Forty Acres, and a Business District: Plans for an African Town in Detroit Fell Apart over Charges of Racial Division and Immigrant-Blaming

By Samuel, Leah | Colorlines Magazine, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Forty Acres, and a Business District: Plans for an African Town in Detroit Fell Apart over Charges of Racial Division and Immigrant-Blaming


Samuel, Leah, Colorlines Magazine


The story of African Town is one of infant mortality. It was meant to be a black Detroit business enclave, but it died before it had a chance to live. And, like the death of any black child in a place like Detroit, the causes of African Town's demise were a combination of defects it was born with and the actions--or inaction--of those who might have nurtured it to health.

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The proposal to create a business district for entrepreneurs of African descent has divided officials, residents and activists in Detroit, Michigan, a city whose population is 82 percent African-American, according to the 2000 Census. Some call the plan racially divisive. Others say it will empower a largely disadvantaged population.

New Solutions

In June 2003, JoAnn Watson, a local activist and former executive director of the city's NAACP branch, created a task force to explore the possibility of a black business area. Newly sworn to a City Council seat she won in a special election, Watson was following up on a promise to help create more business opportunities for African Americans. Made up of local business owners, developers, investors and activists, the African Town Task Force met weekly to discuss economic growth and business development ideas for the city's residents.

Neighborhoods of black-owned businesses had existed before in the city. In the post-Black Migration, pre-Civil Rights movement days, segregation and racism left African-American Detroiters with little choice but to build and patronize local small businesses in the areas where they lived. This created places like Paradise Valley, a collection of entertainment-oriented businesses such as nightclubs, along with small shops, restaurants, hair salons, funeral homes, doctors' offices, law firms and other businesses on the near southeast side, home to several thriving African-American neighborhoods.

But then came a combination of changes, beginning in the late 1960s.

White residents left the city in dramatic numbers, as more black families moved in. The auto industry, which had put Detroit on the map, began moving factories and workers out of the city in the 1970s. Having once attracted black families from the South with the promise of jobs, the carmakers were now following whites out of Detroit. A series of freeway projects cut through old, established African-American neighborhoods. Paradise Valley fell victim to the Chrysler Freeway. Like the other freeways, the Chrysler allowed commuting by mostly white, suburban residents to and from jobs in downtown Detroit.

Meanwhile, in 1973, the city celebrated electing its first African-American mayor, hoping that the browning of Detroit would begin a new era of African-American political and economic power.

But by the 1980s, black prosperity was undermined by a dropping population and high unemployment. City leaders promised solutions, but many of them involved gentrifying poor neighborhoods. Some of the business development was actually City Hall helping large corporations open offices downtown. Meanwhile, retailers and others opened stores and other businesses on the outer edges of the city, taking advantage of cheap land and city tax breaks, while seeking to attract suburban customers and investors.

These changes did little for most residents. And by the 1990s, the population of the city was falling to below one million and was about 90 percent African-American.

Today, Detroit consists mostly of quiet residential areas with active block clubs and owner-occupied homes, and places that used to be like that. The worst of them are crumbling and home to poor families and high crime. New development, including sports stadiums, townhouses and office buildings, thrives downtown, which is also dotted with boarded-up high- and low-rise buildings.

By the new millennium, Detroit desperately needed new solutions.

A Majority Minority

Claud Anderson is what some might call a controversial figure. …

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