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Detroit Yacht Club celebrates 150 years, revamps image

December 9, 2018

DETROIT (AP) — Walking into the men’s locker room of the Detroit Yacht Club in 2014 for the first time, Colin Knapp’s friend pointed to the forest-green benches that spanned the length of the room.

“Just imagine the butts that have sat on those benches,” he said.

It’s impossible to count every derriere. But outside the locker room, the litany of visitors once included the Fords and the Dodges; the Crown Prince Harald V of Norway and the King of Sweden. (The late actor Charlton Heston was once supposedly turned away from a haircut with the club’s barber). Nowadays, the trained eye might spot the faces of General Motors executives, or Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who members said recently tucked into a lunch with friends.

But Knapp wasn’t a car executive or aspiring young politico. He was a 22-year-old organist fresh out of the University of Michigan, new to Detroit, jobless. He’d never been on a yacht in his life.

“The whole concept of a private club was new to me,” he told the Detroit Free Press . “I also assumed it was unattainable for me to become a member ... I was nervous, you know, would my background be suitable for a place like this?”

But Knapp is the kind of person that the DYC, now in its 150th year, is hoping to lure to its 93,000-square-foot clubhouse on Belle Isle. Through its reduced-fee “intermediate” membership, which starts at $60 a month for the under 35 crowd, the club is aiming to revamp its numbers and cultivate an image outside the stuffy boat club stereotype.

As a kid growing up in the 1950s, Ed Theisen gallivanted around friends’ boats, watched movie screenings on Sunday nights and sat through meals with his great-aunt and uncle. It was quintessential childhood, he said.

But the 71-year-old has also seen the club hit rock bottom. From a peak of about 3,000 members in the 1920s, when Detroit was the fourth-largest city in the country, the club currently clocks in at 800.

And that’s a big improvement. Even though the DYC’s sprawling property — and some of its well-to-do members — seem nestled in a far-off cocoon, the club was never completely immune to Detroit’s economic difficulties.

Some members dropped out because they couldn’t afford it, others because they had fled Detroit altogether.

“The membership was for years going down and down and down, and that was because of the political climate in the city,” Theisen said. “People in the suburbs did not want to drive down to the club, or drive down to Belle Isle, which was considered a ‘black park.’”

Another wave of members disappeared during the financial crisis of 2008 and Detroit’s bankruptcy. But the few times the DYC has come close to closing — nearly a century apart in 1932 and 2014 — members always came up with the money to save it, Theisen said.

Now the DYC is debt-free and ready to tap into the influx of cash and people to the downtown area. And that means appealing to a wide range of tastes.

While Theisen said he’s nostalgic about the 1950s and the stories of turn-of-the-century Detroit that were passed down to him, the club can’t look back.

“What can I say? It was a different world,” Theisen said.

Attracting Detroiters to the DYC, whether they’re new to the city or not, means overcoming the “yacht club stereotype.” And part of that comes down to who exactly is welcomed to a private club.

The first thing is, well, yachts. A little more than a third of the DYC are boating members who pay $390 per month for the privilege to dock their boat at the club, plus the annual cost of the boat slip. (Non-boating social members over the age of 35 pay $365). And boating is the reason the club ultimately exists: it hosts a formal junior sailing program, several century-old regattas, weekly off-the-dock sailing races, an adult sailing program and the annual Gold Cup championship race.

Still, it’s frustrating that people see owning a boat as the only reason to join the club, said past commodore Ray Batt.

“It’s a much more comfortable, friendly, welcoming environment than most people think when they hear ‘yacht club,’” Batt said.

That hasn’t always been the case. Until the 1950s, there was just one female member who had taken over her late husband’s membership, said Theisen. The first black member was accepted in 1971 — two years after the city threatened the club with eviction from Belle Isle in a dispute centered around its all-white membership.

Joining requires a “sponsor” from someone already in the club, plus four more signatures, a process that critics said kept people out. A 1974 settlement required that the club always have at least five black members.

“It was unofficial,” Theisen said of the club’s discrimination. “And that was sad. In our early days, we had Jewish members, and then all of a sudden after 1910 until 1950, we had no Jewish members.”

The DYC doesn’t keep track of its members by race now. But the attitude about who should be allowed to join has progressed tenfold, Theisen said.

Overall, the club is still primarily white but becoming more diverse, said Knapp, who joined the summer after his first 2014 visit.

