A conversation on black space and the importance of dialogue in a changing Detroit

We're sitting in the parlor of the Urban Consulate in Midtown Detroit, talking about space, place, and race. We do this a lot, but this time it's personal — soon we'll have to leave our home in the David Mackenzie House.

"We" is our Consulate team — Chase L. Cantrell, real estate developer and host emeritus; Orlando Bailey, community development advocate and current host; Lauren Hood, cultural placekeeper and most popular guest speaker (also a past trustee of Preservation Detroit, with whom we share the house); and Claire Nelson, Consulate founder and the outlier of this group as the white lady not born in Detroit. (Everyone else grew up in the city. We've all lived in other cities, too.)

It's the summer of 2018. The national news is swirling with debates about incivility and inhumanity in our public life, from Starbucks to the southern border to The White House. This is part of our mission at the Consulate — to bring people together, from different perspectives, to share ideas for better cities. And the most salient idea, the one we return to again and again in our public talks, is how to do more inclusive and equitable development in a majority black city.

The house is owned by Wayne State University, but would not be here today if not for students and community members who intervened to save it, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore it, and recruited tenants to fill it when the university was ready in the 1970s to tear it down. On any given evening, you will find WSU students, faculty, and fellows among the guests in our parlor, alongside guests from across the city and around the world.

This time, the university knows better than to demolish the house (good news!). So they will move it out of the way for the expansion of the Hilberry Theatre next door. But we're told it will sit empty for the coming years as they decide what will go there next. That's a shame. We have a living community here today. We've asked to stay.

In the parlor of the Urban Consulate
The following dialogue, which has been edited and condensed for publication, was taken from a private conversation between the participants on June 9. 

Lauren Hood: If a landlord or property owner finds value in what the lessee is doing, bringing and providing, it would seem they would make an effort to make it work for them to stay?

Claire Nelson: Right. So it’s kind of a message — 

Lauren: That they don’t value what’s happening here.

Chase Cantrell: The way that most landlords define value is monetary. You look at what revenue is coming in, and if you see an opportunity to increase that revenue, you take it.

Lauren: Yeah, but if there was some intention toward preserving existing culture, a landlord would want to work with someone like a Zana [owner of Spectacles, a beloved downtown retailer], because she's an institution. Or something like Urban Consulate, because it also has a reputation as a budding institution. If owners found value in those things, beyond monetary, they'd want to work with you to stay. 

Chase: It's a double-bottom line — the idea you can make money and still do good for the community, right? It's not two things that are mutually exclusive. You find a way to not reap return on investment quickly, so you have a longer-term vision of what return actually looks like. And usually if you do that, and you're "capitalist-patient," you can also have a positive impact on the community. Not a lot of developers and investors are open to that, unfortunately. They’re solely market-driven, they want to get the highest return as quickly as possible to move onto the next investment.

Lauren: I think it goes to who gets credit. Institutions look to create the magic that happens in here organically, know what I mean? I bet you Wayne State could displace the Urban Consulate but then later some concept would emerge where they’re like, “We’re having a space for public conversations on urban planning and city change!” 

All: [laugh]

Chase: But not necessarily, right? They could offer their support and collaboration.

Lauren: Things like the Urban Consulate make universities more attractive. Universities worry about enrollment. And I feel like there’s this new wave where planning and development is sexy, and being engaged with community is sexy. So entities like the Consulate being attached to a university, in my mind, would make the university more attractive. 

Claire: I’m sure they're thinking on a bigger scale, about new modern buildings and centers for innovation.

Chase: I wouldn’t paint with too broad a brush. There are parts of the university that want that kind of development. Then there are folks within the Library System, for instance, who want to open up to the community, and really want to find those connections. So it depends to who within the university structure you’re talking to.

Lauren: I would posit any high school student from Detroit would be more attracted to the university not because of its shiny new steel glass buildings but because of spaces like this, and conversations that happen here.

Claire: Lauren, you said planning and development is sexy. Do you think that’s a thing, really? Do you think there is a growing interest and consciousness about how cities and places are planned? 

Lauren: It could just be a moment in time — as cities and neighborhoods across the country are in their own waves of rapid revitalization, being able to be a part of that work is enticing to people. In particular from people that get to be practitioners and do "top-down" development — but also from people that are subject to the impact from that development. So from both sides, people are like, "How can I participate in this?"

Chase: For different reasons, though. From top-down, it's like, "Hey we have all of this space we can do something with, there’s so much potential to build wealth here."

Lauren: And people looking for their salvation. I feel like there's a lot of people looking for their mission, their life's purpose. And they can totally find some meaning in saving a neighborhood.

Books at the Consulate
Orlando Bailey: Yes! And salvation and revitalization in cities that are predominately black. The people who come in and want to be a part of that — who are they and what do they look like? And how long are they staying? I think that right now, what I'm seeing in Detroit — especially in professional community development, whether you are in the ivory tower or on the ground — it's so transient. Folks are coming in, building their resume to have a Detroit notch on there, to be able to say they did this or that, and then they’re out of here. I’m trying to figure out this whole salvation thing, and why it only seems to happen in black cities? Do white areas need this, too?

Chase: They do though, right? Think of towns like Trenton where the coal processing plant is about to be closed. Or coal mining towns in West Virginia. There are really poor white cities that also need saving.

Lauren: What is it about the black city that makes it so enticing? I read all the websites, all the think-tank articles about development. I'm never reading about some new project in Trenton. What is the sexy that makes the inner-city black neighborhood the place to go get your savior on?

Orlando: I think we are the curators of American culture.

Lauren: Say it again!

Orlando: I think black culture dominates American culture. We attract these saviors. And I think that sometimes the intentions are good. I think what makes a place cool should have lasting ability. But when this revitalization comes, what made the place cool, the people that made the place cool, they're the most vulnerable.

