Delray Cafe Owner Waits For New International Bridge

Friday, November 14, 2014

Delray is the Southwest Detroit neighborhood wedged between 1-75, Fort Wayne, Zug Island and the Wastewater Treatment Plant. Its population has declined over the last 50 years. But those who remain have been waiting. Residents have put their lives on hold for the proposed bridge to Canada for the last five years. Many hope to be bought out. Then they can move to a neighborhood that’s less polluted and feels safer. Others hope the bridge will make their neighborhood a better place to live. But there’s a business in Delray that’s been waiting too. WDET’s Laura Herberg brings us the story of the Delray Café.

From outside, the Delray Café doesn’t look like much. A shuttered business with a “For Sale” sign, a weathered patio and a boat in the empty lot next door. But walk inside and there’s a well-stocked bar, a plastic menu-board displaying cheap fried food, and walls lined with Tigers and Red Wings jerseys. It looks like a dive bar that that’s going to open in a few hours.

Except for the banquet tables covered in random knick-knacks left over from a family garage sale.

Pafford: Well do you see anything you like?

That’s Les Pafford, owner of the Delray Café. When business suffered… he had to close the bar about five years ago. And now, like the rest of the neighborhood, it sits waiting. Waiting to see if it might come back to life.

During prohibition this neighborhood thrived. There was a strip on Jefferson Avenue that was like a little downtown area. It was here that the Delray Café was born. John Nagy grew up in the neighborhood and spent some time at the café as a kid in the 1960's before Pafford owned the place.

Nagy: My dad and mom used to uh porter for the Delray Café, for the original owner, they’d go down at 2:00 in the morning on a Sunday morning and go down there and clean the place up.

Nagy describes the Delray Café as a landmark

Nagy: Well everybody sort of recognized it as a as a place to go, back in the back in its day. I mean it was a, it was a neighborhood hangout.

In the 1970's, Les Pafford – whose wife is coincidentally related to Nagy - was living in the area, working as a salesman.

Pafford: And we used to hit most of the bars on Friday night.

At some point he decided he wanted to buy a bar.

Pafford: And I said if I bought one it would be this one here because it was the biggest.

In 1977, his dream came true. Pafford became the owner of the Delray Café.

Pafford: Wanna go upstairs? [Sounds of walking upstairs].

The place looks like an old party hall. Pafford says that’s how it was used at one point.

Pafford: This is the first room. This is where we’d have parties at for 50 people. We put a couple hundred people in here. Upstairs hold over 100 people. Downstairs we got a capacity for 300. See the stage up there how nice it is?

The stage hosted bands, comedians, karaoke, even a few so-called “Lingerie parties.”

Laura: Did the girls keep their lingerie on?

Pafford: Oh yeah. They had a top on and a bottom. But that was about it, maybe high heels [laughs]

Okay, that aside… the space looks like it’s almost ready for a Friday night. All it needs is customers. But they’re hard to come by in this part of town.

Delray has suffered extreme population loss since the 1970's. Some houses were bought out to make room for a Waste Water Treatment Plant. Nearby plants closed and people moved away. Then the community became isolated by the expansion of I-75 and bridge closures over the Rouge River. Construction workers became Pafford’s main clientele from the 1990's onward. But there weren’t enough of them to sustain the business.

Les: All the construction guys, they see me out here cutting the grass and everything they stop, “Hey Les, when you gonna open up!?” You know, “Hurry up. We ain’t got no place to eat.”

Delray Café was the last place that serve food on this former downtown strip of Jefferson Avenue.

So I’m waiting to see how long it’s gonna take the bridge to get going. You know supposed to be 10,000 construction workers.

And with that many hungry - and thirsty - workers around… Pafford could probably sell the place for more than he could now. Or he could even go back in business himself. These are the thoughts that run through his head.

So you never know we might open up again.

[Sound of car passing]

But just two weeks later… Pafford stands in front of a pile of charred rubble between two black walls. Rain sprinkling down on top of it.

Pafford: Hi this is what’s left of the Delray Café

On the eve of Devils Night the café burned down. Pafford believes it was arson. He has his theories but there is no formal police investigation.

First the roof caved in, then the top floor.

Les: It doesn’t look that big, when it’s empty now. I mean it looked a lot bigger inside, you know?

The reopening or sale of the cafe was supposed to fund Pafford and his wife’s retirement. Now that’s all lost. And… there will be no insurance pay-out. Pafford stopped paying the fee after a disputed claim.

But with this fire he didn’t just lose money.

Laura: What did you lose that didn’t have like a price? Pafford: My heart.

Delray Café had become a part of Pafford’s life and identity.

Pafford: I told some people at the gym I came from this morning that I was signing uh autographs on the bricks and selling them for five dollars [laughs] and they gotta kick out of that, you know. But that was just a joke. But my grandkids all took bricks. And uh, we’ll probably put on there, from 1977 – 2014, for you know when I’m gone they’ll always remember me by looking at the brick, you know.

For most people… their memories of Delray Café will have to survive without any kind of physical reminder. But, the residents who’ve lived here are probably used to that by now, with so many businesses, houses and people already gone.

As for the bridge, some land has already been cleared to make way for it. Construction is scheduled to be complete by 2020. In the meantime, the community waits.

Join us on Friday, November 21 at Galerie Camille in midtown Detroit for the opening reception of Delray: Beyond Isolation. This documentary-style photojournalism exhibit will explore the daily life of normal people: business owners and laborers, families and children living in Delray. View WDET's digital preview of this event here.