Posts Tagged ‘Detroit’

This article article appeared originally in the February 2016 edition of Workspace Magazine, published by Bellow Press in Grand Rapids.


Detroit Business Incubator Reinvents How Detroit Works

By John Q. Horn

Grand-scale manufacturing loss, staggering crime and a national economic recession sank of a lot of middle-tier cities. Detroit, for decades, was one of them.

But, an invigorating entrepreneurialism – even in small pockets on the fringes of a now-bustling downtown – is creating an innovative approach to work where the automotive assembly line that made Detroit great is being complemented by a steady line of small business owners intending to make the city greater.

When Detroit needed to rethink how it approached work – following an auto industry collapse, a federal government bailout that came with it; and a corrupt city government leading to bankruptcy and emergency management assistance – reinventing Detroit’s work identity unraveled unconventionally.

Billionaires like the late Detroit Tigers and Red Wings owner Mike Illich, and Quicken Loans CEO Dan Gilbert, Roger Penske and others, have been moving people and companies toward the Central Business District by the tens of thousands into buildings that were for decades empty, aging, eyesores. This has generated a downtown pulse that once barely registered.

Equally critical to the city’s health are the entrepreneurs and small business creationists filling the gaps of a city’s workforce and its path to becoming again whole. With countless manufacturing jobs disintegrating in both the city and suburbs, Detroit required a solution outside of the billionaires. Ponyride, a collaborative bricks-and-mortar workspace, galloped onto the landscape, bringing with it a zephyr of small business generation and community-based entrepreneurship.


ponyride exeterior

Back in 2005, Phil Cooley bought real estate along a then-empty and silent Michigan Avenue, inserting in it what would become the city’s signature restaurant, Slow’s Bar BQ. Through that success, Cooley and his associates would make more investments in Detroit. In 2010, the foreclosed property at 1401 Vermont caught his eye, as Cooley said he sought space to live and work. At 30,000 square feet, the bank said it would take $100,000 for the property. But for that sweet price, Cooley would need to convert it into a multiple-use space. He met with community members for feedback. The result is the rebirth of an empty structure, named Ponyride, packed with a litany of small businesses that all got their start or grew there.

“We want a workspace that encourages people the way Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were, before they were successful, old and rich,” Cooley said. “Small businesses and entrepreneurs need to exist and create jobs. “

And that’s precisely what is happening. Kate Bordine Cooley, Phil’s wife and owner of Our/Detroit, a vodka distillery and tasting room merely blocks away, said they let the community tell them what the space should be and “organically folks showed up needing space. Bit by bit, the spaces in Ponyride have grown into what they are now. We have a café, co-working space, textiles, metal and wood studios.”



Specifically, there are dozens of work areas carved out for small business entrepreneurs to create and distribute wares. Among them is a professionally built dance space, a recording studio, a coffee café, the makers of Beard Balm, Detroit Denim (and their $250 jeans), Dirt Apparel (urban-influenced clothing), The Line Studio and their glorious furniture with concrete countertops and Floyd, a progressive furniture manufacturer catering to smaller living spaces with pieces that attach to any surface to convert to a table-bed system.

“It’s a Democratic space,” Cooley said. “Why should tech be with just tech? Or manufacturing with just manufacturing? We don’t want to isolate people. It’s not textbook to have a quiltmaker next to a hip-hop dance teacher.”

Nothing about Detroit is, or ever will be, textbook. It’s always been tough in this city.

Detroit went from hey-day vibrant, to grossly violent, to complacently desolate, to laughably corrupt, to, literally, bankrupt. This pattern required five-plus decades of sweetheart deals and immoral bookkeeping. All while the rest of the nation watched, contorting its nose as if amid flatulence. It would seem logical that the decades it took for Detroit to de-evolve should be congruent to the time it will take for the city to again feel whole – a state many considered incomprehensible.

“To throw away that infrastructure is foolish. But, also, it’s the tenants themselves, the way they share resources, tools and ideas,” Cooley said. “Lazlo (a company housed in Ponyride) has a guy working for him who just got out of prison.”

Bordine Cooley supported the assertion that co-working, especially at Ponyride, crystallizes the way new work is being done in Detroit.

