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.
"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."
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