The narrative for quite some time when it comes to Detroit is that there are very few jobs to be had, and that the majority of businesses that are truly successful in this city right now are not those owned by African Americans. And when you look at the dominant headlines concerning Detroit’s revitalization, the focus is overwhelmingly on Detroit’s downtown and what’s wonderful in Midtown – neither of which is exactly recognized as the blackest parts of a more than 80 percent black town. The latest restaurants, the hottest nightspots, all seem to be concentrated in one relatively small geographical area. Black folks are being systematically sidelined in a rigged game while the white guys get to play first string on an open field designed by them for them.
That’s the more popular narrative, anyway. City Council President Pro Tem George Cushingberry, however, begs to differ. Strongly. It’s not that there aren’t enough successful black businesses in Detroit, but rather that nobody seems to care.
“Conservatively in Detroit we have over 10,000 black businesses,” he said, while sitting in the dining room of one of many of his favorite local establishments, The Crab House, a relatively new black-owned restaurant near 7 Mile and Evergreen that opened in 2009.
Indeed, a Huffington Post story published nearly two years ago in July of 2014 said much the same thing, focusing on the fact that it is actually black businesses in Detroit that are powering the revitalization, even though you’d never know it by most of the news coverage.
“Stories that claim entrepreneurs are building, revitalizing and even saving Detroit focus primarily on white professionals, often younger and new transplants to the city, a trend that’s palpable and frustrating for locals. When journalists and readers criticized the Times for leaving blacks out of its Corktown story, the paper’s public editor addressed the lack of diversity in a follow-up, and the writer said she regretted not including a black-owned business. (A more recent Times story takes a wider-ranging view.)
“It’s not difficult to find a black business owner to speak with, though. There are more than 32,000 in the city, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures from 2007. Many, particularly those who have kept their businesses going on shoestring budgets, feel excluded from conversations about Detroit’s revival and overlooked when it comes to getting access to funds and resources.”
More specifically, from a national perspective, black-owned businesses have been virtually exploding for the past decade according to a Feb. 2011 report by the U.S. Census.
“From 2002 to 2007, the number of black-owned businesses increased by 60.5 percent to 1.9 million, more than triple the national rate of 18.0 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Survey of Business Owners. Over the same period, receipts generated by black-owned businesses increased 55.1 percent to $137.5 billion. …Among cities, New York had the most black-owned businesses, with 154,929 (8.1 percent of all the nation’s black-owned businesses), followed by Chicago, with 58,631 (3.1 percent), Houston, with 33,062 (1.7 percent) and Detroit, with 32,490 (1.7 percent).”
That number grew again significantly between 2007 and 2012, expanding the count of black-owned businesses nationwide by 34.5 percent from 1.9 million to 2.6 million.
Detroit may not be Number One, which some might still point to with distress since it remains the blackest big city in America. But then again, considering the near insurmountable odds Detroit has been battling for so many years, the fact that Detroit still ranks fourth in the nation for black business density might be considered somewhat remarkable. Strong support of these businesses might also be considered an opportunity to broaden the success – and the boundaries – of Detroit’s comeback tale.
“When I was in Tampa, I went to see how many African American-owned bars there were in Tampa. Just bars. There was one, in the whole city of Tampa. Here we have thousands of black businesses, but we have been so led to believe that we ain’t got nothing that we never experience it,” said Cushingberry.
“It’s the same thing with contractors. People don’t realize the kind of contracts that African Americans have with the city that are multimillion dollar contracts. For example, to tow automobiles it’s very lucrative. And we have like 8 or 10 African American companies that are doing that. The marinas are under management by a black company. Nobody would even think that we have black companies doing those sorts of things. Just millions and millions of dollars go to African American contracts. And the demolitions; 1 out of every 5 is to a black company or to a minority company. You go show me another city in America where African Americans have more economic clout than they do here. I put what we have in Detroit up against everybody.”
Although figures from the Census indicate that Detroit is not the only large American city where black businesses have found a way to thrive, Cushingberry’s message that black-owned businesses in Detroit deserve considerably more recognition than what they are receiving still holds. The other part of that message, says Cushingberry, is that there are many more jobs in the city than what some folks seem to think. The bigger problem, as painful as it may be to hear, may be finding enough employees ready and willing to work in those jobs.
“That’s been the most difficult. Getting the personnel. And I post [on Facebook] all the time,” said Eric English, co-owner of The Crab House. “I post that there’s a rib dinner, and 65 people will like it. I post that we’re now hiring and 7 people will respond.”
Eric’s younger brother Damon, [Eric is the oldest, Charles, who came up with the idea, is the middle brother], recounted how he stood up in front of a church congregation of 500 people on Detroit’s east side and invited people to apply for jobs that were available at the restaurant’s east side location.
“Two people responded,” he said.
On the positive side, however, all three brothers are quick to emphasize how well they have been received and embraced by the local community, who keep their business humming and constantly draw an ever increasing base of new customers through word-of-mouth. To date the Crab House has done no paid advertising, relying only on their loyal customer base, their Facebook page, and Instagram. The result has been customers that come on a regular bi-weekly basis from as far away as Toledo, a brand new location in Warren near I-696 and Van Dyke, and a highly valued community connection.
Still, the English brothers claim they have too often been the target of what they claim is unwarranted police harassment that they believe stems from a persistent disbelief – even in Detroit – that a black person can operate a very successful business without there being some form of illegal shadow operation to keep it afloat.
“Being in business here, on 7 Mile and Evergreen since 2009, I’ve experienced more tribulation from the Detroit Police Department than I have with Johnny Thug and Joe Thug. Johnny Thug and Joe Thug have never done a thing to me. Not a thing to me since we’ve been here. Nothing but show me love,” said Eric.
Added Damon, “Since we’ve been here, I’d have to say that each one of us has been pulled over by the police at least 15 times within 50 feet from our front door.”
“I don’t know why,” said Eric. “I think there has always been the strong assumption that a black man can work and operate a business without having some illegal aspect that’s funding what you’re doing. And we had none of that. And it still exists. Even this year.”
“Everybody out here who’s running a business and keeping it alive, they’re not doing something illegal to make it happen,” said Damon.