As welcomed as Detroit’s economic recovery is, and as residents and business owners embrace the return of thriving businesses to the city’s core, several major issues remain an impediment to the city becoming the world class city that so many are hinging their hopes and futures on.
Black-owned businesses are fighting a brutal battle to be included in the rebirth of downtown. Many, as in the case Gerald and Marilyn Watson of Mo Better Blues, who after making a $257,000 investment in the popular eatery and lounge in the Grand Circus Park are at risk of having the business seized and their doors shuttered at the hands of some not so well intentioned investors, who are claim the property and the business for themselves.
On a recent lunchtime visit to Mo Better Blues, I was struck by a very volatile exchange when four very determined owner/investors who came to stake their claim, no matter what the cost to Gerald and Marilyn Watson, the mother and son team who literally built the business from the ground up. The property owners flanked by an attorney and a court appointed receiver came to seize the property and all of its contents, essentially putting the current tenants out of business.
Now, I am too often prone to dismiss claims that white people want the city back and blacks relegated to marginal living in neighborhoods, many of which are not beneficiaries of the trickle-down effect from downtown investments, but here was proof of the claim playing out right in front of me.
It was not long before the meeting with the charge of covetous investors, took a relatively vitriolic turn and the accusations and fight for the building’s contents ensued. Remember that $257,000 investment made in the building at the corner of Adams and Park Ave., well as the Watsons poured through the list of more than 150 items purchased — items that they’d hope to take with them, negotiations deteriorated as the building owners, the attorney and the receiver made it clear that they intended to retain almost everything the tenants brought to the space, including tables and chairs and even the small decorative light coverings that hung from the ceiling.
To add salt to the wound, when popular religious leader and community advocate Horace Sheffield attempted to introduce himself and explain his relationship with the establishment’s owners and making it clear that he represented concerned citizens of Detroit, he was summarily dismissed by the receiver Ryan, who without looking up from the list of bar items he’d come to take replied sarcastically, “I appreciate that.” When Sheffield requested that Ryan show his some disrespect and acknowledge him, Ryan shouted for him to “Get out.”
In addition to the complications imposed by the property owners, Mo Better Blues’ business success appears to have been intentionally hindered as the building was obscured by construction scaffolding for 11 and half months of the 13 months the business has been open. Located just around the corner from the iconic Cliff Bells and the popular Bucharest restaurant, residents and visitors looking for hotspot in downtown for good food and music, found it extremely difficult to find the restaurant and bar which was hidden from view. The scaffolding precluded many from who were searching for the club from finding it.
And for Mo’ Better Blues owners Gerald and Marilyn, the removal of the unsightly scaffolding, the thrill of being seen and owning a thriving business was short lived as they come to the realization that there may be two Detroit’s emerging in the financial turnaround. One that encompasses many of the city’s older and more distressed outlying neighborhoods, and a central city Detroit, which may not include black owned nightclub establishments for anyone’s enjoyment.
Meanwhile prominent black Detroiters in-the-know continue who patronize the club and frequently hold special occasion parties at Mo Better Blues, will have to search for a new venue for relaxation and enjoyment, but chances are it won’t be in downtown Detroit.
This is an ugly and disturbing scenario, we’ve seen play out too often.
Just as the city turns the corner on prosperity, it’s apparent we still live in a divided city.