The Detroit City Council, in defiance of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, likely will move forward with plans to create an “African Town” in the tradition of Chinatowns and Little Italys nationwide, even though the issue has turned into a racially divisive economic-development proposal.
In July, the council resolved to build up a section of the city devoted to African and black American literature, cuisine and art, which Mr. Kilpatrick endorsed. He vetoed the resolution, however, when it became clear that the council’s plan would allow only black businessmen and investors to use the $38 million earmarked for the project.
Mr. Kilpatrick argued that the resolution is both racist and unconstitutional.
“It’s not the African Town proposal. We like the idea,” said Howard Hughey, spokesman for Mr. Kilpatrick. “But what they are proposing is to create a publicly funded private entity and give one man $40 million to use and distribute to investors, and it is unconstitutional to do that based on race and [the resolution] says very clearly that it would be.”
The nine-member council — which has two white members — voted 7-2 to override Mr. Kilpatrick’s veto and passed the resolution. In addition, they resolved that Detroit is a “majority-minority” city that is underserved.
Council member Kay Everett, who is black, said the first resolution was “ridiculous” and opposed the African Town resolution for being illegal and divisive.
“It is reverse racism, and you can’t right a wrong with another wrong. It’s reparations with public money,” she said.
The resolution isn’t legally binding, and Mrs. Everett, council member Sheila M. Cockrel, who is white, and the Asian, Hispanic and Arab chambers of commerce are working to have the resolution rescinded during a third and final vote on Oct. 11. The three chambers said they will file a class-action lawsuit against the city if the council chooses to move forward beyond the resolutions.
The city’s African-American Chamber of Commerce also opposes the bill, calling it unconstitutional, but has said it wouldn’t file a lawsuit.
Typically, Chinatowns, Little Italys and other locales, such as Spanish Harlem in New York, were created by immigrants in a time when they were not accepted in other areas of the city and forced to build their own businesses and communities centered on their respective cultures.
Recently, several cities, including the District, mayors and developers have used the ethnic tag to promote economic development, but never to this extent and never in favor of one ethnic group over another.
The council paid Claude Anderson, a radio talk-show host and author of “Powernomics,” a book on the strength of black spending power, $112,000 for a feasibility study last year, Mrs. Everett said.
She said she was “extremely taken aback” that the study Mr. Anderson delivered appeared to be “a cut-and-paste” from his book and included no information on costs, construction and investment possibilities.
The bottom line is, she said, “There is no plan. There is no land. There is no money.”
Mr. Hughey said the mayor has no problem meeting with Mr. Anderson as an investor, but said to date, there seems to be nothing concrete behind the idea.
“We’ve met with Dr. Anderson to determine his interest, and he is basically a developer right now, but we’ll leave the door open when he comes to the city with startup capital,” he said. “Clearly, the council will not proceed with it, and I think they understand now that it could open us up to a host of lawsuits.”
Other council members seem less concerned about the legal ramifications and more interested in the underlying issues of the country’s history of discrimination and playing up black political and economic power.
“The resolutions speak to a real and critical issue that cannot be ignored — the economic disenfranchisement of African-Americans, who represent 80 percent of Detroit’s populace,” said council member Kenneth V. Cockrel Jr. on his Web site.
He was scornful of the reality that other ethnic groups such as Mexicans and Greeks have thriving business districts in the city.
“But Detroit does not have even one successful African-American business district,” he said.
He made it clear that the resolutions have no force of law, but he supports the idea and wants to continue working on it.
“Some of that additional work will obviously have to include addressing the legal matters raised so a workable plan for implementation can be developed,” he said.