Cycling in Motor City

How a former DJ from Calgary moved to Detroit, built a bike factory and found opportunity among the ruins

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Photos by Matt Barnes

Zak Pashak, owner and president of Detroit Bikes, riding one of his creations

Zak Pashak, owner and president of Detroit Bikes

To get from his home to the factory that he owns on the other side of town, Zak Pashak, the owner and president of Detroit Bikes, takes Joy Road, a notorious Detroit artery whose name belies the mirthless array of derelict houses, boarded-up storefronts and vast, empty tracts of overgrown land that line it. The 20-minute drive emphatically encapsulates the economic contrasts and challenges that famously afflict this fragile, storied city.

Detroit Bikes, a bicycle manufacturing company that opened last fall, is located in a pair of low-slung buildings, about 5,000 square metres of space that’s part of a small industrial park near the suburb of Dearborn. Pashak’s house, on the other hand, is roughly 10 kilometres away in the Boston-Edison district, a leafy Detroit enclave once home to the likes of Henry Ford and Motown founder Berry Gordy. The historic homes here are almost uniformly enormous and many still extravagant. But even this neighbourhood hasn’t escaped the decay that plagues the rest of the city. The housing bubble burst in 2006, and some of Boston-Edison’s formerly opulent mansions now go for less than $50,000. Wild pheasants patrol grassy meridians dotted with wooden signs that forbid ball playing. Crime remains a constant. Pashak’s own home, complete with a small orchard and a two-apartment coach house—which he bought for $475,000 in 2011—has been broken into twice. And in the month before my visit this past spring, he told me, 17 people were shot within a mile’s radius.

Pashak is originally from a city that’s quite a bit less turbulent. The 33-year-old was born and raised in Calgary, where he was a DJ, opened a live-music venue and founded the Sled Island music festival, often credited with rejuvenating that city’s music scene. He moved to Vancouver in 2008 and opened a second club, the Biltmore Cabaret, which he still owns. After an unsuccessful run for Calgary’s city council in 2011, he decided to embark on a far more unlikely venture—to help bring manufacturing back to Detroit. Even more quixotically, he’s doing it through a company that produces, of all things, affordable bicycles. “Maybe I’m just sensitive,” Pashak said, “but it sounds like something a manic-depressive might tell you: ‘I’m going to Detroit to build a bike factory!’”

But why not bikes? If the automobile built Detroit, the automobile industry was also, at least in part, responsible for tearing it apart. The city lost half of its manufacturing jobs in the past decade. Despite its well-known municipal dysfunction, political corruption and financial disarray (the state of Michigan assigned an emergency manager in July who sought bankruptcy protection after the city’s debt rose to $18 billion), there are many encouraging signs that the city can rebuild. But it will require new industries, new investment and new ways of thinking. Even a whole new population—at its height in the 1950s, Detroit had a population of 1.8 million; that number’s only around 700,000 now.

For many young people like Pashak, however, Detroit has become the next Brooklyn or Berlin—its famous ruins hold incredible opportunity. Even as the city is unable to police or even light its streets, educate its children or provide adequate health care, thousands of so-called pioneers have flooded the city centre and the gentrifying midtown neighbourhoods around Wayne State University and Detroit Institute of Arts, opening up high-tech businesses, cool new cafés and hip BBQ joints.

“Detroit feels like the apocalyptic future. There’s something to learn here.”

What Creative Intelligence author Bruce Nussbaum has dubbed “indie capitalism”—characterized by an emphasis on the local, the social, the authentic and well-made product—has flourished here. While Detroit’s story has been documented with an unceasing regularity—it’s difficult to pick up any major newspaper these days without encountering an article analyzing either its economic malaise or its so-called renaissance, or both—it is not unlike many other so-called post-industrial cities in its quest for reinvention. Other metropolises, faced with the collapse, or near-collapse, of the industries that once made them wealthy—Hamilton, for example, Windsor, Buffalo and Cleveland—have similarly tried, to various degrees and with varying degrees of success, to diversify their economies through entrepreneurial innovation, tourism, and a wide variety of quasi-bohemian creative enterprises.

