‘Longevity and staying power’: How businesses along West Grand Blvd., area are staying afloat

This time of year, the Motown Museum would be in the midst of its peak season, with extended hours to accommodate the up to 450 people per day who flock to the music institution to peruse the history of Motown’s famous artists.

“We do over 60% of business in locally, international, and domestic business” at this time, says Robin Terry, chairwoman and CEO of the museum, which has been in business since 1985.

With the onset of the novel coronavirus, the museum was forced to close its doors in mid-March. During its closure, Terry and her team used that time to reimagine the tour experience.

“We’re really trying to understand the safety protocols,” She says. “In a lot of ways, it’s been even more beneficial as we’ve responded to the COVID experience. The tours were 30 people, now it’s about 10 people.”

With doors reopening July 15, Motown Museum has implemented new guidelines when visiting the museum. While walk-up visits will be accommodated, guests are encouraged to purchase tickets online. When visiting, guests must wear face masks and undergo a touchless temperature check.

Terry wants guests to be able to enjoy their visit and the community.

“Northwest Goldberg, we sit right there. It is a lot of history in that part of the community. And not just the museum. There’s a sense of pride that extends well into the community,” Terry says.

The Motown Museum is just one of the businesses along West Grand Boulevard and in the neighborhood that have found ways to adapt and stay alive during the pandemic, from longtime businesses who credit longevity and history to their staying power to newer businesses creating personal protective equipment in response to the outbreak.

‘An anchor in the community’

James H. Cole Home for Funerals is now run by the fourth generation: (from left) Brice Green, director; Karla M. Cole, president and mother of Brice and Antonio; and Antonio Green, director.

Just a short distance from the Motown Museum sits James H. Cole Home For Funerals. Founded in 1919 in Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood, the historic funeral home has had its roots in the neighborhood since the late 1950s.

“We had a home right next to Motown. In 1982, we moved into the building we’re in now,” says Antonio Green, director and the fourth generation to lead the funeral home.

As Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued stay-home orders, the funeral home had to modify the way it worked with families during their time of grief. Originally being able to hold up to 200 visitors in the chapel, James H. Cole had to drastically limit that amount.

“We had to limit the number of attendees. It was limited to 10 people in the viewing rooms and chapel at a time,” Green says. “We are able to provide a livestream service with our Schaefer location.”

The key to the funeral home’s success is longevity, Green says.

“We provide an anchor in the community and provide a support system. You have some Black historic businesses that have been around in the neighborhood. It’s the longevity and staying power that we have been able to stay,” he says.

While the need for personal protection equipment, or PPE, increased, Green says to keep his staff safe, they simply expanded on safety rules.

“As far as the preparations, we’ve always had, and still have, PPE. We have always used universal precautions and treat every loved one like a contagious case,” Green explains. “[All employees are] provided masks and we are keeping everything disinfected throughout the day. Families can sanitize as they leave viewing rooms.”

Through its Legacy Foundation program, James H. Cole Home For Funerals has been able to give back to the neighborhood it’s called home for decades.

“The main thing is we’re always there to provide those services founded by my great grandfather. Through our Legacy Foundation, we have Love Thy Neighbor, which provides meals to Sinai Grace and Henry Ford Hospital staff. We’ve also started feeding firefighters at the West Grand Boulevard firehouses,” Green says.

‘A Detroit tradition’

Opening its doors in 1941, Brazelton’s Floral Inc. has not only had to contend with the pandemic, but also competition from online florists.

But the shop’s customer base continues to be loyal, says owner and operator Alice Brazelton-Pittman.

“Before the pandemic, our flower shop was bouncing back. The florist industry has taken a hit, with local flower shops having to compete with online florists for local deliveries. However, having been in the West Grand Boulevard neighborhood, for decades, our customers still know where to come for their flowers,” Brazelton-Pittman says.

During the pandemic, the floral shop had to close its doors for several months to comply with stay-at-home orders. As weddings and other special events have declined drastically, Brazelton’s Floral had to find innovative new ways to provide their services.

“Since the pandemic, our walk-in business has suffered. After being closed to the public for 2-3 months, we’ve added curbside pickup, and ‘Flowers-In-an-Hour.’ With no weddings, or large gatherings requiring flowers, like serving churches, our special events department has suffered due to the stay-home order,” the owner says.

In addition to weddings, another big event has caused a dip in business: proms.

“We also have missed introducing ourselves to a new generation of buyers, since the canceling of proms. The young people stumble upon us, as if we didn’t exist until Google pointed us out,” Brazelton-Pittman says.

Despite having to adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic, Brazelton-Pittman says having a floral shop in the community is still a good thing.

