Four Dearborn businesses that are changing the way we look at old buildings

In the city of Dearborn, businesses are rehabbing and reusing historic building in ways they’ve never been used before. We take a look at four of them.
 

Downey Brewing Company


It’s not the prettiest building in town but it might be one of the most interesting.

On a particular stretch of Prospect on the eastern edge of Dearborn, one might not expect to find much of note. It’s a light industrial district, and unless you have business to attend to, there’s not much else to attract visitors.

That is until Downey Brewing Company arrived.

The family-owned brewery opened its doors in 2016. Rather than open shop in a trendy downtown locale, the Downeys approached their grandfather, the longtime owner and operator of paper die cutting operation KDG Finishers Corporation. Though having closed in 2018, KDG Finishers moved to Dearborn from Detroit in 1987.

Downey Brewing Company. PHOTO BY DAVID LEWINSKI

A portion of the 15,000 sq. ft. building was relegated to storage but the Downeys saw potential. The family convinced their grandfather to allow them to move in their brewing equipment. They figured the building an ideal spot for production and distribution. They didn’t expect the tap room to become such a hit.

Drive by and you might miss it. There’s no big sign, just a red door with their name on it. No flash, but that might be part of the appeal.

"It’s one of the things that set us apart. We thought it would be a disadvantage but the unique and authentic quality turned out as a draw," co-owner Dan Downey says.

"The industrial feel is not by design. It is what it is."

The original building was built in the 1950s, with a number of additions constructed in the 60s and 70s. True to its era and intent, the building retains its minimalistic and utilitarian features. There is no shortage of right angles and broad concrete walls.

But that’s what gives Downey Brewing Company its character. With KDG Finishers now closed, the Downeys plan on expanding into other parts of the building, ensuring that their family legacy of making things will continue well into the future.

M Cantina

When Junior Merino looks around M Cantina, he’s reminded of his hometown Puebla, a city southeast of Mexico City in central Mexico.

The exposed brick of the restaurant reminds him of the houses there, the woodwork recalls the cabanas.

This is, of course, all by design. The chef wanted the space to evoke his former home, a region from which his menu is inspired. Merino calls it gourmet Mexican street food.

M Cantina. PHOTO BY DAVID LEWINSKI

In building M Cantina, the partners took an old Michigan Avenue storefront and converted it from a commercial space and into a restaurant. That takes a lot of work, says Merino, not only in creating an inviting atmosphere where people want to dine, but also in the pragmatic specifics of building a kitchen, in determining what goes where.

Merino took a hands-on approach, helping workers move equipment, stain the woodwork--whatever he could do.

For the chef, it’s personal.

"I was really excited about the concept. Especially when you are allowed to put your own touch on things," Merino says.

"Because a lot of times you get a job and you are told what to do. So you are not really expressing yourself."

The location along a row of historic storefronts in east downtown Dearborn is intentional. Because of Merino’s central Mexican-inspired menu, M Cantina might not fit in somewhere like Detroit’s Mexicantown district, a place where patrons expect a more Tex-Mex style of food.

The old storefront establishes a new perspective in the region, a place where Merino can be himself. And after an hour spent in the dining room, the woodwork warm and inviting, it’s a good thing, too.

Black Box Gallery

Ray Alcodray is aiming to build a creative destination in a pocket of west Dearborn that not too many people know about, the block-long commercial hamlet on Monroe between Carlysle and Dartmouth streets.

Alcodray’s Black Box Gallery anchors a row of storefronts he purchased in 2016. Each occupant is a creative endeavor of some kind, be it a woodworking studio or beauty salon.

His own creative endeavor opened in 2018. Part art gallery, part coffee shop, Black Box occupies a building constructed in 1947, where it housed a neighborhood convenience store and market up until 2012--though you wouldn’t know it upon entering the gallery.

Black Box Gallery. PHOTO BY DAVID LEWINSKI

Black Box was a true DIY project, says Alcodray, who performed the majority of the work himself. He knocked down walls, took out ceilings, tore out the coolers. He even built the cabinets and counters himself.

It’s a wide open space with high ceilings, befitting an art gallery; clean and minimalistic. Alcodray says he wanted to create a space that calms you, a refuge from today’s technology-cluttered world.

He finds joy in discovering his building’s character. In tearing out the drop ceiling, Alcodray revealed tiles original to 1947. He restored them, searching out replacements online for those too badly damaged. The aluminum frame doors draw comments and compliments from customers.

The floor is uneven, a result of multiple additions built over the years. But even that, he says, makes the building more interesting.

"What we’ve seen a lot, and especially having grown up here, we’ve had some beautiful old buildings in Dearborn that have disappeared because developers have come in and said, ‘Knock it down,’ and then put up a three-story whatever or a strip mall," Alcodray says.

"That character is lost and you can never get it back."

In renovating the building, Alcodray says he has advice for those looking perform their own rehab jobs: Determine what they are trying to achieve, and what are the mechanics of achieving it.

Fishnet Studios


It started innocently enough.

In the summer of 2018, Sunshine Durant helped lead a group of area teenagers in a public art project.

As part of the Pockets of Perception program, the group was painting a large mural on the side of the Fish Market building in east Dearborn.

While doing so, Durant asked the building’s owner Howard Pingston if he had space to store art supplies. In showing her the second floor above the Fish Market, Durant mentioned that the underused space could make an ideal location for artist studios.

Several weeks later and Fishnet Studios was hatched.

Pingston tore out the old, dirty carpet, painted the walls, and cleared out the boxes. All of a sudden he had six rooms perfectly suitable where artists could quietly create and work.

Fishnet Studios. PHOTO BY DAVID LEWINSKI

Because of his proactive transformation of the second level, Pingston was given an award at this year’s Dearborn Mayor’s Arts Awards.

Durant believes that Dearborn and Dearborn business owners could all benefit from Pingston’s example.

"With Michigan Avenue having all these spaces above businesses, all the way up and down and on the side streets, they are perfect spaces, viable places for things to happen, that people are doing nothing with," Durant says.

"You can make it into this."

It took only two days for the spaces at Fishnet Studios to fill up.

The six artists there form a sort of collective. Durant likens it to a grad school atmosphere. The artists often do shows together. They give feedback on each other’s work.

Durant’s hoping Fishnet Studios is the start of a trend. She’s already whispering in the ear of a neighboring business owner, espousing the benefits of a renovated second floor.

It didn’t take much to transform the space, vacant for years. All it needed was an idea and a little bit of elbow grease.

Read more articles by MJ Galbraith.

MJ Galbraith is a writer and musician living in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.
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