Along Detroit’s Vernor Highway is the neighborhood known as Mexicantown, where Mexican immigrants began settling during the first half of the twentieth century to work in the city’s steel, auto and agricultural industries.
The authentic culture of this community – reflected in part through the neighborhood’s colorful buildings, Spanish business signage, and vibrant murals – portrays a people that seem more like old friends in the contemporary political view.
In this setting has emerged a new business that promises to add to the flavor and energy of the neighborhood. Just behind a door a few feet off Vernor, directly adjacent to El Central Hispanic News hangs a sign that reads, “El Club”, in neon-pink, lasso-like letters.
An all-ages art venue serving Pepe Z pizza, El Club is as much a clearinghouse for community growth as it is a place to enjoy art and food – although it is happy to be both.
At 2 p.m., two hours prior to opening time, El Club is dark and lethargic. Last night’s expired feeling of youth angst and escapism, delivered courtesy of the Cleveland-based new age rock outfit Cloud Nothings, still lingers in the dank air. Indie-pop band Lemuria is on its way from Chicago to bring its own original energy.
A mural on the wall next to the entrance reads, “No human is illegal,” over cartoon faces with different shades of brown skin and different-colored eyes.
Smoking an American Spirit inside, founder/owner Graeme Flegenheimer looks like he just got out of bed. Which side of the bed he woke up on is hard to tell.
“Mexicantown is like any community,” Flegenheimer said. “People have opinions, people have points of views and you need to be respectful of your neighbors no matter what fucking community − whether it’s black, yellow, brown, or whatever the fucking color of the skin is … be a good neighbor.”
The El Club team tries to be a good neighbor and active member of the Mexicantown community. They lend their space to organizations in the community such as Latin Americans for Social and Economic Development (LA SED), Alcoholics Anonymous, and various shelters in the neighborhood.
“We don’t donate,” Flegenheimer said. “We let people use our space so they can fundraise for their non-profits, or their causes.”
Even though Flegenheimer is only in his mid-20s, he already has a prosperous history of music entrepreneurship. At age 16 he was taking photos for Pitchfork and Rolling Stone magazines. At 17, he became a music publicist for artists such as Grammy Award-winning Frank Ocean, raunchy Los Angeles-based rap collective Odd Future, and D’Angelo. At 21, Flegenheimer started booking shows in the L.A. area for a few years before returning to his home in Saginaw.
As a gay business owner, Flegenheimer is excited about the efforts of equal rights activists and is helping to build a community that creates a safe space for minority groups. Like-minded citizens have encouraged him by giving a warm welcome to El Club and its determination to serve as such a sanctuary.
Jessica Hernandez, a Detroit-based singer and songwriter who is of Mexican and Cuban descent, frequently books her hometown gigs at El Club.
“My parents have two businesses, Armando’s and Mexicantown Bakery, right down the street from El Club, and my dad actually spends a good amount of time at the venue since it has opened,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez’s commitment to putting Mexicantown in a positive light is both community-minded and personal, given her own family’s investment in the neighborhood.
“It’s always been super important to me to shed a bright, positive light on Mexicantown and the community there,” Hernandez said. “I will always take advantage of any situation that lets me do that, and brings money and positive vibes back into the neighborhood that I care about.”
Flegenheimer believes El Club fulfills that vision by approaching its mission as more than mere profit.
“I think the music industry is getting more homogenized, and to see people like Live Nation and AEG – those talent buyers don’t necessarily look at it as a passion but rather as a paycheck and job,” Flegenheimer said. “I wouldn’t say we’re really getting non-mainstream shows, but we’re music fans at the end of the day and there’s definitely more lucrative businesses to be involved with if I was looking for a fat paycheck.”
That fits with a vision for the club that is more about lifestyle than business.
“There’s parts where there’s definitely the business aspect,” Flegenheimer said. “For example, I’m not the biggest dance fan, but it does business. I’m not negating that fan base, but there are shows like John Waters that obviously as a gay business owner I’m more excited for. John has been a very loud and celebrated leader of gay rights, and as a gay man in his film and writing.”
While there has been speculation that El Club’s location itself was a sociopolitical statement, Flegenheimer suggests that he didn’t plan on taking part in politics when he initially sought out a location to open a music venue in the city.
“I think people have read too much into the location of this venue . . . like some politicized thing,” Flegenheimer said. “I think people like to politicize everything in this current climate and I find it obnoxious.”
Individual pieces of art may express a point of view, and the same could be true with musical performances. But Flegenheimer doesn’t believe the venue itself should be seen that way.
“The art we showcase here is meant to be politicized,” Flegenheimer said. “The murals that surround our property are meant to have political messages but the location itself was not some gentrification move. It was solely based on the bones of the building and it being an appropriate space to host a music venue.”
If the vibrancy and energy of Mexicantown remain what they’ve proven to be for generations, El Club should have no trouble becoming home for a lot more than art shows and musical performances. Flegenheimer seems to have plugged into a community that is ready to let its spirit come forward through art, and is ready to embrace others who are eager to do the same.
The likely result is that El Club will serve as a vibrant venue for one more center of Detroit’s resurgence.