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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.

In the past five years of tough economic times, African Americans have lost 30 years of economic growth, essentially obliterating the middle class. But the middle-class dream is getting a Motown makeover with down-and-out Detroiters reinventing themselves and rethinking the path to cash comfort.

After four years without a regular paycheck, paid vacations and other benefits of full-time employment, Nubia Wardford Polk readily rattles off how she’s been making do while waiting to land her next steady position.

She budgets when and how often to fill up her gas tank, then charts her errand-running and other trips to get the most out of every gallon. Whenever possible, she bikes. If the rare whim to shop strikes her, she scouts the clearance rack at secondhand stores.

Never before has Polk, holder of dual college degrees, had to be so thrifty. Her bail-bondsman father also owned restaurants and an insurance adjuster’s firm; her mother was one of two Blacks integrating what then was an all-white nursing staff at Henry Ford Hospital. Born into middle-class comfort, she’d maintained that living standard throughout most of her adulthood.

But, in 2008, things changed. Smack in the midst of the Great Recession, which officially started in December 2007, Polk got laid off as a Charles H. Wright Museum administrator. Her family lost roughly half its income. And like many Blacks of her by-the-bootstraps background in Detroit—once on a shortlist of U.S. cities boasting considerable Black affluence—joblessness gave Polk her first true and enduring taste of financial hardship.

“I’ve called upon all the skills I have and then some,” Polk, 50, told B.L.A.C. Detroit Magazine, explaining how she’s managed to stay housed, clothed, fed and meet other basic needs through what has surely not been an economic recovery for all since the recession’s official end in June 2009.

“What I’ve been forced to do,” she adds, “is to really go inward and use my creativity to do a lot of things.”

An avid cook, former schoolteacher and professional dancer, Polk, post layoff, has pieced together several freelance gigs. She caters meals, organizes and preps for dance recitals, substitute teaches in public school classrooms, plans art exhibits and sells art for local artists.

To be sure, that sort of self-sustaining resourcefulness is essential in an era when cash flow is a major problem for wide swaths of Americans—an even bigger challenge for Black Americans. Almost 70 percent of Blacks nationwide who grew up middle-class will not fare as well economically as their parents did, according to last year’s Pew Charitable Trusts’ Economic Mobility Project. The National Urban League’s annual State of Black America report concluded in 2012 that the Great Recession obliterated the last 30 years’ worth of economic gains by African Americans.

 

Struggling city

Amid that backdrop, Detroit has faced its own conundrum. This city’s estimated median household income fell from roughly $29,500 to $26,000 between 2000 and 2009; in the latter year, by comparison, the figures were $51,190 for the entire nation.

With a population of roughly 706,000—more than 80 percent of them are Black—Detroit lost 150,000 jobs between 2000 and 2008. That owed largely to ongoing upheaval in auto-manufacturing, the industry credited with creating the bulk of Detroit’s Black middle class, beginning in the 1950s.

The widespread ripple effect of car industry troubles has included a decade-long decline in Detroit’s population that recently began leveling off—and a precipitous fall in tax revenues that keep afloat all levels of government and play a vital role in developing and recruiting job-yielding businesses.

“Those Blacks who survive in Detroit will be the Blacks who, No. 1, are not so dependent on government jobs,” says Ronald Brown, a Wayne State University professor whose research has explored the intersection of race, religion and American politics. “The paradox is that most of us in this area, including myself, still work for state government, city government, federal government … “ he says. “My hope happens to be among younger African Americans who are in college right now. This may be the group that emerges five to seven years from now” as part of a resurgent Black middle class employed across the span of both the private and public sectors.

Moving forward

To be sure, observers say, any such resurgence will require some next-level collaborating, networking and innovating among Detroiters of all ages.

“My dad worked at Chrysler, where, as the saying went, you did your 30 years, got a pat on the back, a gold watch and a pension check for the rest of your life. Those days are history,” says financial adviser Muata Mahluli, 43. “Going forward, people will have to recalibrate in many ways, even as it concerns their age at retirement; how they make and manage their money leading up to retirement.

“One of the upsides of this crisis is that many people are recalibrating. They’re forced to take more initiative. They’re going into business for themselves, doing their own thing. That can be good for Detroit.” 

After suffering a small series of layoffs over the last several years, former journalist Anthony Neely, 53, a communications consultant and author, is among those carving their own path back to financial solvency. His trajectory is marked by, among other moneymakers, ghostwriting two upcoming biographies of prominent Black Detroiters who built multi-million-dollar businesses pretty much from scratch.

Their stories are instructive for these days, says Neely, who last fall got hired as press secretary to Detroit Mayor Dave Bing. His second stint as a mayoral staffer, it grants him a distinct view of what Detroit is up against and where its potential talents lays.

“The whole world knows that this recession was very tough on Detroit, but Detroiters are tough and resilient,” he says. “I’d say, in general, that the Black middle class is focused on the city’s revival and on doing what they can to make it happen. The people who are investing in Detroit right now—and that includes all ethnicities and every part of the globe—recognize the city’s potential.”

 

Ready for revival

That ideal of a rebounding Detroit resonates with Torya Blanchard, 34, and Pat Harris, 54, who both left jobs on other people’s payrolls to open businesses in the city’s Midtown district. As relatively newly minted entrepreneurs, they say, they look beyond Detroit’s abandoned and boarded-up buildings, its foreclosed homes, its blight and shaky economy to envision what they are betting will be a brighter future.

As entrepreneurs, they have taken advantage of what, for now, are lower commercial rents and other perks.

“This has been almost a shape-shifting for me. And for a lot people, shape-shifting is important and necessary right now,” says Blanchard, a former high school French teacher and Paris, France-based au pair. As the recession kicked in, she opened Good Girls go to Paris Crepes café in a 48-square-foot space that was vacant for five years. She recently opened Rodin restaurant in the same historic Park Shelton condo complex.

Blanchard says, fortunately, both businesses are thriving. She’s watched as her own kin have lost jobs and struggled to land new positions paying the kinds of wages to which they were accustomed. This economy has forced many to consider becoming their own bosses—something she says is scary and exhilarating.

"I talked to this one woman at a friend’s bar that I go to after I leave my own business at night," Blanchard says, noting the woman’s many questions about her own future. “I said, ‘Why don’t you bend your own reality and make your life what you want to it to be?”

Says baby boomer Harris, who spent two decades in human resources for colleges and universities before launching The Bottom Line Coffee House less than a year ago, “We looked at what was needed in the community, then went about the business of making things happen,“ Harris says. “I’m born and raised on the West Side, over by Central High. I graduated from Cass Tech... And I believe, as the saying goes, that ‘the Lord closes one door and opens another.’”

 

Redeveloping

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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