Thursday, September 6, 2007

"When the Levees Broke" - an American tragedy

With the recent commemoration of the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I decided to finally rent the highly-praised documentary "When the Levees Broke", directed by Spike Lee. If you haven't seen this DVD yet, then you don't know half of the story that led to the devastation in New Orleans, and the aftermath of one of the most horrific natural disasters in American history.

One thing that you'll learn after watching the film is that the hurricane and subsequent flooding weren't the worst thing that happened to the residents of New Orleans, especially in the mostly black Lower Ninth Ward. It was the paltry response by various government agencies at all levels that was the real tragedy.

People going without food or water for days. Thousands who were unable to escape the hurricane stuck in the Superdome and the Morial Convention Center in deteriorating conditions. Evacuees being put on planes, being separated from their families, and not knowing where they were being sent. Insurance companies not paying out homeowner claims because (allegedly) damage to homes was caused by floods, and not by the hurricane itself.

After watching "When the Levees Broke", it is hard to imagine that had these people not been mostly black and largely poor and working class, that such indignities would have taken place. That taxpaying American citizens were treated the way that they were during this time of crisis is beyond belief. This film will sadden you immensely. And then, it will drive you to anger.

This DVD should be required viewing for all Americans, but especially for those who believe in the myth that everyone in this country is treated fairly.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Black businesses in Detroit - why are they so hard to find?

One of the strangest ironies of being in the Detroit area, particularly in the city, is that can be difficult to find a black-owned business. In a city with an population that is at least 80% African-American, one would think that locating a black-owned business would be a breeze.

Yet, with the exception of barbershops and beauty salons, there are very few types of business establishments that blacks control in any significant measure. It's even difficult for us to find black hair care products from a black-owned business; more often than not, such products are now sold by Korean merchants.

This is not to say that black businesses don't exist in Detroit. According to federal government statistics, there are an estimated 25,000 black-owned businesses in the Detroit area. So, where in the world are they, you may wonder?

Many of these businesses are not the traditional retail businesses that consumers are used to shopping at, like hardware stores, gas stations, and grocery stores. Some of our businesses tend to be those that are geared towards supplying products and services to corporations and government institutions; there are numerous examples of successful black-owned businesses in the Detroit area that fit this profile, including many of the Black Enterprise 100 businesses.

And then there are many smaller, home-based businesses that provide everything from gift baskets and catering services to cosmetics, Tahitian Noni juice, and Melaleuca. These businesses are obviously less visible because of their lack of retail presence.

It's not as if black Detroiters have never known the retail market. Up until the 1950s, black businesses were quite visible, particularly in what were known as the Paradise Valley and Black Bottom districts. However, these areas were demolished as new federally-funded highways were constructed directly through these neighborhoods in the name of "urban renewal". Detroit hasn't had a significant black retail business presence since.

Slowly, though, things are changing. Just a few days ago, Detroit-based black real estate developer Herb Strather announced the re-opening of the Hotel St. Regis, after purchasing the hotel with a group of black investors and spending several millions of dollars in renovations. And black restauranteur Frank Taylor has been leading the way with his acclaimed dining establishments Seldom Blues and the Detroit Breakfast House and Grill. However, in a city like Detroit, there should be many, many more examples of these types of businesses.

I would love to spend more of my hard-earned money with people from my own community for a change. It just shouldn't be so hard for me to do so.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Detroit Public Schools - Time to put the focus back on academics

Is it just me, or does it seem as if when it comes to Detroit Public Schools, we seem to hear about everything else but academics these days? After all, I thought the primary purpose of a public school system was to educate students to prepare them for higher education or for the world of work, not to manage (or mismanage) millions of dollars and employ thousands of people.

Recently, there have been a number of stories in the press addressing alleged financial improprieties within the Detroit Public Schools district. The most recent instance involves several so-called "contract schools" that were established by mostly by pastors and community organizations specifically to recruit the thousands of school-age Detroiters who have dropped out of DPS and are not enrolled in any school. The State of Michigan Department of Education recently ordered DPS to repay $6 million, citing legal issues in the way that the contract schools hired instructors.

