Photograph Daniel Lippitt


“There are a lot of schemers that show up in this city who think they’re going to save Detroit,” says Zak Pashak. “Coming here and starting a business does a great thing for the city, but don’t say you’re saving it. This is a serious place to come to. It’s not frivolous. People are coming here to try and contribute to a really interesting community.”

To convey the spirit of his plan to make bicycles in Detroit, Zak Pashak feels a tour is in order. At the wheel of his worn Toyota Prius, the 32-year-old entrepreneur narrates as the sprawl of Detroit unfolds, revealing a city broken but not dead. We pass the obvious blights symptomatic of a long-depressed city: rampant vacancy, overgrown land and lots of people sitting on stoops with nothing to do. But there are also signs of life, including a patch of downtown streets that people have taken to walking again and new businesses spun from an emergent entrepreneurial spirit. Local leaders are hoping these seeds will help to pull the city out of its 40-year funk. It was partly this spirit, partly an “irrational fascination with Michigan” and partly a need for change that drew Pashak to the Motor City from his hometown of Calgary two years ago.

Many Calgarians will know him as a precocious bar owner and music promoter who lost a close race for city alderman in 2010. Pashak’s latest venture, however, has nothing to do with Calgary or concert spaces. It’s a company called Detroit Bikes. Pashak plans to mass-produce bicycles in a city that was once famed for auto manufacturing but is now known more for its murder rate and the sheer scale of its emptied neighbourhoods. Since the 1950s, Detroit’s population has dropped from nearly two million to roughly 700,000, shedding 25 per cent of its residents in the past decade alone. The decline runs deep, some say starting with the race riots of 1967, followed by a long history of corrupt local government, rapid suburbanization and the fall of car manufacturing, compounded more recently by the global recession.

As we cruise the wide, empty boulevards into the city’s grittier pockets, Pashak points out his favourite buildings, ornate vestiges of better times. There are at least two he half-heartedly considered buying (for practically nothing) and remaking into some kind of business, perhaps a concert hall. Unlike Detroit’s heyday as a boomtown, its utter blankness and thirst for revival is now attracting a new kind of industrialist, people like Pashak who have money, ideas and the audacity to carry them out.

Overdressed on this muggy day in long sleeves and oversized chinos, Pashak walks with small quick steps and talks about everything in the same even, unexcitable tone. It might be that he is someone who’d rather do than talk about doing, but when it comes to media attention he’s used to reciting his story. He comes from a well-known Calgary family: his father, Barry Pashak, was a local NDP MLA; his mother, Jackie Flanagan, is a philanthropist and founder of Alberta Views magazine; and his ex-stepfather, Allan Markin, is a wealthy oilman and the former chairman of Canadian Natural Resources. Pashak has also garnered his own attention: starting businesses in your twenties gets you in the papers.

At an early age, Pashak showed an interest in money and, particularly, how to grow it. When he was eight, he requested that the child-support money his mother had been saving for him be invested in his step-dad’s oil company. It was a sweet boyhood gesture that would spark a passion for investing. “Every morning I’d wake up and read stock reports and make investments,” Pashak says of his high school years. “I had brokers.” By the time he was 20 he’d made enough money to buy a house just before Calgary’s real-estate market took off. The well-publicized divorce of his mother and Markin landed her a sizeable settlement, of which she gave Pashak and his sister “a small amount,” he says, enough for him to open a music club in 2004 called Broken City. (He’s since sold it, but still owns a quarter share and the building.) “That ended up being a significantly helpful investment, just the real estate,” he says.

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