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An 'Entrepreneurial Seedling' Sprouts In Detroit

A worker with The Empowerment Plan creates a coat that will later be donated to a homeless person. The organization works inside Ponyride, a 30,000-square-foot warehouse near downtown Detroit. The warehouse hosts other local businesses, too.
Courtesy of Order & Other
A worker with The Empowerment Plan creates a coat that will later be donated to a homeless person. The organization works inside Ponyride, a 30,000-square-foot warehouse near downtown Detroit. The warehouse hosts other local businesses, too.

Detroit is littered with empty warehouses — more than 7,000, by one estimate. They've become skeletons of the city's industrial past.

But not this warehouse, where Jennifer Blake is feeding quilted fabric through a sewing machine. She's making a coat. Fashioned with Velcro fastenings, it has a sleeping bag that slips out on the bottom, and is made of recycled car parts, she says.

Blake is one of a half-dozen women doing this in a sunny corner on the second floor of a 30,000-square-foot warehouse not far from downtown Detroit. When it's done, her coat will be given to one of the city's 20,000 homeless people.

Blake herself was homeless before she started working here. And it's the here part that's key.

Her employer, a nonprofit called The Empowerment Plan, pays cheap rent — about 20 percent of the market value — for its space in this warehouse — space where employees are expected to cross-pollinate and exchange ideas.

"We learn things from each other," Blake says. "In the end, [at] certain times we can indulge in different projects that's going on within the building. So it's fun."

It's also the larger plan — to be an incubator for small, creative, Detroit-based businesses. Right now, there are 20 groups working in this building, with 40 more waiting for space.

The Idea Of A Business Venue

This is the brainchild of entrepreneur Phillip Cooley, a 35-year-old restaurant owner. He's renovated this warehouse with help from his family. His girlfriend is the executive director. And he gave the enterprise the somewhat fanciful name Ponyride.

"When you're a kid, everybody likes a pony ride. And when you're younger, you have less hang-ups. There's less mechanism or triggers that make you say no, or puts these blocks up, and we really believe in creativity and innovation through creativity," he says. "So we want people to be as open as possible, and open to fail, open to experiment and try again."

Cooley is well-known around the city for his restaurant, Slows Bar-B-Q — a bright spot a few blocks from the ruins of the city's train depot. It's part of the redevelopment of what was once Detroit's Irish enclave, Corktown.

But the Ponyride project is his baby. He bought the warehouse — a foreclosure — for $100,000.

The Ponyride warehouse hosts several Detroit-based businesses.
/ Courtesy of Order & Other
Courtesy of Order & Other
The Ponyride warehouse hosts several Detroit-based businesses.

"Our whole landscape here is filled with them [warehouses], many of them unoccupied," Cooley says. "So we need to figure out how to unlock them for creative, productive use again."

That means a hip-hop dance studio in one corner and a row of old sewing machines for a denim company that makes $250 jeans. There's a Web design firm, a boat maker, a letter press shop and a furniture studio all in this building.

"We're really interested in seeing what happens when Detroiters have control of the landscape versus speculators and outside forces that don't have Detroit and Detroiters' interests in mind," Cooley says.

There's even a forge for metalsmithing.

Gabriel Craig, 29, one of the founders of the metalsmith studio, explains they're creating museum-style mounts for animal skulls for the Detroit Mercantile Co.

Like many of the people working at Ponyride, he grew up in the Detroit area, and he sees being here as something that could help the city's rebirth. After all, he could have put his company out in the suburbs or somewhere else entirely.

"I think that's why we live here," Craig says. "I feel like we can make a difference with what we're doing here, whereas if we lived in Portland or Brooklyn we'd just be another face in the crowd."

Being Careful About Rebuilding

But many of the faces here — like those of the artists and young people drawn to Detroit in the past few years — are white, while more than 80 percent of the city's population is African-American.

Cooley says he's cognizant of that, and is trying to help rebuild a neighborhood without driving longtime residents out.

"When I moved here, that's precisely the reason [why] I moved here," he says. "Because in Chicago and in Paris and in a lot of these other cities I lived in, you could see it happening over and over again. Every neighborhood that you would move into, prices, rent would go up, and you'd be forced out and there would be no ownership."

Veronika Scott, who runs The Empowerment Plan, says it's incumbent on new residents, especially social entrepreneurs like her, to understand the city they're joining.

"And what I want, if you're going to be a young white transplant into this city, you need to be thinking about the community that's been here forever," she says. "Don't just show up and isolate yourself or create another community, separate. I think it's very important that you need to integrate within these amazing Detroiters that know the city better than we do. And that is the only reason I'm successful is because I work with them."

Emmett Moten, a prominent black developer in Detroit, once worked as the city's development director.

When asked about the wave of transplants moving to the city, and making sure that two communities mesh and that complicated racial stratification doesn't alter Detroit, he said:

"Well, that was the issue back [then] — it's been there every day. It's no different than what it was in the '70s, the '60s or the '50s. How does a majority population called a 'minority' ... participate? It's always been there. It has to do with people and seeing how they can work cooperatively together.

"I don't see problems as we go forward. I think everybody has to understand one another's position, because everything is new to people. You know, Phil Cooley down on Michigan Avenue, and you have people down in Corktown and people down in Woodbridge. Well, who are these guys? But it takes the individual to figure out, 'How do I engage myself in the community.' "

And that's the larger challenge. Can a few people who mean well and a scattering of boutique businesses even make a dent in a city with Detroit's problems?

'Rebound' Not Yet A Comeback

The population has fallen to 700,000 — less than half of what it was in the glory days of the 1950s. The glut of foreclosures and vacant lots has sapped the tax base, and the official unemployment rate of 10.2 percent masks a deeper long-term job crisis.

"We're looking at a neighborhood that is in close proximity to downtown, that was built perhaps around World War I and is about 80 percent vacant," says John Mogk, who teaches law and urban policy at Wayne State University.

We toured the city in his car — American, of course — a 2013 Cadillac.

"Detroit is on the rebound downtown," Mogk says. "And it is reinventing itself downtown. And that's filtering out to some of the neighborhoods that are immediately adjacent to downtown. But that represents a very small part, in the case of Detroit, of a very large geographic area."

Detroit is on the rebound downtown. And it is reinventing itself downtown ... But that represents a very small part, in the case of Detroit, of a very large geographic area.

He says development can only happen on a large scale if the city can clear out big parcels of land for rebuilding. He calls Cooley's work "an entrepreneurial seedling," but says it's not enough.

"Along with that, we need some large, existing corporations to come in and be willing to locate new facilities in the city, because there is just so much land area that needs to be returned to productive use," he says.

Mogk sees a stark contrast. He appreciates the excitement and enthusiasm of young entrepreneurs like Phil Cooley, who are making changes. But he also knows how far Detroit has fallen — even in his lifetime. And he says a real comeback will take another 50 years.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lizzie O' Leary
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