What will happen to Detroit

The front of Russell Street Deli in Eastern Market Detroit

I wrote the following while eating breakfast at a friend’s diner and feeling frustrated about the state of affairs for small business owners here with Russell Street Deli closing forever this weekend:

The recent ravenous real estate purchases in Eastern Market are only the beginning of a much larger wave that’s coming for us. We largely didn’t mind downtown getting purchased and restored by billionaires because skyscrapers are usually the stuff of titans. We don’t typically imagine ourselves buying, fixing up and using huge towers. Watching these big buildings get filled back up with life and work was sometimes thrilling but with a handful of missteps and unkindness to those who were still living there.

The changes of leadership in Eastern Market were different. They hit us square in the gut.

This is because these are a series of small buildings and businesses that we identify with – and empathize with – that had their world upended without an ounce of their consent. Small family-owned companies. Eateries founded by friends. Eastern Market was where you came to get affordable healthy food without the pretense of a supermarket or expensive restaurant to get in the way. It’s the commons where you came to feel connected to life in the city and all the wonderful people in it. For many it’s also a weekly journey to feel connected with the habits of their ancestors.

This economic steamroller won’t stop at the border of the market. It will continue on to each and every neighborhood that promises a sizable financial return on the backs of the heartful artists and plucky entrepreneurs who brighten the corners. It will consume and commoditize each and every thing we love until they all become just stories of these great things that used to be.

How do we protect the small things that made Detroit the city we love?
We must work to support and supply our small businesses so they may fight against these titanic forces. Not just to survive but to thrive in this new world.

Each and every dollar you spend at a small business is cherished more than you could ever know. I’ve stayed awake entire nights worrying about how I would make payroll the following day; refreshing our sales minute by minute to see if we’d make it. In those moments I would feel so much hope when a customer put their faith in us and booked our services. Each and every ticket we sell is noticed and loved.

I have a local small business friend that has a notification sound on her phone for each time she sells something to remind her that people care about what she does and that her daily struggle is worth it.

When you buy something online from a large corporation you’re just making some spreadsheet in Seattle look a little bit better. What you get in convenience you trade away in soul.

We can fix this. It’s not too late no matter what the headlines say. There are people this very moment waiting behind counters hoping you come in and value what they do. They’re hoping their dream is worthy of your patronage and that they’re not wrong about the whole damn thing.

These small business owners need to have the economic strength to purchase and own their own buildings. Until we are all owners we will be pushed further and further from the neighborhoods we call home. Without ownership we are merely generating value for people we may never even meet. Without ownership we’re just visiting here.

With ownership our sweat and toil is rewarded over time instead of taken by others. With ownership we can build the community infrastructure needed to organize and grow together in a deliberate way. These deep connections come from proximity plus time plus will – and nothing else.

What will happen to Detroit is entirely up to us.