“In Pittsburgh, we’re sitting on the prime example of the transformation from industry to knowledge,” says Don Carter, the director of the Remaking Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. Carter attributes Pittsburgh’s particular transformation to a genuine, forward-thinking public-private partnership, but one that also recognized the increasing importance of quality-of-life to urban populations. Of Detroit and its burgeoning creative class, he says, “The last thing in the world you want to do is discourage the bottom-up stuff. It’s not going to create 50,000 jobs overnight, no. But it is a spark. You need to nurture that, blow on it, get some tinder under it, and build on it. You just never know what thing is going to take off.”

Like other recent transplants, Pashak was lured by Detroit’s tattered tabula rasa. But he was also drawn by the fact that Detroit has already been forced to contend with the same problems that many other North American cities, particularly those reliant on resource economies, will also likely encounter in the not-so-distant future. “Calgary could turn into something like Detroit,” Pashak said. “Calgary’s twice as big, has just a slightly higher population, and just keeps growing.” (Famously, Detroit is so sprawling that Manhattan, Boston and San Francisco could fit comfortably within its 259-square-kilometre area. Calgary, however, is even larger and more sprawling—in 2011, it was 824 square kilometres—and Toronto 620.) “Detroit feels like the apocalyptic future that some cities will face if they continue to keep growing. I feel like there’s something to learn here.”


Detroit Bikes’ sprawling factory. Pashak employs just 31 people now but hopes the company can support more.

Detroit Bikes’ sprawling factory. Pashak employs just 31 people now but hopes the company can support more.

 

Pashak is tall and slightly paunchy, with mercurial facial hair and a demeanor equally droll and diffident. “I’m like Will Ferrell in Elf,” he told me. “I don’t really have much self-awareness.” He dresses like a skateboarder, or a drummer who might have just stepped off the stage at the Biltmore: on this day, a Whitney Houston concert tee, Nudie jeans, nerd-chic sneakers. He had recently returned from a trade show in Taipei and, as we talked in the factory’s nondescript boardroom, he painstakingly brewed some green tea that he brought back with him.

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The factory was sprawling but surprisingly empty—mainly because it was then only half-built and employed only 12 people. Most of the employees were folks Pashak met while frequenting the city’s various dive bars, including the 27-year-old Belarusian with pink dreadlocks who ran the massive laser steel-cutter used to form the bikes’ tubing. At that point, the company had built about 60 prototypes, and some were scattered around the premises; employees hopped on them to quickly dart from one end of the factory to the other.

When Pashak first conceived of Detroit Bikes, he wanted to create a consumer-friendly bike exclusively with local labour—Detroit obviously had a vast, highly skilled industrial workforce desperate for work on any scale—and entirely from American-made parts. That last criteria, he quickly learned, was impossible unless the bikes were exorbitantly expensive. But Detroit Bikes nonetheless manufactures as much as it can within its walls: the frame, the chain guard, rear rack and wheel. Pashak plans to eventually also make the seats, handlebars and forks.

Detroit Bikes’ A-Type Bicycle, the only model the company makes. (Courtesy Detroit Bikes)

Detroit Bikes’ A-Type Bicycle, the only model the company makes. (Courtesy Detroit Bikes)

The company’s single model, called the A-Type, is a unisex, one-size-fits-all commuter bike, available in only matte black and in three-speed, with coaster brakes. It resembles, and rides like, a somewhat sleeker version of the common Dutch cruiser. It’s simple and unostentatious, and retails for $599. In Pashak’s office, a whiteboard charted, by month, the production cost of each bike—Pashak was hoping to get it down to a hundred dollars per, but had yet to break $150. “What the rest of the bike industry doesn’t seem to consider—and I think it’s the most important thing—is finding the perfect intersection of affordability and quality,” he said. “At the bike show, no one cared about that. I saw so many different ways to make a bike look like a spaceship or a monster. It should be about making your manufacturing so efficient you can provide the most affordable bike you can and get the greatest number of people possible riding bikes. I don’t know why you’d focus on $3,000 spaceship bikes.” One of the company’s slogans is, “Mountain bikes are for mountains.”

