Detroit has long been a city of makers, and this hands-on, DIY spirit today encompasses far more than just its automotive sector. As the Motor City began dusting itself off after a long and crippling economic downturn, industrious locals recognized that the city’s vacant lots and boarded-up buildings created a perfect setting from which they could launch their creative endeavors.
Today, as a growing contingent of former Detroiters move back to the city and newcomers continue to arrive, the city’s residents still leverage the potential in those neglected properties for fast-tracking a path toward autonomy and upward mobility.
Detroit’s past difficulties present a current opportunity to get in on the proverbial ground floor of rebuilding America’s “Great Comeback City.”
For some rebuilding is a literal thing, renovating dilapidated buildings or cultivating vegetable gardens on abandoned lots. For others it means realizing the dream of creating a small business and being part of the burgeoning maker movement.
Dozens of Detroit’s newest makers work within the walls of Ponyride, a huge reclaimed factory in the Corktown neighborhood. The organization values the kind of risk-taking we typically outgrow. The name itself evokes a child’s ability to plunge into the creative process without a fear of failure.
Sure, you may fall off the pony, but you’ll get right back on.
Phillip Cooley, co-founder of Detroit’s popular SLOWS BAR BQ, bought the abandoned former factory out of foreclosure in 2011, and after some initial renovation work, invited other entrepreneurs to share the space.
His efforts quickly attracted like-minded makers, and now Ponyride currently houses more than 60 resident businesses in 33,000 square feet of space on two floors. The organization is determined to give budding entrepreneurs a leg up while encouraging them to give back to their community.
Residents pay a fraction of the city’s going rates for rent, and in exchange they agree to offer three free hours of education to the public every month. Sometimes that means free classes or services; other times it’s volunteering in projects around Detroit.
Ponyride Director Noah Morrison says they deliberately keep the parameters for fulfilling the free education requirement loose and “find that it leads to us being impressed with creative ways the residents of Ponyride find to do more for the Detroiters around them.”
One of the first Ponyride residents is also the one that’s been there the longest — Veronika Scott’s The Empowerment Plan, which opened at Ponyride in 2011. Scott founded the nonprofit organization after designing a coat for homeless people that turns into a sleeping bag. (The coat you’ve seen all over social media? Yeah, that’s her.)
The Empowerment Plan has grown so much that it’s graduating out of the facility into an even larger space of its own. The business’ story is a perfect example of Ponyride’s community-driven mission.
Scott and her team employ single parents from local shelters, and together they have produced more than 20,000 coats so far. Over the years, The Empowerment Plan’s employees have all found permanent housing.
But not all Ponyride residents are on the cusp of emerging as large-scale makers. The building’s spaces range from co-working office areas to production facilities. There’s Beard Balm, which started out in what was an oddly-shaped storage space underneath a stairwell. Detroit Denim, which saw enough success to open a separate space elsewhere in the city, makes handmade jeans, bags and aprons.
Furniture makers Floyd launched as a successful Kickstarter with affordable and easy-to-assemble pieces. Smith Shop‘s small crew of metalworkers craft tools, utensils, jewelry and architectural hardware by hand. Anthology Coffee roasts its beans and operates a coffee shop on the building’s main level.
Far from being an isolated band of do-gooders, Ponyride welcomes and invites visitors, offering free weekly tours on Wednesdays that give travelers and locals alike a chance to peek inside Detroit’s maker-led rebirth. And yes, you can often buy directly from the makers during the tour.
Parts of the Ponyride building await renovation so that they, too, can be the stage for the next generation of Detroit entrepreneurs. Ponyride’s story, like that of the city itself, is still being written.