For those that don’t yet know this and those that never knew, Corktown is Detroit’s longest surviving neighborhood—and one that has seen many changes. Since its early formation as a home to Irish immigrants, as Detroit’s 8th Ward, it has weathered many changes. Steadfast, it has remained a neighborhood built out of small businesses and devoted citizens. After the relocation of Tiger Stadium to downtown in 2000, it eloquently shifted as a destination for baseball and dive bars to a culinary hot spot. Places like Slows, Astro, Sugar House, and Two James put it on both the local and national dining destination map.
In recent years, we’ve seen a different shift: A growing number of female owned businesses are expanding the neighborhood from an after-hours destination to a place to spend the light of day—and build a life; an influence of yin energy to balance out what we see as lot of yang. Places like Eldorado General Store and Meta Physica Wellness are not simply shopping or service destinations, but places where guests are invited to check in with themselves and reexamine their connection to the world. Places like the Farmer’s Hand and Folk Café, ask us to examine our relationship with our environments and our bodies through their commitment to locally sourced produce and goods. It is perhaps Chef Kate’s definition of her restaurant, Lady of the House, that best sums up this movement—”a way of thinking about things, of taking care, of preparing food and drink [and body and mind and spirit] with love, and gratitude.”
Spring into Corktown. Founded by Erin Gavle of Eldorado General Store as a way to raise awareness for the neighborhood’s growing retail community, this one day event has become a symbol of this burgeoning new yin energy. In one year it has grown its simple mission and has become a celebration of the neighborhood at large, inviting neighbors and visitors alike to not only shop but come together and clean up the neighborhood, get to know each other through workshops in Solar Panel Design and Acro Yoga. There’s even a petting zoo—comprised of farm animals (not zoo animals).
In part one, of this two part series, we speak with Erin about the event’s origins, the challenges and benefits of running a small business in Corktown, and female entrepreneurship at large. We then pass the mic back for part 2—to turn the spotlight on neighbor and co-event planner, Rahani Foulkes, of Folk and the Farmer’s Hand. A real interview inside an interview.
“I was also taught very early on by other retail business owners in the city of Detroit, to support our fellow business owners—we don’t view them as competition.”
DII: Corktown, Detroit’s oldest surviving neighborhood, originated as an Irish immigrant labor force for the industry at the time. Some things have changed since the 19th century. How has Corktown grown since you first opened Eldorado 5 years ago?
Erin Gavle: I think when I first moved in, there was so much uncertainty about the future of our neighborhood and city. It wasn’t a place that most people felt comfortable coming to, people still weren’t sure how Detroit would recover after just announcing bankruptcy, and most people didn’t certainly see it as a place to set up a business. I think that the strong sense of community and the supportive residents and visitors have really helped shape our neighborhood into the desirable place that it is now— in just under 5 years we’ve proven that Corktown is a destination neighborhood built on layers of history and hard work. It’s exciting to be a part of that with other inspiring entrepreneurs.
DII: While entrepreneurialism runs in Corktown’s blood, it hasn’t seen much retail in recent years. How have your experiences in Corktown shaped your identity as a business owner? What have been the struggles of opening a retail spot in a place seen as a bar and restaurant destination?
EG: Corktown has allowed my dream to really flourish. I think being a retail space in a mostly restaurant and bar destination neighborhood has really helped round out our offerings as a neighborhood and helped expand the positive experiences people have here for both residents and visitors, while simultaneously creating an environment ripe for other retail businesses to participate in Corktown.
In the early years, we were a bit more of a destination shopping experience. Something people came seeking out. But over the last two years, I’ve watched how adding and supporting other retail spaces in the neighborhood has helped my business grow and thrive . It’s exciting to see that people can spend an entire day in Corktown—shopping, eating, drinking, and sight-seeing. That’s the purpose of creating these neighborhood-wide events—to highlight that.
