The coronavirus pandemic both highlighted and accelerated a troubling trend that has plagued cities across the country over the last decade—the erosion of physical spaces that cater to Black communities. From cafés to nightclubs to community centers, Black establishments have been disappearing at alarming rates. If gentrification was the underlying condition, COVID-19 was the death knell for countless Black venues.
In recent years, there has been a new wave of Black entrepreneurs fighting the forces of gentrification to create community for Black professionals in large cities. Co-working spaces like Ethel’s Club and The Gathering Spot are tackling the problem head-on in major cities like New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.
But where do Black creatives in smaller cities go to find community? And who is creating safe spaces for folks with niche interests and further marginalized experiences? That’s where Different Wrld and Copper House Detroit come in.
Based in Asheville, NC, Different Wrld is an inclusive coffee bar, creative hub, and culture house for artists. Founded by Honey Simone, a Black queer designer, DJ, and installation artist, the space serves members of the underground art scene in the city. Copper House Detroit is a neighborhood-based safe space for the cannabis community. Founded by Jess and Cara Jackson, a Black queer couple, Copper House is Detroit's first “Bud & Breakfast.”
We spoke with Honey Simone and Jess Jackson to learn more about how they are building belonging for niche communities in their respective cities.
Different Wrld began as a clothing company and then morphed into an event-production brand. But Honey Simone felt called to a greater vision. “[I used to think that] to be successful, it made sense to just be a clothing brand. But my heart was in supporting people and giving them the resources and access to things they need,” she says. “I needed a community, so I tried to start acting in ways that I wanted my community to look like.”
A large part of building that community included listening to the needs of her fellow creatives. And what Honey heard was a need for a physical space that served at the intersection of community, culture, and creativity.
“Different Wrld exists because we are friends with these people. We love them, we care for them and we listen,” she says. “Listen to people, even when they're not speaking. You can feel where people are experiencing gaps in support, even in their body language and how they carry themselves.”
The idea for Copper House Detroit came from listening as well—but to the founders’ own experiences. After visiting several European cities to celebrate their engagement—but not feeling completely comfortable as Black queer cannabis consumers in any of them—Jess and Cara Jackson aimed to create a space for travelers like themselves in their hometown of Detroit.
“When we were thinking about the type of space we wanted to cultivate, we wanted to make sure that our queer identities stood front and center to ensure that travelers who wanted to access the space felt welcomed and that they could be their whole selves there,” Jackson says.
Jackson says these 3 questions drove their mission: “How are we ensuring that cannabis consumers can consume safely when they're traveling? How do we ensure that folks who come from marginalized identities, whether they're queer or people of color, feel welcome and safe in the environment? How do we ensure that we're able to advance the local economy, not just in the main centers?”
“We provide a lived-in neighborhood space for cannabis consumers to stay, produce lifestyle content, and organize intimate gatherings,” Jackson says. “It feels like a home away from home for the cannabis community.”
To bring their visions to life, both Different Wrld and Copper House Detroit took existing physical structures and reimagined them. For the Jacksons, it was their own home.
“There are high barriers to entry within cannabis, so we just started prototyping out of our home,” Jess Jackson says. “Right now, we're a shared space with a shared restroom, and offer a private spare bedroom with a lock and key. But we have a thousand-square-foot basement that we're renovating into a private-access space, which will have its own restroom, kitchen, living area, and sleeping for eight.”
For Different Wrld, the cofounders reimagined a beloved local institution. Honey Simone and team repurposed The Mothlight, a local concert venue and meeting place that closed during the pandemic.
“When we first started developing our ideas and talking to the people who own The Mothlight about taking it over, I don't think we fully knew what it was going to take to really build the space we were trying to create,” Honey says. “But we still jumped in just because we knew that it was what we're supposed to be doing.”
The Dfferent Wrld team wanted to transform The Mothlight into a space that honored the design aesthetics of the founders while also making it accessible to the community. “My favorite color is black, so a lot of things in our space are black,” Honey explains. “We're doing this healthy balance of trying to be a space that people can envision themselves creating in, but also creating a space that we want to work in and we feel proud of, and an avenue for us to express ourselves as well.”
After reaching multiple dead ends with traditional funding sources, the Different Wrld team turned to their community of creatives to crowdfund their space. "[We thought] ‘Let's just give it a shot with the grassroots and see what happens,’" Honey says.
What happened surpassed their wildest expectations. In a matter of weeks, the Different Wrld team raised over $70,000 from thousands of people. “It was just a perfect storm. Everyone went crazy when it came to donating and sharing and doing fundraisers with their own businesses,” Honey recalls. “We have friends who have leather-work companies and they were raffling off leather work, and people who were raffling off paintings and photo sessions and pottery—all kinds of things. So when we say we're funded by our community, we really do mean that.”
Copper House Detroit took a slightly different approach to community fundraising by partnering with Cannabis for Black Lives, a coalition of cannabis companies galvanizing the industry to support Black-led organizations and communities. “Cannabis For Black Lives did a campaign with us in quarter 2 of this year and they've been able to get us about $39,000 to support the development of [our basement] space,” Jess Jackson says. “There were lots of cannabis businesses that promoted our brand and launched products to sell to donate to the campaign.”
Honey Simone has a mantra tattooed on her hand: Do nothing without intention. She says it serves as a guiding light for both her personal life and for Different Wrld.
“When you have to stop and think about something before you do it, it's always going to come out differently,” Honey explains. “I think it's a really good practice to think about what your intentions are and how it's going to come through in your actions...how things bubble out and affect and ripple other people.”
Intentionality is also a cornerstone value of Copper House Detroit. Jess Jackson says that being conscious of her strengths and weaknesses as an entrepreneur and purposeful about aligning with others who can complement and offset those qualities is key. “Use what you have is my key mantra. It reminds me that I do have strengths that can benefit myself and others, and that I have relationships and connections that help me,” Jackson says.
She also notes that it helps her remember to always keep moving forward. “Just start,” she says. “Use what you have to just start.”