Unpacking the formula for success in Detroit's oldest neighborhood

Some time ago, Slows Bar-B-Q reached cliche status as a symbol of Corktown's revitalization, and Detroit's revitalization in general. But community stakeholders in Corktown, a historic neighborhood located just outside downtown, will tell you there's no exaggerating how important Slows owners Phil, Ryan, and Ron Cooley have been to rejuvenating the stretch of Michigan Avenue that now holds Mercury Burger Bar, Gold Cash Gold, Astro Coffee, and other hot spots.

"If you look at the before and after pictures of that block, it's just staggering," says Chad Rochkind, executive director of the Corktown Executive Development Corporation (CEDC). "And Slows was the first one in."

Debra Walker, a lifelong Detroiter and a Corktown resident of 10 years, is simpler but even more vehement in her praise for the Cooleys. "I love those guys," Walker says. "The Cooleys have been very, very good to the neighborhood."

At this point, Corktown is well worth looking to as a model for other Detroit neighborhoods angling for revitalization. But does the answer really boil down to just waiting for a restaurant to take a chance on a neighborhood and make it big? Absolutely not, says Rochkind. 

"It's not about luring one large-scale developer, or one silver-bullet solution," he says. "It's about a million little things coming together to make something great. … If you go to places where one person or one entity is dictating the terms, you might see some kind of economic growth, but you're not going to get that buzz. You're not going to get that feeling of life. It's going to feel contrived."

A million little things
Ryan Cooley, owner of O'Connor Real Estate
Corktown feels anything but contrived, and there are a number of good reasons for that. Ryan Cooley will be the first to tell you that although almost the entire block where Slows now sits was "in a pretty bad state of disrepair" when he arrived here in 2004, there was abundant potential in Corktown's location. The neighborhood was close to freeways, the Detroit River and downtown, and it was already a minor destination for its handful of long-lived sports bars.

"We knew we weren't going to be able to attract anybody commercially, that we were going to have to open up our own businesses," says Cooley, who owns O'Connor Real Estate in Corktown and is also a partner in Gold Cash Gold. "But we thought if we could establish some businesses that ended up being successful, then other people would want to come to the area."

That gamble paid off, of course, thanks to numerous individual entrepreneurs who decided to plant their own flags in Corktown.

"It hasn't been a huge amount of subsidies or anything that's been awarded in Corktown," Cooley says. "It's just been people trying to scrap on their own to make the numbers work."

But there's also something to the way most of those entrepreneurs have gone about running their businesses. Walker rattles off a list of ways Corktown business owners have made an effort to engage with the community: The Cooleys paying the bill for a special phone number Corktown residents can use to contact their local beat cop directly. Mercury Burger Bar providing sandwiches for community meetings. Mudgie's Deli owner Greg Mudge going the extra mile to seek community input on his plans to obtain a liquor license. Even larger area developers like Soave Enterprises and Larson Realty Group, Walker says, have sought a lot of community input in Corktown.

"If people see that you want to be a good neighbor before you open your doors, that's really, really appreciated," she says.

That engagement builds upon a Corktown resident community that was already strong and active. Walker, who took over an existing citizens' crime patrol in 2008 and began organizing community safety meetings in 2012, has become something of a de facto community leader for residents, serving as an intermediary between the business community and neighbors.

Walker notes, however, that she's trying to dial back some of her own activity as she gets older—which makes the CEDC's formation this January even more timely. The CEDC, which spun out of the 150-member Corktown Business Association, aims to engage not only businesses, but also residents and government stakeholders, in Corktown's future. Rochkind points to the recent Dean Savage Park Biergarten as one early example of the CEDC's efforts to respond to residents' requests to activate Corktown outside of that one busy strip of Michigan Avenue.

"It's less about coming up with grandiose visions that are not engaged with the reality of people's life on the street, and more about really listening to the voice of the people and having those insights inform solutions," Rochkind says.

Still a ways to go

Although Corktown has come a long way, neighborhood stakeholders agree there's plenty yet to be accomplished.

"It's still a barren land," says Corktown resident and business owner Brian Mulloy. "It's just amazing. For every Green Dot Stables, you're surrounded by acres of surface parking or blight or brownfields. We have such a long way to go."

The next step for Detroit's oldest neighborhood revolves around building value for those who live in it.

Mulloy is putting his own stamp on the neighborhood by rehabilitating the Bagley-Trumbull Market, formerly a beer and wine store, as a mixed-use development including apartments and retail spaces. Those retail spaces may turn out to be particularly valuable in a neighborhood that now has no shortage of destination bars and restaurants, but very little to offer in the way of basic amenities for its full-time residents.

The corner of the Bagley Trumbull Market and future location of a sushi restaraunt

"We need other kinds of business," Walker says. "We still have to get in our cars to go to a pharmacy. We still have to get in our cars to get groceries."

Mulloy and Rochkind both suggest that a dramatic overhaul of Michigan Avenue itself would provide considerable benefit to Corktown businesses and residents. They advocate for redesigning the road as a "complete street"—one that's friendly to pedestrians, bikes, and cars alike. That could involve adding protected bike lanes. Another possibility is widening the sidewalks to allow for more trees and benches, and shorter crosswalks over the avenue's seven lanes. In any case, the result would be a Michigan Avenue that's much friendlier to pedestrians.

"What we really want is the city to provide us with these narrow, charming streets," Mulloy says. "But it's going to take a while to undo the tyranny of automobile thinking."

Corktown has succeeded handily in creating a destination for Detroiters, suburbanites, and visitors from around the country and world. "But," says Cooley, "with the amount of businesses that have opened up, we need more people living here to support them."

When locals become the first priority, neighborhood activists predict, a truly vibrant neighborhood will emerge.

"You go to Corktown and you can't get a seat at Slow's, you can't get a seat at Mercury Bar, you can't get a seat at Gold Cash Gold," Rochkind says. "But nobody's hanging out in the street. Nobody's hanging out in Roosevelt Park. It still looks like a ghost town if you actually just look at Michigan Avenue.

"That energy that we have inside of our businesses needs to extend into public life."

All photos by Nick Hagen

Read more articles by Patrick Dunn.

Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer for numerous publications. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere.
Signup for Email Alerts