Every day on HuffPost, we're highlighting one 'Greatest Person'- an exceptional individual who is confronting the country's economic and political crises with creativity, generosity, and passion. Today we're profiling Phillip Cooley, who after a successful career in modeling returned to his native Michigan, where he opened a local restaurant and launched a series of city revitalization projects.
For many, Detroit, known for its high unemployment rates and arguably dysfunctional local government, is the face of American urban decay. For Phillip Cooley, the young proprietor of Slows Bar BQ, a popular eatery there, Detroit is a city of opportunity.
Cooley, a former model who worked in places like Barcelona, Paris, Tokyo, and New York City, before moving back to Michigan to open his restaurant, bemoans the dearth of commercial options in his city: "Detroit is starved for commercial and small businesses," he says. "There's no Starbucks, and mostly mom and pop shops." But where Detroit lacks, he says, there is room for massive revitalization, for building businesses, seeding ideas, and giving back on a very local level.
As the owner of his own small businesses, Cooley himself only works 10-15 hours a week, which allows him more than enough time to volunteer. His current big project: transforming Detroit's Roosevelt Park. "We need more green space, more interacting with each other out of our homes," says Cooley of his focus on changing public spaces.
So far, $300,000 has been invested in landscaping, and another $200,000 went into creating a parking lot for the park. Another $50,000 has been raised so far for the next addition: a skate park that will consist of massive, skateable letters spelling out "Roosevelt Park." Slows has been a major financial donor (along with many others) for these projects.
Cooley also points to Detroit's Heidelberg Project, which promotes social change by transforming a previously crime-ridden neighborhood into what is now an art-covered tourist attraction (one house is draped with smiling stuffed animals, another painted with bright, multi-colored dots), as a prime example of urban renewal.
"The crackheads you once worried about when your children were walking to school are out of there because there's so much traffic," says Cooley. He helps out by organizing events and fundraisers to introduce new people to the project, making fliers, providing generators, and collecting purveyors for the annual street festival.
But, there are challenges. "Detroit is a huge city segregated by abandoned structures and abandoned lands, so connecting our city is very difficult," he notes.
Cooley currently sits on seven advisory boards, including the ACLU of Southeastern Michigan, The Architectural Salvage Warehouse of Detroit, and The Center for Community Based Enterprise. This is all in addition to co-owning Slows BBQ restaurant, and real estate and development firm, O'Connor (he founded both with his brother).
"I can't imagine leaving anytime soon," he says. "In a sense, this is utopia."
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