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A deeper approach to entrepreneurship is emerging from Detroit's Practice-Space




Since April, Model D has been following the progress of Practice-Space, a new place for developing business ideas in Detroit, and the two businesses enrolled in its incubator program.

Recently, both businesses entered the "Deepen" phase of their term at Practice-Space.


Early in the current term of Practice-Space's incubator program, project teams watched a video and discussed the work of installation artist Theaster Gates, who's known for activating abandoned buildings in Chicago through art, events, and gatherings. In all of his pursuits, Gates goes beyond business and prioritizes community engagement. He is a crucial model for the philosophy cultivated at Practice-Space.

The projects enrolled at this small-business incubator in North Corktown hope to have a similarly kinetic effect on their communities. This philosophy also develops community within Practice-Space.

Jono Sturt, design team lead of Yusef Shakur's project, Restoring the Neighbor Back to the Hood, first got interested in Practice-Space and ultimately applied for residency because of an interview he heard with Shakur on WDET's the Craig Fahle Show.

"Frankly, I found it frustrating to listen to," says Sturt.

But after replaying the interview in which Shakur speaks about his mistrust of outsiders, Sturt recognized his initial defensiveness was likely due to being a "transplant" from the suburbs.

"Then when I heard his project was at Practice-Space, I thought this was an opportunity to create alternative forms of development that we haven't seen in this city or really anywhere."

The opportunity to work not just on Shakur's business, but with Shakur, has proven fruitful. As design team lead, Sturt is still learning how best to to serve his team and the project.

"Yusef is developing me in that way. And I think he's doing it explicitly."
Shakur's team
Cara Ciaglo and Alejandro Perez, the design team leads for Practice-Space's other project, Theresa Sanderfer's retail store at 2641 W. Grand Blvd., both lived in Chicago, New York, and Boston before coming to Detroit two years ago. It was at Practice-Space that Ciaglo and Perez found the opportunity to put their principles into action.

"Practice-Space is a rare platform to discuss racial tensions that are easily ignored but felt through the city," Ciaglo says.

"The history of social justice has been a big issue for us," adds Perez.

Perez and Ciaglo, both trained architects, believe strongly in Practice-Space's requirement that enrolled businesses have a brick and mortar presence. By necessity, spaces encourage people to interact -- they are incubators of community.

"Urbanism is thought to be a study of cities," says Perez, "but urban also relates to a city's people, which happens to be another another codeword for 'urban.'"

Prior work and educational experiences have taught them a lot about design and classic architecture principles, but not as much about the impact of design on a community and the practicalities of implementing that design.

"We're beginning understand how the city works -- all the little pieces of infrastructure, the red tape, inspectors, and so on,"  Perez says. "We now know what it's like to get a walkthrough with a city inspector and how to ask questions about code and zoning and really technical stuff. As an architect, you have to know those players and systems and be acquainted with how they all interact."

An unexpected development this term is the effect the program and residents are having on the project leaders themselves. They now approach business decisions in a restrained, yet open-minded way.

"Practice-Space has made me extremely patient," says 2641 W. Grand Blvd. project leader Theresa Sanderfer. "It's been a bit of an inner struggle to hold off doing what I thought were simple things, but the program has made me understand the need to step back and take stock of things so I don't miss opportunities."
Sanderfer's team
Shakur has an uncommon attachment to his project. When his old community center, the Urban Network, was forced to close, he was crushed. Aside from his time in prison, he's never left the Zone 8 neighborhood where the Restoring the Neighbor Back to the Hood Training Center is situated. Upon entering Practice-Space's program and finding his vision for the project confronted with practical design obstacles and differing opinions from his resident team, Shakur admits to resisting at first. But his approach has mellowed, and he's seen the results of an open-minded approach.

"You tend to be overprotective with your baby," Shakur says. "I had to learn to accept that my team would help raise my baby."

1417 Van DykeAlex Howbert participated in Practice-Space's previous term as the project lead for 1417 Van Dyke, a house in the West Village that will have ground-floor retail. The project's goal was to find a way to renovate the building to accommodate a business, which proved challenging without knowing what kind of business would occupy the house. That's when he and his team had the idea of a competition.

Since finishing his term at Practice-Space, Howbert has narrowed the competition down to two finalists, a bookstore and a record store that sells new vinyl. Both would serve beverages and be event-driven to take advantage of the property's spacious backyard.

"If I hadn't gone through Practice-Space's program, the competition for the storefront would probably be nonexistent," admits Howbert. "They've got a lot of talented people that can put something together and present it in in a way that's attractive, informative, and does a lot to give projects legitimacy."

Next, Practice-Space design teams will narrow their focus and make sure to link the layout to the mission of each business and choose a scheme that best serves people. We'll be able to see the results of this community-minded approach soon.

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Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based writer. Follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.

All photos courtesy of Practice-Space.
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