by Vince Patricola. (Pictured in main photo: Raphael Blake (center) with Edward Stefanko (co-owner,left) and (booking agent Ted Krisko, right)
Raphael Blake is part owner of Marble Bar. He is a strong cultural presence and appreciator of music and art scenes.
DEQ: First of all, thank you so much for your vision in helping create one of the best, most diverse dance venues in Detroit in Marble Bar. Would you tell us how you and your partners met and how Marble Bar came to be? How did you pick the Eagle as the location?
RB: Well, at some point after the price of real estate collapsed in 2008, The Eagle had closed and had gone up for sale. I had looked at the property then, but at that point the price was still a bit beyond our means considering the repairs and renovations that were necessary. Then, some time around 2012, the price dropped in half. At this point I was able to put together the investors necessary to make the dream happen. This was at a point in Detroit where big money developers were not yet flooding into the city.
Plenty of people thought we were crazy. I thought these doubts were crazy. I had been living in the city since 2005 when I graduated from college. The art and music scene in Detroit has always been one of the richest in the country, so opening up a cultural space had always been a goal. It was only a matter of time before the rest of the world noticed that Detroit was a gem.
DEQ: Your location on Holden, when you opened it, was a bit of a ghost town. Did you hang out there when it was the Eagle? If so, they had some great DJs play there like the Macho City Crew (Scott Zacharias, Jeffrey Sfire, Mike Trombley, Ron Morelli) to name a few. Did your background in Urban Planning play a role in choosing your spot in New Center?
RB: Yes, I had been to the Sunday nights at the Eagle more than a few times. At that time I was unaware of the caliber of DJs we were seeing. Sundays were the one night of the week where The Eagle was not a gay leather bar. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but I was not part of the gay leather scene in Detroit. But it was definitely a cool spot in an interesting part of town- Northwest Goldberg. The residential neighborhood directly to the West had been deteriorated by decades of disinvestment to a point where it is still not very densely populated. To the West of us is all commercial over to the Recycling Center and The Lodge Freeway. The only active buildings in that direction were the Recycling Center, which is run by some of the most creative free thinkers in the city, and some lofts that were full of artists and creative minded people, some of which we had already been friends with. So we really liked the emptiness and creativity of the area, but we didn’t want to be too far out into the city. Detroit is massive. We wanted to be in the general Downtown vicinity. I define this as the original Detroit border (before it expanded to eight mile), which is Grand Blvd. from Belle Isle on the East side, to the West Riverfront on the West Side. We are two blocks south of Grand Blvd., so we liked the location.
Did my background in Urban Planning inform this decision? I guess a bit. For me a main focus in Urban Planning, but in life in general, is the importance of music, art and culture in maintaining an enriching and authentic city. When these elements are ignored, cities become boring homogenized places. That is not how I see Detroit.
DEQ: With Henry Ford Hospital building all around you now, how will this affect the club?
RB: Shortly after we purchased the property; Henry Ford started buying all of the property in the area for future development. Up until this point they have not acted on their development plans. This has caused the area to remain fairly vacant and has given us the freedom to grow into what we have.
More recently, the hospital has started to work with and sell the property to developers. Thankfully, we were able to purchase the abandoned house next to the bar giving us the property to expand in necessary ways. I think everyone agrees some more bathrooms sound nice. Regrettably, these plans have been pushed back as the Coronavirus pandemic has caused us to adjust our budget for the year.
Back to Henry Ford though and their development plans. Thus far it has not effected us much. However, we are only at the tip of the iceberg. If the hospital works with developers that come in and put in a bunch of thin-walled condominium developments like they have in Midtown Detroit, we will likely have to deal with more noise complaints. Our relationship with the City Government has been great; and they really seem to support what we are doing, so we are hoping that incoming development doesn’t force us to change our business operations too much; however, we’ll see how the city’s tone changes when a wealthier demographic moves into the neighborhood. Regrettably, when such development comes into neighborhoods, too often across the world, music venues and clubs are pushed out. We understand this reality and are actively working to protect our business, as well as other cultural institutions that are potentially facing the same wave of change. Art, music and culture are vital elements of enriching cities. This is true in Detroit maybe more than anywhere in the world. We really believe in the importance of protecting the authentic culture of the city.
DEQ: What was the biggest obstacle you overcame to open the doors?
RB: The renovations. They became far more expansive than anticipated. It turned out The Eagle did not have any handicap accessible bathrooms. When it was permitted, handicap bathrooms were not a concern. Because The Eagle had a U-shaped bar in the middle of the floor, there was no way to fit in handicap bathrooms in a way that made sense. Once we started demo, I think the saying is, we opened a can of worms and more and more problems began to expose themselves. Luckily though, the building was originally a bank and, structurally, a fortress.
