Mr. Koller’s Neighborhood

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One man is helping to bring a block in North Corktown back to life.

Detroit’s North Corktown is a sparse neighborhood. That’s what struck 20-somethings Jon Koller and his wife, Hannah Lewis,  when they moved there in 2009.

Jon Koller rolled up his sleeves and got to work improving his historic neighborhood.

“Imagine an older neighborhood with about 50 houses on the block and then take away 98 percent of the houses,” Koller said.

Each block had only one or two standing houses with one exception: Spaulding Court, the name of a street that runs between a pair of 99-year-old long, low townhouse buildings. Well-built with solid stone masonry, these centenarian structures with 20 apartment units persisted in the face of widespread decline.

All was not well on Spaulding Court, however. Shortly after Koller moved in, there was a big firebombing. People were running guns and drugs out of the building. “There was an owner of the building, but he didn’t want to get involved,” Koller said.

Koller decided he did.

“My first involvement was to figure out who was living there and assess the situation,” he said. “Should we call the cops? Kick them out? Find them another place to live? After talking to the people living there, we found out that just one unit was the heroin house where people were selling drugs. The other two units were occupied by a family that had been living there for 10 years. They had some trade skills but zero resources and were doing what they could to get by. We were able to keep them there.”

Koller belonged to the Corktown Residence Council, which had identified Spaulding Court as a major blight on the community. The council filed a nuisance abatement claim with Wayne County.

Friends of Spaulding Court, a nonprofit formed by Koller in January 2010, grew out of the work of the Corktown Residents Council. The goal of the nonprofit was to identify and implement a community-based solution at Spaulding Court.

Shortly after the council was successful in getting a grant to board up the building (including the heroin house), Wayne County seized the property and turned around the next day and sold it to Friends of Spaulding Court. The 20-unit apartment complex cost the group $1,000.

There are 10 board members of the nonprofit, the majority of whom live within 150 yards of Spaulding Court, including Koller, who lives in a house two doors down.

“These were people who had been complaining about this building for the past 30 years, and now they were responsible for it,” Koller said.

Getting Started
The board members went into the project blind, Koller said. The Spaulding Court units were in bad shape. The structure had a leaking roof, no electricity and no running water. “We needed to keep the building from deteriorating and keep it safe,” Koller said.

Spaulding Court in 2009

All told, the building needed about $50,000 in improvements and had $15,000 in back taxes due — not to mention a hefty insurance bill. They started by placing some used billboards on the roof to stop the leaks and getting the water and electricity flowing safely. Six months later, they began work on rehabbing two of the apartments.

Koller, who currently works as a structural engineer at Shymanski and Associates in Farmington Hills, has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Michigan. He quickly morphed into contractor for the Spaulding Court project and ended up getting his contractor’s license.

Koller chose to live in North Corktown because “there was a lot of interesting agricultural and arts stuff going on,” he said. “It was close to Downtown, and I was working at Wayne State at the time, so I could bike to work.”

Friends of Spaulding Court raised $50,000 through private loans and fund-raising events to begin the long process of renovation.

With the help of occasional volunteer crews (including many teens from J-Serve), a group of local laborers and contractors drew on the loan money to start rehabbing the units.

The first task was stabilization. “It was like a triage situation,” Koller said.

Koller’s background is in Labor Zionism. “I grew up as a hardcore socialist,” he said. “My value system is based on Jewish values of social justice. I’m also very involved with the Downtown Synagogue, where a lot of the Jewish energy in Detroit is working toward social justice.”

Koller caught wind of a group called Resource Generation from Chicago that wanted to set up headquarters in Detroit for the U.S. Social Forum in June 2010. The group had a plan to buy a house, fix it up, use it for a few months and then sell it to a co-op.

Koller had a better idea.

Help From The Windy City
Resource Generation is a group that organizes young people with financial wealth to leverage resources and privilege for social change.

“They were looking for ways to invest in a more responsible, impactful way,” Koller said. “So we said, ‘Why don’t you give us a loan instead of buying your own place? We’ll fix up a unit, and after we’re done, we’ll rent it out and use it as a community space.”

Kristen Cox, a community partnership builder in Chicago, thought it sounded like a good idea. “What Jon proposed to me sounded more like a solidarity community investing idea than buying property from a city over 280 miles away,” she said.

Within weeks, Friends of Spaulding Court received a $6,000 construction loan. The money served as the seed loan for local laborers to rehab one unit. In exchange, for the month of June, three Chicago organizers got to live and work in the rehabbed unit for free during the social forum. After they moved out, the plan was to rent the unit to generate monthly income.

Friends of Spaulding employs another method to raise funds each month.

Soup At Spaulding
Once a month, Spaulding Court is the site of a neighborhood get-together for dozens of nearby residents, young entrepreneurs and city activists. They come for “Soup at Spaulding,” a micro-fundraising and community-building dinner that works to raise seed money for projects in Corktown, including the rehabilitation of Spaulding Court.