“Flower shopping at Brazelton’s is a Detroit tradition, since 1941 where we started on Brush Street. As a flower business we have served families, churches, funeral homes, organizations, and businesses. That we do not take for granted, but consider it an honor and privilege,” she explains.

Newer businesses on the block

Through art, the women of Rebel Nell design jewelry and other accessories from fallen graffiti and iconic Detroit landmarks. Photo by Nick Hagen.

Recently, newer businesses have moved into the neighborhood, including several social enterprises in the Holden Block development. Rebel Nell opened its doors in 2013 with the goal of employing women facing employment barriers. Through art, the women of Rebel Nell design jewelry and other accessories from fallen graffiti and iconic Detroit landmarks.

“It’s part of confidence building because of the cross between Rebel Nell and the individual woman who created [the jewelry pieces],” says Amy Peterson, co-owner and CEO of Rebel Nell.

With many businesses closed, Rebel Nell was forced to change the way their products were sold. Formerly, Rebel Nell featured three channels of sales: e-commerce, wholesale, and direct-to-consumer sales. Through the e-commerce channel, Rebel Nell has been able to continue selling jewelry despite the pandemic, while wholesale and direct-to-consumer sales were suspended.

“Fortunately, we had a pretty strong e-commerce business,” Peterson says.

Despite not being able to continue work at Rebel Nell, Peterson says they were able to continue providing job assistance and resources for their employees.

“Right off the bat, we were able to donate laptops to all the women to be sure they had access to resources. We have a case worker who is on staff and a program director who stayed on full-time during this time to focus on the women. We also covered everyone’s lost wages,” she explains.

Rebel Nell has also launched a new collected called the Palace Collection. Through a partnership with the Detroit Pistons, Rebel Nell designers created pieces from the now demolished Palace of Auburn Hills. With permission, Rebel Nell took décor from the championship room and material from the iconic blue and red seats to create its newest line.

Sharing a retail space with Rebel Nell is the streetwear brand York Project. Josh York, CEO and founder of York Project, is using his business to manufacture masks and personal protection equipment during the pandemic while also giving back to the city’s homeless.

York Project began making masks and other personal protective equipment during the coronavirus outbreak. Creating 37,000 masks thus far and creating hospital gowns, York says his business has been able to thrive during the pandemic.

“We’ve actually grown since the pandemic. Where else can you go when all the PPE runs out?” York asks.

At a time where the need for personal toiletry items are at an all-time high, York explains how his business is helping the city’s homeless population.

“With every product we sale, we donate to the homeless, once a month, every third Saturday of every month,” York says.

 

The canvas bags, or “donation kits,” are given to the homeless. For each product sold, York Project creates a donation kit. Filled with everyday toiletries such as soap, toothpaste and personal items like socks and gloves, the canvas bags serve a dual purpose.

 

“They are able to keep the canvas bags to keep their personal belongings in them instead of using trash bags,” York explains.

 

So far, York Project has been able to donate $104,000 worth of kits.

 

With the hope of employing someone from the neighborhood to help grow their business, York is in the market for a local production manager.

 

“We are trying to hire someone from the community with skill in our world,” he says.

 

As COVID-19 continues to impact local business, Commonwealth Sewing Co. was weeks away from opening its doors before the pandemic forced them to shift gears (it is now eyeing an opening date during the first week of August). Moving from a shirting factory to manufacturing masks, Commonwealth Sewing Co. has been able to create over 28,000 masks.

 

Owner Max Schmidt began opening this business with the dream of bringing garment manufacturing to the Northwest Goldberg community.

“There aren’t that many opportunities for manufacturing and that’s what we want to do. We wanted to be in some space where we could build off the community,” Schmidt explains.

Moving from a shirting factory to manufacturing masks, Commonwealth Sewing Co. has been able to create thousands of masks in response to the pandemic. Courtesy Commonwealth Sewing Co.

Operating machines twice the size of home sewing machines, Commonwealth Sewing Co. offers a sewing bootcamp to learn how to use industrial-sized sewing machines.

“I didn’t know how to sew before taking our class. Now, I’ve become one of the go-to people on the line,” Schmidt says of the training.

With the goal of expanding the sewing community of Detroit, Max and brother Conor, who oversees the day-to-day operations, want to get into the business of customization.

“We’re going to start working with local, domestic, and international companies for customization. We want to customize elements of the shirts and get them within days instead of weeks or months,” Schmidt says.

This article is part of our Equitable Development series, in partnership with Henry Ford Health System, where we explore neighborhood progress and impact of Henry Ford Health System and community partners. Stories illustrate growing an inclusive Detroit in a way that allows people from all races, classes, and abilities to participate and benefit.
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