In late June, PJ’s Lager House in Corktown listed for $2.2 million. The potential sale of a neighborhood establishment brought about more concerns of gentrification in Detroit’s oldest neighborhood. In interviews with local publications, some of those concerns seemed to come from owner Paul “PJ” Ryder himself.
But when we spoke to him, he said that every article had misquoted him in some respect, and that his reasons for selling were less about gentrification and more about age, timing, and the challenges of running a bar.
Here’s our interview with Ryder on why he’s selling the Lager House, which has been edited for space and clarity.
Curbed Detroit: How have things been since you listed the Lager House and received all this media attention?
PJ Ryder: More or less the same. I’ve been talking to employees to ensure them that nothing’s going to happen overnight. If it sells, great. If it doesn’t, we’ll be here for a while.
Also, it’s just a great time to sell. Right now, the real estate market in Detroit, and Corktown in particular, is extremely hot. And, frankly, trying to sell when you don’t have to sell is the best time to sell.
In interviews, it seemed like you feel as if PJs doesn’t fit in with Corktown anymore. Is that why you’re selling?
I was slightly misquoted in every single article about the sale. What I said about Corktown is that it wasn’t a cool neighborhood to go to when I bought the bar in 2007. You went to Corktown because you knew it was dark, seamy, had drugs and guns—you name it. But it wasn’t a place where you’d go to hang out.
It’s changed over time. And that change was started by the Cooleys who took some decrepit buildings and turned them into a barbecue place and real estate business. Now there’s very little affordable housing. If I go to a bar in Hamtramck, I’m very likely to see a bunch of people that used to live in Corktown but can’t afford to anymore. There’s huge developments going on: the train station, the Tiger Stadium development, Soave with their new $500,000 condos.
Yes, there will be an audience that will want bars and restaurants, but I didn’t do this to have a bar and restaurant. I did PJs for the music. That’s always been the focus. It was always, always, always about the music. To this day, that’s still what I love.
So the neighborhood is changing and I’m not getting any younger. My favorite quote is from Dr. John: “They want us to be playing our music and dying on stage.” I’m not committed to dying at PJs. I’ve got things I want to do with my life.
Do you feel wistful for the Corktown of old?
First of all, I’ve only been here 12 years. There are people who’ve been here 50 years. But, it seems to me, the neighborhood’s way better today. Much safer, much more cohesive than it used to be.
When I opened, this was a dark stretch of Michigan Avenue. The changes are mind-boggling. I was in favor of tearing down Michigan Central Station. I’m glad they didn’t listen to me. I’m delighted that Ford is redeveloping it—I don’t think there’s a better company in the world to do it. And I think it’s just gonna get better and better.
It took 12 years for me to go from a complete idiot to brilliant.
Has business gotten better for you since the development explosion in Corktown?
Business at PJs has gone up a bit. When I started, nobody would lend me money. Who’d lend to a business here? The Book Cadillac had wind blowing through it. Tiger Stadium was still standing.
I had to turn to credit card companies. And you know what they charge. All I do is worry about paying bills and trying to pay down debt. And I’m able to do it, but it’s still a long ways off. I paid off a credit card recently and I did a little jig. What’s encouraging to me is the nights when we don’t have music, the bartenders seem to attract a crowd. As opposed to in years past, when we didn’t have music, there was no one in the bar.
People have been gradually learning that food-wise, we’re second to none. I’ll put PJs’ food up against any restaurant in Detroit, dollar for dollar. The vegetarian and vegan stuff was not my idea—totally my staffs’. I thought they were crazy when they said to put it on the menu. I said, “Really? It’s a bar?” But it’s been a godsend. I had no idea there was that much interest in vegan food.
Will you be particular about who you sell it to? Do you hope to preserve the legacy of the place?
In the ‘40s through the ‘60s, the Lager House was a place where actors coming to Detroit went to dinner, where politicians hung out. There was no music associated with the place until 1991 and then it was electronica. Eventually it switched to garage and punk, and people think that’s legacy of the Lager House. Well it goes back a lot further. It was open during Prohibition as a speakeasy and furniture store. There was a bookie here; if you wanted to make bet on the Tigers, you’d do it here.
So there’s lots of legacy to the place, and the legacy is that it exists. It’s never closed since opening in 1915.
I really want someone to keep it going and not tear it down. If someone came in and said, “I wanna tear it down and build apartments,” I’d say, “Well I’ll charge you $3 million.” I’d like to see it stay a bar and restaurant. Whether it’s a rock and roll bar, that’s not something I can force someone to continue. I’m open to anything, but I’d like to see the building remain. It’s been a part of Corktown for a long, long time. I’d like to walk into the building in 15 years when 80 and and say, “Damn, the place looks great.”
What’s your favorite memory or concert?
A few come to mind. Every Melvin Davis show is great. Jack White came in once to catch a show.
But my absolute favorite was (keyboardist and founding member of Parliament-Funkadelic) Bernie Worrell. Maybe 90 people came and he was one of the nicest guys you’ve ever met. An incredible piano player. Put on an incredible show. Not too long after he passed away and it was heartbreaking.