What could equitable development look like in Detroit’s food movement?

Photo by Serena Maria Daniels. Some of the spread at Folk Detroit during the Allied Media Conference’s Dream Cafe in June 2018.

After a winter that felt like it would never end, it finally warmed up long enough to feel good about venturing outdoors one evening in May.

With that opening into spring, I was excited to hit up a new restaurant with a friend and a fellow food writer. I won’t name the eatery in question, he does a far better job of that here. What I will say is that my hopes to while away the pre-summer solstice hours from the patio of an exciting new Detroit eatery and enjoy a delicious meal were dashed when I caught a glimpse of the lackluster menu. Ho-hum apps, flatbread pizzas and flavorless but overpriced burgers and a decidedly “beige” aesthetic (shorthand for bland) set in an unexceptional condo/retail mixed development felt more Irvine, Calif. than Motor City.

The food left a disappointing taste in both our mouths and had my dining companion concerned over the prospect that this sort of unremarkable concept will only continue to spread throughout parts of Detroit that are rapidly redeveloping into formulaic newly-constructed subdivisions void of the iconic architectural character Detroit is famous for the world over.

It’s this type of homogenous change taking shape in metropolises across the country that threatens the dynamic of urban spaces.

Yet, as I chewed on my overly-dry gentrified hot chicken sandwich, I couldn’t shake an optimism that efforts are being made to combat that threat.

And, oh, are they delicious.

A couple of months after the clichéd dining experience, I’m moderating a talk inside the parlor of the Urban Consulate where FoodLab Detroit executive director Devita Davison teases out details of another project in stark contrast to that blah meal at the blah new restaurant: building an inclusive food hall in the Grandmont-Rosedale neighborhood.

The forthcoming eatery would provide space for five FoodLab culinarians, booths, communal tables, and a neighborhood bar at the center of it all. There will be ample space where young families and elders who live in the area, as well as the inevitable visiting hipsters, can dine in harmony. And the best part, because of the very principles that make up FoodLab, principles like focusing on developing the businesses of entrepreneurs of color, this new hall would really be for Detroiters, by Detroiters (a city, which we know, is majority black and brown).

“Be consistent, be humble, be great, working together collectively, start by listening,” Davison told the intimate Urban Consulate audience. “These principles will guide us into our developments going forward, using food as the conduit to create equitable food-oriented development.”

The subject at Urban Consulate came about as members of FoodLab unpacked the lessons learned at the Dream Cafe, a convening of dozens of folks in the culinary, activism, agriculture, indigenous, PoC and LGBTQ worlds at Cass Cafe during the 20th Allied Media Conference. Most who participated in the days-long event described the Dream Cafe as a grand experiment that tested what a more equitable food world that honors identity and culture could look like in Detroit and beyond.

The takeaways after the four-day pop-up were many, from aspiring restaurateurs pledging to source their ingredients from local black-owned urban farms to chefs from out of town leaving Detroit in awe of the city’s legacy of self-determined foodways.

The panel discussion reminded me of others Davison and I have had over the past few months about the food hall she mentioned. In an interview with her in March at the chicly-designed The Commons café/laundromat in Islandview, she and Sherita Smith, executive director of the Grandmont-Rosedale Development Corporation gave me a bit of other background.

The nonprofit FoodLab and GRDC have so far conducted a feasibility study with the help of the Michigan Good Food Fund. The development corporation, along with consultant Urbane Development, has held numerous focus groups and interviews with residents to find out what kind of food they want, how much they’re willing to spend, how far they would travel to get to the food hall. While neither Davison or Smith would comment on where exactly the site could go, Davison says on her end, FoodLab has identified members that could be ideal candidates to fill the spaces and is prepping them for when the time comes to move in.

“When we get ready to break this thing open we already know who’s going in and we’re already getting them ready now,” Davison says. “The space will be highly intentional and highly curated.”

More than that though, the occupants will also have the opportunity to own the building outright down the line.

GRDC will own the building, while FoodLab focuses on operations. Davison says that the idea is to have the occupants of the food hall to eventually take over ownership of the building after maybe a 10-year period. It’s a similar arrangement that GRDC has with Detroit Vegan Soul’s westside location, which opened last year on Grand River Avenue.

“We’re not just doing food for the sake of doing food, we really are going to be having conversations about what does not only land ownership look like or building ownership look like, but could this be a strategy that other community development corporations use as a tool to fight gentrification?” says Davison.

My food critic friend predicts copy upon copy of that banal restaurant we visited back in May. That may be so, but with decidedly more inspired efforts underway that are reshaping the city and its narrative, I probably won’t have time to check them out.

This article was made possible by the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, that’s working to increase quality journalism and help better inform communities.




Serena Maria Daniels

Author: Serena Maria Daniels

Serena Maria Daniels is an award-winning journalist based in Detroit. She specializes in reporting on issues that intersect food, identity, and culture.

Find her one Twitter and Instagram @serenamaria36!

1 Comment
  1. Interesting thoughts, thank you. I live in the SF Bay Area but am about to take a trip to Toledo to explore food culture for a friend’s publication.

    I have noticed how food trucks, a medium with potential to democratize dining, have essentially become mobile tech company cafeterias. In Toledo, others at the publication are wondering how upscale coffee shops and microbreweries serving near identical products can create a cultural center that attracts tourism.

    It really does have to be an intentional process to create a food culture that represents a local area well.

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