Hot in the City
The grand matriarch of Detroit's storied City Club heads to some dusty land
Published: January 11, 2012
How to describe the City Club?
To some it's absolute heaven, to others hell on earth. For 28 years, the nightclub located in the ballroom of Detroit's Leland Hotel has catered to fringe-dweller tastes, and has slowly evolved into the gothic-industrial-fetishist playground it now is. Remember that scene in Se7en, when Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman investigate death-by-spiky-strap-on in a dark nightclub with loud, pulsing beats? This place is like that, at least in atmo, not gratuitous homicide.
The woman who has managed the club for all of those years is about to retire and join her family in Arizona. She is Sybil Carter and, for each one of those managerial years, she has stood as a guardian for alternative culture in the D, maintaining a level of safety and behavior in the face of apparent chaos. She was den mother to the city's pale-skinned night crawlers, punks, dudes pushing faux decadence and your garden-variety reprobate, and she has done it in style, with a swagger that can only be earned from experience. She's about to leave a gaping hole in Detroit and move to a far-off land known for corrupt sheriffs and Glen Campbell and Diana Ross DUIs.
"My family is in Arizona and I miss them very much," she says. "There are some things I'll miss about Detroit, but it has changed so much since Kwame. ..."
Carter's own taste in music sits comfortably in Motown, groups such as the Supremes and the Temptations among her faves. So how did she find herself running a goth club? "I like the oldies and goodies," Carter says. "However, I think people attach themselves firmly to the music they love in their youth. Nostalgia has a lot to do with who you grow up to love. It's fun to see people doing that at the City Club. I might not go home and play the music that gets played at the club, but I certainly don't hate it either. It is simply music of the now, and people growing up now will remember this music with that same passion."
Carter began managing the City Club after it had been taken over from unimonikered star-scenester Stirling (born Alden Walker Gallup III) by owner Mike Higgins in 1984, when it was called the Liedernacht. Carter also manages the Leland apartments in the same buildings, and she resides in the building (though not for much longer). She refers to her boss with respect, calling him Mr. Higgins, obviously grateful for the job he gave her nearly three decades ago.
Carter remembers the club she took over from Stirling: "The Liedernacht was all about hardcore punk. The place was all mohawks. It's interesting to see the generations now and then. Back then, they were pioneers, individuals and extremely artistic. People were very proud. Not that they were better than the people now, but it was far more shocking to be a part of an outside culture then than it is now. Nowadays, it's more fun."
Carter says that when she first started managing the club her main aim was to survive. "Seriously though, to survive," she says. "I looked at [City Club] like my baby. I have seen music styles come and go, but the club has continually rolled with it. One of the most important people at a club is a DJ, but I'd go a step further and say that the whole team of staff is vital. I listen to what they say about the direction the club should go in, because they are on the ground floor, hearing what the customers are asking for. They know what the people want, so I listen to them. That tactic has worked well over the years."
Perhaps the most infamous facet of the City Club to those who know it is that few attend without making an effort in terms of costume. You'll find some head-to-foot in leather, lycra, spandex, plastic and lace, while others are barely dressed at all. There'll likely be gasmasks, unusual piercings and stilts. Like the Theatre Bizarre, clubbers are encouraged to, um, "dress to impress." Carter loves being Granny Fashionista of her goth kingdom, though it takes plenty to make her blink after all these years.
"The thing is that at the City Club, you could be stand next to a banker, a stoner or a punk," she says. "The costumes have gotten better over time, but back at the start it wasn't so normal to dress so outlandishly. You have to really work to shock people now."
So maybe one way to draw attention is go as yourself; a square. One patron wrote in an online review that said the City Club "is a perfect place for the under-30 crowd. I'm 44 years old and had no business being here. I was also wearing cargo shorts and some sort of T-shirt, and everybody looked at me like I had two heads." Now that's punk rock.
Having said that, the club does have more than enough regulars who consider Carter its matriarchal figure. But it hasn't been so easy. Carter says she has never tolerated drug use in the club, but has suffered tough times because of them. "You don't always know somebody's baggage when you meet them, and when it's revealed it can be very sad," she says.
As Carter prepares to leave Michigan behind, I ask for her most memorable City Club moment. She pulls out a story that has zero to do with this city's underground club milieu: "In the '80s, the Beastie Boys came after playing a local show. They had their boom boxes and they were being loud. I thought they were just kids and didn't believe [that they were the Beastie Boys]. They said, 'What do we have to do to prove we're the Beastie Boys?' I said, 'Rap for me.' So they did, then and there. We let them in, and they got thrown out within five minutes for looking up girls' skirts."
So how would she like the City Club — when it was under her guidance — to be remembered? "Somebody said to me once that going to the City Club is like going back home," she says. "That works."
And Carter herself? "As somebody that cares."
The City Club remains open, inside the Leland Hotel, 400 Bagley St., Detroit; see lelandcityclub.net for more info.
> Email Brett Callwood