For over 30 years, Bert's Marketplace has served food and preserved black history in Detroit
CHANEL STITT | MONDAY, APRIL 02, 2018
Bert's Entertainment Complex Owner Bert Dearing Jr.
When you enter from Russell Street, Bert's Marketplace in Eastern Market looks like a standard restaurant with an adjacent bar. But as you go deeper into the 24,000 square foot complex, you come across a huge venue and stage. Another bar. Murals, plaques, memorabilia. A museum.
Also known as Bert's Entertainment Complex, the place is more like an amusement park dedicated to Detroit's history than a restaurant and bar.
That's because Bert's Marketplace is a reflection of its owner. Bert Dearing Jr. opened the Marketplace in 1987, but the building's roots go back to when Dearing was much younger. He comes from a family of entrepreneurs—his grandfather owned grocery stores on Detroit's east side where Dearing would work as a youth.
After graduating high school, Dearing enlisted in the U.S. Army. The values he took with him from his family and service were simple. "Stay out of trouble," says Dearing. "Treat people like you want to be treated. Be a leader, not a follower. Dream and dream big, but you have to work at it."
In 1968, Dearing opened his first business, Bert's Black Horse Saloon, a jazz club on Gratiot Avenue. Following that, he opened Bert's Place, All That Jazz, and Jazz on the River. He eventually closed all these businesses to focus on one.
That's because Dearing really wanted to open up a business in Eastern Market, close to where he was raised. The restaurant, which has a barbecue-style menu, was the first component. But between his love of rhythm, energy, and sound, Dearing knew that music had to be incorporated into the business.
Dearing made sure to maintain the values he inherited in his youth in his business by running it with other members of his family. There are his two sons, Jai-Lee and Bert III. Miller London, Bert's cousin, is in charge of bookings and organization. And Dearing hopes the Marketplace will be around long enough for his four grandchildren to run the business someday.
Dearing in front of the Marketplace's mural dedicated to black history in Detroit
Perhaps because Dearing is so committed to family, Bert's has a family-like feel. It's become the main hangout for people of all ages in the area.
For example, every Wednesday, a group of older men meet at Bert's to catch up. One of those men, Mitchell Aclise, is a long-time customer who believes that the best thing about the Marketplace is the camaraderie. Aclise started coming to Bert's when he worked at Ford—him and his friends would meet there between shifts. To this day, he never misses a Wednesday meetup.
But Bert's is a busy place with something happening every day. On weeknights, there are ballroom dances lead by different instructors. Throughout the week there are live jazz and blues shows—some have been playing every week for years.
The entertainment complex is made up of the Jazz Room, the Food Court, Warehouse Theatre, and the Hastings Street Room. All of these separate venues hold various events, but Dearing's favorite is the Jazz Room because it's like coming to the kitchen table where "everybody is a family."
One of his longest clients, R.G.B. Trio Open Mic, has been playing at Bert's for 18 years. John Douglass Jazz Quartet for about nine. Blues Lady Champagne has consistently returned every week for 10 years. When some of the regular bands weren't on tour, he'd employ them. "I kept all the Funk Brothers working," he says of the famous Motown backing band.
One of Dearing's main principles is inclusivity. "Entertainment doesn't have a color," he says.
This is perhaps best exemplified at karaoke Saturdays, which has been a staple of Eastern Market for 15 years. People of all ages come to sing all day long, their voices broadcast on Russell Street along with the smell of ribs cooking on the grill. "It's like you're sitting at your kitchen table and you never know what is going to pop off at the table," says Dearing. "We have some people here every Saturday—this is their outing."
While the Marketplace is welcoming to everyone, Dearing has immense pride for African American contributions to the city. One of the Marketplace's main attractions are two vibrant, hallway-length murals painted by Curtis Lewis that cover black history in Detroit, from the black bottom neighborhood where Dearing grew up to important figures in entertainment, sports, and civil rights. All the images on the murals were drawn from his memories and experiences, and include attractions from his childhood like tamale vendors, streetcars, and the old Vernor building at Woodward and Jefferson avenues.
Two years ago, he also started a museum, mostly with items from his personal collection, in honor of black history in Detroit. There are sections on black police officers, Joe Louis, Mayor Coleman Young, Sugar Ray Robinson, the Detroit Pistons, and even historic maps of Detroit.
"I want to keep and showcase black Detroit history," Dearing says. "Kids don't know about Hastings Street and Paradise Valley. And it's important they do."
All photos by Doug Coombe.
Dearing also uses his Marketplace as a vehicle to improve the community by hosting dinners for people in need during the summer and on holidays. He partners with organizations in the city to do health screenings as well.