UPDATE: Two links to this blog entry, which has been a fascinating experience so far. The Black Bottom excerpted this post while MLive included it in their West Michigan links roundup. The MLive trolls this way come, and oh lordy.
Last night, there was a panel in which Detroit and Grand Rapids heavyweights mingled on stage to discover what each of the two cities could learn from each other. Among them was Carl Erickson, who owns a custom software firm just down the street. I respect Carl greatly, and in typical Carl style, he laid it out, no gloss: In his travels to Detroit, he appreciates the diversity of entrepreneurs. He comes back to GR, and it’s all white. Carl doesn’t think it’s an issue of where are minority entrepreneurs; he thinks they aren’t here.
It was jarring, not least because of the bluntness. The absence of diversity is fact, and it’s a big topic (too big?) to spring on stage. In tackling the topic, one GR panelist said this was her biggest grievance with the city. The conversation moved on, and I left.
It’s been simmering since last night and during my morning walk. Working for a 30+ year-old nonprofit, I’m not technically an entrepreneur, but I think of myself as a self-starter. So I considered myself an appropriate test case: What would it actually take to make me stay in GR?
Lack of diversity and good public transportation are also my biggest peeves with this city. BUT I’ve experienced less racial ignorance here than Portland, less blatant racism than in Ohio, less physical threat than Lesotho. But I don’t see myself nor my family reflected in this population and would have to go through great lengths to do so. There are Asian immigrant populations in GR (2.4% Asians), but does the next generation stay? GR is foaming with entrepreneurial opportunities, but there are only a few options in each stripe of service and entertainment. Perhaps when you can’t even see yourself reflected in the population, GR’s strikes are harder to downplay, and you leave.
Here’s one theory I’ve come up with: There are tons of minority entrepreneurs in the city. They open grocery stores. Restaurants. Various services, but they’re not located in the urban core. You know what else? They’re not targeting the white population. Entrepreneurs exist, but we are blind to them (I include myself in this because of my Asian-American duality). What compounds this is how difficult it is to reach those businesses.
In San Francisco, minorities outnumber white people, but white people are still the biggest racial group, just like the rest of America. The difference is that those minority-led businesses are accessible. They aren’t located at the edge of the city where public transportation is either impossible or would take hours (one of the problems in Portland, starved of diversity even more than GR). Some are enclaves (SF’s Chinatown to GR’s Grandville Ave). The difference, though, is that they’re connected. It’s not particularly out of my way to go to the sandwich counter in Japantown than La Boulange off Fillmore. The Mission is predominantly Hispanic. It’s also located in the very desirable SF core and a walkable area in which to live.
Maybe it’s not about cultivating minority-led businesses that cater to everyone but connecting ones that already exist through effective city planning and growth that, in the eyes of customers, allows the city to meld.