I was also taught very early on by other retail business owners in the city of Detroit, to support our fellow business owners—we don’t view them as competition. There’s something so beautiful about the camaraderie within the city. We know that if we can’t provide what a customer is looking for, we can provide another option for money to stay within the city’s walls. And hopefully within our neighborhood and community. I’m completely aware how backyard economics has positively impacted the city and will do anything to help send other businesses support—especially when those businesses are female run.
DII: How do you feel about the term boss lady?
EG: I use it lovingly towards female friends that are killing it, inspiring myself and others, and living their passions and dreams. Celebrating that a woman is such a boss.
In a more professional setting or when being called a “boss lady” by a man (especially one I don’t know), however, I’m not as interested in using that language because it ultimately sets us apart. The underlying implications that we can be a “boss lady” but we can’t be just a “boss.”
DII: How did Spring into Corktown come about? What sets it apart from other events in the city?
EG: Spring into Corktown had its inaugural celebration last year. We had wrapped up the first Corktown-a-Glow, our holiday neighborhood wide event throughout Corktown, and had received so much praise and support to replicate that experience throughout the year. It was such a great way to engage our community, bring our residents and visitors together to celebrate and say ‘thank you’ for supporting us all year round. And it was to highlight all the successes we’ve had throughout the year – new businesses joining the Corktown roster, new bike lanes, revitalized parks. It became a time for us to get people to Corktown that hadn’t been in years, sometimes decades, and really show everyone what’s so special about this neighborhood and the things happening within it.
Spring into Corktown took shape last year when Corktown was being honored with an art sculpture created by the Nordin Brothers and donated by Strategic Staffing Solutions and Hatch Detroit. We thought it would be the perfect opportunity for us to gather our community and highlight what makes Corktown so special. The idea really snowballed from there.
“My goal is that our neighborhood keeps that small-town mentality as we continue to grow—the type of community we have here is extremely special and rare for a big city.”
DII: Where do you envision Spring into Corktown in the next 5 years? Where do you see Corktown in five years?
EG: My hope has always been that these events will continue for years to come and start to form traditions. I think it’s so important to create gathering experiences to help foster community.
It’s hard to say where I see Spring into Corktown in five years, because our neighborhood will be so different in less time than that. With under 1500 residents currently in Corktown and as new housing and commercial developments are completed – we will double that number overnight. My goal is that our neighborhood keeps that small-town mentality as we continue to grow—the type of community we have here is extremely special and rare for a big city. I think it’s absolutely something to strengthen and preserve. I want people to still say hi as they pass strangers on the street and I think creating events like this help nurture that spirit.
DII: How has community played a role in your business—specifically, how have you been able to participate in strengthening the community where you’ve chosen to set up a business?
EG: Community has always been a driving factor in why I opened Eldorado and why I chose the Corktown neighborhood to be a part of. I think 5 years ago, and even now, community is such a vital force—and Eldorado has always been a catalyst for community. By default just by activating and opening a space that hadn’t been occupied in over a decade in a half makes us an integral part of the community.
DII: How has female entrepreneurship played a role in the development of Corktown over the last few years?
EG: I remember attending my first Corktown Business Association meeting 5 years ago. I was one of two women in that meeting full of men. And I was about 30 years younger than the only other woman.
It’s been overwhelming watching our neighborhood and city grow—and at the hands of strong, inspiring, and, in most cases, younger female entrepreneurs. I’m in awe of what women are capable of—and Corktown has become an example of that spirit. I’m honored to work alongside so many passionate and inspiring women artists, doers, makers, and business owners. The opportunities for support, collaboration and ideation have been exponential.
DII: Corktown has a growing culture of female founded and lead businesses—Folk, Meta Physica, Mama Coos, Takoi, etc. How do you find that female business owners contribute to the community and neighborhood here in Corktown?
EG: Our Corktown Business Association neighborhood-wide events are all volunteer run. The key players in making these things possible have always been females. Rohani from The Farmers Hand and Folk, Deveri from Brooklyn Street Local, Debra Walker and Heather McKeon, community members, Corktown residents, and myself.
The second annual Spring into Corktown is Saturday, 19th July, 2018. Please follow this link for event details.