It’s safe to say that Matt Rodriguez knows locks. He knows locks and he knows keys. He also knows Woodbridge. He grew up there.
I went to visit him at his workspace on Grand River, just west of where he does a lot of work for the Woodbridge Company. For years, he worked in different parts of the country, and every time, he wound up right back where he started, but by no means with his tail between his legs. Rodriguez grew up in a different Detroit, but he’s back, and he’s helping write the new chapter.
We sat in his office and talked about everything from Detroit in the 80s to gentrification, to the simplicity of community and what it takes to create one. Like many of the workers I’ve interviewed over the past month, Matt has a Detroit heart — a heart that understands success means more than financial achievement; building strong community through quality work and craftsmanship is key to this understanding. Matt gets it.
LIW: How did you get started in this trade?
MR: I learned how to do locks, originally, at Quick Lock & Alarm on the east side. From there, I worked at Fred’s key shop, in their garage, for two-three years. I took a stint on the West Coast for about a year; I worked for a place that did nothing but master key systems — a lot of high rises in Orange County. I came back here and worked at Fred’s again, for another year or so. Then I started managing apartments, remodeling, flipping. I also did a little bit of work out in Philadelphia for a while.
I came back again, worked at Tri County Entry for about two years and then I started working out of my house. I did that for about eight years. It was getting kind of hectic; I had tools on the second floor, first floor, basement, garage. So it’s nice to finally have a commercial space here. I have all my tools and locks in one place. That’s when things really started to take off.
LIW: When did you move into this space?
MR: February of 2014.
LIW: When did you start working with Woodbridge Company?
MR: I met Larry when I was really young. I had some friends that were doing painting for him. I’d help them out some times. That was way back. I met him a couple of times when I was working at Fred’s and he’d come in. A couple of years ago one of Larry’s old tenants put me in touch with him. I don’t know if he remembered me from when I was younger, but he started getting me more and more work. Now, Woodbridge Company is one of my top-three customers.
LIW: You grew up in Woodbridge?
MR: I grew up on Avery between Willis and Calumet. I remember when Grant’s Candy Store was still open. I moved out when I was eighteen, in 1991. My grandparents still lived there. They were there until 1995, then moved to Columbus, Ohio. I still have a lot of friends in Woodbridge — people who have come back. Now I own a house in Southwest, near the Corktown area.
LIW: During that whole time Woodbridge has been populated, which is more than we can say for a lot of other neighborhoods. What’s different about the place now?
MR: There are more younger people, and actually more people starting families. When I was there, people weren’t starting families. There were a number of kids my age. When I turned ten or twelve, a lot of families moved out. It was just single people living down here. Now, I’m seeing families again — kids, people walking dogs, riding their bikes. It’s really kind of nice; it’s more like it was when I was a young child, between five and ten. I remember when all the elm trees were still there, now there’s starting to be a canopy again. Sometimes I even stop and take pictures. It’s back again.
LIW: It’s not just a townhouse being rented by four college dudes, anymore…
MR: No. It makes you know that people feel more comfortable. It’s nice to know that people are happy, and not on edge. It’s far more easy-going.
LIW: You do work for Woodbridge Company, but you also do work all over the city?
MR: All over the city, some suburbs, and some work up north but mainly I stick to the city and surrounding suburbs. I do work for four or five property managers and they all keep me pretty busy. Between that and call-ins, references from friends, I stay pretty busy.
LIW: Shifting gears: At some point, when you were younger, you had to say to yourself, I need to get out of here.
MR: I did. I went out to California for a while and it was a totally different world out there. Everybody seemed more introverted. All they seemed to care about was working, productivity, keeping up with the Joneses. I didn’t see eye-to-eye with them. It wasn’t comfortable, socially. That’s when I came back here.
LIW: Keeping up with the Joneses…the idea of success in Detroit is completely different than it is in Beverly Hills or Los Angeles because maybe they haven’t gone through a decades-long period of what Detroit has endured. It seems to have more to do with being part of the success of Detroit. Do you see it that way?
MR: I do see it that way. People are coming back. I just remember people leaving. Now they’re coming back. Some of these abandoned houses that accumulate year after year, now they’re starting to disappear. You can see more sunshine. That’s nice. I’m pretty proud of myself for what I’ve been able to do the last few years, getting out of the house, and I like the fact that people are reinvesting in the city.
LIW: It’s kind of like what Kennedy said, but in a Detroit sense: It’s not what Detroit can do for you, it’s what you can do for Detroit.
MR: With all the snow that falls in the winter time, kids can’t get to school on time. The streets are not getting plowed. When I was a kid, none of these side streets ever got plowed. Everbody went out and shoveled their part of the street, out in front of their car. That’s how side streets got plowed, by shovels. Then, nobody did it anymore. But now I’m seeing people doing that again — taking care of the areas around their house that maybe isn’t their property.
LIW: It’s a distinctly Detroit mentality, isn’t it? People are just accustomed to seeing s*** everywhere…
MR: Garbage, potato-chip bags…I’ve had calls before where people asked “How do we get to you?” and then jokingly, “Oh, just follow the broken wine bottles…haha.” And I think, okay, that’s funny, but if you really start to think about it…
LIW: And do you find that people who make those jokes really don’t know anything about the city?
MR: They don’t. I buy materials from a guy, and we were talking about books the other day. I told him he should check out John K. King Books, and he said, “Oh, well sure, if I got about five or six of my friends. I don’t wanna get jumped.” And I asked him if he was kidding, if he was really that scared.
It’s not a reality.
LIW: I’m asking this question of everyone in the interview series, and each time I get a different answer. What do you think this neighborhood will look like ten years from now?
MR: I think it’s going to be a mix. For some families, there might not be quite enough yard space. It’s close to Wayne State and the medical center. Everything’s just booming, and that’s going to be a part of it.
LIW: You’re busy all the time, and that’s a good thing. I’m assuming that’s got everything to do with the city.
MR: There are a lot of people putting money back into things. They don’t mind securing their property. There are a lot of people moving in. I see that in all the trades. I’ve got a lot of friends who are saying the same thing. They’re busy. They’re calling me saying “Do you have anybody that does drywall?” and I tell them honestly, I have my drywall guy but I’m still waiting on him. My plumber, where’s he at? Everybody is just jamming, scrambling to find skilled laborers.
It’s good; everybody’s staying busy. It keeps Juan working [smiles, nods over at his apprentice].
Get in touch with Matt at (313) 407-0247