- Associated Press - Sunday, February 28, 2016

DETROIT (AP) - The outside world was knocking, and Tony Bean had to look before unlocking the door.

He lifted the black curtain that covers the front window, saw a familiar face, pulled back the latch and let another old-timer step back into the past.

Bill’s Recreation is the last pool hall left in the city of Detroit. Once there were dozens of them in the neighborhoods, back when billiards was far more popular than it is now, and pool halls were notoriously shady gathering places, the Detroit Free Press (https://on.freep.com/1KrZMfG ) reported.

“Pool is not like it used to be,” said Bean, the owner of Bill’s. “There used to be a pool room on every block. Even right here, this area right here down to the light a few blocks over, there used to be two or three pool rooms.”

Now the city’s down to one. And it, too, might be gone soon.

“It ain’t gonna be here for long,” Mel Bridges said frankly. At 70 years old, the longtime regular was one of the youngest customers there that afternoon.

Bill’s is located in the shrinking wedge of what’s left of the Cass Corridor, which for decades was Detroit’s skid row. The gentrification of what’s now called Midtown is edging closer from the north in the form of trendy new restaurants and rehabbed old buildings. The revitalization of downtown encroaches from the south.

But the two waves of change have yet to meet in the middle. Midtown and downtown may be closing in, but here, at the corner of Third Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, it’s still Cass Corridor.

Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries, catering to the homeless, is right next door to the pool hall. The Neighborhood Services Organization, serving the same population, is just down the street. The clients of both loiter outside Bean’s door, and he thinks their presence scares away any potential new customers that might check his place out and give it new life.

“I try to create a healthy environment, a safe environment,” he said. “But you got a lot of homeless people out there. A lot of people are scared to come down here.”

So he’s left with a room full of old-timers whose numbers are dwindling, and a place that he’s tried his best to keep the same for them.

There are nine old pool tables in his spacious pool hall. A sign on the wall stating the house rules goes back to the 1960s, darkened by the days of indoor smoking. An equally vintage bumper sticker by the window says “Shoot pool not people.” An old jukebox stuffed with soul singles from the ‘70s lies dead in a corner. And the prices to play haven’t changed for years - $6 an hour to rent a table; 8 cents a minute if you’re playing alone.

It’s pretty much the same as it’s been all along. But everything’s changing outside, and a locked door won’t keep those changes from coming, one way or another.

Does the 64-year-old owner, just a couple years from retirement at his day job, put money into the business to try to draw a larger, perhaps different crowd? Or does he give up and sell it to some entrepreneur who wants to be part of the neighborhood’s makeover?

“I do think this area’s going to be up and going, and I’m considering maneuvering to try to hold onto what I can,” he said. He’d just gotten off the night shift at his real job in a steel plant, and instead of sleeping he came here to open the doors on time for his regulars. He looked tired.

“But I don’t know,” he said. “I might just move on.”

___

Bean grew up just blocks away, in the now-gone but longstanding and crime-infested Jeffries Housing Projects, and as a teenager he wanted nothing more than to hang out at Beasley Recreation, the neighborhood’s rough pool room.

“It was a lot of gangsters back then,” Bean said. “If you didn’t live in the projects or be associated with the projects, you had to be a real good pool player to get in.”

Bill Epps, a lifelong boiler operator at the Detroit Tank Arsenal Plant, bought the place in the late ‘60s, threw out the criminals, tore down the wall between him and the barber shop next door, and renamed the expanded pool hall after himself to announce the transformation.

“He was just a regular guy, but he loved the game of pool so much that he bought this place,” Bean said. Although Epps toned down the wildness, he still sold clandestine shots of liquor and played the role of bookie for gamblers. It was still a pool hall, after all.

Bean kept sneaking despite being told he was too young. “You had to be 18 to shoot and I was 16,” he said. “They would let me in, but I couldn’t play.” He’d sit on the long wood bench against the wall - the same well-worn bench that’s still against that same wall - and watch the older men shoot pool.

When things slowed down for the day, Bean got a chance to play. And he got good. After a while, Epps would pit the kid against unsuspecting newcomers for money.

Bean’s parents both died when he was a teenager - from drinking, he said - and Epps stepped into the role of surrogate parent.

