A lot of people have turned their backs on Detroit in the past several decades. I really don't blame most of them. But Phillip Cooley hasn't. Who's Phillip Cooley? He's the owner of Slows BBQ in Detroit.
Slows has been insanely successful since its opening in 2005, drawing people to Detroit who otherwise simply wouldn't be there, and even featuring in a New York Times piece on Detroit entitled "Detroit's Renewal, Slow-Cooked." As elected officials in Detroit have lied, cheated, stolen, and masturbated their way out of office or into prison, Cooley - a private business owner - has done things like this:
To make sure the positive change takes hold, Mr. Cooley has parlayed the good will of his barbecue joint into a restless pursuit of community-building. He advises other business owners on everything from liquor licenses to using salvaged lumber. Most people in Detroit who are involved in food — or art, or music, or night life, or civic service — have brushed up against him at some point, a function both of how involved he is and how interconnected the city is.All while making money through voluntary, consensual business transactions. A novel concept, I know.
Mayor Dave Bing appointed him to be a chairman of his Detroit Works Project, a major initiative to map the future of the city. It is one of a half-dozen boards that Mr. Cooley serves on, including the Greening of Detroit and the A.C.L.U. of Southeastern Michigan. The scale of his activity as a restaurateur-turned-do-gooder would be rare anywhere, but it particularly stands out here.
So what does Mr. Cooley receive for doing more good in the City of Detroit than so many others, residents and non-residents alike? Criticism, of course:
Homeless feel shunned in CorktownCorktown in Detroit is an interesting place. It's the former home of Tiger Stadium and current home of the abandoned Michigan Central Depot. It is also where Cooley opened Slows in 2005. And for that, he receives this:
As the area revives, poor say they are being pushed out
Detroit— Delbert Stinson has lived in Corktown for 15 years without a home. When it's cold, he sleeps in shelters. On summer nights, he sometimes crashed on a bench in Dean Savage Memorial Park — until this year, when vandals ripped out its benches. Gone, too, are nearby tree branches that used to provide Stinson and his companions with shade; someone sawed them off.
"Some people don't like having us around," said Stinson, 46.
And some blame newcomers.
Concern is so great that 40 neighborhood residents recently met to discuss their concerns. Some of the homeless, including Paul Gibson, blame Philip Cooley, the co-owner of Slows Bar BQ, who has gained national attention for his efforts to redevelop Corktown.The article is actually rather well done and quite interesting. There is - or at least appears to be - a tension in the Corktown area between newcomers and the sizable homeless population. The homeless population is drawn to the numerous charities and churches in the area that provide free food, clothing, and shelter. Tensions apparently increased after an October beating of a homeless man by a homeowner, although the fact that one assault allegedly led to this tension seems implausible in a city that sees thousands of crimes every day.
"It's a culture clash," said Gibson, 50. "This neighborhood has a lot of (social service) agencies; that's why there's a lot of homeless people. It's been like that for a long time, but some people want to get us out of here."
Cooley acknowledged he's heard the accusations but said he's baffled by them.
"This is coming from a bunch of crazy people who just like to complain," said Cooley, who also is co-owner of O'Connor Development.
Oh, but poor Phil. Even when you try to win, you can't win:
"Look at my track record: A homeless guy lived with me for eight months. I hired a homeless man for the restaurant, but I had to fire him when I caught him shooting heroin in the bathroom. I hired another homeless guy (for his construction firm), but he stole all my tools. When I caught him, I didn't beat him up — I tried to get him help."This is how Cooley defended himself against charges that he hates the homeless. By telling us about two homeless guys who he tried to help, and got burned both times. I'm assuming there weren't any better stories he could conjure up.
Here's what Cooley has precipitated in Corktown:
Six restaurants are scheduled to open in Corktown this year. The city's first hostel in 15 years is slated to open in April.You can't say that about too many places in Detroit.
