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Motor City Mogul

Top Photo: CALLING ON COOLEY: Phillip Cooley offers pro bono advice to small businesses looking to make it in Detroit. Bottom Photo: Ponyride, the 30,000-square-foot warehouse Cooley converted into rental space for community organizations, is at capacity with a long waiting list.

By Sean McEntee (’13) / Photography by Jacob Boll (BA ’12)

Over the past decade, Phillip Cooley, 35, has worked to revitalize one of America’s most downtrodden cities, Detroit. Since opening the wildly successful Slows Bar BQ restaurant in 2005, Cooley has focused on rehabbing abandoned public places and providing attractive, affordable spaces for artists and entrepreneurs to thrive.

FINDING HIS WAY: After graduating with a film and video degree in 2000, Cooley took a Ford runway modeling job and travelled the world for two years, a whirlwind that included an eight-month stint in Paris working for Louis Vuitton. But after realizing the job didn’t allow him the “voice” he craved, Cooley moved back to his hometown area of Detroit to try something new. “Even though I was young and dumb, I still wanted to honestly participate [in a community],” Cooley says. He worked as a janitor in a “rock-and-roll, motorcycle bar” and as a bar back at a lounge on famous 8 Mile Road before taking the plunge into community revitalization, inspired by this idea: “Move to your city, go to the bars, meet like-minded people, and start a movement.”

INTREPID ENTREPRENEUR: Cooley used a combination of his savings, loans, and connections to his family’s development company, O’Connor Development, to launch his first major venture, Slows Bar BQ, with like-minded entrepreneurs. After opening in 2005, the restaurant became an instant success, drawing city folks and suburbanites alike to Corktown, the city’s historic Irish—and largely abandoned—neighborhood near downtown. Now providing more than 100 jobs, Slows sparked other restaurants to open, a large migration of residents who filled apartments, and installation of previously nonexistent city services such as streetlights. From there, Cooley worked with local businesses and volunteers to raise and implement more than $800,000 in improvements to Roosevelt Park, next to Detroit’s decaying 1913 central train station.

DIG A PONY: In 2011, Cooley unveiled perhaps his most ambitious project yet: Ponyride. In an effort to combat Detroit’s epidemic of foreclosed and abandoned buildings, Cooley purchased an old 30,000-square-foot warehouse, fixed it up, and began renting spaces to socially-conscious artists and entrepreneurs for as little as 20 cents per square foot—with utilities included. About a dozen community minded organizations now call Ponyride home, including furniture manufacturing companies, graphic designers, hip-hop dancers, and nonprofits, such as the Empowerment Plan, which provides formerly homeless women with jobs making innovative self-heating coats that double as sleeping bags for people living on the streets. By providing Ponyride spaces at below-market-rate prices, Cooley says more people, regardless of income levels, can help revitalize the community.

View an inside look into one of Ponyride's residents, a hip-hop dance group in Detroit.

THE CITY ’S VOLUNTEER: Cooley says he doesn’t profit from the fruits of his labor; in fact, he says nearly every dollar he makes from Slows Bar BQ goes back into community projects designed to rehabilitate Detroit. In addition to serving on 15 community boards, including Greening of Detroit and Roosevelt Park Conservancy, Cooley provides pro bono advice (and considerable carpentry skills) to small startup companies looking to make it in the Motor City. He works tirelessly to raise awareness and funds, such as through his “ClandesDine” dinners, which are fundraising events held in nontraditional spaces, such as abandoned warehouses or garages, that allow donors to envision the Motor City’s possibilities. Where others may only see emptiness, Cooley sees opportunity.

“The city has helped me grow more socially conscious.”

“When I got here, I would love to say that I was the most socially conscious, but really, the city has helped me grow more socially conscious,” Cooley says. Recalling his days as a Columbia film student, when he accessed all the available equipment and resources for the best possible result, Cooley cites Detroit’s people as the most valuable partners imaginable in the production of his life. “When I think of Detroiters, I think of resourcefulness and strength. The residents are the greatest assets.”

ONE TO WATCH: Cooley’s work has caught widespread attention. Crain’s Detroit Business crowned Cooley as one of its “Twenty in their 20s” in 2006, The Huffington Post chose him as a “Greatest Person of the Day” in 2010, and Vice Magazine listed him as one of the “Most Interesting Men in America” in 2012.

View Phillip Cooley being featured in Vice Magazine as one of their "Most Interesting Men in America" for his work to rebuild Detroit.

LEFT: Cooley sits in the space of Ponyride tenant Empowerment Plan, which provides formerly homeless women with jobs making innovative self-heating coats for people living on the streets. RIGHT: The small-business Detroit Denim makes jeans by hand on site.

The opening of Slows Bar BQ in 2005 spurred economic and residential development near downtown Detroit. The restaurant provides more than 100 jobs.