Are small black businesses too black for the ‘new’ Detroit?

darnell-small-e1421431925617Darnell Small was never late on his rent. He never caused any sort of disturbance, nor is there any record of any sort of major disturbance ever having taken place in or near his establishment.

The only alterations Small ever made to the Tangerine, the name of his former business which was located in Rivertown next to Atwater Brewery, were the permissible sort where he made noticeable improvements to a property that was in pretty bad shape when he first signed the lease in 2010. Small had a respectable older adult-aged clientele that reportedly didn’t cause any problems for the residents or nearby businesses.

Before things started to go haywire, Tangerine was a seemingly nice club in a nice part of town where nice people often went to relax and have a good time. The club was often packed, the parking lot was full, and bookings were plentiful. Business was good, and Darnell Small had no reason to think that wouldn’t continue. He figured if you take care of your business, do the right things, don’t be stupid, then there was no reason for worry. He knew about fellow business owners who let themselves get behind, or who weren’t paying attention to the bottom line, and then got caught. It was a shame, but they couldn’t really complain too loudly when they left the door open on themselves.

Today, Darnell Small is unemployed. Right now he is sitting on a sofa in a modest apartment in Beverly Hills calmly recounting the details of how things came to be this way. His business is gone, and Small is trying to figure out what comes next as he comes to terms with what he believes was an intentional and focused effort to shove him out of his property to make room for a neighboring business that he notes doesn’t exactly cater to the same clientele as Tangerine once did.

“I’m just a regular businessman who’s been gentrified out and been displaced,” said Small.

The question some black Detroit business owners are beginning to ask themselves is whether or not their interests are being considered at all as this New Detroit begins to grow and evolve. Are they even a part of the plan? Some point to areas such as Harmonie Park/Paradise Valley, where the Michigan Chronicle and Real Times Media will soon be calling home, as evidence of a focused effort to provide opportunities for black business growth. Others, such as newly-hired Planning and Development Director Maurice Cox, emphasize the importance of encouraging the development of black neighborhood businesses as an integral part of neighborhood revitalization throughout the rest of Detroit that isn’t the center of gravity that has become Midtown or downtown.

But to Darnell Small, and other business owners like him, these good intentions and plans don’t help their particular circumstances much. The question is whether Darnell’s story is an anomaly or part of a much more widespread and disturbing pattern. In the July 15, 2015 edition of this newspaper, it was reported that:

“According to a 2002 report entitled ‘African American Downtown Detroit Building Owners Survey,’ released in January of that year by the Investment Task Group of Robert C. Polk & Raymond F. Parker, survey report consultants, there were 16 black-owned buildings in downtown Detroit at that time.” However, “today, in 2015, that number has dropped by more than 75 percent.”

The sheer percentage drop in black-owned buildings downtown isn’t necessarily proof of discriminatory intent, but it can’t help but raise the question. City Councilwoman Mary Sheffield has taken on the issue of protecting minority businesses in Detroit who she believes are the collateral victims of discrimination and gentrification by issuing a council resolution encouraging policies that promote the inclusion of small minority businesses in Detroit’s revitalization. On August 2, Sheffield was featured on an American Black Journal panel discussing the issue of how small black businesses are being discriminated against, hosted by Stephen Henderson, that also included Eric Williams of the Wayne State Law Center and Darnell Small.

And early in July, Bert’s Marketplace, one of Detroit’s most long-standing jazz clubs and a cherished cultural institution, held a large fundraiser as one part of a strategy to keep Bert’s from being auctioned off, but in the end Bert Dearing’s highly publicized battle did not wind up in his favor and he did indeed lose the property to auction in late July, although it will be more than a year before he actually must vacate the premises. Unlike Small, Dearing did fall behind in his rental payments for a period due to health issues, which some say made his protests invalid. But the loss of such an important part of the city’s cultural history is a painfully high cost to pay for a brief delinquency, even if technically correct on the merits.

The Tangerine Lounge, first opened in 2010 at 237 Joseph Campau in Detroit’s Rivertown neighborhood, was not the same sort of cultural institution as Bert’s, but it was nevertheless a very popular spot that was frequently packed. According to the terms of his initial 5-year lease, which expired on June 30 of this year, Small had the option of renewing his lease for another five years until 2020 provided that he did not violate the terms of the initial agreement. And that may well have happened if not for the new landlord – a landlord whom Small says wanted Tangerine’s location for his own business next door. When Small declined the first rather embarrassing offer of $5,000 to purchase the property, and all subsequent offers up to $20,000 – which he still considered an insult – then that’s when the war began.

Court records show that Small was ordered to be evicted from his property in September of 2014, and that his appeal was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction on March 31, 2015. Small said that he had been charged with destruction of property and non-payment of rent, neither of which was true. He had never been late on his rent, and the only changes he made to his property were cosmetic improvements to make it more appealing, something for which he had received approval from the previous landlord. So Small hired another lawyer, and this time a judge agreed with Small that he had been illegally evicted and on May 20, Small was awarded back his property by Judge Brian Sullivan. But even after the favorable ruling he had trouble getting his keys returned to him so that he could operate his business. Throughout the entire struggle, Small said the lights were removed from in front of his property, making it pitch black at night, and ‘No Parking’ signs suddenly appeared in front of the Tangerine as well. He was told he could no longer have live music nor could patrons be allowed to dance. The lengthy periods of time when he was forced to close proved extremely costly, he believes purposely so, because “they were trying to tie it up. They needed me to default on my rent.”

Small finally relinquished the property at the end of May. What comes next is something he has not yet figured out. Court appointed receiver Thomas Ryan, whom Small says was responsible for much of the harassment he experienced, did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

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