“He was like a father to me,” he said. “He didn’t have no children, and he took me under his wing. He’d say: ‘The streets ain’t no good. You ought to get a job. You ought to do something.’ He tried to encourage me. But the streets were exciting to me at the time.”

Epps trusted him enough to hand him the keys to the building, and let him run it when he was sick or out of town, even after he caught Bean sneaking girls in there late at night to party. He even bought the kid a car, a blue Ford Galaxie 500, so he could drive to college in the suburbs.

“And then he worked the hell out of me,” Bean said, laughing.

But the older man’s influence had an effect, and Bean ended up working a long career at a Ford plant, then a steel mill. When Epps died, the family offered Bean a chance to buy it. Whether out of loyalty to Epps, the man who treated him like his son, or out of friendship to the old-timers, who watched him grow up, he bought it.

He never changed much about it, including its name. And he’s never made a dime off it.

His customers grew older and fewer over time, as the funeral notices tacked to the back wall point out. But those who remain have the place to themselves. New customers rarely make their way here. Most of the homeless have learned over the years to stay out. The drug dealers don’t bother trying to hang out here anymore.

Somehow, no matter how bleak or rough things got outside, Bean has preserved a safe haven inside.

“Me being affiliated and used to living in the projects, it’s been helpful ‘cause I know a lot of the kids out there, especially the bad ones that may be selling drugs,” he said. “I used to be with their parents and grandparents. A lot of times their grandfather or their father used to do the same thing, and they just passed it down. I know every family, and that gave me an in, or a foot in the community that they know that hey, I’m all right, but I don’t take no mess from them.”

___

It was a Friday night, and the place was jumping, as much as this place can.

There was Bean, shooting pool with Elmer Walker, 89. And Edward Moore, 77, was there. And Homer Ross, 73, was there too, sitting on a stool, watching their game of “One Pocket.”

Someone knocked at the front door. The guys watched as Bean lifted the curtain, pulled back the lock and let in a gentleman who not only had his own pool sticks, but a nice case to carry them in.

“That’s the top dog right there,” said Ross admiringly, as Wesley Hazel, 75, walked in.

Hazel’s life’s been all about pool. Not only is he a great shot, earning the nickname “Wes the Best,” but he even owned his own pool hall on Jefferson years ago. Now, in his later years, he comes to Bill’s Recreation for the quietness and the friendships. “When I was coming up a pool hall was one of the most social places to go,” he said. “At first when I came in it was a lot of older guys. Now there’s very few of us.”

These days you might find a regular napping in a soft chair as others shoot pool around him. You’ll hear guys talking about life in retirement. Or you’ll hear Walker speak about serving in the Army in World War II, and about bowling with his late wife, and how before she passed away several years ago she’d bake banana bread for him to bring in for the guys at the pool hall.

As the longtime regulars passed on and their replacements grew older, Bill’s evolved with them. Nowadays it’s no wilder than a senior center.

“It’s a place where you can come, there’s no drugs - you can’t do drugs or drinking in here, no fighting or cussing,” said Moore, a longtime community activist who first came here 30 years ago. “It’s what you see here. I like that.”

Bean thinks he might try one more time to broaden the pool hall’s appeal, this time by adding pool stick sales and repair to its offerings. He has a cue repair lathe sitting under cloth at the back of the building, ready to go. Maybe that would interest a new generation of players, he thinks; maybe some of the people lining up to eat at the trendy new restaurants a few blocks over, or all those people paying for expensive watches and leather goods at new stores in the neighborhood.

“This is my last-ditch effort probably to try to get guys in here,” Bean said. “If I can establish that I’ll give it a shot and see what happens. If not, I’ll probably just put it up for sale and see what I can get for it. The guys appreciate the place, but I can’t keep depending on them. It’s hard to maintain all that because I’m not really making any money.”

The few regulars gathered here played pool quietly as they listened to him talk about his future - and theirs.

Newcomers would be welcome to this locked-up refuge, they told him. “It wouldn’t bother me as long as they don’t come in acting the fool,” Walker said.

For years, Bean waited for the city’s revival, hoping it would lift his old place up with it. But now that it’s come he’s not sure anymore that there’s room in the new Midtown for a Cass Corridor place like his. Maybe it’s time to just get out of the way.

“The whole area’s changing,” he said, shooting pool after yet another long night at work and a mostly sleepless day. “I used to see myself as part of the change. But now, I don’t know.”

___

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


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