At first glance, Sofia Vaselina doesn’t look like the kind of girl who would change the entire infrastructure of a single city. She’s petite, probably about five foot three, with a glut of blonde hair punctuated by the deliberate edge of recently-cut baby bangs. Most of the skin on her body is covered by traditional-style tattoos: the classic “Mom” heart on her bicep, a snake-dinosaur-hybrid curling its tail-body along her arm, and the pièce de résistance, a tree of life inexplicably flanked by floating eyeballs on her left shin. Dauntlessly, Vaselina does attempt to explain this tattoo, but she meanders and instead tells me about the time she had a “life-altering” bottle of $179 Alsatian Riesling.
At twenty-four, Vaselina is arguably the most accomplished woman in the city of Detroit. She dropped out of college her sophomore year after a stint interning for the governor, intimating that she “became disillusioned by the structure of the education system in this country.” Instead, Vaselina took the money her parents gave her for school and put it towards Sundara Vinyl, the West Village record store she started with friends Caiden Baker and Ryan Dunkelson in 2015.
Vaselina insists I conduct my interview in the middle of her store, which, save for us and another employee, is presently unoccupied. Her fingers are adorned with rings and tattoos alike, her talon-like nails painted a venomous red–the same shade of red in the Supreme logo she’s wearing on her shirt. Sundara is a large space in a once-dilapidated house, now glowing with sunlight and bumping “God’s Plan” by Drake from its surround sound. I comment on the pleasant scent of lemongrass wafting through the air.
“I propagate at it home,” Vaselina says, resplendent in her ingenuity. “Pro tip: propagation is a great way to save money, and a great way to fit the word ‘propagation’ into your daily conversations.”
We’re sitting in two Eames-style chairs, facing each other. Vaselina cradles a vinyl copy of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in her arms, claiming it’s like her “security blanket.” “Kanye just gets me,” she says. “We come from similar backgrounds.” She then asks me to take a few pictures of her, and then asks the lone employee to get a picture of me interviewing her for her Instagram.
“I’m just really proud to be able to revitalize this community,” Vaselina says, getting up to compulsively rearrange the succulents on the ladder shelf near the COSMIC JAZZ / SUN RA section. “Even though putting our store here drove up rent prices in this neighborhood, it’s been an imperative part of stimulating the local economy.”
Not only does Vaselina own and work part-time at Sundara, she also partners with restaurants like Thai hotspot Yet Mae, exotic watering hole Zanzi Wine Bar, and Italian bistro Uno Pizzeria for pop-up events. Vaselina, who was once steadfastly straightedge, now works as a bartender–rather, beverage director–at Cambodian restaurant Rumdul with head chef Brendan Phillips. She’s “living proof,” she says, “that cities and people alike can go through radical, fundamental changes.”
In her free time, Vaselina has also been writing for feminist culinary magazine Raspberry Pie about sexual harassment in the restaurant industry. While she says she’s never really experienced it firsthand, she maintains her perspective is necessary because she’s able to see “both sides of every story.”
“When my best friend-slash-fuckbuddy Joey got called out for touching a bunch of his female tattoo clients inappropriately, the first fucking thing I did was call him to make sure he was okay,” she says, tears pooling behind her transparent plastic-rimmed Warby Parker glasses. “But I know all of the women that came out against him were starting an important conversation, so I wrote a diatribe about tenderness on my Instagram for them.”
Whether it’s a conversation about call-out culture, white privilege, or Belgian lagers, Vaselina always finds a way make her voice heard. “I feel like, as a woman, as a writer, as a libation manager, as a vanguard for Detroit’s Renaissance, I have authority to speak on a lot of issues,” she says. When discussing her feminist ideals, Vaselina concedes that it’s absolutely critical to acknowledge everyone’s perspective, including white men. It’s a complicated issue, she asserts, because she’s constantly surrounded by them. “Personally,” she says in a hushed tone. “I just feel more comfortable around dudes. They’re not jealous of me like girls are.”
You can’t get to three thousand Instagram followers without finding some haters along the way. But the notoriety that comes with being an outspoken woman working in both the music and restaurant industries matters less to Vaselina than the changes she’s made in Detroit. Between her work at the record store, which “would have five stars on Yelp if we wanted Yelp to put us on their stupid website,” and Rumdul, Mexicantown’s hottest new Cambodian restaurant, Vaselina’s cultural impact is undeniable.
“In the five years since I moved here from West Bloomfield, I’ve seen how the city has completely transformed,” Vaselina muses. “Like, people driving German-engineered cars be pulling up to the spot. They see food trucks, coffee shops, art galleries. They know shit’s about to be lit, yo.”
That resurgence is due in part to Vaselina’s commitment to making Detroit the kind of place you pay $15 for a cocktail. Since opening Sundara, Vaselina has organized monthly concerts called “The Hood Presentz: Dope Squad” where local acts perform and DJ in the store’s space. There, the Sundara crew have hosted the likes of Frank Bro, Peach Chutney, Snakeskin, and PEEPER Z. The events have drawn crowds of dozen, and since its inception, Dope Squad has been a fixture of Detroit nightlife.
“It’s been a really great way to get to know people, and to prove to everyone that I’m an active part of this city,” Vaselina notes. “Detroit needs me just like I need Detroit, you know? If you don’t appreciate that rusted-over, industrial grit, then I feel sorry for you. Also, fuck the police.”
Apart from the police, the one thing Vaselina doesn’t appreciate is the new abundance of “soulless gentrifiers” and “lizard people” moving downtown. With the recent addition of the Q-Line public transit system, as well as the expanding Quicken campus dubbed “Gilbertville,” tensions have risen between the white-collar suburban transplants and “O.G.” Detroiters.
“Seriously,” Vaselina says, rage-itching at a tattoo of a skull with peace signs for eyes on her forearm. “You can’t just come to this city and act like you own it. White people are a disease. Especially the ones who have never even heard of Arthur Russell.”
Like she’s read my mind, she looks me right in the eyes and states firmly: “I’m not white. I’m Belarusian.”