“When the Jit Crew said they needed a dance studio, we gutted a room that was once eight separate offices and laid down a reclaimed gymnasium floor,” she said.

Dance studio space cost $10 per hour to rent, and includes lessons, recitals, events and parties. Most workspace is $300 per month. The waiting list is currently at 200 people with great ideas. Ponyride quickly went from incubator to white-hot oven.

Ponyride is home to The Empowerment Plan, an organic operation bringing together homeless women and puts them to work. Their finished product is a thick, down jacket that converts to a sleeping bag, designed specifically for those living on the streets. The hum of 20 sewing machines at a time is nearly symphonic, once the humanitarianism of it all washes over you.


sewing 1

Cassie Coravos, business and communications manager of The Empowerment Plan, says the organization provides twice-weekly GED classes through Pro-Literacy Detroit. It assists with online college courses, finding viable housing and involving members with financial literacy through Level One Bank. It offers resources and support, including everything from onsite temporary housing to vehicle acquisition and repair.

“Ponyride has been a great space to be a part of,” Coravos said. “We love being part of this community, but we are quickly outgrowing our space. We currently have 20 seamstresses. We want to hire more and make more coats, and we are near capacity in our current space.”

Detroit SOUP also operates out of Ponyride. It’s not so much a café, rather, an open-air forum where guests enjoy locally sources soup and salad, paying $5 for both comfort food and a vote, listening intently to at least four locals pitch their products and ideas. These range from urban farming, to legal fees for the wrongly accused, to education and technology initiatives – many born from bare-bones, grassroots projects.

People eat, listen, vote and reward. The five-year-old program has raised more than $85,000 for independent projects in Detroit. It’s a council of community-minded Detroiters and their suburban neighbors putting up $5 at a time to help fund an entrepreneur’s dream. Yeah, someone has an idea for a garden on a beat-down lot and that night’s Detroit SOUP brought in $400 for the endeavor. That’s $400 that wasn’t there before. And like the business incubator space that also wasn’t there, so is a presence of support that didn’t previously exists. Be it $10 or $100,000, in Detroit, in the right hands, it makes a difference.

Joanna Dueweke is a community activist and content strategist. She is also the director of Detroit SOUP, and she describes perfectly the position in which Detroit, and its work culture, finds today.

“Nothing about Detroit can be traditional anymore,” she said. “We have to change so the city can change and prosper in new and different ways.”

New and different should be on the welcome mat.

Like The Empowerment Plan, whose founder Veronika Scott started by herself with a modest Detroit SOUP grant, the path to crafting a dream where soon-to-be-former-Detroit women could make a warm coat-sleeping bag for their sweet brethren and sisterhood, these things take time.

Creating coworking space and connecting with a community to make it feasible is embryonic in the larger glimpse. Putting the right resources in a place like Ponyride sharpens the focus for those who want it.

“Three and a half years ago, it was just Veronika,” Phil Cooley said. “Now look at it. That’s five years. That takes some heavy lifting. I hope there is more patience.”


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Marche du Nain Rouge

Driving the devil out of Detroit

By John Q. Horn

By John Q. Horn

It’s symbolism at its finest.

The Marche du Nain Rouge — now only in its second year in 2011 — is a colorful, festive parade/march through the Cass Corridor, whereby participants banish the mythical deity believed to be the root of Detroit’s problems.

The “Nain Rouge,” (English translation: red dwarf) is an imaginary-being-come-to-life that, through folklore, is identified as the little devil that has haunted Detroit for more than three centuries. Revelers gather in the Corridor to march down Cass Avenue mid colorful costumes and, this year, hand-crafted chariots, chanting and taunting this red beast, until they arrive in Cass Park, where the effigy is burned and the party begins.

It works this way:

  • Participants meet at Third Street Bar at 1 p.m. on 3/20. An individual dressed as the Nain Rouge will appear in costume and will be playfully chased down the Corridor as the march begins.
  • In a new twist this year, no less than 10 chariots — hand-crafted and non-motorized — created by various community groups, will lead the way, along with the Detroit Marching Band.
  • The Nain will taunt them as they go, until they reach Cass Park at 3 p.m. A quick ceremony will follow, and an effigy of the Nain, long-believed to be the symbol of the negative events that have haunted Detroit for approximately 300 years, will be burned.
  • The Cass Park Festival will begin after that. The same drinking and mirth that started the march at Third Street Bar will continue in the park through 7 p.m. Individuals, families, well-behaved dogs on leashes and those with rich imaginations are welcomed.