And then, there's the on-going and well-publicized investigation into the millions of dollars of questionable wire transfers made from the district's Risk Management office to Long Insurance, a long-time DPS vendor.

Yet, when is the last time you heard anything about academic progress, programs to improve student achievement, or recent notable accomplishments by DPS students?

I'm sure that in a district as large as Detroit, with approximately 110,000 students, great things must be happening on a daily basis. Unfortunately, DPS needs a much better marketing and public relations effort to showcase the academic achievements of its students.

One could argue that the local mainstream press is the problem. Rather than seeking out positive stories about DPS, some say that the media chooses to only focus on controversial topics, such as the above-mentioned stories.

However, I checked out the district's own web site, and I was disappointed to see how little DPS toots its own horn. There are a few accomplishments noted, most notably the strong showing of a combined team from Murray-Wright and Western High School students who competed in an international robotics competition. However, the list of student accomplishments is scant compared to the list of non-academic awards and accomplishments achieved by the district, including, ironcially, the 2006 Award of Financial Reporting Achievement.

Makes you wonder what matters most at DPS these days.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

It's on! The civil trial of former DPD officers vs.Kwame Kilpatrick

Four years after salacious rumors and allegations of a wild party and marital infidelity, the civil trial of two former Detroit police officers vs. Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick began earlier this week. Only in its third day, the trial has already gotten tongues wagging, keeping those following the trial waiting for what promises to be a series of juicy details and outrageous tales.

If you're not already aware, Gary Brown, a former deputy police chief, and Harold Nelthrope, a former member of the mayor's security detail, filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit again Kilpatrick and the City of Detroit. In the suit, Brown and Nelthrope allege that they were both unfairly dismissed from the Detroit Police Department for investigating allegations regarding a supposedly wild party at the mayor's official residence, Manoogian Mansion, that ultimately led to the death of a stripper, Tamara Green, who supposedly performed at the party.

Frankly, I'm surprised this case even made it all the way to trial. Surely, I thought, there would have been a settlement at this point to avoid a public and embarrassing trial that the media would otherwise cover like white on rice. Nevertheless, here we are.

Perhaps Kilpatrick feels as if he has nothing to lose, no matter how this case turns out. Here's how I see it. Obviously, if he is victorious in his defense, he will be able to put the allegations that have hounded him for years behind him once and for all.

On the other hand, the jury may rule in favor of the plaintiffs, which could very well happen. Since this is a civil trial, after all, the burden of proof for the plaintiffs is lower than it would be for a criminal trial. Unlike a criminal trial, where a unanimous verdict is required to convict, only a minimum of eight jurors out of twelve are needed to successfully rule in favor of the plaintiff. And perhaps, most interestingly, only one of the twelve jurors is an African-American, which may not bode in Kilpatrick's favor.

If Kilpatrick loses the trial, he still may win in the court of public opinion, at least among African-American Detroiters. After all, he was elected to a second term just less than two years ago by a comfortable margin. The mayor and his supporters may try to portray him as the victim of a biased jury that's not exactly comprised of his peers, garnering sympathy from his constituents.

This isn't unprecedented; just look at what happened with Marion Barry, former Washington, D.C. mayor, when he was caught on tape smoking crack, and subsequently served a prison sentence. Barry presented himself as a victim of a federal government setup, gained much of the black community's sympathy, and was later elected to City Council, and then ultimately, to another term as mayor of D.C. Kilpatrick could employ a similar strategy should the jury rule against him and the city.

Win or lose, Kilpatrick could still come out on top when all is said and done.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

One Road, Two Events, Worlds Apart

On one end of Woodward Avenue, starting in Ferndale and extending north all the way through Pontiac, the annual rolling street party officially known as the Woodward Dream Cruise is taking place today. An estimated one million people line up along the Dream Cruise route to spend all day admiring thousands of vintage cars, mostly American-made models from the 50's and 60's, evoking memories of the times when cruising up and down Woodward was practically a rite of passage for many suburbanites.

