The lament of the longtime Detroit business owner.
Back when Metro Times was located in downtown Detroit, before our inglorious exile to Ferndale, I used to walk a few blocks up to Greektown to pick up lunch. My journey would take me out of the Blue Cross-Blue Shield campus, past the block-long Greektown Casino, up to Monroe Street, one of the last remaining outposts downtown of traditional street life. The individual buildings, owned by individual proprietors, each hosting individual businesses, harked back to an earlier time in Detroit when human scale was undisturbed by the giants of enterprise who tread on it today.
I'd walk by the corner of Monroe and St. Antoine streets, where a busker played on the southwest corner as usual, banging out blues chords with a heavy hand and wailing for passers-by. I'd seen him several times before, and liked the guy's style.
On this day, however, there was another guitar player set up catercorner on the northeast curb, playing with an amplifier. I decided I'd passed my unplugged blues man too often without giving anything, so I tried breaking the ice with a joke.
"Here's a dollar," I said to him, "since your competition over there went electric."
He looked up and me and didn't take the bill. Instead, he said, "You keep your dollar. Because you don't understand what we're trying to do down here."
I was struck dumb. A busker refusing money?
He told me, "See, you think that man over there is competition. He's not. What we're doing here is we're trying to create a destination. If more people play music, more people will come to hear music. And more people coming to hear music is better for everybody. So you just hold on to your dollar and think about what it is we're trying to make here."
Chastened by that rant, I walked on down the street to get a sandwich for lunch.
That rant has stayed with me a long time. I wish I could track down that blues man, because he understood Detroit in a way its biggest business leaders do not.
We in Detroit presume that, in order for a business to succeed, competition is bad. From the lowly brick-and-mortar greasy spoon operator complaining about the food truck outside his door to the billionaire developer who wants to vertically integrate the parking, restaurants, and residential components of his campus-style development, we seem to have lost sight of the way thousands of individual decisions and enterprises create an actual city. The more small businesses are on a main drag, the more different sorts of people walk down that street. And more different kinds of folks on the street attract newer businesses. At a certain point, it reaches a critical mass. And that ineffable quality, that "urbanity" that people have long tried to inject into Detroit through subsidies and tax-increment financing districts naturally comes into its own.
Instead of fighting a decades-long battle against neighboring businesses or new ideas that seem threatening, our business leaders should embrace the new small businesses in their midst. Instead of trying to be the king of the hill, the last remaining business, the sole landowner in a given area, our titans of enterprise should loosen their schemes to create monopolies and let others stake their claims right in their back yard.
Given Detroit's dire straits over the years, I suppose it's only natural that business leaders would develop a bunker mentality, that they're going to be the last man standing even if it means they practically assure they're the last business on the block. But it doesn't have to be that way. Not anymore. We don't all have to be in competition against each other. Maybe call it co-opetition, the idea that by working to foster more individual businesses along Detroit's main streets, we hasten the city's rebirth more completely. One need only look at the "towns" of Detroit — Corktown, Midtown, Mexicantown — to see this at work right now in the many inventive restaurants and bars opening each year. (It's worth noting that Detroit's craft food and drink scenes are notoriously self-assisting and almost devoid of ruthless competition.)
Yes, Detroit's business leaders could learn a thing or two from the lowly street buskers. The more small players, the more all those small choices draw people looking for plenty to choose from. And even the biggest players could benefit — if they'd simply understand it well enough to see that.