Peter Van Dyke is the organizer of the 2011 March. He says they expect close to 1,000 people, up considerably from last year’s inaugural event, where approximately 300 attendees turned out. He looked to community groups when considering the chariots.

“We wanted to get the community involved,” Van Dyke says. “We wanted to have them create chariots that were appropriate for the folkloric atmosphere of the Marche. They can make the chariot any way they want. The only requirement is that it is man-powered.”

The event itself is richly unique. Where else can you find revelers marching down Cass Ave., in full costume and regalia, heading to the park to torch the very effigy that represents the ills that plague the city? For Van Dyke, the Marche is all about what the Nain represents and the crowd’s reaction/response to doing away with what they feel is the little devil on the city’s shoulder.

“The symbolism is rooted in a negative story. The Nain Rouge is the impetus behind Detroit’s most notorious events. It’s taking the most negative parts of Detroit and making it a positive,” Van Dyke says.

Following the ceremony, the festival will include performances by DJ Big Time America, as well as bands Golden and Car Parts. The Detroit Brewing Company will roll out the event’s signature beer, Detroit Dwarf. Food, courtesy of Avalon and Slow’s To Go, will also be available. Other restaurants/community businesses will have special events and discounts. For more information on who is doing what, visit marchedunainrouge.com.

There is no cost to participate in the Marche and festival, but food and beer tickets are $3 each. Two tickets get you a sandwich; one ticket, a beer.

Canton resident Jenna Petroskey was at last year’s event, and plans on attending this year as well.

“I love the quirky, uniquely Detroit nature of the Marche,” she says. “One of the other things I loved about the Marche is the diverse crowd it drew. ”

Story previously published by Real Detroit Weekly Magazine. Photo courtesy of  Peter Van Dyke.

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Motown Winter Blast 2011

Heating up downtown Detroit


By John Q. Horn

The Motown Winter Blast started as a downtown backdrop to Super Bowl XL in 2006. In the last 5 years, it has taken on a life of its own, gradually evolving into a seasonally iconic weekend that has become emblematic of downtown’s versatility and growth.

From 2/11-2/13, Campus Martius and the surrounding area become an epicenter of winter-based, outdoor fun,  irrespective of your demographic. For three days, metro Detroiters converge on downtown Detroit for the huge snow slide, great live music, wonderful food from area restaurants and a general sense of winter mirth that helps warm these cold days and nights.

Families live it up during the day and early evening with free ice skating at the Campus Martius rink, ice sculptures and a kids stage; adults young and old have plenty of options during the night, including three live music stages, after parties, bar crawls and more.

It is a something-for-everyone environment. A huge caveat for Winter Blast 2011 is the 11th-hour sponsorship that came in from officials with the Ambassador Bridge, who this year have sponsored the 200-foot-long, 32-foot-high natural snow slide that has been a big draw at past events. But for organizers, the reality is that Winter Blast 2011 will bring tens of thousands of visitors to downtown Detroit, and what attendees do while they’re there could have a positive effect on the city.

“The slide gives us such a lift but what’s interesting is that it’s not just having the slide,” says Jonathan Witz, executive producer. “It’s a great contribution to us, because it is expected to lift attendance. The more people we have downtown, the more money that is being spent on local businesses.”

Witz illustrated a ripple effect of what happens when people visit Winter Blast. They come for the activities and the fun, but they hopefully use it as a gateway to experience nightlife, dining and other activities in the city, outside of Winter Blast.

“There is a lot of adult-oriented entertainment with the music lineup, the after-party at the Greektown Casino, the Bar Blast, DJs from Movement; we have really put together an evening of entertainment,” Witz says. “We have set up the downtown so that our events go until 11 p.m. We have really opened the door for people to visit other Detroit spots after Winter Blast.”

