Just off the freeway in northwest Detroit, Nikki Cater stands in front of her house with her charcoal grill, smoke billowing as she barbecues chicken, sausages, ribs and steaks to sell to anyone who’s driving by and lured in by the aroma.
Before long, customers started lining up to buy her meals that range between $2 for a hot dog to $12 for a steak dinner — Cater’s way of making a living for the past five years. She’s out in front of her home nearly every day, even in the winter. She calls it “entrepreneuring.”
“I’m from Mississippi, so I grew up cooking on a farm, learning to how to survive without the finer things,” said Cater, who lives in the city’s Brightmoor neighborhood. “ ... At the end of the day, I do it for my peoples. They all love me. I love the love. I love the respect. I love the loyalty.”
Cater, 40, is among many who are part of Detroit’s underground economy — a network of income-earners working outside the mainstream in a city hailed for its renaissance but also still struggling with poverty, water shut-offs, home foreclosures, inadequate public transportation, unemployment and other ills.
While the underground work is mostly invisible, experts say it’s nevertheless pervasive in Detroit, reflecting the struggles to earn a living in the city 50 years after 1967’s uprising.
“There are so many people who are getting by by any means possible in a theater unseen by many Americans,” said Carl Taylor, a Detroit native who is now a sociology professor at Michigan State University.
Taylor grew up not far from where the violence erupted, and he remembers the neighborhoods were much different 50 years ago. Then, the communities were more diverse, racially and economically. There were more neighborhood businesses, block clubs and churches.
But there also was the same underground economy where people hustled to make a living and bartering was common.
Poverty and a lack of jobs were among the many underlying reasons cited by some to understand what many believe now was a rebellion. While the middle class was puzzled over the uprising, Taylor said, those living in poverty were not. Some even thought it was justified.
“They were not experiencing the mythological American dream,” Taylor said. “They did not have anything. They didn’t have food. They did have shelter. They were living below what they were seeing around them. They were looking at people with nice cars. They had no cars. ... They didn’t even have a lunch.
“They were living in hell every day. When you are living in hell, you are not surprised by the flames getting higher.”
For some, things have gotten worse since 1967. Too many are living without water and are bootlegging electricity, Taylor said. Scores of abandoned houses pepper neighborhoods and racial discord is widespread.
Meanwhile, his childhood neighborhood in northwest Detroit, looks like many others: destroyed.
“Neighborhoods are devastated,” Taylor said. “While there are some trying to revive themselves, they are not getting help. Burning down the city did not do anything but make it worse. The only thing different between now and then is then there was a lot of hope. There is none of that now.”
Jenny Lendrum, a Wayne State University doctoral candidate who has met many families in Detroit’s neighborhoods while studying the underground economy, agrees with Taylor there is little hope.
“The people who live in the neighborhoods don’t have hope,” Lendrum said. “Their hustle is out of desperation and necessity.”
While some have are doing underground work to supplement their income earned in the formal economy, Lendrum said there are others who hustle only in the informal economy. They are doing hair and nails, creating and selling products, such as dog houses or beauty lines made with shea butter. Additionally, she said, there are in-kind exchanges taking place such as ride-sharing, furniture swapping and favors.
“It’s a survival skill,” Lendrum said. “Jobs are scant. Manufacturing jobs, the ones that remain, pay less than they did a generation ago and don’t offer the same job security. Jobs that remain are in the suburbs and are difficult to get to. These are mostly unskilled, low-paid jobs. Many of the people in Detroit’s neighborhoods are skilled, and use and then adapt these skills as needed to make money, to get by, and to take care of their families.”
Among those who have adapted in Detroit is Corey Grimes. In 2007, his car broke down and he couldn’t afford to fix it, so he lost his job as a cook at Bob Evans in Livonia. He found jobs open at supermarkets, fast food restaurants and liquor stores, but he wasn’t able to find what he called “meaningful employment.”
“I am a hard-working man, but there were no jobs that could pay me what I needed to take care of me and my two boys unless I was willing to work $6 an hour,” said Grimes, whose sons now live with their grandmother. “I am sorry, $6 is not going to do anything for me.”
Today, Grimes does repair work in homes and can see what’s going on in the rest of the city — but not in his Brightmoor neighborhood.
“It’s unnerving,” said Grimes, 47. “Seeing other parts of the city expanded and brought up sometimes feels like some places are being left out. It seems like a lot of money is going downtown while the rest of the communities are fending themselves. It’s very disheartening. It feels like there is inequality.”
Precisely how many people who are doing work in Detroit’s underground economy is impossible to know since it is not being taxed or recorded.
Some have stressed that city officials need to focus on neighborhoods that aren’t getting the same kind of attention that other areas — such as downtown, Midtown and Corktown — have been receiving.
“People are trying to figure out how to make a living,” former Detroit Mayor Dave Bing said. “We’ve got a lot of people in the city who are frustrated, who feel they have been forgotten and are trying to figure out how they become a part of the redevelopment of the city.
“Those are the people who are the fabric of this city, who withstood the test of time and made a commitment to stay here.”
At the Brightmoor Aldersgate United Methodist Church, a free store is open on Saturdays, offering donated clothing, household goods, produce, even essentials such as toilet paper.
The store, an initiative of the Redford Brightmoor Initiative, attracts many of the people who come to know one another and share resources about the community, but also from their homes, such as snacks or leftover pantry items.
“The free store is largely a part of the informal economy because it facilitates these exchanges — exchanges that families need and rely on,” Lendrum said. “But when you don’t have cash and in some cases no water, how do you do laundry? You don’t. You replace soiled clothes with new ones. You replace soiled sheets with new (used) ones. The free store fills a gap, a need in the neighborhood.”
On a recent Friday, a mother, daughter and two grandchildren came to find furniture for an empty home they recently moved into after living in a motel for a year.
Carolyn Brown, 55, moved into the hotel after a fire forced her from her previous home. Her daughter, Santanna, also moved into the motel with her two daughters, ages 5 and 3.
“I got a bed! No more air mattress!” said Brown. “And it looks brand new! I feel blessed. I really do.”