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Detroit downtown resurgence divided by race?

Mar 5, 2015

Detroit is seeing more private investment and new businesses in its downtown areas, but some residents in the neighborhoods don’t see how they’re benefiting from that.

The Majestic in Midtown is one of the older, trendier spots in Detroit.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

On a recent weeknight, I visited ten of Detroit’s popular night spots ranging from the trendy to the tourist spot to the traditional. All but one had something in common, the vast majority of the patrons were white.

Many of the business owners are also white.

That’s something Nolan Finley with the Detroit News has been writing about in recent months.

“For two years I’ve been puzzling over the absence of blacks in the hot and hip new downtown night spots. I don’t expect in a city that is 83 percent black to be in a crowded Detroit establishment and having nearly everyone be as white as me,” Finley explained during a panel at the Detroit Regional Chamber's Policy Conference held in Detroit.

Finley’s observations have contributed to a larger conversation about whether there’s a “new Detroit” that is mostly white,  benefiting from this newfound prosperity while the “old Detroit” – mostly black - still struggles.

Credit Courtesy: Detroit Regional Chamber

Experts and business people joined Finley on a panel discussing the issue.

Businessman Dennis Archer, Jr., the son of a former mayor of Detroit, thinks that the news media coverage of Detroit is missing something. Many successful African-Americans moved out of Detroit because of high taxes and poor city services. He says they visit the hot night spots in the suburbs where they live now.

He also points out that there are black entrepreneurs in Detroit. They’re just not noticed because those businesses are not as exciting as tech start-ups or trendy bars and restaurants popping up in gritty areas of the city.

“I mean, a guy can open up a restaurant in Corktown with a million dollars in gross receipts, but the guy down the street on Clark with two billion dollars in gross receipts, who’s African-American, gets less press,” Archer said, referring to Slows Bar BQ and Bridgewater Interiors Automotive Solutions respectively (thanks to Crain's Detroit Business for help tracking this down).

Some Detroit residents don’t see those new exciting, trendy businesses as part of "their" Detroit. The central city developments seem distant and cater to people with higher incomes.

Yolanda Peoples lives in the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood in Detroit. During an extensive interview with her family last year, she said she doesn’t go to downtown.

“I’m not a part of it. I don’t have enough money to be part of it. I don’t have enough money to benefit at this point,” Peoples said, adding she doesn’t look for work in downtown either because there’s not a job that could pay her enough to park her car.

Campus Martius in downtown Detroit.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Kyresha LeFever does visit downtown. She manages a bakery. She says long-time residents feel a disconnect.

“Detroit is so much more than, you know, Campus Martius, which is great, it’s a great thing. I’m there, some of my employees are there, we hang out there, so it’s a good feeling. But, we still have to go back home. You know, we still go back home and see not that much has been changed at all,” LeFever said.

It’s that contrast that is making some people suspicious of all the investment in the central business areas.

Nolan Finley with the Detroit News says Detroit needs to talk about this.

“Everyone is working too hard and investing too much money and energy into the long-awaited comeback to have it derailed by hostility over the emergence of two Detroits: one white and hopeful in a soaring downtown, the other black and desperate, trapped in neighborhoods that are still struggling.”

Support for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative on Michigan Radio comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Renaissance Journalism's Michigan Reporting Initiative, and the Ford Foundation.