Refurbishing the Rust Belt: Founder Stories from Detroit

When the place we call home is also the place where we work and create, it defines us as much as we define it. Makers and founders everywhere are at the heart of the communities where they do business. This series, And Nowhere Else, examines the relationship between the places they live and what they choose to create.

In the story of Detroit—the one where the city is all but driven into the ground by a dying auto industry—there are two possible endings. The popular version is that it’s had a comeback, a renaissance brought on by young creatives moving to (or back to) Detroit. But this is not a comeback story. It’s a story about survival, about makers, and about deep roots.

Detroit has undeniably prevailed through the most catastrophic blows to its economy. Once, hundreds of thousands of people worked in the city’s auto industry until the largest car manufacturer closed and kicked off a decades-long decline. Think riots, government corruption, and eventually bankruptcy. But though automakers left the rust belt in their dust, the manufacturing heart of the city beat on, and instead of cars, that workforce is using its skills to make everything from denim and bikes to jewelry and coffee.

In a parallel timeline, Detroit is a prolific arts and music scene, undaunted by the city’s ups and downs. Perhaps best known for its street art—once crumbling, abandoned buildings are, after all, a perfect canvas—Detroit is world-renowned for its open-air galleries, drawing tourists in droves to installations like The Alley Project (TAP) and The Heidlberg Project.

A new Detroit, steeped in history, was formed at the intersection of art and manufacturing. Behind it are the people—people local café owner David Merritt calls “amazingly real and resilient.” We met David and five other inspiring founders who told us why they choose to work and create in Detroit and nowhere else.

Bikes with a backstory

Zakary Pashak moved to Detroit just as the city was about to file for bankruptcy, launching his business during murky times. But although financing options for small businesses were limited, the support, he says, was abundant—even at the bank. “It was real enthusiasm,” he says, “and I’ve found that throughout the city with everyone I interacted with.”

[Manufacturing] is in the blood of the citizenry of Detroit.

Zakary Pashak

Detroit Bikes is the result of Zak’s interest in transportation policy and was his own contribution to the new face of Detroit: one less reliant on cars in every way. In his 50,000-square-foot factory—the largest bike manufacturing facility in the U.S.—his team builds bicycles for the casual rider, not the extremist. “I’m more interested in transportation alternatives,” he says.

Detroit Bikes founder Zakary Pashak stands in a workshop in his factory. Raw materials and bike frames line the walls.
Zakary Pashak believes that bikes are a sustainable part of Detroit’s transportation infrastructure. Marvin Shaouni
Photo of bicycle parts including a brown bike seat with a Detroit Bikes patch in the foreground.
Detroit Bikes are built domestically in the largest factory of its kind in the U.S. Marvin Shaouni

While Zak is the brains behind the business, Detroit Bikes was brought to life by a skilled workforce eager for jobs. “[Manufacturing] is in the blood of the citizenry of Detroit,” he says. “My role is employing the right people.” One of those people is Henry Ford II, a bike mechanic and one of the founders of The Slow Roll, a weekly cycling event that unites Detroit’s bike community. “I’m from a family of manufacturing,” Henry says. “To continue that is something I’m really proud of.”

Detroit Bikes employee and bike mechanic Henry Ford II leans on a work table in a factory with bike frames lining the wall behind him.
Like many of Detroit’s born and bred, Henry Ford II comes from a family of manufacturers. Marvin Shaouni

Beyond cars

Ron Watters’ first love was architecture. It’s why many of the T-shirts printed by his company, One Custom City, feature graphics of buildings. While he ultimately chose a career in product design, he says he’s still inspired by architecture—specifically in his hometown of Detroit.

While Ron once left the city, he returned to his stomping grounds to start his business. He saw the potential in a city with a rich maker history and feels optimistic about its future. “Detroit’s going to be more out in the world, producing things again that aren’t just cars,” he says.

One Custom City founder Ron Watters arranges printed materials on a large table in a printing studio.
Ron Watters returned to his hometown to start his business because he saw potential in Detroit’s rich maker history. Marvin Shaouni
Detail of a screen printer’s hands applying ink to a screen that says “GOOD JOBS NOW!”
One Custom City prints graphics on everything from mugs to posters.Marvin Shaouni

Ron’s path to launching One Custom City in 2008 started first with furniture design. He was handcrafting custom pieces but found that his friends and family couldn’t afford them. Printed T-shirts gave his network an easy way to contribute. Now, Ron collaborates with locals—small businesses and musicians and nonprofits alike—to print designs on everything from record sleeves to aprons. “Detroit is a very knit community that really steps up and supports people,” he says.

An eye for eyewear

Ashley Addrow-Pierson was working for a mortgage lender while aspiring to launch her own business someday. The idea that would later become her online eyewear store, Alley & Eye, was sparked “after about the fiftieth time someone asked me about my glasses,” she says. The native Detroiter had a knack, it seemed, for styling and sourcing great frames.