Before moving to Detroit, Pashak didn’t have much interest in cycling. He still doesn’t. While he’s vegan, likes to garden, and drives a battered Prius, he doesn’t think of himself as an environmentalist, really, or a cycling advocate. He’s well aware that, as he said, “bikes can play a positive role in a city,” but he’s far more interested in how manufacturing can determine the shape of a city. “The key to this story is that it’s a manufacturing story,” Pashak said. “We need to sell Detroit Bikes in Los Angeles and have people in L.A. go, holy shit, you can make stuff in Detroit—it’s still a manufacturing centre.” Businessman Mike Duggan, who was elected mayor of Detroit last November, dropped by Detroit Bikes a couple weeks before I visited. He wrote Pashak a cheque, saying he wanted to be the first guy in the city to own one.

Rear Racks waiting to be fastened to new bikes.

Rear Racks waiting to be fastened to new bikes.

Pashak likes stories, and he likes to tell them. He told me his own story the next day, over beers at a Tigers game. Pashak was born into a well-known Calgary family—his father, Barry Pashak, was a local NDP MLA, and his mother, Jackie Flanagan, the founder of the left-leaning Alberta Views magazine. His parents divorced, and Flanagan married Allan Markin, then chair of Canadian Natural Resources and part-owner of the Calgary Flames, when Pashak was eight years old. That marriage too ended in divorce, one of the most infamous in Alberta’s history—at one colourful point, Markin sued Pashak, then 22, for $2 million over ownership of the family dog. In the end, Pashak went to court and, while Markin got the dog, Flanagan ended up receiving what’s often called one of the largest settlements in Canadian history. Pashak himself walked away with a million dollars. In 2004, Pashak, who had spent a couple years as a DJ and a drummer in an indie band, opened up a now-renowned music club called Broken City. A few years later, that success led to the formation of the Sled Island festival and then, in Vancouver, the Biltmore. The general manager at the latter, Darius Minwalla, describes Pashak as a “real visionary,” able to see the potential in places down on their luck—in this case, the city’s moribund east side.

“With Broken City, I thought that Calgary’s music scene needed a spark,” Pashak said. “In Vancouver, I thought the nightlife needed a push. I think those things are good for a community.” But music had begun to bore him a bit, and he wanted to create change on a larger scale. In 2010 he returned to Calgary and campaigned vigorously for alderman. While the election was close, Pashak lost, and the experience still rankles him. “He felt somewhat rejected,” says Donn Lovett, a former Liberal strategist who worked on the campaign. “But Zak’s not a political person. He does not compromise.”

“I’m not going to go to a TED Talk and tell people how to solve the problems of Detroit.”

After the election, Pashak didn’t want to “retreat” to Vancouver but to move forward. If he was going to help a city, why not help the city that, seemingly, needed the most help? When he was 20, Pashak thought about moving to Portland, then just at the beginning of its flowering as a hipster mecca. But now Portland was just another Vancouver. Detroit was different. He’d visited a couple of times and loved the city’s history, its architecture, its music. He loved that it was cheap. He loved its possibility. “During the campaign, I studied what makes cities functional and pleasant,” he said, “and Detroit became a very fascinating place to be and to look at. I needed to figure out a way to be here. Then this idea just came up, and it seemed like a good one.” He bought the factory buildings for $190,000 and expects to spend two million dollars over the next year in getting the factory up-to-speed and the first wave of 2,000 bikes into stores.

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He arrived as other capitalists—indie and traditional—made their own investments in Detroit. Dan Gilbert, a Detroit native and the founder of Quicken Loans, has spent about $1 billion acquiring prime real estate, and moved 9,000 employees into the downtown. He’s renovated properties, built new apartments and is attracting corporate tenants—Twitter put its first Michigan office in one of Gilbert’s buildings.

According to Ed Summers, the taciturn general manager of the factory, Pashak was greeted with open arms. Summers, who spent 25 years as an automotive engineer, lives in an apartment around the corner from Pashak. “Everything sounded great about it,” he said of the company. “His target was right on—made-in-the-USA, the simplicity, the cost, the manufacturing idea. Everybody was really curious and excited.” Two other companies—Detroit Bicycle Co. and Shinola, which produces bikes in addition to leather goods and luxury watches—have also set up shop in the past couple of years. Both have also made a point of emphasizing the Detroit brand, that by buying their products you’re participating in the resurrection of a great American manufacturing city. But both are producing bikes, however, that are only assembled in Detroit, from imported parts, and at a price point far out of the reach of most Detroiters (Shinola’s cruiser bike is almost $2,000). “Shinola’s really waving that Detroit flag,” Pashak said, “but our local presence is a bit different. We’re quite behind the scenes. And for me as a business owner, I’m out there a little bit, but I’m not going to go to a TED Talk and tell people how to solve the problems of Detroit. I mean, I will, but hopefully on a bar stool, not with a microphone.”


