New businesses and new life directions for two entrepreneurs in Detroit's "Zone 8" neighborhood

On Saturday, in the neighborhood known as “Zone 8” -- an impersonal nickname derived from the area's zip code, which ends in "8" -- two events took place in and around two formerly abandoned buildings. The owners of these properties, Yusef Shakur and Teresa Sanderfer, organized their respective events as part of their term with the small business incubator Practice-Space that began in mid-May.

While Shakur's gathering had a weightier tone and Sanderfer's a celebratory one, the similarities far outnumbered the differences.

Shakur and Sanderfer were accepted by Practice-Space for many reasons, including their sound business plans and the social nature of their enterprises. But the unshakable wills of the project leaders, which are noticeable upon first meeting them and become clearer after hearing their personal histories, must have been a factor as well.

Restoring the "neighbor" back to the hood

Born Joseph Lee Ruffin to a 15-year-old mother, Yusef Shakur's trials began early.

On top of being raised by a single mother who couldn't find consistent employment, Shakur witnessed terrible and frequent brutality. His mother got into relationships with abusive men, even shooting one with a shotgun. He credits his "social, cultural, and educational development" to the gangs and hustlers operating in his home neighborhood of Zone 8.

His relationship with his father was so minimal that when the elder Ruffin was incarcerated, "I just took it in stride," Shakur writes in his book, Redemptive Soul. "I held no ill feelings towards him because, as I reflect on it, it's like he knew he was destined to be absent from our lives forever."

The environment of Zone 8 saturated Shakur's life. Suspensions and expulsions "became a ritual." He fought constantly and joined a gang in his teens. Though he committed crimes, he was ultimately convicted for one he didn't commit. "I was guilty of being a member of a gang, not for committing that crime," Shakur says. "But the history of who I was led to my conviction."

He was sentenced five to 15 years and served nine. In prison, he reunited with his once-absent father who helped him turn his life around. "When I say I met my father for the first time, that's what I mean. Prior to that I had just met a male, a guy who didn't live up to his responsibilities... Redeeming my life was based upon him redeeming himself and his life."

With the mentorship of his father, Shakur educated himself. "Books inspired me to live with a purpose." It was then he realized that "writing was and still is therapeutic for me. Learning is therapeutic for everyone."

Upon leaving prison, Shakur not only resolved never to return, but also to use his life as an example for others through books, speeches, and dialogues. Shakur can often be seen engaging people of all stripes, speaking in an even and serious tone and rarely, it seems, holding back his opinions.

In 2011 Shakur started the Urban Network, a bookstore and community center, which was one of the few places in the neighborhood for people to congregate and learn. It meant a great deal to him and his community.

But the building changed owners and the new ones forced him out. About his feelings during that time, Shakur says, "One day I was cleaning up when it hit me, 'I won't be here anymore.' And I couldn't hold the tears back. The shock went to hurt and pain and agony, but then it went to motivation. At that time, all I had was a closed shop, no money, and an idea."

Last year a neighborhood acquaintance familiar with Shakur's community work gifted him an abandoned building down the street from his childhood home on Ferry Park Street. While the building requires significant renovations, the donation preserved Shakur's vision, which will be named after his outreach program: Restoring the Neighbor Back to the Hood.

Tiki's Treasures

Teresa "Tiki" Sanderfer says with a laugh that she hated shopping as a youth. "I'm fairly tall, especially when I was 14, and it was always a challenge to find clothes that fit. So I shopped in the men's department."

Eventually she grew out of her awkward physique and took notice of one of her mother's hobbies. "She had an eye for fashion and an eye for quality," Sanderfer says. "But the high-end labels weren't practical, so she starting reselling."

Sanderfer liked her mother's operation so much that she thought it could be expanded to support a store dedicated to consignment clothing. She even had a readymade name: Tiki's Treasures.

