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Spaulding Court

2737 Rosa Parks
Detroit, Michigan

Jon Koller

By MJ Galbraith
December 16, 2013

Jon Koller avoided Spaulding Court when he first moved to Detroit in 2009. It's four years later and Koller is now synonymous with the historic twenty unit North Corktown complex. Though he never moved to the city to become a landlord, Koller has embraced the sizable task of transforming Spaulding from a blighted, crime-ridden problem to a community asset. Koller is president of Friends of Spaulding Court, a nonprofit organization that owns and operates the property.
A lot went into transforming Spaulding Court, including the now eliminated Wayne County Nuisance Abatement Program – a policy cut Koller laments. A lot of work remains too, as only five of the twenty units are inhabited and up to city code. But repair by repair, dollar raised by dollar raised, and unit by unit, the 101-year-old Spaulding is becoming a livable place once again. Though structurally sound, the infrastructure of the two buildings requires a lot of work. On a nonprofit's budget, unit restoration moves at a slow pace, with a rate of just under two renovated units a year. That pace, however, suits Koller just fine.
"The courtyard is a really nice public space but there's a process of establishing norms," says Koller. "Every time you add into it there's a little reconfiguration. I think everyone is interested in that happening and understand that things will change and that's okay. More people means this shared resource gets shared with more people. There's a deep understanding of that. But there's also an understanding that the more gradual that process is the easier it is for everybody."
The north building of Spaulding Court is currently vacant and boarded up, a significant improvement over the broken windows, leaky roof, and drug deals that characterized the building before Friends of Spaulding Court took over. With the north end stabilized, the south building is the current focus, with five of its ten units occupied. New windows were just added in one of the already-rented town homes. Work on a community center in the west end of the court is set to begin in the spring. Koller is also looking for potential residents who would want to share in the work necessary in making additional units livable and up to city code.
What's best for the physical buildings is of course a focus, but so too is the belief that, as a community asset, the renovation of Spaulding Court should work toward preserving the character of North Corktown. In addition to moving gradually, Koller believes that a car-free discount will go a long way in introducing the new residents of Spaulding to the already-present residents of North Corktown. Residents of Spaulding receive a $450 discount on their rent if they go car-free. More people walking and more people biking is a way of preserving a sense of community and not having one group isolated from another, says Koller.
"It's a good thing we have going in North Corktown. We watch out for each other. We don't rely a lot on the city but we really do rely a lot on one another. That's a scary thing to think about losing."
Koller's a constant presence in the neighborhood, with an easy pace and a long beard. Perhaps just as surprising as his stewardship of Spaulding is his relatively recent foray into entrepreneurship: Beard Balm, created by his partner Hannah Lewis. Koller is currently meeting international orders for the Detroit-made, natural beard conditioner by putting together a manufacturing center in town. Four years in and Koller is making use of the city's built environment, something he's wanted to do since college.
"[I asked myself], how do you take your time and make something nice and not monotonous and do it in an environmentally and socially responsible way? So I moved to Detroit."

All photos by Doug Coombe. 

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