The Rev. Faith Fowler, executive director of Cass Community Social Services, on the shop floor where tires are recycled into sandals. (David Guralnick / The Detroit News)
A few miles north of the Shinola Midtown store, where Detroit grit is polished, assembled and sold at breathtaking premiums, the Rev. Faith Fowler is pioneering her own authentic take on Detroit retail.
Her latest product — the $25 “Detroit Treads” sandal designed by students at the University of Michigan and the College for Creative Studies — is straight from the streets, crafted from the 35,000 discarded tires that Cass Community Social Services picks up every year through its Green Industries division.
“We go tire-hunting,” says Fowler, the executive director and chief visionary at CCSS, “and I promise you that no matter how much money is spent on blight removal, we’re never going to run out of our raw material.
“It doesn’t take long to fill a truck.”
Detroit Treads, stylishly embossed with a “D,” are finished with flip-flop-style straps of donated nylon. The first 300 pairs were given away to attendees at a fireworks benefit for the nonprofit that Fowler created 12 years ago. The Treads were an instant hit, judging by Facebook photos posted the next day.
Fowler has served as pastor of the historic Cass Universal Methodist Church for two decades, returning to Detroit after getting a master’s degree from Boston University’s school of divinity. The charity she founded now occupies a series of buildings that deliver services, build products and house the once-homeless.
The Detroit Treads sandals follow on the success of $35 woven rubber mats, sold at CCSS and at a few suburban retail outlets. They also solve a recycling problem: “We wanted to find a use for the rubber tread — it’s called a ‘pelt’ — that runs down the middle of the tire,” she says. The steel belt in the center was problematic, but not insurmountably so.
“They’re doing really well. If you look up mud mats, we’re No. 7 on Google,” says Fowler. In a baseball cap and jeans, the pastor embodies a sense of Christian mission and Detroit comeback spirit simultaneously.
The nonprofit now employs 80 workers, many of them developmentally disabled or homeless. She’s hoping to employ 20 more homeless veterans with the Treads product, and believes she can bring in about $200,000 a year.
The nonprofit also shreds and recycles more than 100 tons of newsprint and paper every year, and makes coasters out of reclaimed wood. “Our focus is on fighting blight,” Fowler says. “Our staff also has the satisfaction and dignity that comes with making things that are also solving a problem.”
For the sandals startup, Fowler’s relying largely on the labor of summer interns, including Michael Mozzicato, a 19-year-old sophomore from Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., who is spending his summer planting potatoes in the community garden, picking up bug-infested tires and crafting rubber sandals. He is cheerful about it so far, as is his co-worker Sarah Ort, an Eastern Michigan University student. Both interns are living on site, in CCSS apartments.
Montaze Frye, the 38-year-old shop supervisor, was unemployed for three years when he walked into the nonprofit. “It’s different here,” he says, “and I truly learn something new every day.”
Detroit Treads can be ordered by calling (313) 883-2277.