But she doesn't have in mind a typical thrift store. "They're not organized, not categorized, not sanitized. I want every item in my store to be hand picked ... I'm trying to brand quality, classic, timeless pieces."

This germ of a business idea and another crucial factor, caused her to leap into entrepreneurship. Sanderfer has been a member of the Detroit Fire Department since 1997 and has steadily moved up in rank from Firefighter and Engine Driver to her current position as Vice-President of the Executive Board for the Fire Department, where one of her main duties is contract negotiations with the city. Every day she worries about pensions for her fellow firefighters. Unable to live with that kind of uncertainty, she felt she needed another means to ensure her financial future.

These factors spurred her to purchase a six-bedroom building on West Grand Boulevard at Woodrow Wilson across from the Motown Museum. The building, however, is considerably bigger than what's needed to house a consignment clothing store.

The size and low purchase price stirred Sanderfer, but, she says, "I was also petrified." A more modern addition and patio was built onto the original brick structure years ago. Multiple passages and stairways connect the floors from basement to rooftop. Each room seems to have its own dimensions and character. There's even a wide, gaudy fireplace adjacent to the main entrance with a black-tiled and false-stone facade. When planning for the event, Sanderfer and her team at Practice-Space worried that guests might get lost if allowed to tour the building by themselves.

But not much seems to deter Sanderfer. Instead of difficulties, she saw mostly opportunity. "I spent two nights tossing and turning," Sanderfer says. "Then I realized what an asset this place was. It meets all the criteria and Tiki's Treasures needs to only occupy the first floor." Its location on a thoroughfare, just west of Henry Ford Hospital and the Fisher Building, sealed the deal.

That's the kind of attitude Herbert Drayton witnessed as Sanderfer's Trainer at ProsperUS, an entrepreneurial training center and support service that targets low-income communities. "I always say there's three things you need to be an entrepreneur," Drayton says. "Determination, dedication, and desire. She's got all of those."

Like Shakur, Sanderfer has faced her own challenges growing up in Detroit. Her parents separated when she was four and she was raised by her father. Many of the people she grew up with, she says, ended up in jail or got involved with drugs, including her sister, which caused Sanderfer to adopt three of her children.

But no tragedy could compare to her father being murdered the day after she was confirmed for the fire department. "I've had lots of challenges to get where I am today," Sanderfer says. "I'm adamant about proving everyone wrong."

Given what she's been able to accomplish so far, it would be foolish to doubt her.

The Term Begins

Practice-Space has four distinct phases to their program. The first, "Mobilize," involves project leaders getting acquainted with their design team by organizing an informal event that introduces residents and neighbors to the spaces. Little about design and function is determined at this stage, especially when, as is the case this term, the buildings are mostly bare and full of possibility.

The events focused on other matters. Shakur gathered volunteers for a couple hours of house repairs and yard work, followed by a lunch and earnest dialogue. Given that his business will be a non-profit, community involvement will be crucial to maintaining self-sufficiency.

On the walls of the building, Shakur and his team hung biographical posters of influential activists, leaders, and thinkers, such as Jessica Care Moore, General Baker, Dr. Carl Taylor, and Jimmy Boggs. Of the posters, Shakur says, "Naming the places after people is about expectation. You need a reference for anything you want to be in life."

Their names and work helped shape the discussion, and will surely do the same for how Shakur develops the space.

Sanderfer, on the other hand, was ready to celebrate. She hasn't done much of it in her life, saying she has never celebrated one of her 50 birthdays, and has earned the right to mark this new chapter in her life.

The jovial atmosphere commenced immediately. Attendees were greeted with food, drink, music, and Sanderfer's bubbly mood in the fenced patio outside the addition. Sanderfer's granddaughter gave tours to visitors who were awed by the building's size. Thankfully, no one got lost.

The following months should be an exciting time for both projects. There's much work to be done for both Shakur and Sanderfer, but fortunately neither is a stranger to challenges.

All photograhs by the author.

Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based writer.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Aaron Mondry.

Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.