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Motor City Java House

17336 Lahser
Detroit, Michigan 48219

Alicia George

By Tunde Wey
March 15, 2013

Brightmoor on Detroit’s northwest side is an interesting neighborhood. Unlike the solo exhibition of poverty and decline that seems to run in a continuous loop in people’s imaginations when they think of the city, Brightmoor is a concoction of new entrepreneurial solutions struggling for prominence against unfair stereotypes and very real challenges. The Motor City Java House, a local coffee shop, is a more recent insurgent in Brightmoor’s battle to change the conversation about the kind of neighborhoods Detroiters really want.

“This space was a master’s candy shop that all the kids from the theater used to go to in the 40s and 50s, then it had been turned into a salon and then a chicken feeding spot. It was abandoned; I believe, from 1995 or '96, until we found the place in 2003.”

Alicia George is the owner of the Motor City Java House, which opened in 2010. Along with her husband, John George—founder of Motor City Blight Busters, an organization mobilizing volunteer labor to eliminate blight in the city through demolition and deconstruction—Alicia George is part of a group working to create a shift in the neighborhood.

Alicia George, a longtime neighborhood resident, is a respected community leader. She began working with Motor City Blight Busters about 13 years ago to help revitalize the built environment and develop commercial and entertainment destinations in the neighborhood.

The Artist Village, a seminal collaborative project between Motor City Blight Busters and local artist and community organizer Chazz Miller, was the beginning of the Georges’ dream for the neighborhood.

The Motor City Java House is a part of the Artist Village, a community revitalization project utilizing public art to foster economic development. The Village is a series of contiguous public spaces that also includes Ray-Ann’s Wardrobe, a vintage clothing boutique, a courtyard, an art studio, a performance venue, a wood shop, and loft and apartment living quarters.

The evolution of the Artist Village and the Motor City Java House was a slow and intentional process that began as an opportunity to transform an unused building, and has grown into an economic anchor of the neighborhood. 

Alicia George recounts the beginnings of the project: “I was working with Blight Busters as the Executive Assistant of John George in 1998, and we did a lot of clean-up projects. The owner of this building said ‘John, could you and Blight Busters come and paint a sign in the alley that says “Blight Busters” so people could stop illegally dumping?’ Chazz Miller was the muralist who painted the mural; he was also looking for a studio. I had always wanted a coffee shop and John said this would be a perfect coffee shop and a perfect artist’s studio.”

The café is Alicia George’s own, in the sense of its décor, atmosphere and ambiance. It is suffused with warm earthy colors, offering guests a calm oasis to relax. The spacious luncheon area, divided into two open spaces by a slight wall, invites either boisterous conversation or subdued reflection.

She says it effectively took a village to raise her business, with volunteers pitching in and the community generously helping finance some of the development.

“This place was built over five years. We would raise money, do the work, then stop. We raised the money for the floor, finished it, then stop. So I have no loans, no lines of credit. Had I opened up when I had a vision I would have had a lot of debt. I did a lot of events. That’s why this place feels the way it does, because it wasn’t just me. A lot of people put their time and money into this. It is a community thing. And I always want to give the people that supported me credit because had they not helped me I wouldn’t be here. A couple thousand volunteers helped in building this space.”

The five years of build-out cost about $250,000—the building, previously a hair salon, had to be gutted, renovated, and brought up to code because its proposed use was outside of the zoning ordinance. George worked hard, buying new equipment and replacing nonexistent building infrastructure, all the while holding on to the idea of a business that served as a community space.

Alicia George’s work is paying off; she welcomes about 800 guests to her coffee shop a month, and people are genuinely grateful for the Motor City Java House.  She says, “This space has been open since October 2010. The reception has been overwhelming. People are so glad that it is here, that it’s something new and different. They are shocked when they come in because of the ‘elements’ out there; you wouldn’t think the place would look like this—so they are pleasantly surprised at the décor and vibe.”

The “elements” George refers is the visible evidence of the stark reality of inner city living, the "Boys in the Hood." "These folks are engaged in illegal activities; they scare people. I’ve talked to them; I’ve tried to give them jobs. They have a profound respect for me but it’s still a problem. It’s a problem that exists. One thing we have done is to form an association, the Old Redford Business Association. We keep building, cleaning up, and our hope is that our energy will overcome the negative energy.”

Alicia George’s work is an important reminder that blight, crime, and disenfranchisement is not a condition that is acceptable to the city’s residents. For the most part, they are victims as well, who despite it all are working to change that which is within their purview.

Her energy must be contagious. She counts thirteen people who have relocated to the neighborhood as a result of the coffee shop—even in spite of the “elements.” Musing on this victory, she says, “I think that is a lot of pressure for a business owner … it is also a huge compliment.” A compliment well deserved.

Photograph by Marvin Shaouni Photography.

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