Finley: Black inclusion in Detroit’s comeback still lagging

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

One year ago I asked the question of downtown Detroit, “Where are all the black people?”

The answers caught me off guard. There was a lot of anger from those who felt I was needlessly injecting race into the positive story of Detroit’s comeback. Some heads nodded in agreement that the clientele of the hot new bars and restaurants downtown was overwhelmingly white. African Americans informed me that they were here, but I wasn’t looking in the right places.

In nearly 16 years of writing this column, nothing has generated such an intense response.

The piece seemed to accelerate a conversation already underway in many parts of the city about the emergence of two Detroits; a downtown that is young, white and prosperous, and neighborhoods that are predominately black and neglected.

Finley: Where are the black people?

Shirley Stancato, head of New Detroit Inc., was the person who started me thinking about the lack of inclusion in Detroit’s comeback. She wanted to raise a warning about the consequences of exclusion, whether intentional or not. She was passionate to the point of anger.

She told me this week she believes the warning was heeded. “It forced people to talk about it, and talk is a wonderful thing,” Stancato says.

So is action. Stancato ticked off a long list of new efforts to bring downtown’s boom into the neighborhoods by supporting minority business development, including those by the New Economy Initiative, the Downtown Development Fund, Southwest Solutions, Detroit Future Cities, Tech Town and the Detroit Economic Growth Corp.

“There are plans, and the plans are being implemented,” Stancato says. “Leaders of organizations with the ability to make changes are on board. There are still some gaps, but it is important to note that things are moving. People of color are participating in that movement.”

She credited the Detroit Regional Chamber, under the inspiration of its chairman, Mark Davidoff, for making the Two Detroits issue a centerpiece of policy conferences in Detroit and on Mackinac Island. Sandy Baruah, chief executive of the chamber, said city neighborhoods will dominate the agenda of the February conference.

“People are talking about it, and there’s a realization that it needs to be addressed,” Baruah says. “People used to say ‘we are post-racial and don’t need to worry about this.’ You don’t hear those comments much anymore.”

Mayor Mike Duggan addressed inclusion head-on in his State of the City address, added a staffer to develop specific strategies around neighborhood development and continues to talk about the divide between downtown and the neighborhoods.

And yet, despite dozens of new bars and restaurants opening over the past year, downtown still gives the appearance of a mostly white enclave.

“This region is 20 percent African-American, and I don’t think very many places reflect that,” says Dennis Archer Jr., who opened Central Kitchen off Campus Martius this summer. “You don’t see 20 percent African-Americans in very many of them. We have a diverse customer base because we have diverse ownership. But that’s not the norm yet.”

Archer says part of the challenge remains convincing middle-class blacks to return to Detroit, both to live and to play.

“The people moving into lofts and condos downtown are predominately young white kids,” he says. “Empty nesters looking to come downtown are predominately white couples. It is not as easy to bring African-Americans back from Canton, Bloomfield, Troy, Ann Arbor.”

But it’s vital to do so.

“If you want to have a real world-class city, it needs to be as diverse as possible,” Archer adds.

Downtown doesn’t need fewer white people; it still needs more African-Americans, which shouldn’t be such a challenge given the city’s demographics.

Bridging the gaps between downtown and the neighborhoods is a long, deliberate process, says Craig Donnelly, director of Wayne State’s Detroit Revitalization Fellows program.

“We are seeing some interesting ways people are starting to work with each other,” says Donnelly, citing as one example the Core City Stories program, which attempts to use storytelling to preserve the historic identity of the city’s neighborhoods.

“They are building spaces to talk with each other, and that’s an important first step toward inclusion.”

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