Abram Olmstead  | March 10, 2014

In Detroit, a Green Garage is a Metaphor for Urban Reinvention

Detroit has a “best of times, worst of times” thing going for it right now. As the symbol of urban economic collapse, articles, essays, and books chronicling the city’s past, present, and future have been churned out at a frenetic pace, developing two narratives that run side-by-side in the popular imagination:

1. The pity party: Detroit is in decay/has been in decay/will continue decaying for reasons X, Y, Z, etc. You see these stories on page one of the newspaper.

2. The counter narrative: Detroit is a city slowly but surely on the mend. Spurred by the pluck, drive, and resourcefulness of its citizenry (both native and newly adopted), Detroit has survived the worst and is ready for a rebound. You typically read these stories in the life, style, or food sections of the national papers.

In truth, Detroit is a combination of both. You could stand in one part of the city—say midtown, downtown, or parts of Indian Village—and think, “Wow, Detroit isn’t that bad. It looks like (insert borough of New York)!” But walk a few blocks south of Selden, to the neighborhood between prosperous midtown and downtown, and suddenly you’re caught in a strange nexus. In a part of the city that has reverted to something that, without hyperbole, resembles a war-torn Berlin.

The socioeconomic geography of the city is woefully unbalanced. Detroit now finds itself in a state of flux, as gentrification in certain neighborhoods creates little pockets of prosperity that dot a city the size of Boston, San Francisco, and Manhattan combined. The pockets hope to establish beachheads that will grow outward, building safer neighborhoods and useful businesses, and demanding better schools and other social services, ideally by expanding the tax base.

But maybe you’re cynical? Maybe you scoff at the silly stuff that happens when gentrification goes too far, and the corner liquor store becomes a lint pickling plant or beard tonic emporium.

You can’t live in Detroit without having an opinion about Detroit—without knowing both narratives and simultaneously arguing on each one’s behalf. If this sounds exhausting, it is. It can be tiresome living in a “renaissance” city sometimes. A place always in the process of becoming. A cause city.

In a city like this, you can be made to feel like you’re either contributing or coasting. You’re either a lint pickling, yoga-going, pour-over coffee swilling, fair weather friend of Detroit, or you’re a cultural contributor that wants the city to be more than a yuppie playground.

Pick a side. But play both if you’re smart.

Green Garage: Metaphor for Urban Reinvention                                                                         

A few days ago I visited a small business incubator in midtown called the Green Garage. Talking with its co-founder, Peggy Brennan, and community liaison, Matthew Piper, you are refreshingly reminded that all the complaining, debating and pseudo-punditry is as useful as gossip. That going to bat for either Detroit narrative isn’t as vital as putting some skin in the game.

Located at 4444 Second Ave., Green Garage is a metaphor for urban reinvention, starting with the space itself. What once was a showroom for Model T-based cars has been rehabilitated into a stunning open work environment that utilizes most of the building’s original windows and wood. A solar-powered climate control system circulates hot water through pipes below the floor, heating the building for one-twentieth of a building of comparable size would cost.

Environmentally conscious decisions like this were meant to be in line with the workspace’s “Green” namesake. But Peggy and her husband and co-founder Tom Brennan realized the strength of diversity and decided to open the building to aspiring small businesses of all stripes, not just those that sought a small environmental footprint (a full list of Green Garage’s businesses in residence can be found here.)

To work out of Green Garage you really only need share one thing in common: your idea needs to better the city.

A New Kind of ROI

So far, 55 businesses with one to five employees have been drawn to the 11,500-square-foot space, renting out individual desks or group offices for a monthly fee Peggy says is “negotiated.” In other words, Green Garage wants to be affordable for small businesses concerned with overheard—rent being a normal struggle for start-ups.

In a past life, Mr. Brennan worked with some of the largest companies in the world as a consultant with Accenture, making him uniquely equipped to offer advice to the businesses in residence. But his approach is less formula than feeling. He asks owners, “What do you stand for? What do you hope to achieve? How will this business fit into your life?” His advice is aimed less at accelerating a business and more about slow, deliberate growth. It’s an approach that eschews the one-size-fits-all process of accepting loans, which Brennan thinks burdens start-ups with too much debt.

If anything, it’s a practical and sobering outlook that matches the realities of a city with immediate needs that will require solutions that can only be developed over the long-term. For example, the thousands of discarded tires strewn across the city in abandoned lots, warehouses, and seemingly bottomless landfills, which are a blight and a health hazard. The tire problem won’t be fixed overnight, but Green Garage business De-tread plans to recycle the tires and turn the rubber into products such as floor mats for cars, a smart move considering the automobile industry’s interest in recycled materials.

Businesses focused on access to nutritious food form one of the largest cohorts at the Green Garage. Detroit’s reputation as a food desert might be overstated, but improved nutritional education can only help a city ranked fifth for obesity in the country.

Jess Daniel, the founder of FoodLab Detroit, wants to organize disparate community businesses and other “good food” believers to raise awareness about healthy options in the city. Their focus is on supporting food retailers, processors, and distributors who define success by social and environmental measures, as well as financial profit.

The personal story of how Daniel found Green Garage is a reflection of the incubators approach to organic growth and its open door policy on community involvement. The FoodLab founder met Tom Brennan at one of Green Garage’s Friday brown bag lunch forums and hit if off during casual conversation. She was offered a scholarship for desk space and introduced to other local businesses that shared her vision. Her experience to date has taught her to value the intangible opportunities: “Tons of moral support, encouragement, and [the] exchange of good ideas with everyone here.”

Perhaps Daniel’s story—and Green Garage’s methods—augur a way forward for a city that badly needs capital, but whose residents are leery of rising square footage costs. In the past, Detroit has thrived on local pride and even the weakest diet of optimism. The community-centric urban experimentation promoted at Green Garage could signal a mindful form of growth that will please Detroiters old and new.