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Motor City Java House: Small Business & Community Rebuilding in Detroit, Michigan | Alicia George

Small Business & Community, Rebuilding Detroit

Nearly 100 years ago, Detroit was poised to become a major American industrial city. Cars, new factories and an eager workforce helped put Detroit on the map.

A lot has changed since the early 20th century.

After some very rough years, small businesses are helping to restore economic viability and community in Detroit. The once booming factory scene is being replaced by a booming small business scene.

We are very lucky to have spoken with one such small business owner, Alicia George, owner and operator of Motor City Java House.

She began working with Motor City Blight Busters 17 years ago to help revitalize and develop commercial destinations in her neighborhood in Detroit.

In 2003, inspired by the idea of having a local community coffee shop, she started work on opening Motor City Java House. It took over five years to open, relying on the help of volunteers and the local community to help raise money for renovations.

She would raise money, then do work and then have to stop. But her patience paid off, she’s now operating a thriving business with no debt and is an amazing example and a positive influence for her neighborhood. 

Check it out:

The Soul of America Tour

This episode is part of the Soul of America tour sponsored by Tecovas Boots, Badger Maps, and Impact Dog Crates. During April 2017, I drove with my six month-old puppy Muddy Waggers, my guitar, and my podcasting equipment with the goal of recording podcast episodes with small business owners throughout the heart of America.

Listen to the podcast:

Show Notes

A summary of our interview with Alicia George from Motor City Java House is below.

You can use the links below to jump to your interests.

How did Java House start? What inspired you to start this place?

Alicia George: What inspired me to start is that I wanted to have a neighborhood coffee shop. I had been working with Blight Busters, helping with volunteerism, cleanup projects, but it was time to beautify the neighborhood, so I had a dream of having my own coffee shop and what you see here now is exactly what God had blessed me with in my dream.

This was in the year of 2000. Then, in 2003, we discovered this place, which is known as the Artist Village Detroit, and inside of here, we thought that having a coffee shop would be perfect. Motor City Blight Busters set out on a mission to renovate, revitalize, help to stabilize, so that Java House could be born.

Blight Busters has been around for 29 years. It is sort of like the parent of this whole project. They were going through the housing market crash. Their mission, their model was to renovate and revitalize the neighborhoods in the city of Detroit by renovating abandoned houses. When the housing market crashed, it needed a lifeboat, and so Artist Village Detroit was born.

Inside Artist Village Detroit, it goes for about a block long. And within it there is the Java House, the coffee shop. There is also a gallery, a studio, an indoor-outdoor garden, and then a warehouse, and a courtyard. There are also two apartments and one loft on the premises. It only made sense that, if we were already renovating, revitalizing the residential area, that it was time to do that for the business district.

Can you tell me more about this organization called Blight Busters, the non-profit that is also heavily involved with both the Artist Village and the Java House?

Alicia George: Blight Busters is a non-profit housing organization. Its mission is to revitalize and stabilize the neighborhoods in the city of Detroit. It is the organization that also helps with anything to get Detroit back on its feet. Anything to turn negatives into positives. They have over 10,000 volunteers that come out every year to do whatever we got to do in the neighborhood.

There are cleanup projects, there are art projects, and there are also garden projects. Anything to help get people back on their feet, Blight Busters has been a part of that.

The most recent project is the demolition. There have been abandoned homes, there have been firebombed out houses, so they’ll go in with the volunteers and they’ll gut them, they’ll clean them up. Then they’ll secure them. Our resident artist’s name is Chazz Miller. He created board-ups, but then he puts up a little art on the board-ups on the windows and the doors. His art captures you. He taught us that art is everything and everything is art. That it is the artist that is on the threshold of the spirit world.

If we don’t support them, how can they be creative? Someone had to create a car. A phone. A magazine. Clothes. Do you know what I mean? If we support the artists, then the artists will support the community.

I read that this building has a really interesting story in the sense that you used some of the reclaimed materials from houses that had been condemned in Detroit. Can you tell me a little bit more about that? How did that all come together?

Alicia George: In the beginning, 2005, when we started to renovate, we started just to use recycled materials. Blight Busters was already demolishing abandoned homes, there were about five homes in the Brightmoor area, which is just south of here, that were demolished. We were able to reclaim the wood. The volunteers helped all the way from taking out all of the nails to sanding.

