Detroit is the city that has produced a turnaround for the ages in recent years. But the transition continues to evolve in many colorful ways, thanks in part to a group of influential couples who poised themselves long ago to roll up their sleeves, get their hands dirty and drive the city forward. While having a significant other certainly is no prerequisite for achievement in this town, the duos who are successfully navigating Detroit’s opportunities through their individual and joint efforts are nothing short of awe-inspiring.
These are the couples who have collaborated literally by candle light in the darkness of abandoned Detroit, turning forgotten spaces into beautiful meeting places. These are the trailblazers who have joined forces on everything from creating artistic environments; to driving employment opportunities; to delighting our palates; to getting us up off our couches for some good old fashioned let-your-hair-down, dance-your-ass-off fun. They’re in our restaurants, our art spaces, our night life and our community, working hard to make a name for themselves and the city. These are the trendsetters, the entrepreneurs and the very pulse of Detroit. They are hip, cultured and spirited; pumping away to forge a life together while simultaneously juggling the successes and stresses of creating an experience that will keep changing people’s minds, one-by-one, about just who and what Detroit really is.
Who they are:
Phil is best known as co-owner of Detroit’s famous Slow’s Barbeque which, aside from its slow cooked meats, is known for being one of the first businesses to put Corktown on the radar for foodies and entrepreneur/developers alike. Kate is a partner at Our/Detroit vodka which is a woman-run vodka distillery in the Hubbard Richard neighborhood in Southwest Detroit. Together they are co-founders of Ponyride, a 30,000 square foot community aimed at offering artists, entrepreneurs, makers, and nonprofits an affordable space inside the city to live and work. Back in 2011 Phil bought the building out of foreclosure. He needed a woodshop but didn’t need all 30,000 square feet so he and Kate came up with the idea to share it. There are now over 45 organizations in the space from Anthology Coffee to woodshop, metal and textile artists. Ponyride is a 501c3 that, by way of donations and inexpensive rent prices, aims only to break even with hopes of ultimately bringing innovation and manufacturing back to Detroit.
How they met:
“I volunteered in a friend’s kitchen doing some demo during the summer of 2011,” recalled Kate who was visiting Detroit to work on her thesis while attending Savannah College of Art and Design. “Phil was the first person I met.” After dating long-distance for a year, which gave them a chance to get to know each other, Phil offered to have Kate move into the 30,000 square foot space that would later become Ponyride.
So, what’s new?
Kate: “Gold Cash Gold (Phil and his brother Ryan are partners in the restaurant) just brought on board a new chef, Brandon Edwards, who designed a new menu.”
Phil: “We are rehabbing a lot of old buildings, including an old fire house. Kate’s dad was a firefighter. We really enjoy living in it because of her history with the fire department.”
Phil further explained that they are incorporating fire department memorabilia from Kate’s family into the rehab, including a brass pole from her dad’s department where he served in Lakewood, OH. And just like Ponyride, the pair want to share this special space with others as well. Ed Welburn, former vice president of design at General Motors, is using the first floor as his design studio. They also have friends who want to open a bakery in the back where old horse stables used to be.
Phil grew up in a rural town where everyone knew each other by name. But he wanted the cultural diversity, nightlife and creativity of being in an urban center.
“When I moved to Chicago and later overseas and lived in big cities, I always felt like a number – Detroit was that really good blend for me of culture and community,” recalled Phil who was initially drawn to the city by its music scene. “When I lived in Europe I heard more Detroit music than anything else, from hip hop like J Dilla to Jack White to Derrick May. Everyone was talking about Detroit in that sense.”
For Kate, who grew up in Cleveland, it was equal parts Phil and Detroit’s community that drew her to the city: “I found love here. It’s weird. I’ve never felt such community in urban core. I was kind of baffled and blown away by how tight it is in Detroit and close knit. In a weird way it felt like home, even though sometimes it can be cold and devastating. Entrepreneurship is sexy and glamorous but there are a lot of hardships.”
What have been some of the successes and challenges of building a life in Detroit?
“It’s been very community-lead, all the people that supported us and helped us out doing anything they could to help get us open. That’s the genius in Detroit. As a community, Detroiters do more with less because they’re forced to work together,” noted Phil on how he and Kate have been successful in their endeavors. “However, as we mature as a city, the reality is that it’s a great way to build community and trust but it’s not for everyone. The city has many communities that are difficult to navigate.”
What are your tips for maintaining a relationship while juggling the workload of success?
Phil: “It’s very difficult. I think that we’ve become far less social and we really enjoy any alone time we can get. It’s good and bad – mostly good. I went out the other night at Slow’s. It was amazing just being there. I’m trying to balance all of that. We have a baby on the way and we are burning the candle at both ends trying to stay on top of programing. I see younger versions of ourselves in Detroit who may have a little bit more energy. I am happy to pass the torch on and raise a baby.”
You’ve got 24 hours of no obligation in Detroit. What do you do and where do you eat?
Kate: “I always loved going out to Belle Isle. We don’t go there enough anymore. I love the conservatory. Or just jumping on a bike and riding to different locations on the riverfront. Also, Eastern Market. We haven’t been in a while, but just riding a bike over. We love Supino’s [Pizzaria].
Phil: “The riverfront and the Dequindre cut have a little bit of nature connection and exercise. The UFO factory and El Club are near me and easy to sneak to because they are blocks away. I’ll always consider the Heidelberg Project a gallery in a way – that’s the first place I take anyone. Dabl’s [MBAD African Bead] Museum. Public art and public spaces – I love the democracy of it. I love being surprised and challenged. I find that happening more often in galleries. Motz’s hamburgers on Fort Street; Flowers of Vietnam – their menu changes all the time. Kate loves their diner vibe.”
If you had a magic ball, what would you hope to see for yourselves professionally 5 years from now?
Phil recently started teaching at Lawrence Tech, saying, “I would love for that to become fulltime. It is my biggest passion right now along with working with Detroit Children’s fund (Phil is on their board). We certainly have a lot of work to do all over the world but certainly in Detroit to improve our school systems.” Phil is also launching a Slow’s location in Pontiac, set to open winter 2017.
Kate plans to juggle life, work and having a baby. “I am interested to see how that unfolds. [I hope for] a lot of success with the Vodka project and to stay actively involved with Ponyride. I am really determined to raise money for Ponyride, either with a monthly flea or a maker’s market.” Kate also hopes to make Our/Detroit Vodka all-female lead, she said, “Especially in Detroit where it tends to be male-driven.”