Dinner is $5 and includes soup, salad and bread, with adult beverages also available for purchase. The bread is donated by Avalon Bakery in Midtown, co-owned by Jackie Victor, who knows Koller through the Downtown Synagogue.

In 2011, the first rehabbed unit was ready to rent.

“It’s incredible to see how Jon and Hannah are directly impacting the neighborhood for no other reason than to make things better for other people,” Victor said. “Why wouldn’t we want to help?”

During the gathering, two to four presenters pitch ideas for funding. Examples include a drum and dance troupe that needed more drums, a young woman hoping to encourage Bridge Card holders to use their benefits at local farmers markets and a person looking for money to start a mushroom farm.

The dinner guests vote for a winning project that gets half the money collected at the door. Friends of Spaulding Court then makes mini-fundraising videos for each project with half the money from the online fundraising effort going to the project. The other half goes to pay for materials and labor at Spaulding Court.

The New Spaulding Court
There are two buildings, each with 10 units — front door, back door, nice basements. The south building has a new roof, new electrical service and a new water main.

Financially, the nonprofit has a debt load of $90,000, “but we make our payments,” Koller said. “We’re in good shape.”

Five of the units in the south building are occupied. One serves as a community space or a place for people to crash on a short-term basis, such as those who help out around the neighborhood.

In May 2011, the first completely renovated Spaulding Court townhouse was rented out. It offered “a little bit of luxury in North Corktown,” Koller said. The refurbished unit has hardwood floors and Italian tile throughout. The kitchen features marble countertops and stainless steel trim, while the upstairs offers three modest bedrooms with original wood doorways. The full bath upstairs features an Italian tile shower, custom limestone trim work and a porcelain sink. The unit also came with free wireless Internet and is very well-insulated, with heating bills running about $50 a month during the winter.

“We offered a $450 discount for renters who didn’t have a car,” Koller said. “We figured that would mean more disposable income, which they’d be able to spend at local businesses. It was our way of demonstrating that you can do community development in different ways.”

Mike Dakoske, a chef at Honest John’s in Midtown, read about that first unit on Craigslist. “When I walked in that day, I knew I wanted to live there,” said Dakoske, 38, who had spent many years in Hamtramck, Ferndale and St. Clair Shores before looking for a place in the city.

The view from Spaulding Court

“I wouldn’t have been able to afford it without the $450 break,” said Dakoske, who sold his car after moving in. He’s able to walk back and forth to work. “I feel blessed to have found this community.” Dakoske now acts as “soup chef” for the monthly fundraisers.

Dakoske said he likes the way Koller works within each tenant’s circumstances. “One family, who lives in two units of the building, has been here for more than 10 years,” he said. “My other neighbor, who works at the farm and serves as groundskeeper, puts up interns in his unit during the summer.”

Dakoske just got more new neighbors: three young artists and students who signed an eight-year lease on the other unit being rehabbed, doing the finishing work such as the flooring and tiling themselves before they moved in last month.

The group will contribute all the materials and labor required to finish the place. In exchange, they’ll receive free rent for a year and low rent for the subsequent seven years.

Sam Newman, 24, is one of those new neighbors. He and roommates Jane Orr and Zane Hettinga had heard about Spaulding from their monthly soup events. They met with Jon and saw the unfinished unit.

“We were looking for a way we could exchange our skills — we all have backgrounds in art and labor — for a living space,” Newman said. “The agreement we worked out was a result of a long conversation between us, Jon and the Friends of Spaulding Court. The result, we hope, is a way that we can all provide value to each other while exchanging money as little as possible.”

The Greater Mission
Koller said that Friends of Spaulding Court has a social mission as well. “Socially, there was this real divide about Spaulding Court being separate from the neighborhood,” Koller said. “A lot of the old-timers saw it as a really exclusive, separate space. Our goal was to bring those people to Spaulding Court and to bring Spaulding Court residents into the broader neighborhood.”

The organization’s official mission is to promote the strength and diversity of the neighborhood, which sits a block away from Brother Nature Farm and a community garden. Those in the neighborhood can see chickens pecking in nearby yards, open fields, veggie gardens, even apiaries where some neighbors tend bees.

“Spaulding Court is an awesome public space with garden beds,” added Koller, who plans to expand the gardens next year.

“It’s like living in the country in the city,” Dakoske said.

The area has many small businesses, Koller added, including a whole bunch of new shops, bars and restaurants within a two-block walk. There is no more gun-running, and drug-running is down significantly as well.

“We’ve only just moved in and are still getting to know the neighborhood,” Newman said, “but it’s a lot quieter and more relaxed than our previous place Downtown on Woodward where the three of us lived together.”

Dakoske had been warned about the neighborhood by friends and family before moving in. They told him it was “too dangerous,” but he said he hasn’t noticed any crime and was surprised by the quiet of Spaulding Court. “You can hear crickets,” he said.

“It’s a new kind of city here, where a landmark of fear can be adopted by ‘friends,’” Koller said.

By Jackie Headapohl, managing editor

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