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How to Revive the Motor City: Build Bikes

Zak Pashak's company is trying to bring the manufacturing tradition to Detroit, but instead of cars, they're making commuter bikes.
The in-progress Detroit Bikes lobby.

The in-progress Detroit Bikes lobby.

Detroit is a city with a long history of American manufacturing, from Henry Ford to the Arsenal of Democracy. In case you haven’t read anything about the Motor City in the last 25 years, the economy isn’t what it once was. A state-appointed emergency manager recently declared the city insolvent. I’ll spare you all the rhetoric about the hemorrhaging population, shrinking tax base, and how many other cities could fit in Detroit (OK, fine: Manhattan, San Francisco, and Boston, as the lore goes) and cut to the point: Detroit is a city with a lot of skilled workers looking for work.

And one Canadian is trying to fix that.

Zak Pashak wanted to own a factory ever since The Jetsons. While the 33-year-old Calgary native didn’t set up shop in Orbit City, he did immigrate to every urbanist’s favorite playground, where he opened a 50,000-square-foot bike factory onDetroit’s far west side.

Pashak started Detroit Bikes for one simple reason—he couldn’t find a bike he liked. “I got a sense there was an opportunity to change the way that companies look at bike consumers,” he told me over falafel in Dearborn, Michigan’s Middle Eastern enclave, just on the other side of the city limits from Detroit Bikes’ headquarters.

He cut his teeth and made his money as a bar and music-venue owner in Calgary and Vancouver. But he has a longstanding fascination with transit, which was one of the pillars of his campaign for Calgary city alderman in 2010. He lost the race, but his desire for alternative transportation and bikeable communities hasn’t dwindled. Part of the problem with cycling—a problem he hopes to change—is the biking community’s standoffish attitude and brutish exclusivity. (If you live in a city with a robust biking movement, you’ve probably been yelled at by some jerk on a fixed-gear bike recently.)

“It’s a perception about what cycling is,” he said. “It’s a little more humble when you hop on your bike and it’s just made to get you from Point A to Point B. The more people we can get doing that could hopefully lead to a critical mass—not like the political, shitty one that holds up traffic—but a critical mass of people who are just comfortable riding a bike as a normal person.”

Pashak’s bikes are made for swinging by your friend’s house to watch a ball game, cruising to the store for a six-pack of High Life (it’ll fit on the rack that comes with each bike), and riding to work.

A Detroit Bikes welder.


WHEN I VISITED THE Detroit Bikes factory in April, prototypes were scattered about, the shipping area was being staged, and the supply-chain manager sat in a bare, carpeted office. Pashak bought the factory for $190,000 last year after looking all over the city. (There’s no shortage of empty factories in Detroit. One he looked at had “piles of dead pigeons in the corner.”) Pashak has 15 employees right now, and when the bikes start shipping in July, he’d like to have 30 cranking out 100 bikes a day. “It’s just a matter of hiring some more welders,” he said. “There’s lots of welders around.”

Two of his employees built displays for the Michigan Science Center (formerly the Detroit Science Center). The welders and frame builders are Detroiters with years of manufacturing experience. The good majority of them worked for the Big Three at some point in their lives. You won’t find the silly bike caps and pretentiousness common at bike shops, just weathered Detroit Red Wings sweatshirts and subdued conversation over cups of black coffee. They’re workers who value a dependable product and take pride in American-made goods.

Still, it’s nearly impossible to make an All American bike at the $550 price point Pashak is selling. So the components are from Taiwan, where Pashak had just been on a business trip. (If things go as planned, Pashak would like to make his own components someday.) The frame itself is American made. And they get their steel from Plymouth, a small city about 25 miles west of Detroit. The rack on each bike, which bears the company’s logo, is made with scrap metal. “I think the success of the company will be when the message to all of North America is that there are products made in Detroit in high volume that are awesome and the price is good,” he said.

There will only be one model to start, the A-Type: a three-speed commuter bike that’s a cross between a beach cruiser and an old Schwinn. And the bike only comes in black, which is part personal preference, part manufacturing savvy—one color cuts down on manufacturing costs, and “I think the bike looks best in black,” Pashak said, “that’s why you get it in black.” It’s hard to ignore the similarities to Ford’s Model-T, which employed the same color scheme.

FROM THE ECHOES OF the Model-T to “made in Detroit by Detroiters” to the utility of the bikes meant to, like the cars of the city’s boom years, help get you from place to place, everything seems to fitnicely into some nostalgic picture of a re-programmed Detroit. All of which Pashak is aware of.

The first prototypes were built in the carriage house of his 7,400-square-foot home in the historic Boston Edison neighborhood, two blocks from the original Henry Ford mansion. Pashak knows that the Motor City pulls at the heartstrings of magazine writers working on trend stories about entrepreneurs and urban farmers, but he’s also conscious of the gravity of the city’s industrial past. He doesn’t want to wave the MADE IN DETROIT flag just to sell bikes. He knows what Detroit means to Detroiters and outsiders.

“There is a terroir to products,” he said. “Which is what I like about Detroit. It’s the same with wine. Bordeaux has a story to it. I think there’s some Detroit in that bike. It’s designed here, it’s built here, we’re using steel that is coming from nearby.”

At a time when other American companies announced they’re shifting some of their offshore operations back stateside, Pashak is firmly entrenched in Detroit. He’s employing locals, helping increase the tax base (however small a contribution it may be), and hoping that other aspiring manufacturers might take notice. “You absolutely can manufacture stuff in the states and have it be competitive,” he said. “I hope this can inspire other people to maybe give it a shot.”