Three music stages — sponsored by the Michigan Lottery, Flagstar Bank and Meijer, respectively — will showcase a variety of genres ranging from rock, funk and soul, to blues, pop, acoustic and more. Expected to play throughout the weekend are The Muggs, Black Irish, DJs from Movement, The Reefermen, Jill Jack and Stewart Francke, among many others.

Winter Blast 2011 offers a lot more than just great live music, though. Events throughout the weekend range from navigating the giant snow slide, to ice skating and snow-shoeing demonstrations, to dog-sledding, marshmallow roasting and so much more. For Witz, it’s not about how much activity organizers can pack into a weekend; rather, the real payback for him is the view while it’s all going on.

“The support of the snow slide has allowed us to have snow-makers to make snow for snowshoeing and to bring back dog sledding for the first time in three years,” he says. “With the backdrop of the city, you get to watch people putting on snowshoes like they’re at a resort about to hit the trails. This is what Michigan winter is like. There is a little bit of tourism promoted as well.

“It really is a neat mix,” he added. “The great thing about Winter Blast is watching people flow through it all. People are roasting marshmallows or going to catch a live band. It’s a pace that is both fast and slow.”

All of that activity will assuredly work up an appetite. The General Motors Foundation Taste of Detroit will feature 15 participants from all points on Detroit’s culinary landscape.

Restaurants in Taste of Detroit include the rich, European-inspired fare from Cuisine in Greektown; unrivaled barbecue goodness from Lockhart’s in Royal Oak; fresh fish, steaks and chops from Detroit Seafood Market; authentic Middle Eastern dishes from La Marsa; Greek fare from Greektown Taverna; Polish food from Kola’s Food Factory in Riverview; and many more.

Comfort Zones will be established throughout Campus Martius, with heated tents and warming stations no more than 150 feet apart. Visitors to Motown Winter Blast can pop in to warm up, while at the same time enjoying live music or any of the many other acitivities going on throughout the weekend. It’s cold. Go warm up outside.

Published originally in Real Detroit Weekly Magazine

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This article previously ran in Real Detroit Weekly Magazine

The definitive neighborhood bar

By John Horn

If you like snotty, clique-y, unfriendly bar crowds and the pretentious nonsense that comes with them, then you’ll probably hate the Corktown Tavern.

Now that we’ve established that you’re (somewhat) well-adjusted and prefer your bar crowds to be composed of real, like-minded individuals with the same agenda (catch a buzz; have a good time), then you probably already know about Corktown Tavern. And if you don’t, you’re going to want to familiarize yourself with one of the true Detroit neighborhood bars in the city.

“It’s a loose, fun atmosphere,” says Owner Tony Maisano. “Good music, good drinks and good people.” Corktown operates, literally, on two levels. Downstairs, you have the long bar and a smattering of TVs with people hanging out, drinking, comiserating and generally enjoying bar-inspired mirth. The upper level is home to live music, generally Thursdays through Saturdays, and showcases everyone from local bands to national acts. Pick one level or the other; or do both.

“The neat thing about our place is that it has two floors,” Maisano says. “Even if you want to come and have a drink, there is no cover, ever. You pay the cover upstairs. It’s almost a private thing up there.”

That private thing upstairs will usually run you no more than $5 and will afford to you the opportunity to see anyone from Eddie Spaghetti and/or Hugh Cornwell of the Supersuckers to Panama, a Cleveland-based Van Halen tribute band.

“One of the other benefits is that we keep it fair with the bands in that they keep 100 percent of the door,” Maisano says. “We never take out for sound guys and other BS like that. My motto is: ‘You’re the music, you brought the people, you make that money. I’m in the business of selling booze, I keep that money.'”

It must be working, because Corktown Tavern has to it a no-nonsense, relaxed environment. Ownership encourages — and patrons oblige — a fun, upbeat atmosphere. A happy hour typically runs from 8 p.m.- 9 p.m., before bands start to play. There is always some sort of $2 domestic beer special, as well as a shot/drink special, which is usually the call of the bartender working that night.

In addition to live music upstairs toward the end of the week and into the weekend, Scotty from the Amino Acids DJs every Monday night.

Want to support something local? Throw a couple of bucks and couple of hours into helping sustain the unpretentious fun at Corktown Tavern.



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