Cooley has proposed developing a section of Roosevelt Park, across the street from the abandoned train station; he envisions a skate park, amphitheater and a playground. Cooley has renovated other buildings in Corktown and said he plans to launch more projects nearby.
But that angers some people. Even actual residents of Corktown:
Resident Elisa Gurule called the tension in Corktown a battle "between the haves and the have-nots."
"When people come into Corktown with ideas about how it should be, rather than how it is, I take that personally," Gurule said. "Whether people sleep under trees, in the park or in their homes, they still live in this neighborhood.
"Corktown is more than just cute gingerbread houses and cute little restaurants. You can't come in here and start changing a neighborhood to fit your vision, if it doesn't include everybody who's already here."
...Resident Tom Allenson recently wrote an "Open Letter from the Corktown Community," in which he asked: "How can we balance the rights of the homeless against the stresses their presence puts on a community?"I'm not exactly sure what "rights" the homeless are claiming to public land or free handouts, but I get the point. Maybe they are claiming their right to poop wherever they want:
DeBruyn said some of the complaints about the homeless are valid. One woman he described as mentally ill is well-known in Corktown for defecating near residents' homes — and she isn't the only such offender, he said.If you find yourself uttering the phrase, "Defecation is a constant theme of our lives," you might want to reevaluate where you live. But God bless these people, they haven't. When others gave up - and hell, if "defecation is a constant theme," who can blame them - Cooley didn't. Neither did 29-year-old Jerry Paffendorf, who is mentioned in the article as renovating abandoned buildings in Corktown. They went where nobody else would go, took over nothing, and turned it into something useful. And for that, they have to defend themselves:
"Defecation is a constant theme of our lives," he said. "One community member just spent $100,000 on his house, and people keep using the bathroom near the entrance to his garage. That's making him crazy."
"We own five buildings that were completely abandoned, and we developed them," Cooley said. "I don't know why that's a problem. I'm not looking to gentrify Detroit. You can't discriminate against those who come in and want to do positive things for the community."
...It makes me sad," [Paffendorf] said. "The last thing I want to do is gentrify Corktown. The homeless are part of this community; nobody's trying to drive them out. I'm not seeing it."
I find it a little funny that two people responsible for gentrifying Detroit and Corktown are standing athwart reality and screaming, "We're not trying to gentrify!!!", but it's cool.
I'm not exactly sure how Phil Cooley could win here. Perhaps he could follow the path of so many others (like yours truly) and leave the state (although, in my defense, I did spend a substantial portion of my law school career attempting to fix a series of blunders by the Detroit Police Department and Wayne County Prosecutor's Office and presenting them with a nearly gift-wrapped homicide case, for which my fellow clinic members and I were rewarded with accusations of witness tampering and nearly forced to testify against our client).
And while I'm all for private charity, there's something definitely wrong if homeless people are more distraught about a neighborhood revitalization than they are about the fact that they are homeless. I haven't been homeless, so take this with a rock of salt, but I imagine it's not a very pleasant thing. The first guy interviewed in the piece has been homeless for 15 years. I don't know the dude's situation - maybe he's mentally ill, although it doesn't seem that way from the fact that he's giving coherent quotes in a newspaper article. And I'm sure there are reasons for his current predicament. But damn, 15 years is a long time to fill up with excuses, especially with all the charity available in Corktown. At some point, man, it's on you.
But on a broader note, what the hell, Detroit? This is one of those articles that has the potential to make anyone interested in moving to or opening a business in Detroit say, "Screw this. It's not worth the trouble." What's somewhat stunning (although not at all if you know anything about Detroit) is the number of actual Corktown residents that seem to be siding with the homeless crowd. It's one thing to give charity to people less fortunate. It's quite another to resist people who take over abandoned buildings and turn them into something useful because they are "changing" the neighborhood. I mean, I guess you can. But then you get the town you deserve. And I'm not going to feel bad or guilty about it.