In 1805, fire overtook the city of Detroit, leaving all, save one building, in ashes. “We hope for better things,” Father Gabriel Richard wrote in response to the tragedy. “It will rise from the ashes.” Over the last 210 years, the phrase has developed into the motto for Detroit, even appearing on the city’s flag. Today, in the decades following the race riots and the collapse of the automotive industry, throngs of former city-dwellers and suburbanites are flocking to the city in the hopes of rebuilding it.
Phil Cooley, co-owner of Slows Bar-B-Q in Corktown, arrived after Tiger Stadium closed in 1999. His progression to owning one of the city’s most popular restaurants began by working the weekend shift as a janitor at a local bar, unable to clinch even a bar backing job in an industry laden with nepotism. The neighborhood was dead at the time, generating its only traffic from LJ’s Lounge and a corner pawn shop.
Yet in the thirteen years since Cooley’s arrival, the city has undergone significant growth. “It’s been really great to watch people realize their dreams and move in,” Cooley says. The fulfillment of personal aspirations has benefited the city as well. Corktown has seen the rise of local retail, not just bars and restaurants, purchased through unsubsidized loans.
“New construction is making sense,” Cooley adds, explaining that a $250,000 home will appraise for $225,000, a drastic difference from 2009 market values. For Corktown’s business association, the changes have meant a 100-member organization that is, according to Cooley, “finally strong enough to make an impact.” Likewise, bars in the neighborhood have adjusted with the city’s changes: Nemo’s expanded its focus from the Tigers by adding a shuttle service to Lions and Red Wings games as well as concerts and other events while Lager House transitioned from an Irish sports bar to a rock ’n’ roll club.
Born and raised in Marysville, Michigan, Cooley never saw himself as part of that impact in his early years. At 16 years old, his frequent visits to the city centered on the art, music, and culture scenes that abounded, but his heart was oriented west toward Chicago. After four years in the Windy City, he spent two years traveling the world as a model with a home base in Milan. “Milan influenced my thinking,” he says. “Not knowing anyone and not speaking the language, traveling by myself – it gave me the confidence to trust in people. I had to be vulnerable with people, and I found folks that helped and who would become good friends.”
Upon his return to the United States, his time in Milan prompted him to move to Detroit, a city whose historical significance intrigued him. “There’s a balance here between Paris and Marysville,” he explains, “where you have community and a relationship with neighbors” to complement the city’s culture. “It’s a place where a person like me, someone who’s young and dumb but wanted to participate could have a voice,” he says. He describes it as a collaborative city, a place where people do with less but where like-minded individuals have the potential to start a movement.
Now, a decade after his custodial days and in the wake of Slows Bar-B-Q’s Grand Rapids opening, Cooley can fuel the movement. With the restaurant well-situated as a “sustainable, healthy business with a sustainable, healthy community around us” as Cooley says, the owners invest time into other businesses that are trying to bring taste and talent into Detroit. In addition to his varied consulting work with Le Petit Zinc, 5 E Gallery, and Astro Coffee, Cooley turned a 30,000 sq. ft. building into the co-working space Pony Ride. “People need access to time and space,” he explains. “The most important resource here is knowledge.” Pony Ride exists to foster a collaborative community, a place where people can work together, experiment, and even fail. “Failure is a process a lot of people can’t afford,” Cooley says. “We get stifled into, ‘we can’t do that.’”
The creative nature of the co-working space allows more people to contribute to innovation in the city. After all, Cooley says, there’s one thing no one in the city wants, and that’s continued stagnancy. Rising from the ashes means all hands on deck, a diversity of ages and skill sets working together to make Detroit great.
We hope for better things, and Cooley concurs. “To me, this could be the first great American city in a long time.”