Bike frames after having been powder coated with their distinctive matte black.

Bike frames after having been powder coated with their distinctive matte black.

In late August and September, Pashak began hosting a series of launch parties to publicize Detroit Bikes. First in Detroit, of course, then in Windsor, Toronto and Vancouver. The Toronto launch was held at the Horseshoe Tavern, a legendary Queen West rock club. Pashak and Bikes on Wheels, his exclusive Toronto retailer, propped up a half-dozen bikes outside the entrance so potential customers could take them for a spin or place an order. It was an unorthodox sales pitch, but very much within Pashak’s comfort zone. When I stopped by the Horseshoe, he was buying drinks for everyone who showed up—friend, acquaintance or media—urging people to try out a bike or enjoy a complimentary taco and then settling in the back of the club when the music started: a couple of little-known local indie bands played, and Broken Social Scene member Brendan Canning—dressed as if he’d just arrived from Wimbledon’s centre court—did a DJ set.

When I left a couple hours later, Pashak had yet to sell a single bike, but he wasn’t too concerned, and a good-size crowd had formed on the sidewalk around the bikes. While the timing wasn’t ideal—cycling obviously slows down as the weather cools—a few weeks later, Bikes on Wheels sales clerk John Baker reported that they’d still only sold a few. “The reception’s been really good, though,” Baker said. “The bike’s style is on-point for our store, and people are attracted to the story. It’s the closest thing to a bike made on home soil.” While Christmas sales weren’t brisk, he expects sales to pick up dramatically this spring. Pashak often compares his A-type to the popular commuter models manufactured by Linus—he considers them a “pace car”—and Bikes on Wheels sold about a 1,000 of those in the last year. The Linus bikes, however, retail for about a hundred dollars more than the A-Type, and are all made in China. Pashak estimates Linus sells about 10,000 bikes a year in North America, and he says he’s tripled that productivity immediately.

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“The company isn’t viable unless we’re making tons of bikes,” Pashak said. “A hundred bikes a day, 30,000 a year. Our success as a company, on the ecological and ethical side, is producing as many as possible.” Pashak’s first line of retailers is specialty bike shops, but ideally he’d also sell through a high-end “lifestyle” chain like Restoration Hardware or even a big-box store that could handle the volume he anticipates. He projects sales of $4 million in his first year of production, and $15 million within five years. To that end, Pashak recently struck a deal with Bicycle Technologies International, one of the largest bike distributors in North America (they represent about 300 different brands). Pashak’s ambitions aren’t unrealistic. According to the National Bicycle Dealers Association in the U.S., 2012 was a “solid year” for the industry, with sales of $6.1 billion (a figure that has remained remarkably stable for the past decade). The average price of a bike, according to the association’s latest report, was $673, a bit higher than Pashak’s price point.

One criticism of people like Pashak is that they’re not in Detroit for the long haul. They’re having fun, enjoying the kind of risky adventure that you can enjoy when you’re young, free of responsibility and have a bit of money. But where will these entrepreneurs be in five or 10 years? It’s one thing to run a hipper-than-thou coffee shop in your 20s, but what happens when you decide to start a family and there are no schools, public transit is a disaster and the fire hydrants don’t work? But Pashak hasn’t opened a café for his buddies or a bar (though he has thought about that). He’s opened a manufacturing startup that now employs 31 people and will, he hopes, employ many more—with the attendant economic spinoffs that entails.

When I asked him how long he plans to stick around, he didn’t answer the question directly, but offered instead to show me his house. We drove along Joy Road. The home was magnificent, a couple blocks from Henry Ford’s old place, and in the well-tended backyard, there was a grove of young trees. Pointing to three new oaks, he said, “I just planted these yesterday.” Pashak knows a symbolic gesture when he sees—or, in this case, makes—one. The massive metropolis beyond this small bucolic corner is symbolic of many things too—of scrappiness, of grit, of authenticity. Pashak of course knows this, and he has a lot riding, so to speak, on his ability to translate that symbolism into real jobs and real profit. “Some people might think that it can’t work,” he said, “but they’re happy to see someone try.”

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