At the southern-most point of Woodward, where the avenue intersects with Jefferson Avenue in the city of Detroit, another annual event that attracts at least 100,000 mostly African-American visitors is also taking place, the African World Fest, presented by the Museum of African American History (MAAH). African World Fest is a three-day long showcase of the diverse diaspora of African culture, including fraternity and sorority stepshows, artists, and vendors selling all things Afrocentric.

One road, two events, worlds apart.

The Dream Cruise has received extensive coverage from local media during the week that leads up to the event, even though the actual cruise didn't officially begin until today. Significant portions of local television newscasts are dedicated just to covering this event, which has grown significantly from what was supposed to be a modest fundraiser just a few years ago.

Meanwhile, the African World Fest, despite its 25-year existence, barely even registers on the media's radar screen. And in the one article that I saw in today's Detroit News that covered the event, the news was not good. Apparently, this year's event was at the risk of being scaled back and relocated to the grounds of the MAAH, because the event's organizers (the MAAH) were not initially able to raise the $400,000 required to put on the event. The City of Detroit provided the event organizers $200,000 this year to help cover the expenses, but this funding is not promised for next year.

Personally, I don't even pretend to be a classic car buff, and could care less about the Dream Cruise. And I believe that the attention that the media gives to this event, which has very little positive economic impact for Michigan, is excessive. However, I wouldn't be as bothered with this if the African World Fest wasn't treated like a stepchild, year in and year out, having to always unsuccessfully compete with the Dream Cruise for attention. How is it that, in a metropolitan area with a significant African-American presence, an event such as the African World Fest get almost completely ignored by mainstream media?

One would think that an event like African World Fest would be a magnet for corporate sponsors trying to reach black consumers. But for whatever reason, the organizers have not attracted the necessary amount of sponsorship dollars needed to keep the event financially viable. To me, it seems appears that changes are needed at the MAAH's fundraising office, as well as its board of directors. Board members of non-profit organizations are usually highly-influential and well-connected members of the community who are supposed to have the muscle to generate donations for the institutions they serve.

In contrast, the Dream Cruise has consistently been able to raise sponsorship dollars, even in Michigan's troubled economy.

I just hope that by this time next year, both ends of Woodward Avenue, from Oakland County to the Detroit riverfront will be bustling with activity, whether it be the roaring of engines or the beating of African drums.

One road, two events, worlds apart.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

A real Detroit evening at Chene Park

Last night, my wife and I enjoyed a wonderful evening at Detroit's Chene Park (not to be confused with Shain Park in Birmingham). Detroit's own R&B sensation Kem was the headliner of a concert that included an opening act by Eric Roberson, and a high-energy performance by R&B diva Chaka Khan.

If you ever want to experience the true flavor of African-American culture in Detroit, then a concert at Chene Park is just the place to witness it first hand. Situated right on the Detroit river just a mile or so east of the Ren Cen, Chene Park is a covered outdoor venue that has been one of the hottest spots for R&B and contemporary jazz concerts for the last several years, attracting mostly African-American audiences.

Folks were definitely dressed to impress last night, getting about as dressed up as you possibly can without putting on suits and formal evening gowns. Brothers were sporting their best silk or linen outfits, often with a matching pair of gators. In true Detroit player fashion, fedoras, complete with a feather on the side, were definitely not uncommon amongst the gentlemen. And the sisters were not to be outdone as well, as it was clearly evident that more than a few had spent some time earlier in the day at the local beautician.

At Chene Park, you don't even really need a ticket to enjoy the shows. However, having a boat can certainly come in handy. We saw no less than two dozen boats bobbing in the waters directly behind the stage (a very cool sight to see!), and everyone that we could see on board appeared to having the time of their lives. Heck, I didn't realize so many of my people were into boating. I figured that after that last big boat ride a couple of hundred years ago, we would have given that a rest.