That year marked a turning point for the LGBT community, too: Knapp was among the first openly gay young people at the club. Then-membership director Lena Angott pushed to grow the LGBT community, and although a few “dinosaurs” resisted, she said, the reception was overwhelmingly positive.

A poolside romance turned into a long-term relationship with Knapp’s boyfriend.

“I forget about that part — I met the love of my life at the Detroit Yacht Club,” Knapp said.

Other longstanding social organizations, from the Loyal Order of the Moose to motorcycle clubs, have also grappled with declining membership for years.

The Masons hit its lowest point ever in 2017, with about 1.1 million members nationally as opposed to about 4 million in the 1960s. The phenomenon even serves as the premise for “Lodge 49,” a sitcom about an ex-surfer who joins an ailing fraternal organization and, at one point, discovers a mummified body in the basement.

Now Detroit’s exclusive city clubs are being forced to revamp, too.

In March, the Detroit Club in downtown was reborn with renovations that included a basement-turned-spa, new guest bedrooms and a cigar bar. A craft cocktail bar and “art and wine” series will also launch in coming weeks to give people a more modern experience, said Angott, who now serves as membership director at the Detroit Club.

The Detroit Athletic Club, near the Opera House, has survived unscathed, as have suburban spots like the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club.

But most other hallowed Detroit spaces didn’t make it. The University Club declared bankruptcy in the 1990s. The Recess Club, the Standard Club and the Renaissance Club also remain shuttered.

One issue is clubs’ reliance on traditions, Angott said, which can create a generational gap.

“I can tell you every event that’s going to happen next year,” Angott said of the DYC, adding, “Their traditions are beautiful, but it lends itself to an older crowd ... It makes it a little harder to attract the younger member, because in general, they love the pool and the Tiki bar. And then it makes it a little tougher to keep them in the winter.”

But the biggest challenge clubs face today is their exclusive origins, said Randy McBee, a professor of history at Texas Tech University who has written two books on American social organizations. Whether a working-class ethnic club of the early 20th century or a country club, members tend to bond over a shared identity that, at its core, bars others.

“It’s not just, ‘It happens to be all-male or all-white,‘” McBee said. “But at the root of it, it’s ‘We don’t want to hang out at the park, because there’s all those other people there we don’t want to hang out with, so we have this other place.’”

That creates a Catch-22: The exclusivity that makes a club attractive to one core group can also make it difficult for it to stay afloat when that group dwindles. But if a club tries to cater to everyone, McBee said, it may struggle to foster friendships based on shared values.

“It’s an odd thing these days in the midst of gender equity and equality conversations, especially with the #MeToo movement,” McBee said. “To what extent can we revive these things that have been based around excluding people?”

For its part, the DYC still wants the “who’s who” of the city to dine at the club and do business under the radar, Batt said. But it also wants to create an oasis for younger people and families.

Knapp, now 27, felt that the outdoor pool, sports courts and cheap membership justified joining the club. He works in development at the Detroit Opera House, and the $60 fee was about the same as joining a gym, he said.

He quickly made friends with members ranging from young working people in their 20s to grandparents in their 80s. The environment doesn’t feel buttoned-up at all, Knapp said.

“Lots of judgment can happen at a private club,” he said. “The DYC, absolutely everybody is welcome as they are, and we will all party together.”

Knapp isn’t alone in that feeling. Over an eighth of the DYC’s members are in the intermediate category, and the club has developed a range of activities that appeals to different tastes: A “metro” club-within-the-club attracts young people in the city; as does the biking club, while there’s also more traditional groups like reading and opera lovers.

From Memorial Day to October, people show up in droves to sip drinks poolside at the Tiki bar and watch the weekly band shell concerts.

“While there’s a profound respect for tradition at the club, there’s also an acknowledgment and the reality that ... you can’t let tradition make you irrelevant to your members and your prospective members,” Batt said.

Of course, some traditions are here to stay. There’s the annual Sweepstakes Regatta (since 1892), the Memorial Day Regatta (1915), the Christmastime Commodore’s coffee hour (1925) and the Memorial Day service (1948). And if you accidentally wear a regular suit to the winter black tie Officers’ Ball — which hasn’t missed a year since 1877 — you’ll never make the same mistake again, Theisen said.

For Knapp, the club feels like a connection to Detroit’s past as much as a place to play.

“You go to the end of our little island and see the skyline of downtown,” Knapp said. “Looking at the east riverfront, Detroit is very much — it’s our setting.”

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Information from: Detroit Free Press, http://www.freep.com

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