Alley & Eye started as a hobby but evolved into a full-time operation after record producer and artist Swizz Beatz allegedly purchased a pair of her frames off the face of a customer in New York, she says. “It was in that moment I [told] myself I might be onto something.”

Ashley took advantage of her hometown’s drive to stimulate its entrepreneurial economy. She honed her business skills at Build Institute, one of several of Detroit’s resources for budding founders like her. “I think Detroit has always been supportive of entrepreneurs,” she says. She loves the city for its diversity, too, and has styled everyone from street artists to executives. In late 2019, she plans to dip her toes into manufacturing and launch her own eyewear line shortly thereafter.

The graffiti harvest

In 2013, Amy Peterson was living next to the Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS), where she met incredible women transitioning out of abuse and poverty. Along with her business partner, Diana Russell, Amy aimed to contribute to her community by teaching classes at COTS. But then the idea ballooned. “[We] thought, what if we could create a company that would teach a woman to fish,” says Amy. “What does that look like?” Though neither of the women were jewelry makers, they founded Rebel Nell to provide meaningful opportunities to local women while creating a product that was unique to Detroit.

Rebel Nell co-founder Amy Peterson works with a hammer and jewelry-making tools at a worktable in a light-filled studio.
Amy Peterson had no jewelry-making skills before she started her company, Rebel Nell. Marvin Shaouni

So how did the former sports lawyer end up leaving her dream job to start a jewelry-making social enterprise? “I don’t necessarily know that there were incentives,” says Amy. “I think it was just time and place, and my love for the city.”

As much as this company belongs to myself and Diana, and all the women that work here, we truly feel that Detroit is a part of our company as well.

Amy Peterson

Rebel Nell celebrates the history of local street art by repurposing layers of paint that flake off with environmental wear. But they never directly touch the walls. “We have a lot of respect for the muralists,” says Amy. The harvested paint then becomes one-of-a-kind jewelry, handcrafted by women hired through Rebel Nell’s partnerships with local organizations. They train in jewelry design, entrepreneurship, and life skills, empowering employees to gain independence once they’ve moved on from their roles at Rebel Nell.

Detail over the shoulder of a Rebel Nell employee’s hands polishing a piece of jewelry with a rotary tool.
The women employed by Rebel Nell gain valuable technical and life skills that help them gain independence after leaving the company. Marvin Shaouni

Amy says she’s grateful to Detroit for embracing the idea from the outset. The partners started the business with the help of a crowdfunding campaign, and locals rallied to help them meet their goals. “As much as this company belongs to myself and Diana, and all the women that work here,” says Amy, “we truly feel that Detroit is a part of our company as well.”

But first, people

Detroit natives David and Jon Merritt grew up watching their parents dedicate their lives to their community and church. In 2016, inspired by those acts of service, the brothers converted their church’s bookstore into The Narrow Way Café and Shop. Their congregation loved it.

We are so honored to be part of this major focal point in the city returning to its former glory.

David Merritt

Like Ashley, the Merritt brothers tapped into Detroit’s small business resources, receiving a matching grant from the Motor City March program. The money helped them move The Narrow Way from its home inside the church to a dedicated retail space on the historic Livernois Avenue of Fashion. In its new location, the café reaches a wider swath of the Detroit community and has become part of the rebirth of a neighborhood once in decline. “We are so honored to be part of this major focal point in the city returning to its former glory,” says David.

Though they’ve expanded the business to catering and selling coffee-related goods online, David and his brother still put people first, carrying on the legacy of Mom and Dad. “The people of Detroit are amazingly resilient and real,” he says. “It’s an honor to connect and build relationships with them.”

A city with substance

Detroit Denim founder Eric Yelsma inspects an industrial sewing machine.
At Detroit Denim, Eric Yelsma’s goal is to create a new apparel manufacturing model—one that puts people first. Marvin Shaouni
Detail of a Detroit Denim branded leather patch and metal stamps.
All of the raw materials in the making of Detroit Denim’s products are sourced locally, including the leather for its branded patches. Marvin Shaouni

Much of the world’s apparel production happens in conditions that are less than ideal for its workers. Eric Yelsma believed he could do better. In a city with a backbone of manufacturing, he aimed to design a new kind of apparel model—one that prioritizes people. Eric founded Detroit Denim in 2010 and did just that, providing better working conditions and a living wage to his employees.

I am convinced that I couldn’t have done this anywhere else, other than Detroit.

Eric Yelsma

Detroit Denim not only manufactures its denim, apparel, and accessories right in Detroit, it also sources all of its raw materials from the U.S. “We’re not just a brand...we make our own stuff,” he says. And, through partnerships with other local businesses (they make aprons for food trucks and restaurants), every facet of the business is kept close to home. “I am convinced that I couldn’t have done this anywhere else, other than Detroit,” says Eric. “There’s remarkable substance to this city that’s really inspiring.”

Feature image by Verónica Grech
Additional reporting by Shuang Esther Shan