As for the action inside Chene Park, there were the typical trappings of a Detroit concert geared towards blacks: the photographers offering to take pictures of concert goers against cheesy airbrushed backdrops (e.g., the Renaissance Center, a Bentley, Biggie and Tupac, and other icons of ghetto-fabulousness), the brother selling single roses wrapped in plastic (giving the fellas with their ladies major guilt trips!), unusually long lines at the bar full of folks waiting to get their drink on.

Oh, yeah, and there was a concert too! Eric Roberson was actually pretty nice, though not a whole lot of people were paying much attention (heck, half the audience wasn't even there yet when the show started). Chaka Khan actually was better than I expected, though at times she appeared to be a little disoriented. Nevertheless, her voice was amazingly strong.

And then there was our homeboy Kem, who the crowd was really there to see. Along with his six-piece band, Kemistry (all Detroit musicians, by the way), Kem put on a strong, inspiring, and emotional show, and the audience was all in. Detroit love was clearly flowing in all directions last night, as the audience sang many of his songs word-for-word, including "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "Find Your Way". But it was his raw and emotional performance of the highly-personal "Heaven" that was clearly the highlight of the evening.

Nevertheless, when it comes to going to a concert at Chene Park, the show isn't just on the stage. Just being there is half the fun.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Reflections on Cass Tech

If you haven't figured it out already based on my screen name, CT4Life, I am a proud graduate of one of Detroit's great institutions, Cass Technical High School. Legions of its alumni, some famous (musician Jack White, violinist Regina Carter, Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick), a few infamous (auto executive John DeLorean, Kwame Kilpatrick), and many others less known, have made their mark locally, nationally, and even internationally.

An alumni group is holding a series of events this weekend to mark the 100th anniversary of Cass Tech, which will likely resemble an "all-years" reunion. Scheduled events include a tour of the new school building constructed in 2005 (don't get me started on that!), a gala at the Detroit Historical Museum, and even a concert performance by Morris Day and the Time. Unfortunately, I just became aware of these events recently, and cannot attend.

The memories of my four years at Cass Tech are mostly fond and certainly ever-lasting. I knew that I was at a special place starting with my first day of ninth grade. Walking towards the school building, which rose nearly eight stories high, I couldn't believe this was even a school at all, but more like a grand office building not much different from the ones located further downtown. Entering high school was already an intimidating enough experience for me. I was a year younger than most of my freshman classmates, making everyone else seem gigantic to me in comparison. I had to take two city buses to travel miles away from my familiar northwest Detroit neighborhood to this strange, run down area called Cass Corridor a world away. And despite an incoming class of about 900, I knew virtually no one. Nevertheless, I knew that this is where I was supposed to be.

As one of the two most selective schools within the Detroit Public School system, Cass Tech wasn't just for anybody, and I knew it. Heck, I felt privileged to be there, even though I felt I deserved it, thanks to my strong academic background and entrance exam scores. For once, I finally felt as if I was in an environment where there were so many others just like me, people who had a willingness to learn and a desire to accomplish great things in their lives. I no longer had to be afraid of what people would think of me because of my interest in academics.

Years later, I'm even more confident that I made the right decision to attend Cass Tech. The solid foundation that I received there prepared me well for college, graduate school, and a successful technology career.

And I don't mean to sound like a snob, but in the circles that my wife and I tend to navigate in, when we meet other African-American professionals in their 30s and 40s who were raised in the Detroit area, more likely than not, they attended Cass Tech, or perhaps a few other schools, such as Renaissance, M.L. King, Southfield, Southfield-Lathrup, or University of Detroit High School. I find it odd that I hardly meet people who attended other DPS schools these days. And I can't even remember the last time I ran into one of my classmates from middle school who didn't attend Cass Tech. I sometimes wonder if my life would have been different had I not attended Cass Tech.

I will always have a soft spot in my heart for my beloved high school. I hope that today's Technicians have an appreciation of the legacy that they have inherited, and that they will continue to uphold the standards of excellence that are required of all who accept the challenge of attending Cass Technical High School.