Thursday, August 15, 2013

Detroit's Amazing Pop-Up Anarchy

One of the marvelous things that's been happening in Detroit demonstrates what's at the core of the free market: voluntary, spontaneous, pioneering markets in the form of pop-ups. While pop-ups have been popular in places like Berlin, Paris, London, and some larger American cities, Detroit has become a major hotbed of pop-ups over the last two years. Even the Huffington Post has published articles on the Detroit pop-up scene.

Detroit pop-ups are not your conventional, temporary businesses such as those unsightly suburban fireworks stores, or the usual Christmas or Halloween retailers. Instead, the city has attracted art galleries, food and beverage cafes, coffee shops, clothing boutiques, tea houses, vegan restaurants, yoga workshops, antique stores, bike stores, and mercantile-type retailers. Pop-ups are a temporary arrangement, often with a defined start and end time for business operations. Detroit is the perfect place for these temporary pop-up businesses because this city has the basic requirements for a pop-up business:

- Under-used or empty space.
- Low-cost real estate.
- Dense neighborhoods with a shortage of unique retailers.
- Demand for a distinct or unique product or service.

The Villages Community Development Corp has turned Detroit's Villages (Indian Village, West Village, and Islandview Village) into thriving, vibrant neighborhoods where the pop-ups do very well due to the density of the communities. The Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, a private, non-profit organization, has been instrumental in partnering with communities to drive these temporary businesses to the city. These pop-ups help to bring innovation, stability, and eventually, more permanent businesses to the city's dense areas. The pop-up model allows for entrepreneurs to test the business waters with low risk and investment costs up front so that local markets can be evaluated for consumer interest and long-term viability. An article in the Detroit Free Press describes Detroit's pop-up feel:
Guests love them for their spontaneous, insider feel. But for some who stage them, they've become a way to test the waters for a product or concept. 
In today's economy, said Boyle, "We have to be creative. We have to be open to collaboration and sharing space, sharing rent, sharing ideas and being creative in how you monetize yourself.
A great example of a pop-up fulfilling a unique need is Wheelhouse Detroit, a riverfront bike shop that opened a new downtown location in the bustling Compuware building that sits on the edge of Campus Martius, Detroit's downtown "circle." The pop-up shop is only open during the warm months to satisfy the downtown area's appetite for cycling. [See my 2010 article: "Is Detroit a Bicyclist's Paradise?"] Additionally, a suburban bike shop is also testing the potential for Detroit biking by opening a "summer only" bike shop in Detroit's Eastern Market district.

Business Insider magazine has called this a "new retail trend" that is revitalizing Detroit, and the magazine's article on Detroit's pop-up trend also featured Detroit Pop, a local consulting firm that is dedicated to assisting entrepreneurs with launching creative pop-ups in the city. The statist, top-down, conventional view, however, is also reflected in the Business Insider article.
Barry thinks that the pop-up movement in Detroit is an economically stimulating venture, echoed in this Huffington Post piece, but some speculate that it takes away from the value of taxpayer dollars that should go to stationary small businesses and increases the risk involved for the short-term entrepreneurs. 
“I don’t think we’re in a place now in Detroit where businesses opening is taking away from others. Competition is good for us,” Barry said. “We need to build up a more dense district. We need more walkable retail areas. But really, we’re not there yet, where we can say that pop-ups aren’t good for us.”
Unfortunately, the old gatekeepers live on, and they still believe that "tax dollars" can make a city thrive, as opposed to the bottom-up, entrepreneurial efforts that bring pop-ups and startups to destitute cities. [See my recent piece on Detroit and anarcho-startups.] In fact, when mobile food trucks first started appearing in the city's downtown areas to serve on-the-go lunch customers, the local restaurants did their best to keep the popular trucks out of their neighborhoods.

My favorite pop-up business is in the heart of downtown, at Campus Martius, where the Beach Bar and Grill has set up a sand beach with beautifully designed beach chairs and retro design seating, serving alcohol starting at 11am, along with with a great lunch menu. Just across from Campus Martius sits Cadillac Square, a place where multiple pop-up food booths sit, along with ample parking space for Detroit's mobile food trucks.

Photo by Karen DeCoster

Even the 'burbs most hoity-toity mall, Somerset of Oakland County, has a persistent presence in the city with its CityLoft pop-up that brings 39 luxury retailers to the city during peak seasons, including Sur la Table, Fossil, Gucci, Williams-Sonoma, and Saks. Additionally, and I don't want to get neoclassical economists too excited, but one chef who is described as one of the "culinary world's rising talents" has opened a pop-up called Guns+Butter. When Anthony Bourdain was in Detroit last month, he personally visited Detroit's premier restaurant pop-up.


  1. Hi Karen, what do you think of the Belle Isle project?

  2. Government control, taxes, regulations will kill any comeback. Can these be avoided, and how.