No man’s land

Metalworker Kristyn Koth chose the emptiness of North Corktown to create something unique. Ford’s arrival promises to make it a lot more crowded.

She stood alone by the bonfire, showered in ember sparks set free by the wind. She’d just come home from work and washed up at her sink before heading to this gathering, but there were still traces of grease smudged on her face.

7 short stories about Corktown

Because two hours before, Kristyn Koth was welding a shipping container inside yet another new restaurant that would soon open on lively Michigan Avenue in Corktown, a part of the city that’s been slowly, quietly seeing a rebirth over the past decade, long before any big companies decided to move here.

It was a chilly night in fall, and the 54-year-old former model was wearing a thick Carhartt jacket, her long blond hair was shoved under a hunter’s orange hat, and she wore old, baggy jeans — her work uniform.

Koth is a metalworker, a distinction that still causes surprise sometimes when she shows up to work. “I’ve had job sites I’ve gone to and they see me carrying some of the equipment and setting it down … and when I came in, if I was dressed like this, they thought I was a boy until they started looking a little more. They were like, ‘Wait a minute, that’s a girl.’ ”

She ate lentil soup from a cup while standing in her yard, which she has turned into a community garden, which also doubles as the site of the Pink Flamingo mobile restaurant, which operates out of a 1956 Airstream trailer. She bought the Airstream in 2010 to offer organic street food to all the people suddenly coming into Detroit to work in the daytime. “Guerilla Food,” she called it, and accordingly she simply parked downtown and began selling meals without asking anyone’s permission. The city buried her in a pile of tickets.

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“They said, ‘Well, if you open up a brick and mortar, you can do it. But you can’t do a food truck in Detroit.’ So I was the first person who fought the city to try and get mobile food on the streets.”

Although Detroit soon allowed food trucks after years of pestering by her and other mobile restaurant operators, she grew tired of the fight and just parked the Airstream in the grassy lot next to her North Corktown home. And in doing that, she created a unique weekly dinner event known for being small and intimate.

As Koth ate her Airstream-served dinner, a few dozen visitors sat on lawn chairs around the fire, surrounded by Christmas tree lights strung through the lot, as yard art poked out of the lawn. But she didn’t introduce herself to people as its founder. Instead she stood by the fire, eating by herself.

“I did it for years, but I don’t feel like it’s my own,” she said. “I feel like it’s for everybody.”

“Everybody” has always meant the handful of pioneers who made this desolate part of the city their home. But pretty soon, with Ford coming to the area, everybody might include a lot more people. And this gathering, like the neighborhood it’s in, might never be the same.

But she’s fine with that.

* * *

Koth knows how quickly things can change in Detroit.

Because four weeks before, she was standing inside her design and fabrication shop, which is attached to her home, where she was creating a decorative interior iron door for a very expensive loft atop a renovated apartment building in Midtown, which had been purchased by affluent suburban clients who wanted a penthouse in exciting Detroit. The metal itself came from the sprawling shell of the Packard Plant a few miles away, another iconic Detroit building that was abandoned for decades until being bought a few years ago for a once-unlikely renovation. Everything she touched lately involved layers of history and rebirth. And suddenly there was a lot of demand for her talents.

“We put a lot of work out of here, even though it’s small,” she said. “We kick it out —heavy stuff, down to chairs, railings, tables — you name it.”

Koth was a design student at the College for Creative Studies when she found her calling. “I walked into their metal shop one day and I saw this guy with a torch, bending steel. And I just started staring at him in fascination. I hadn’t worked in steel yet; some woodworking and just design classes. So then I asked him if he could show me how to do it, and he handed me the torch and some gloves and some protective glass wear, and as soon as I got the torch in my hand I go, ‘This is what I want to do the rest of my life.’ I just knew it.”

She had workspaces near City Airport and by Eastern Market before buying an old, rectangular brick building in North Corktown in 2005. She made half of it her shop, the other half her home with her two daughters, now teenagers.

When the metalworking business slumped during the last recession, she founded the Pink Flamingo to serve fresh food to neighbors, international visitors from Hostel Detroit down the street and people who discovered it through friends or on social media. She was also part of a group that bought and began renovating the Spaulding Court apartment complex behind her house, a century-old pair of cut-stone buildings with a courtyard down the middle, home for years only to squatters and drug dealers.

As metalwork picked back up, she stepped away from the food truck, which she turned over to Meiko Krishok, a 32-year-old who’d been working on a nearby urban farm and who serves farm-to-table meals using ingredients that come from a 2-mile radius. For five years she’s fed the people of this unusual village of a neighborhood, and she worries about the changes Ford might cause to it.

“There’s some really special elements to what’s happening in North Corktown, the way neighbors know each other and look out for each other, and there’s open land and space to farm, and those elements I really appreciate,” Krishok said. “And I would be very disturbed if those things become compromised. Part of it is saying, ‘Let’s take a bigger look at what’s going on here; take into account everything that everybody who’s been here so long has been going through and dealing with, and how do we honor that?’ ”

Koth said she still remains involved, since it still takes place in her yard every Thursday. And they’re working on turning the Pink Flamingo into a brick-and-mortar restaurant in a nearby building. But she’s always had more fun getting grimy by making things for people with her hands.

