowing a lot more than you. They’ve got nothing to fall back on. They’re starting from scratch, a state of being that can make the things you’ve glossed over a million times stand out. They’ve got the potential to become the expert of your home turf.

There are a lot of these people in Detroit — the modern dreamers who take the city to be new and exciting. From their perspectives, it is. They may or may not have a plan for what they’re going to do in Detroit. But they’re going to get to know it, because they have to.

There are natives who’ve taken these same deliberate steps. Like an outsider, Detroit lifer Andy Didorosi had his own dream a little over a year ago, when he started a very small venture called The Detroit Bus Company (DBC). It’s now being recognized for some lofty goals: Transportation Riders United, a nonprofit dedicated to improving public transit in metro Detroit, gave DBC its corporate transit champion award earlier this year for its efforts at establishing an express bus to the airport and providing student rides to after-school programs.

At the heart of its mission to start was a simpler, yet no less easy, goal: With an old school bus and a creative take on the basic city tour, Didorosi wanted to show Detroit in interesting ways to whoever was willing to look. It’s the people who grow up so close, he thought — including his own mother — who can end up being the most surprised at what they’ve missed.

“My mom lives in Grosse Pointe, and her view of the city was totally outdated,” says Didorosi. “Now she’s cautiously optimistic” of Detroit’s potential.

“I don’t expect to rework someone overnight,” Didorosi continues. “But a lot of people have this awakening [on our bus tours], and that’s the really awesome thing about what we do” for the people who already live here.

In this way, The Detroit Bus Company, in addition to its other business goals, managed to make bus tours, well, cool, for both out-of-towners and the people who’ve lived here their whole lives and could use a refresher course. With all of its hidden complexities, Detroit isn’t easy to understand. A bus tour with DBC might at least be a start — a first foray into the city for a novice or a surprising departure for the regular bar hoppers, shedding light on the kinds of details that can elude even a seasoned Detroit lover.

This is what got me a little interested in taking a DBC tour this past spring. I’d lived here only four years and have been able to figure out a little bit so far — but I’m no expert. It was two friends of mine — Detroit area natives Greg and Kristi Gnyp — who first rallied the troops by asking on their respective Facebook pages who wanted to join them for a DBC tour. (Greg is a longtime DJ for radio station 93.9-FM The River and a die-hard fan of Detroit via his Canadian roots. Kristi’s photography appears in Hour Detroit.)

Hour Detroit editor Steve Wilke saw the post, too. A resident of Detroit for more than 20 years, he was also intrigued by the “Scofflaws and Speakeasies: Detroit Prohibition Tour,” making me marvel at just how much more we all could stand to learn about what’s really gone down in Detroit’s past.

It was never just about the cars, as resident DBC tour guide Mickey Lyons likes to say. Detroit’s rich history at the center of the Prohibition movement means the city had a dynamic underworld in the early 20th century, and was uniquely poised to influence the movement because of its waterways and proximity to Canada. By the early 1920s there were upwards of 25,000 speakeasies in Detroit and plenty of push back. Detroiters have always loved their drinks.

The tour Lyons led us on in early April of course had the drinking part covered, with plenty of stops at historical bars where we could grab cocktails and hear Lyons wax poetic on the seedier side of early 20th century life. It made Greg, who loves to drink beer, very happy. But he and Kristi also wanted to learn something out of the ordinary about the city. As Kristi kept asking friends to join in on the tour on Facebook, she didn’t try to entice them with the prospect of booze. She told them we should all get together and “learn s—.”

It worked. The tour lured friends from all over. Many of them didn’t know these kinds of bus tours exist in Detroit, let alone that the city’s oldest standing bar, the 2 Way Inn, has been in business since 1876 on Mount Elliott Street (a nice departure from the regular haunts in Midtown).

DBC may have seemed like a party bus tour company when it first started. They painted the old school buses graffiti style. Inside they’re no frills. You can still bring your own libations on any of their tours. Their website uses the tagline “What America needs now is a drink” to entice people to come out for its speakeasy tour.

But it was Lyons, who’s been inspired by Detroit history her entire life, who wanted to mix the tours up with these little-known historical facts about the city. A Joan Cusack look-alike, Lyons dressed up in her flapper-style dress for the speakeasy tour, introducing us to Prohibition 101: At its height there were about 1,500 Prohibition agents nationwide. They did their jobs “very poorly,” Lyons says, with many of them taking bribes and selling protection from enforcement. It was no different in Detroit, where enforcement not only was lax, but there was also public flouting of Michigan’s Prohibition law, which took effect in 1917 largely due to the influence of Henry Ford who didn’t want his workers boozed up on the assembly line.

In Hamtramck the disdain for Prohibition was on full display. The DBC bus drove us there from our starting point at the Z Deck on Library Street in Detroit to give us a strong introduction on how much people here hated Prohibition. “There was so much public drinking in Hamtramck,” Lyons says, “that beer trucks still ran up and down Campau and Caniff.”

One of the first stops we made along the tour was the New Dodge Lounge in Hamtramck, where patrons and staff apparently aren’t fans of the “smoke-free” law passed a few years back. Clearly still a stronghold of that kind of Prohibition rebellion, the New Dodge originally operated as a speakeasy and brothel.

The tour had a way of putting into better context these old city bars that can seem like basic dives on their face. These establishments’ histories are infinitely more interesting, as we all found out during this Friday night tour. When we walked next into the 2 Way Inn, barbecue chips in Styrofoam bowls decorated the tables. Brown-tinged lace curtains hung on the tiny windows. You have to be buzzed to be let in (by a doorbell, although you could take the term’s other meaning to heart, as well).

They call it a way to go “fine diving” in Detroit, but almost 100 years ago, 2 Way Inn was much more than a simplistic dive bar. It served at various times as a speakeasy, a brothel, a general store, the village jail, a dance hall, and a dentist office (among other things).

We eventually made it back to downtown Detroit for a stop at Tommy’s Detroit Bar & Grill, rumored to be haunted and “another gem hiding right under our noses,” Lyons says. It’s in a building that was constructed in the 1840s. Recent archeological work at Tommy’s seems to prove that it served as an illicit hotbed of Prohibition activity, and that a tunnel connecting it to nearby Fort Street Presbyterian Church probably was a part of the Underground Railroad.

“We saw a need early on for much more in-depth historical research for our tours,” says Lyons, who is pursuing her Ph.D. in British literature and first conceived of the Prohibition tour for the DBC. Lyons’ instinct for providing more colorful tours seems to be spot on at this point. The ones she does for DBC routinely sell out. DBC now also offers a “Weird Detroit” tour with such stops as the city’s only geodesic dome house, which used to be owned by Jack White’s brother. Lyons is also developing a “closed door” tour, which she conceived of because of her own curiosity of places in Detroit where the public is not normally allowed.

“I’d love to see inside the Wurlitzer Building,” Lyons says. “And inside the offices of the Guardian Building.”

Like Didorosi’s mother, Lyons’ mom also didn’t venture out much in Detroit in her day. Lyons says she’s excited to be leading these tours and offering a different perspective — but admits: “If my mother knew that I spend my days and nights in Detroit now, she might have had a heart attack.”