We were able to install the hardwood floors on this side of the café from five abandoned homes. They were over 100 years old in the houses, because those homes were built in the early 1900s in Brightmoor.

Tell me a little bit more. What are some more examples of how … I mean, you obviously serve great drinks and food here, but also what are some examples of events or things that you do with artists?

Alicia George: We have some annual events that go on here. Every year, we do Sidewalk Festival. That’s a time when we shut down the street and we have over 100 different artists that come out. You might see them batched in the middle of the street, you might see a band, live band. You might see storytelling, Cinderella in the garden with the tea and the whole nine yards. That’s every year. This will be our fifth year that we’re doing it and it’s just one way to bring the art to our youth.

Sometimes, our institutions and art museums, they’re more intimidating to our youth. Especially in urban areas, but when you bring it to their level, to a street level, to their neighborhood, the look on their face is priceless.The event is always the first Saturday of August. It’s from two to ten, and it’s an all-day event, and it’s just a good time, it’s a wonderful time.

There is also Creative Juices, which is a poetry series that we ran the longest poetry night in the city of Detroit. It was every Saturday, we did it for about ten years. Artists from all over the world would come here, people got their start here.

We have all kinds of different shows. We can have a baby shower and you can rent this out. If you wanted to have a tea party or a book signing, or you want to let the community know what you’re doing or if you’re in the neighborhood and you’re here to help with garden projects or feeding the homeless, you can do all that out of the Java House.

You were talking a lot about energy before we started taping, you were talking, so that is a really powerful way to bring good energy to the neighborhood, right? Because, a lot of times, when you see things around you that are maybe dilapidated or not working, that encourages and breeds more of that, so you bringing a lot of this good energy must feel good to also bring in more good energy to the neighborhood.

Alicia George: It is. It’s a blessing. When you have positive energy all come into one place, the negative energy goes away. You don’t even focus on it, you don’t even see it. That’s why we try to see the beauty that’s probably in the blight, or recycle it, or reuse it or repurpose it so that, you know, we can all kind of get along. If we’re not doing our part for our babies, then who’s going to take care of us? It’s child abuse to allow someone to walk past dilapidated, burnt down, abandoned structures. It warps their sense of mind and their creative energy. We’re not doing them any justice. It’s a blessing that I can be here, that I can welcome that energy and pass it on.

You must have overcome some meaningful challenges. Can you maybe, for our audience, we have a lot of folks that listen to this show that are interested in small businesses, maybe interested in starting one, or currently operating one. What is a time when you encountered a really difficult, meaningful challenge and how did you overcome it?

Alicia George: I think the most important time in my life was when I had my son. He is 25 now. He changed my life. I wanted to be a homeowner. I wanted to take pride in my neighborhood, but I couldn’t find a house. I couldn’t find a decent home. I looked and looked and looked. I looked at over 400 homes in the city of Detroit. Just to find somewhere decent and safe. That lead me to Blight Busters, because Blight Busters was demolishing and cleaning up. That is how I met my husband now, John George. Because I was looking for what can I be a part of? Once I did that, and to start helping people and helping the community, that’s when God blessed me with the dream of having a coffee shop. It’s more than coffee, right? It’s an experience, it’s community, it’s art. It’s everything, you know?

I had been in an abusive situation. Yes, I was a single mom. Yes, I wondered if the lights were going to get turned off? I asked myself: am I going to have a car? Why is it that we can’t have everything at one time? It’s like, we can’t have the house and a car and a job all at the same time, you know? I overcame that, as we all do.

God just has blessed me so much to be right here that those are my now testimonies. Now I can help other people who may be going through that, that there is hope out there, you must find your purpose in life.

What would you say is your number one piece of advice for anybody who is in a difficult situation, who is looking for a way to make their lives better through maybe starting something, a business, a community?

Alicia George: Find your higher spirit. Find that energy that allows you to be who you are. It may not be corporate. It may not be what your parents want. You got to find it in you and then you got to have faith that it’s going to happen. Find your faith. Go towards it and everything else will work out. Somehow, the bills get paid. Somehow, the car shows up. Somehow, you get a good meal.

