For the past month, I've had the great pleasure of working every day in the only coffee shop our neighborhood has seen since 2006. It's only a pop-up (open through December 1, 2012), and it will be greatly missed next week, but the story of how it came to be is what I find so inspiring.
Our friend and neighbor Melissa Dittmer is an architect with Hamilton Anderson here in Detroit, and over the course of the year she opened a dialogue with the suburban owners of a mostly-vacant strip mall that is the only retail space in our neighborhood. They had recently opened a grocery store in the plaza and were open to her ideas about temporary use of vacant storefronts to increase visibility and foot traffic and encourage new businesses to open. Melissa got the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation involved and together they transformed one huge vacant storefront into what we call the "MIES space" after the florescent lights in the front window that spell Mies, for Mies van der Rohe (the neighborhood's major architect). After two successful art/design events and panel discussions in the space, Melissa began working with Jordi Carbonell (the owner of a community-oriented cafe in Southwest Detroit, Cafe con Leche) to turn the space into a pop-up coffee shop. Melissa and her team at RogueHAA designed the coffee shop space with vibrant colors and economic use of donated materials and furniture. The neighborhood really came together on this project, through financial contributions, donated furniture and artwork, manual labor, and just general support for the business. Melissa's husband Noah and the RogueHAA team worked tirelessly to put everything together in less than four days. My wife's neighborhood knitting group even met one night to sew the curtains. The kids and I brought over a bunch of chairs, some children's books, and vernacular photos of old Detroiters to decorate the walls (in keeping with a "Día de los Muertos" theme for the pop-up.
I love hanging out at this coffee shop. Our neighborhood is so diverse and interesting and having a semi-public space like this for people to gather has really improved our quality of life. I've been able to have good conversations with neighbors I usually just say hello to in passing, and we've even met some new families who've recently moved into the neighborhood (which includes five large apartment towers and numerous townhouse cooperatives not including our own). Seeing so many of my neighbors in this space every day has just confirmed for me that we live in one of the best neighborhoods around.
Unfortunately, the coffee shop shuts its doors this week, and the plaza owners have already signed a ten-year lease with some clueless suburbanites to open a laundromat in the space (which is really absurd given the fact that nearly everybody in the neighborhood already has access to excellent laundry facilities, most in their own town homes). It is a problem all over Detroit that so much property is owned by people living in distant communities, and so many of those property owners are clueless about positive possibilities while stuck in the mindset that there are only a few distinct (and often predatory) businesses worth opening in Detroit. We came together as a community to show them something different was possible, and hopefully we'll be able to use all that positivity to generate something more permanent.