Of Race and Restaurants

Letter From the Editor


Years ago, our daughter looked around the suburban restaurant where we were eating and said: “There’s a lot of white people in here.” 

Once we stopped laughing, we saw her point. The lack of diversity was a far cry from what she was used to. Our neighborhood in North Rosedale Park and the schools she attended reflected Detroit’s demographics. 

It’s been said that Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America. But in Detroit, apparently, so is happy hour.

Last December, The Detroit News columnist Nolan Finley sparked a lot of social media comments by asking: “Where are the black people?” He wrote: 

“Nobody wants to inject race into the marvelous story of downtown’s rebound, driven largely by young creatives who grew up in the suburbs … [but] It’s a clear red flag when you can sit in a hot new downtown restaurant and nine out of 10 tables are filled with white diners, a proportion almost exactly opposite of the city’s racial make-up.”

The reverse is true, too. In the 1917 American Bistro on Livernois, at times we’ve been the only non-African-American table. 

David Rudolph, an African-American colleague who works in public relations, wrote me an email: “This hit home for many blacks in Detroit. Nolan pointed to something we only talk about in private.”

On his company’s site, dericsonpr.blogspot.com, Rudolph made many good points — about restaurants, revival, and more: 

“While Detroit is undergoing this unprecedented revival … few want to talk about race, race-relations, or social-economic inequality — especially those making business investments. ... Because it’s bad for business, that’s why. … Know anyone rushing down to Ferguson [Missouri] to serve up 100 beers on tap or curated craft cocktails?” 

But those who stayed in Detroit during hard times deserve a little credit, too, Rudolph wrote:

“We held down the fort despite the warning ‘Don’t forget to turn off the lights.’ … We ensured Detroit remained worthy of saving and rebuilding.” 

That leads to the “gentrification” issue. Finley believes that it’s a non-issue, “an absolutely ridiculous concern in a city that needs so much rebuilding.” 

But how the city gets rebuilt — and who pays for it — is worth exploring. Ryan Felton of the Metro Times blogged about how $15 million for a new hockey stadium is coming from the state’s education fund: 

“Whether you agree that public tax dollars should be used for the project, or decry the idea of subsidizing a billionaire’s arena, the fact is that schools in Michigan could use all the help they can get. Even if it is only $15 million.” 

Felton considered long-range implications: “…it’s a positive sign to see young millennials moving into the city. But what will those transplants do when they have children … and want to send them to school — in Detroit?”

Great point. People in my neighborhood (of any race) won’t tolerate underfunded, underperforming schools. Like us, they’ll seek charter alternatives and/or fork out for private schools. 

I get that nobody wants to rain on the Detroit’s parade of new development. But race and equity — and who sits at or waits on what table — are certainly issues worth further discussion. 

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