Give back. Any time you are a small business that’s going into anywhere, any neighborhood, urban, suburban, rural, you want to be part of that community. Find your Johns, find your Alicias, find your Pablos, and bring it all together so that you can be a part of it so that now you have a holistic community, because the business is now part of the community.

You have come a tremendously long way in the last ten years with this. What’s your vision? What do you want to do in the next ten years?

Alicia George: It took five years and a quarter of a million dollars to build this. We opened in 2010; this is our seventh year. We have done this with over 1,000 hands from poets to musicians, to summer kids, summer camp counselors, people from all over the world.  Now, it is time for the people to really get involved with the coffee shop, so what I want to do now is make it so that it’s like a co-op. We all take care of Java, because Java is going to take care of the community.

I want to get our garden really going, taking the coffee grounds to fertilize the garden and then taking everything from the garden to feed the people, whether it’s fresh mint or lettuce or tomatoes or cucumbers for the salads or whatever it is.

I visited Philly, and they’re like the capital of murals there. They also incorporated the gardens, right? We brought that energy back here as well. Just like we used the wood for the floors here at Java, we also have the volunteers use that wood to create raised beds. It’s all recycled, the kids get to paint it, it becomes a huge art-type project.

We put the seeds in and whatever we grow we give away to the community. That also helps with Mr. Johnson and Ms. Jones who have to choose: do I go to the market and buy food or do I go get my prescription? Let us give you the food from the earth. That’s probably going to prevent you from not even going to the pharmacy.

What’s it like to do business in Detroit? What’s your relationship with your local government and with other small businesses?

Alicia George: In the beginning of this dream, so if you can just imagine from the year 2000 to 2005, I was the little girl who cried wolf. “We’re going to have a coffee shop, we’re going to have poetry, we’re going to have jazz, there’s going to be art, you’re going to bring your laptop, you’re going to get online,” Everybody was like, “Sure.” Right? Sure. No coffee shop has ever been over there, there were only two coffee shops in the city at that time.

I just kept at it. In the beginning, we had challenges getting this place zoned, because there had never been a coffee shop here before. There are apartments over us, challenges, so I couldn’t have a full-blown kitchen because of the apartments that’s over.

During the housing market crash my blueprints were held up downtown. They had gotten lost, but we were still in the back working, we still were building, we still planned our gardens, we still had our volunteers come.

Once that passed and blueprints were available, we began to build. Once Mayor Duggan, our current mayor, got elected, the relationship between us and the city and businesses improved.

I can pick up the phone and call them, there’s no issues now. They give us whatever is needed. They are a small business one-stop-shop now. You can go downtown and get everything you need.

Now, they have these business centers, they have foundations now that are in the city of Detroit that are helping small businesses, kind of Business 101, how to get started, there’s help with funding, there’s people that you shadow with in the foundations and in the business world. Everybody now is coming together in supporting those small businesses, which used to be like the heart of different communities, right?

And we all get along with other businesses, too. A lot of people came in here, it’s like, “How did you get started? How did you get started?” I would take them behind the counter and show them. This is the espresso machine, I get the beans from Lansing, I grind them up. To my knowledge now, I think there are 23 coffee shops in the city of Detroit now, when there were only two back in the year 2000.

Is there anything else you want our audience to know about your business? Where can people find you?

Alicia George: We are located in northwest Detroit, it is called the Old Redford District. We are at 17336 Lahser, inside of the Artist Village. We’re here Tuesday through Saturday from nine to three. Every first Friday is jazz. Every other weekend, we are here open late for our moviegoers going to see a film at the Redford Theater. And our Instagram is @justjavahouse.

Final Thoughts

There’s no question, between crime, poverty and a severe population decline, Detroit has had some rough years. There’s still work to be done, but the recent growth in small businesses is promising. 

Small businesses help create jobs, help create pride in someone’s neighborhood, and help bring new people into the community.

Motor City Java House and Alicia George are a great example of the positive impact that small businesses can have.  

If you have any question or comments about today’s episode, please leave a comment below.


Pablo Fuentes

Pablo Fuentes was the Founder and CEO of Proven. He was also the host and producer of the Small Business War Stories podcast. Pablo is currently the Founder of makepath, a spatial analysis firm. He is a graduate of the Stanford Graduate School of Business and UCLA. He loves dogs, film photography, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He is also a blues guitar player and builder.

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