DEQ: The décor inside is so beautiful. Was it a group effort in the interior design? Also, how did the giant disco ball skull come into the picture?
RB: The interior design was very organic. Our friend Daniel Ross, who did much of the custom wood work in the bar had a lot to do with this. He had frequented The Eagle, so having him help with the renovations was great. The building was originally a bank.
Since we had to renovate, we wanted to recreate the more “grand” and open feel of a bank built in 1918, which is when it was built. We used as much reclaimed material and fixtures as possible. At that time in Detroit, a lot of that type of stuff was still accessible. Being from the same time period and in the same city, we felt that it helped to ensure a level of authenticity in the feel of the place even though it had just been renovated. We re-exposed original crown molding and terrazzo floors that had been covered for probably 50 years. We weren’t trying to impose a design on a building that had original architectural intent. We basically tried to open it back up.
The Disco Skull is a great story I think. We were prepping for Movement in 2018. We wanted to buy a large disco ball for the newly remodeled patio. We were standing around on the patio with some of our awesome neighbors from the Recycling Center and I was looking at disco balls on the internet. I was like, “damn, a 48 inch disco ball is like $2,000; looks like I can only get the 40 inch one that is $700 because $2000 is too much”. Doyle and Kurt who were there from the Recycling Center said, “$700 for a disco ball? We’ll make you one that looks like a skull for $700”. Movement was 2 weeks away, so I said, “If you can get it done by Movement the job is yours”. The next day I got a video of them smashing a huge mirror out of a second story window to get the pieces of glass that would be used for the infamous Disco Skull. However, it turned out to be a lot more work to glue all of the pieces of glass back together than it was to shatter them apart. I think they finished the thing like an hour before the official opening party that we do with Paxahau for the festival. We have a great video of them driving the Disco Skull over on their high low. Also, for the record, after the weekend we gave them a bonus because the Disco Skull is so cool and it was a lot more work than they anticipated. We definitely didn’t give them enough though considering just how cool it is.
DEQ: Marble has one the best sound systems around with help from Audio Rescue Team and has received several upgrades over time. Has this become an obsession?
RB: We would need a lot more money to allow it to become an obsession. But we definitely appreciate all of the help from Audio Rescue and it is definitely a priority for us to provide as good of an audio experience for people as we are able to. This is a never ending quest that we pursue as our means allow us to. If this is obsession, than I guess the answer is yes. But ultimately, we are obsessed with just creating the best overall experience for anyone who comes through our doors.
DEQ: Movement Festival parties seem to get bigger every year there. Do you have a few favorite fun moments from over the years? A favorite party?
RB: That is a funny question; because working Movement is madness. I guess you could say we have fun with it and at times we get to enjoy ourselves; but it is definitely a different type of fun than before we opened and we were enjoying the weekend as party goers.
I love all of our parties; but our Monday party that goes all day long is maybe the most fun for the staff. It goes all day, so there are times where we are not absolutely slammed and we get to enjoy the tunes in the sun. It is the end of the weekend, so there is always a feeling of celebration because we had survived the previous 3 nights.
DJ Harvey at 7 am for 5 hours on the patio the first year we opened when we threw the party Something Different with Paxahau was definitely a high light. At that hour in the morning, with the sun still rising, his set was just so cool. It was pretty surreal. It was our first year being open and there were a decent number of people; but nothing like there would be now. We had no idea what we were doing. It was such a steep learning curve in that first year. I think that also made it more fun.
Beyond this, Kory (Trinks), on top of the shipping containers, spraying down the crowd with a hose at peak hotness in the middle of the day during our Monday parties the past couple years has definitely been a crowd favorite.
DEQ: Marble has opened the doors to every scene from punk and metal to electronic. Has that been the goal from day one?
RB: Yes, we have always wanted to be inclusive of different scenes of people throughout the city that share a lot of the same energy and passion for Detroit.
DEQ: What was your introduction to the underground art/music scenes in Detroit?
RB: I would say that going to raves in high school in the the last few years of the 90s was definitely my introduction to the underground art/music scene in the city. I was in high school and pretty clueless; but this was definitely where I became interested in the fabric of the city. When I graduated from high school I went to MSU; but would come hang out with friends that lived in what was then the Cass Corridor frequently. This was when I became more familiar with the underground art/music scene in Detroit and just how important/influential it has been. After I graduated from MSU in 2005 I moved to the city and have lived here ever since.
