Chase Cantrell, left, founder and executive director of Building Community Value (BCV), and Jason Headen, right, development partner on building projects with Cantrell face Detroit head-on when it comes to Black-led redeveloping initiatives.
Photo credit: Valaurian Waller, BridgeDetroit
What’s Detroit to a Black architect?
Is it standing on the backs of local legends? Paving the way for current architects who know the city like the back of their hand? Or navigating a space as a minority in a majority Black city to tell their stories through buildings when no one else will?
It’s all of the above and then some for Karen Burton and Saundra Little, co-founders and partners in Noir Design Parti, which works to showcase the design, history and projects of Black architects in the city and throughout Michigan.
Black architects blossomed and showed their craft, especially during the beginning in the 1930s when Donald White became the first African American to graduate from the University of Michigan’s School of Architecture. A short time later he became the first Black licensed architect in Michigan, White helped pave the way for others to follow in his footsteps. Launching a firm with a friend and fellow University of Michigan alumni, Francis Griffin, the duo went on to lay the foundation for many of Detroit’s Black architects of today.
In 2018, The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards records lists over 113,000 licensed architects across the country; of those, Michigan has 5,300. According to the Directory of African American Architects, which keeps a record of a growing list of Black architects in the U.S., just 2,300 Black architectural designers are identified in the white, male-dominated industry.
“There aren’t many Black architects now and there were so few back then, but they seemed to find each other to collaborate on projects together. They were really instrumental in being a proving ground and allowing people to get experience,” says Burton.
Little, a partner at Design Noir Parti, agrees and said that the percentage numbers of Black architects haven’t changed in over 50 years.
“We’re roughly two percent of the architecture profession,” Burton said of the Black professional in the United States. “The number is a little higher in Detroit because there is a higher population — it really hasn’t changed much since 1969. That is one of the reasons why Saundra and I started Noir Design Parti. People kept telling us they didn’t know of any Black architects in Detroit. … We needed to make it known and our colleagues known.”
Although Black architects are not the majority, the work is needed and significant. Noir Design Parti moderated a Detroit Black Architects Exhibit & Panel recently presented by Live 6 Alliance and the Detroit Collaborative Design Center (DCDC) at the University of Detroit Mercy.
Described as the hottest, most happening place in Detroit currently is the commercial boom on McNichols (just west of Livernois) with several new spaces under construction.
The collaborative panel discussion in mid-November exhibited the work of Noir Design Parti led by Little, FAIA, and Davis.
Burton moderated the panel of Black architects and entrepreneurs, which included:
- Chase Cantrell (Speramus Partners)
- Acuna Olumba (Detroit Pizza Bar)
- Jevona Watson (Detroit Sip)
- Kimberly Dokes (Dokes Design Architecture)
- Bryan Cook (Berardi + Partners)
- Louis Fisher (Architecture & Urban Design)
“Detroit’s Black architects are creating major works and exciting spaces around the city and elsewhere. We are thrilled to showcase their work,” said Dr. Geneva Williams, executive director of Live6 Alliance. “We hope by exposing their designs and ideas plus some history of Detroit’s groundbreaking Black architects we will inspire more younger Detroiters to pursue work in this dynamic field.”
“As a designer, it is so exciting to feature the work of Noir Design Parti and Detroit’s Black architects here on McNichols and inside Neighborhood HomeBase,” said DCDC’s Ceara O’Leary. “We’re right in the middle of all the new activity along the corridor and the momentum is palpable.”
The work is supported in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and is the first of a series of design and arts events hosted by Live6 and DCDC.
New restaurants and businesses opening soon on W. McNichols include Detroit Pizza Bar, Detroit Sip, the N’Nambdi housing initiative and more, plus, a special pop-up holiday gift market inside Live6’s Neighborhood HomeBase through the end of the year.
Chase Cantrell, founder and executive director of Building Community Value (BCV), is a big part of the Black revitalization movement in Detroit, helping Detroiters bring economic growth to neighborhoods in the city.
Initially, Cantrell practiced corporate and real estate law, helping complete complex deals at a firm, but he felt the need to do more.
“Money and influence were flowing on these big projects; they were led by white developers. They were all white men,” said Cantrell previously to the Michigan Chronicle. “It hit me really hard that I’m in this Black city; most of my colleagues at the firm don’t look like me, but also most of our clients don’t look like me. Essentially, over time, I realized I had to do something that gave more power to us.”
Cantrell left his six-figure job and started his nonprofit, BCV, in 2016.
Cantrell told the Michigan Chronicle recently that something was “wrong with the ecosystem” and he was going to do something about it.
BCV’s pillar resource program, Better Buildings, Better Blocks, is a six-week training course that teaches the nuts and bolts of small-scale real estate development to Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park residents. In 2017, it was awarded a $150,000 grant through the Knight Cities Challenge. Additionally, 300 people have completed the course, and a quarter of them have gone on to start development projects in their neighborhood.
“We’ve had over 300 people go through that program,” Cantrell said, adding that come summer 2022, a Black-owned brewery and taproom, The Enclave, is coming to the corner of Prairie and McNichols in Detroit.
The Ypsilanti-based business is expanding to Detroit to a location built for more room to go around.
“The brewery [owners] we’re working with … are Black and currently looking for other tenants to fill the restaurant spaces. [There will be] two restaurants and two kitchens,” Cantrell said, adding that there is space available.
“These are vacant storefronts along McNichols operated by Black developers,” Cantrell said, adding that he practices what he preaches.
“The philosophy is trying to have a development for and by Black people… that’s the goal.”