“I love it,” she said. “I have no problem. I’ve been playing in the dirt since I was a little girl. My parents, you know, a lot of little girls get the Barbie Doll house, you know, with all the stuff. My parents said, ‘Here’s cardboard boxes.’ And I built everything. So I grew up wanting to build and wanting to fabricate.”

“She’s very adaptive,” said Chris Rutherford, executive director of Architectural Salvage Warehouse of Detroit. “Everything she makes she puts the care and effort into making sure it’s beautiful.”

Her fingerprints are all over her neighborhood. She built a barn door frame and window cutouts for the outdoor patio at Mercury Bar, a stainless steel countertop and shelving for the kitchen in Ottava Via, an outdoor grill for Nemo’s, plus hundreds of bike racks that she fabricated from scratch, which now stand all over Corktown.

“She’s incredible,” said Leslie Horn, owner of Three Square Inc., a design and construction firm located a few blocks from Koth’s workspace. “She’s not afraid to get down and dirty; literally when you see her on a job site she’s all filthy and her hair is all messed up and shit, but boy does she clean up well. She’s a great person, a great soul. She really cares deeply about the community.”

As one of the few female metalworkers in the city, Koth has had strangers come to her over the years and ask whether she’s willing to teach her skills to the young women in their families. They think she can inspire them.

“I can’t tell you how many people I have coming in my shop who say, ‘Can you teach me how to weld?’ Young girls come through, they love it. And they’ll take the time to do it. I’ve had a lot of people ask me about it, and sure, bring your daughters or nieces in here. I feel proud to do that.”

* * *

They almost missed their chance. Because seven years before, she was walking out of her building in broad daylight when three men came up and put a gun to her head. Luckily, all they did was steal her car. But she was aware it could’ve ended much worse.

“I thought I was going to lose my life that day, and, fortunately, I talked them out of robbing me of everything, and they did take some things and left. And, at that point, I thought, ‘How can I stay here when I have no sense of security or safety, or like I belong?’ ”

With her nerves rattled, with two daughters to watch out for, she began to think seriously about bailing on North Corktown. There wasn’t much obvious upside to the area back then, in 2011. Yet it wasn’t so easy to leave.

“It was the neighbors that helped me through it,” she said. “They gave me the strength. And it’s people like that … you can’t explain. It’s my dedication to this area because they said, ‘Kristyn, you belong here. Don’t let them take you away.’ And it was intense. It was something I’ll never forget.”

So she stayed.

Because five years before that happened, when she first arrived in North Corktown, it was pure opportunity; the adopted home of a few artists and farmers who accepted the danger in exchange for the freedom they couldn’t get anywhere else. “Unless you’re probably in the country,” Koth said. “We can do what we love and not have a lot of regulations on us. We’re not doing anything wrong; we’re just more unique kind of careers and jobs and things like that.”

And that shared danger and freedom fostered a close community unlike anywhere else she’d lived before.

“When you have more obstacles or more challenges you have to bond together, and I think that everybody kind of has that personality or that feeling,” she said. “I feel like it’s different than other areas. Seems like there’s more people concerned about being a better neighbor or being involved or making sure everyone’s OK. I’m sure it comes from maybe even back in the rioting days where they had to bond together. There’s an older guy that lives in the area, and he drives around the neighborhood — he’s 80 years old, he drives around still at night just to make sure we’re OK. I’ve never seen any other area like that.”

* * *

Now, like those neighbors, Koth is faced with Ford coming to Corktown, bringing the biggest development in decades to the area. But unlike many of her neighbors, she embraces whatever changes may come.

“I think that has to be from my artistic side, that growth is good,” she said. “It may not always be 100 percent what you want, but to me it still is good. I’d rather have that than depression and nothing happening and people neglected that way too — which a lot of people have had that — whether you have your water contaminated or your trash not picked up, or whatever. It’s like I’d rather have things at least moving in a positive way.”

She ate her soup as she stood alone, surrounded by a handful of people huddled together by the fire, the only activity that evening in the neighborhood, which was on the eve of a new era, which might mean the end of their solitude here, which she thinks might not be such a bad thing.

“If we have to pick up and go to another area and make it great, we will,” she said. “I don’t want to leave, but change is inevitable, and I think that’s kind of the cycle of Detroit, too. You know, we’re a city that’s always evolving and changing and bringing things new. And whether it’s great or not, it’s kind of part of the city. Any city you go to, things change price wise; some areas develop and there’s nothing you can really do about it. You can stand and block a bulldozer, or you could see what happens and find another spot.”

Read more short stories from ‘Corktown’

On a mission

Out of house and home

Alone in a crowd

The breakfast clubAll in the family

Tomorrow never knows

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