(Photo: Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press)
The 150-year-old club with a 93,000-sq. ft. clubhouse on the city’s Belle Isle just south of downtown Detroit is trying to attract new members through its reduced-fee “intermediate” membership, which starts at $60 a month for the under-35 crowd. Other steps are also being taken to overcome the “yacht club stereotype.”
The history of the Detroit Yacht Club (DYC), now in its 150th year, includes a litany of visitors that once included legendary names like Ford and Dodge from the city’s automotive families, as well as Crown Prince Harald V of Norway and the King of Sweden, the Detroit Free Press reported. The late actor Charlton Heston was once supposedly turned away from a haircut with the club’s barber, the Free Press noted.
Nowadays, the Free Press reported, General Motors executives or Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan can be spotted in the club’s 93,000-sq.-ft. clubhouse on Belle Isle, the island park designed by Frederick Law Olmstead that is south of downtown in the Detroit River.
But even with all of its tradition, the Free Press reported, DYC is now aiming to revamp its numbers and cultivate an image outside the stuffy “boat club” stereotype, by trying to attract new members through its reduced-fee “intermediate” membership, which starts at $60 a month for the under-35 crowd.
From a peak of about 3,000 members in the 1920s, when Detroit was the fourth-largest city in the country, DYC currently has about 800, the Free Press reported.
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, the Free Press reported. Some members dropped out because they couldn’t afford it, and 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,” 71-year-old Ed Theisen, who remembers going to the club as a kid in the 1950s for boat rides with friends, movie screenings on Sunday nights and meals with his great-aunt and uncle, told the Free Press.
“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.’ ” Theisen said.
Another wave of members disappeared during the financial crisis of 2008 and Detroit’s bankruptcy, the Free Press reported. 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 that have been part of the revival of downtown Detroit, the Free Press reported. And that means appealing to a wide range of tastes and overcoming the “yacht club stereotype” that includes making clear you don’t have a boat or enjoy boating to take advantage of what the club has to offer.
A little more than a third of those who now belong to the DYC, the Free Press reported, 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 still 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, Ray Batt, a past Commodore at the club, told the Free Press.
“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, the Free Press noted. Until the 1950s, there was just one female member, who had taken over her late husband’s membership, according to 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, the Free Press reported. 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, the Free Press reported. But the attitude about who should be allowed to join has progressed tenfold, Theisen said.
Overall, added Colin Knapp, who joined after first visiting the DYC in 2014, the club is still primarily white, but becoming more diverse,
Knapp wasn’t a car executive or aspiring young politico when he joined the DYC, the Free Press reported. He was a 22-year-old organist fresh out of the University of Michigan, new to Detroit and jobless. He’d never been on a yacht in his life.
“The whole concept of a private club was new to me,” Knapp told the 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?” added Knapp, referring to his being among the first openly gay young people at the club.
Lena Angott, then the club’s Membership Director, had pushed to expand membership recruitment efforts to attract those from the LGBT community to the DYC as part of the efforts to revive the club’s fortunes, the Free Press reported. And although a few “dinosaurs” resisted that, Angott said, the reception was overwhelmingly positive.
The changes at the DYC reflect what has been done at other exclusive city clubs in Detroit, the Free Press reported. Earlier this year, the Detroit Club in downtown, where Angott is now the Membership Director, 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, Angott said.
The Detroit Athletic Club and suburban clubs like the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club are also thriving because of changes they’ve made to stay up-to-date, vibrant and relevant, the Free Press noted, but many other hallowed Detroit spaces didn’t make it. The University Club declared bankruptcy in the 1990s, and The Recess Club, the Standard Club and the Renaissance Club also remain shuttered.
When clubs rely too much on tradition, Angott told the Free Press, it can create a generational gap.
“I can tell you every event that’s going to happen next year,” Angott said of some clubs that haven’t effectively changes with the times, “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.”
The biggest challenge clubs face today is their exclusive origins, Randy McBee, a professor of history at Texas Tech University who has written two books on American social organizations, told the Free Press. Whether It was at a working-class ethnic club of the early 20th century or a country club of today, members tend to bond over a shared identity that, at its core, bars others, McBee said.
“It’s not just, ‘It happens to be all-male or all-white,’ ” he added. “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, McBee continued. 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, 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, its past Commodore, told the Free Press. 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 noted.
He quickly made friends at the DYC with members ranging from young working people in their 20s to grandparents in their 80s, he told the Free Press. The environment doesn’t feel buttoned-up at all, he 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, the Free Press reported. 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 are also more traditional groups like reading and opera lovers.
From Memorial Day to October, the Free Press reported, people show up in droves at the DYC to sip drinks poolside at the tiki bar and watch the weekly bandshell 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.
Some of the traditions are clearly here to stay, the Free Press reported, such as 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, the Free Press reported.
“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.”