Peter Moskowitz for Al Jazeera America

A bus tour highlights Detroit’s black economic recovery, resilience

Tired of media profiling white-owned shops in an 82 percent black city, a group decided to spotlight black businesses

DETROIT — When a school bus pulled over on a street in midtown Detroit on a recent Saturday and dropped off about two dozen black women carrying cameras and tote bags, headed to stores marked with multicolored balloons out front, the sight turned some heads in the mostly white crowd having brunch at one of the neighborhood’s popular cafes. According to the organizer of the tour group, that’s kind of the point.

A few months ago, when Carole Watson realized there was little media attention paid to black-owned businesses in Detroit, she set out not only to create a tour but also to make a statement about being black in the rapidly changing city.

“I just said to myself, ‘I don’t want to hear another story about the renaissance of Detroit and not have it include my people,’” she said. “God has created enough for everybody. So why do we have to work so hard for exposure?”

Detroit is 82.7 percent African-American, according to 2011 U.S. Census figures, the most recent available. Yet if you were to tour the city through the pages and websites of the local and national media, you might get the impression that its business are almost all owned by white people. The city has been in the spotlight for the last few years as it made its way through the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

With that increased attention has come myriad profiles of the city’s businesses, detailing how, despite long odds and amid financial ruin and physical decay, creative people have found a way to thrive in Detroit. But Watson and others say the media seem to equate the recovery of Detroit with being young and white. (See here, here, here, here and here.)

Watson, 68, is a retired public school teacher who has lived in Detroit for the past 50 years. In January she convened a group of about 10 friends at the Collective, a meeting space and support group for entrepreneurs and business owners housed in an old Tudor house on Detroit’s East Side. Her idea was simple enough: She wanted to create a tour of black-owned businesses.

“We’d see a new business in Detroit, and we’d be excited about them, but we’d go back a few months later, and they’d be closed,” said Debra McIntosh Rhodes, one of the founding members of the tour. “So we stopped complaining and started doing something.”

Detroit has about 32,000 black-owned businesses, according to the Michigan Black Chamber of Commerce — increasing slightly compared with five years ago but rising far more slowly than the growth rate in black-owned businesses nationally. Many of them are run by older people who may not be savvy in social media, and others have budgets too limited for much spending on advertising. So Watson and her team began calling up everyone they knew and put a call out on Facebook and other networking sites for any business that might want to be featured on the tour. Within days, the group received hundreds of responses from individuals who wanted to attend a tour and from businesses hoping to be featured — clothing boutiques, spas, bookstores, bakeries and restaurants.

A few weeks later, Watson and her collaborators hired a school bus from a black-owned bus company and began Us Too Detroit. Their first tour was in April, and tickets, priced at $20 each, sold out. Their second tour, in May, sold out weeks ahead of time.

“People had no idea these places existed,” said Stephanie Dickey, the owner of Stef-n-Ty, a clothing boutique on Detroit’s East Side that was a stop on the first tour. “Even the people who lived right in the midst of them.”

The name, Us Too, speaks to the political ambition behind the tour. Its organizers say the bus rides are meant to highlight not only black businesses but also the plight of black Detroiters. While downtown and midtown Detroit are booming, Detroit’s outer neighborhoods, where most of the city’s residents live, are still struggling with foreclosures, a lack of jobs and poverty. Some evidence suggests that many of the programs meant to help reinvigorate Detroit’s economy have favored white residents.

“[The city] will subsidize everything possible and do everything possible to get one white person into our downtown core,” said Tonya Allen, the president of the Skillman Foundation, a large nonprofit that works closely with the city on revitalization efforts. “How much do [they] pay for one white person that [they] would never pay to keep four black people?”

Janet Jones, 78, owns Source Booksellers, in a commercial corridor where several white-owned, hip shops have cropped up in the past few years. Her store was one of the stops on the last tour. “Newspaper articles, videos, photos all give the impression that business, art and living life is something new to Detroit,” she said. “It’s new to those who just moved here, but it’s not new to us.”

Rodrick Miller, the head of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., a nonprofit that plans much of the city’s development, said, “I agree with that perception. The press puts so much focus on the hipster, startup, new, white businesses. But the lifeblood of the community is small businesses in the [outer] neighborhoods.”

While the organizers behind Us Too have a serious message, the actual bus ride contains very little pontificating.

On the most recent tour, the shoppers — all women, all black and most retired — talked with one another in rows of two as they were driven around to about 10 businesses. When someone revealed it was her birthday, the group burst into a rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

“This is a way for me to reconnect with the city,” said Claudette Crockett, a 65-year-old who grew up in Detroit but lives in the suburb of Romulus. “It’s a renaissance.”

Watson said she has been impressed with the interest in Us Too: The tour next month will probably require a second bus. But she and her collaborators say they don’t feel Us Too is done growing. They want to diversify who goes on the tour, showing not only older Detroiters but also young African-Americans who might not frequent many black-owned businesses and white transplants who might not know those businesses exist. Their ultimate goal is to create a directory of every black-owned business in Detroit.

“We want to let people who know what’s already here,” Dickey said. “And show them that if the city grows, everybody can win.”

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