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Guest post: Response to "Where are the black people?"

Guest post by Francis Grunow, a community and urban planning expert in Detroit

I’m reading a feed full of thoughtful comments, perspectives and reactions to this piece by Nolan Finley. And while I believe it raises an important question, I think it also fans a flame. To wit, the optics of the featured photo at Hopcat, and how the question is not so simple…

In the case of the lines at Hopcat (pictured below), you have a Grand Rapids business looking to expand its craft beer empire into SE Michigan — and with the opening of Jolly Pumpkin, the two blocks of Canfield west of Woodward will become something of a beer mecca, drawing folks from all over the region, and beyond. So where are the black folks in that equation?

There’s an interesting NPR piece on the business and patronage side of craft brewing and African Americans, which I’ll post below. So, besides a (proportionately smaller?) percentage of Hopcat patrons, (hopefully) there are jobs for African Americans that didn’t exist before. I can’t attest to how hiring was done at Hopcat, but ideally, there are local hires, who would disproportionately be African American. Can anyone offer insight?

But the question the News article poses is much bigger than just Hopcat.

It could be more along the lines of, “How does a business responsibly open in a place like Detroit?”

I think there’s a lot of potential for dialogue around this question. I also know that some groups have worked collaboratively to help forward this discussion to come up with more inclusive solutions, like Open City, D:Hive, Midtown Inc, and even people inside the Gilbert Empire. There are a number of others, especially along certain corridors and nodes outside of the core, but I realize that leaves huge swaths of the city unaccounted for.

The other question that I think we need to contend with is whether we’re really ready as a city for business interests more generally to view Detroit’s core as the viable economic heart of not just the city, but the region, or in fact the state?

That very sentiment has been subverted for decades, and has hurt everyone. Yes, some more than others. But it is still far from a reality. We still park cars along Woodward, and banks still struggle to lend for commercial projects, in the city’s core. That would be inconceivable on Fifth Ave. in Midtown Manhattan, or in the loop in Chicago, or along the Champs-Élysées in Paris.

So what does Detroit’s version of a healthy, dynamic core look like? Unfortunately, this question also coincides with the city being at a time and place where so much of its population is challenged with entrenched poverty…and the racial component of that condition so often serving to exacerbate the situation. The truth is, the majority of people with means, white and black and between, gave up on the core long ago. White people did it first and worst, but others followed. And we’re struggling to overcome that legacy. It’s all so much speculation now, but would we even be having a debate about the arena district in the lower Cass Corridor if Berry Gordy had invested in creating a neighborhood around the Motown Building on Woodward?

So maybe I’ll circle back to the media about this and ask another question. How do we present this challenge as an opportunity that gives a fuller picture of reality that is not so starkly (and racially) drawn? Can we also talk about the black owned fast food franchise located directly next to Hopcat and the stories of the patrons there? How about the Arab American owned bar and restaurant one block up from Hopcat, that caters to a predominately African American crowd? Or what about the multi-phased development a couple of blocks south of Hopcat that is led by a black entrepreneur, and features a black owned bar and restaurant, and restored theater space where I’ve seen wonderfully diverse lines out the door.

Kaitlyn Buss
Kaitlyn Buss is editorial page writer for The Detroit News. Prior to joining the News, she lived in Washington, D.C., where she worked in public relations, opinion writing, and ran communications for an association of state legislators. She's a native of Metro Detroit. Follow her @KaitlynBuss.