I turned 50 earlier this year. That means I’ve been going to The Woodward Bar & Grill for about half of my life. I had no idea of its history as the oldest gay bar in the city when I first started going back in the ‘90s. All I knew was that it was a great place for a Happy Hour conversation in one of the big booths in the backroom.
I remember when my good judy, Damon, turned 33, and I congratulated him on reaching the Christ year. That was back in 2005, and I and several other of Damon’s friends have continued to gather at The Woodward most years since then to buy Damon a birthday drink.
Oh, the drinks at The Woodward! I’ve traveled the country and gone to more gay bars than I can count. Nowhere do they make drinks like in Detroit institutions like “The Woo,” as it was often called, and Gigi’s. The pours were generous. Intoxication was virtually guaranteed.
My drink was The Woodward’s infamous Blue Motherfucker. The first few sips tasted as if you were drinking paint thinner. But if you could get past them, a warm and pleasant sensation was awaiting you. I only needed one. Tall. The only time I ever drank more than that, well … that’s a memory best not shared here.
There was a period when my friend Martone and I were both down on our financial luck. Thank God we had The Woodward. We’d pool our money and make sure we both had enough to get in and have one Blue Motherfucker each. That was all we needed to guarantee a good time.
The Woodward was, during this period, very Black. And I was very white. But it still felt like home to me. The crowds were intense and the temperature in the club? Well, Nelly said it best when he said “It’s gettin’ hot in herre.” By 1:30 a.m. the place was a sardine sweatbox.
For a time, I went regularly with my niece Jayla. Jayla was a wallflower. We’d stake out a position against the wall and stay until the bar was just too full to be comfortable. Then we’d start the painstaking journey of squeezing through the crowd to get outside. The Woodward was Jayla’s favorite bar, mostly because the crowd was much closer to her age than mine, and the men were hot.
I remember seeing my boyfriend James at The Woodward before he was even that. I had only met him once previously and was thrilled to run into him for a second time. Soon enough, Cupid worked her magic, and James was bringing me to The Woodward to meet his best friend, Dione. After that, it was a regular hang spot for us.
I attended lots and lots of Hotter Than July – Detroit Black Gay Pride parties at The Woodward. Opening parties. Closing parties. And many in between. As a reporter and photographer for “Between The Lines,” I’ve taken hundreds of photos of partygoers at The Woodward, each capturing a moment of joy and freedom.
Besides The Woodward, I spent time in many other LGBTQ+ clubs popular with our community’s Black faction through the years. The Continental downtown, Regi Thompson’s Regine’s off the Park, Zippers, Tony Miller’s Off Broadway East on, obviously, the east side of town. These bars are all gone now. The Woodward was truly one of the last ones standing.
Until Tuesday, June 14, 2022 at around 10 a.m. As the old song says, that’s the day the music died. An indiscriminate fire rushed through The Woodward and left behind little in its wake. Over 60 years of gay history literally up in smoke, and all that’s left now are the memories. Developers have long eyed The Woodward’s location as neighboring businesses sold out to make room for new builds. I don’t think the odds of it being rebuilt in the same spot are great.
The Woodward, hopefully, will be back someplace, in some shape or form, at some time in the future. Co-owner Jeff Smith said he’s still in shock and contemplating his future. He did a great job running the place these past 20 years.
Now, well, now we mourn. The loss of The Woodward will be an open wound in our community for some time. There was so much history inside those walls. Most good. Some, like a shooting that happened just outside the bar’s back door last year, very bad.
Oher clubs will undoubtedly open. The crowds will eventually find someplace else to go. Still, there will always and forever be only one Woodward Bar. And it will live on for many years to come in the recollections of those who spent time there over the many decades it operated. I’m lucky I’m one of those people. And I’m thankful for all my Woodward memories.