Lauren: Some people want the urban "flair." They're attracted to the city because of the sounds, the sights, the smells. But then they come move here and they're like, "Oh my god, it’s so loud! It smells really bad!"

All: [laugh] 

Lauren: Know what I mean? So you just want to experience "urban lite."

Orlando: That development on Jefferson, what was it? Orleans Landing! 

All: Oh yeah… [laugh]

Lauren: They're like, "How can we be here?" Then they’re like, "Oh shit, all these cars..."

Orlando: Top-down, music loud...

Lauren: We've been doing that for years!

Orlando: Jefferson is like where you wanna show off on a Friday or Saturday night. That’s where you go!

Lauren: That's where you go before you could go to the club, you cruise Jefferson. That’s where you go to commune with your people. You get a 40 and turn the music on. But then when they're living next to it they're like  — [in British accent] —  "Oh heavens, can you turn that down?"

Claire: See, this is why spaces like this matter to me, very selfishly. Because as someone who came to Detroit from outside, it's only through conversation where I understand things I wouldn't have otherwise. For me to see in myself a savior complex, and to unpack that, I needed to hear that. I wouldn't have identified it within myself.

Orlando: You coming in and being able to hear — that’s why this space, in this area, is so important. With a growing white population in downtown and Midtown, we need this space that is unapologetically dedicated to blackness and black thought. We get visitors who get to come in and witness and hear and learn, and look within themselves, and recognize their privilege and check themselves, so to speak. That’s why I think this space in this area is so dope. Because there are times where I get just two or three black folks in the audience, and the audience is mostly white. But I’m Orlando and I'm black! And I’m going to say what I want to say! And they're like "Oh? Huh..."

Lauren: And it's safe for visitors. I feel like there should be Consulate-style conversations in neighborhoods. But I don't think the audience that most needs to hear the conversation will go. I feel like it’s important that a space like this stays within the 7.2 [greater downtown area]. That way practitioners and academics can feel safe hearing these things. I don’t think they would attend stuff if we had a Consulate at Mack & Bewick.

Orlando: That would be sweet!

Lauren: There should be one! But I don't think we would see the presence of "other" as much as we do. There would be less cross-cultural dialogue, and more preaching to choir. Which we need sometimes...

Claire: The thing is, there needs to be lots of spaces, right? That social engineering is tricky, of getting people together.

Chase: You and I have tried to figure this out over time: who shows up for what. Can we predict who’s going to come to a talk? And it’s been impossible, there's no way to know.

On the porch of the Mackenzie House
Claire: I know, right? Last night, the No Passport Required talk was so beautiful — great room, great energy, Gracie [Xavier, of Global Detroit] did a great job hosting. But I looked around and I was mad at myself there were not more white people in the room. I feel that way every talk we do, how do we get a better mix of people? But some things don’t have to be that way. In fact, when Gracie walked in the door, she said she enjoyed the Wakanda conversation that you guys hosted. That's another example of a different kind of conversation that isn't necessarily for everybody.

Chase: I have some black nationalist friends who have come to the space and get upset. They don't want the cross-dialogue. They're like, "Why are black people talking about their issues in front of white people? We need to only be talking to ourselves." And even while this certainly is a space for black thought, some have questioned whether it’s a black space. I think it is, but everyone has their own definition.

Lauren: I would love to get to the bottom of that. What are the criteria that define a black space? I think it would probably be different for every black person you ask. 

Claire: What it is for you?

Lauren: I have questions. I would love to engage a critical mass of people in a process by which we define collectively this criteria. But for me, I guess what I think is a black space is a space where we are not judged. I see a lot of code-switching happening. I participate in it myself — sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. But for me, it would be a place that you would walk in and not immediately feel like your presence is threatening to somebody, that something you do might warrant the authorities being called on you.

Orlando: [snaps]

Lauren: There are a lot of places you go in the city, and we’re hanging out together, and the volume kicks up a notch, and we all look around like, "Oh shit." [laugh] It would be a place where that doesn't happen. I don't know it necessarily has to be opened by black people or have black art or design. It’s more about the consciousness of the folks that are in the room that can set the tone. Wherever we can fully show up.

Chase: In terms of ownership, it’s important that it be black-owned, because otherwise — 

Lauren: It's under threat. 

All: [nod]

Claire: Do you think there is a positive function of white people being a minority in a room led by black thinkers?

Chase: Yes. There have been white audience members here who have said afterwards that they were just here to listen. I asked, "Why didn’t you say anything? I knew you had questions!" And they were like, "It wasn't my time to say something. This is for black people to be openly black and talk about issues. I’m just an observer."

Claire: See, I think that’s good, right? To learn how to just be a guest and not dominate a conversation?

Chase: I think so, too.

Lauren: Mmmhmm.

Chase: Anecdotally, I have some black friends who in these dialogues are like, "Why do white people always come into the space with notebooks? They're taking notes. Why are they taking notes? What are they jottin' down?"

All: [laugh] 

Orlando: They do! They're always so sweet.

Lauren: Lil' Moleskines.

Lauren: Claire puts her computer away...

All: [laugh] 

The Urban Consulate's last parlor talk at the David Mackenzie House will take place Wednesday, July 18, 2018 at 6:00 p.m. The topic: Preserving Space & Place for the Culture led by Lauren Hood with special guests Adriel Thornton, Drake Phifer, and Joel Fluent Greene. Hosted by Orlando Bailey. Thanks to support from Knight Foundation.

Follow @urbanconsulate for their Fall 2018 Series in their next location.

All photos by Valaurian Waller (Instagram: @picvwdetroit).
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