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A Small Spark: Detroit and Redeveloping the Black Economy

By James Martinez

Rufus Bartell is high on Detroit’s continued momentum even amid COVID-19. The entrepreneur and owner of the clothing boutique Simply Casual continues to help lead the redevelopment of the Avenue of Fashion and thinks Detroit can serve as the model for redeveloping Black America financially. The President of the Independent Business Association discussed, entrepreneurship, racial justice and equity with the Detroiter. 

Excerpts edited for clarity and length. 

How is the Avenue of Fashion doing? 

The Livernois corridor is doing much better. One of the smartest things that we have done is to install this new streetscape. As a result of this new streetscape we are starting to see a robust population in terms of vehicular travel and foot travel. But it’s still a secret citywide and regionwide. I think more people should come over here and they would be pleasantly surprised that you have a beautiful corridor emerging, surrounded by some great historic neighborhoods. 

We have had conversations about race and inclusion in the past, is it different this time? 

It is different and it feels different. I think people are starting to understand it from an economic and financial standpoint. I think corporate understands that in order for America to be its greatest you have to have full participants from all its talent. When we begin to rebuild urban America and you have these businesses thriving, that’s when you see the greatest return on investment as employment goes down, as the rate on unemployment goes down, as the rate of crime goes down and opportunity increases. That’s going to be the biggest payoff. It will offset some of things America spends billions of dollars on trying to fix, like poverty. 

If people want to build a more equitable society, what 

Our white brothers and sisters have to co-lead this (achieving equity) effort and do it unapologetically. For the people who have goodwill and understand that all people are created equal, they really have to play a very robust role in leading this process. When we are talking about redeveloping Black America from a financial and economic standpoint Detroit should lead the way. We have everything we need in this marketplace. If Detroit has to be the example and other people need to model themselves after Detroit, then we have to do that. 

It is one thing for a bank to say that they are lending, but the box by which lending is executed sometimes is so stringent because of the legacy costs of inequities does not allow many black-owned businesses to even qualify. We need to create a smart mix of something that protects the institutions for repayment while at the same time making financing more flexible so it can include more people applying. If we didn’t fit in the box yesterday, and if that box hasn’t changed, what makes you say we are going to fit in that box tomorrow? 

James Martinez is a freelance writer in Metro Detroit.