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Can the Black Middle Class Rebound?

The middle-class dream is getting a Motown makeover with down-and-out Detroiters reinventing themselves and rethinking the path to cash comfort.

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Before Harris opened her doors, she signed on as a client at TechTown Detroit, a nonprofit business incubator jointly formed by Wayne State University, Henry Ford Health System and General Motors. The “entrepreneurial champion” she was paired with got her up to speed on everything from the fine points of running a retail establishment day-to-day to advertising and building a brand.

She and her business partner husband, in their own way, are trying to make certain that others are riding on their coattails. They host open mic nights and let local artists showcase and sell their works from the coffeehouse, which also buys its supplies from local coffee-roasters, bakers, sandwich and salad makers. Its occasional “pop-up” culinary guests have included a chef who makes sweet potato waffles, hot off the griddle, but has yet to secure her own commercial space.

“I love Detroit. Detroit is my home,” Harris says. “I’ve seen the changes... all the things that have gone down. We wanted to be able to contribute and to definitely support the redevelopment of Detroit.”

On that front, it’s clear that there’s difficult work ahead.

“Detroit got hit hard,” says metro Detroit financial expert, nationally noted speaker and author Gail Perry-Mason. “To recover, what we need to do is look, really look, at what has happened... We have to be creative. We have to turn our passion in payment. I believe we can do that.”

That’s been the strategy for former museum administrator Polk. Despite her financial challenges, she’s drawing on the lessons learned in hard times. She’s clearer now about what she needs and doesn’t need, she says. After the next steady paycheck arrives, she aims to follow an ethos of living simply and prudently.

“My husband has gotten a lot of good home-cooked meals out of me now that we eat out far less than we used to… I’ve gotten to spend some valuable with my family,” she says. “I’ve volunteered in the community. I’m trying to be as active as I can right as I’m trying to earn again, to pull my weight.”

She is doing more of what nurtures her on a gut level, a spiritual level, which includes earning another degree—this time in anthropology. That ramps up her appeal as a prospective hire. And two new museums, she says, have already approached her about coming on board.

“Of course, I didn’t like that separation from my last full-time position,” Polk says. “But I had to think about this as an opportunity to do some other things. I had to open myself up to new things coming my way. Without that, it’s impossible—in a time like this—for anyone to keep moving forward.”

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