DEQ: No one saw this pandemic coming. How have you been coping with it? What effect do you think this will have on the club once you open?
RB: Nobody saw it coming and nobody knows where it is going. Our governmental leadership, especially from Trump, has been horrendous; so we all have to figure things out on our own. I don’t think things will go back to normal until there is a vaccine; and this could be a while. That being said, I could see us opening the patio for events that have an extremely limited capacity. Maybe 100 people. The safety of our staff is of the utmost concern. So if this were the case masks would be required at all times inside and you would have to go inside to order your drink. We would also ask that people wear their masks whenever possible on the patio. Ultimately, we are not sure yet. We’re going to sit back and look at the data for a couple more weeks here at least.
DEQ: Are you going to continue live streaming from the club? Will there be more revenue streams for the club until the doors open?
RB: Yes, we are working on more live streams currently. If this goes on for much longer, I could see streaming start to become a revenue source for much of the industry, whether it is charging for the streams or asking for donations. Our industry is the hardest hit by this pandemic. I tell everyone, “we are in the industry of NOT social distancing. We want to bring people together”. However in these times we can’t be doing that, while being concerned with the safety of the community.
We have been selling a decent amount of apparel that has been helpful in paying our bills. Our friend Tom with Brown Block Print has really helped us out. Look him up. Also, our infamous friends at Detroit Hustles Harder did prints and donated the proceeds for multiple small businesses and artists, including Marble Bar. Other great locally owned businesses in the city such as Brown Block Print and Detroit Hustles Harder have helped to ease the pain of the pandemic. Its one of the great things about Detroit how everyone bands together.
DEQ: Do you forsee a day in the future where big name DJs are on a screen in a club broadcasting from somewhere else?
RB: No. Not at The Marble Bar at least.
DEQ: You’ve been marching downtown to protest racial inequality. Do you feel we are finally going to eradicate racism? What role can music play in this mission?
RB: To completely answer this question would take a book. But to be short, I would love to say that I believe we will eradicate racism. But this is a lofty goal. Racism is so entrenched in our society that it exists in layers that we have not even begun to unfold in the psyche of this nation. Completely dismantling the system of white supremacy in this country is going to take a lot of therapy.
However, what we are seeing with these protests across the world, that are demanding that Black Lives Matter, is inspirational. The fact that over half of the population in the United States supports these protests is unprecedented. We can’t get 50% of the population to agree with anything. We can’t even get over 50% of people to support either presidential candidate.
The amount of change that these protests have accomplished is also unprecedented. All four officers involved in the death of George Floyd have been arrested and are being charged. Keith Ellison, who is devoted to justice, is now in charge of the case. It looks like Minneapolis is actually going to defund their police department and reimagine how public safety should actually look. Discussing it gives me goosebumps. At some level, it feels that people are realizing that a better world is possible.
I also want to be clear here. We have had great working relationships with the Detroit Police officers that we interact with. On personal levels, they are all people; and in more than other cities, DPD cares about the community. Defunding the police does not mean to lower these officers wages. It is about a new concept of community safety where investment goes into strengthening the community; instead of merely policing communities ridden with disinvestment. We shouldn’t need police in our schools, police shouldn’t be in situations where they have to arrest people with mental health issues, our communities should be stronger than that. It is about creating a system in which police officers can succeed at building the relationship and trust necessary to properly protect and serve the community. The police should not be a military force that the powers that be pit against the people. This isn’t safe or comfortable for the people, and let’s not forget officers are people under their uniforms.
I think these demonstrations have made it clear that the current system of policing is not working and that we all want better. When the DPD backed down on the curfew, I think that we saw that, deep down, they agree. Hopefully Detroit can implement the changes necessary, and join the wave with the other places where it seems that they are serious about reimagining the concept of public safety such as Los Angeles and Minneapolis; and help to lead to way for a better tomorrow.
As far as the role music can play, this is where Detroit really shines. On a tangible level, music brings us all together in many ways; and exemplifies how much black lives have contributed to the culture we are all immersed in. And how cool that so much of it has come from Detroit. From Motown, funk, and jazz to techno and house music, black people in Detroit have continuously enriched the world. I don’t think that in the music community, for those that love music, there has ever been a doubt that black lives matter.
On a metaphysical level, I believe music also helps to dismantle the system of oppression that has infiltrated the psyche of individuals. Music and dance are a universal language that bring people together in their pursuit of truly understanding the meaning of. In this pursuit, individuals shed external stresses and pressures that the physical world places on them. Shedding this baggage allows people better connect with the universal truth that exists within us all… that beyond our physical presence we are all the same, we are all in this together and we should look out for and care for one another.