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Is Detroit Ready for a New Queer Business District?

A new Detroit LGBT Chamber of Commerce survey invites community input

Marketplace Story

A new survey from the Detroit Regional LGBT Chamber of Commerce poses a question Board of Directors President Kevin Heard says local LGBTQ+ community members haven’t ever been asked by government entities, politicians, urban planners or developers: Is Detroit ready for an LGBTQ+ business district?

Visitors and newcomers to Detroit seek out Detroit’s LGBTQ-friendly neighborhoods frequently, Heard says, but they don’t know where to go. “Visitors come and they’re like, ‘Where’s your gay area?’ They’re at the hotels downtown or staying with families in the actual neighborhoods of Detroit, so going out to a suburban area like Ferndale is not desirable,” he notes. “They’re visiting, maybe without a car — they’re looking for an area that’s walkable, near their hotel, one that feels safe and where they can see people like themselves.”

Heard and the Chamber want to get a feel for how LGBTQ+ city residents feel about creating a new LGBTQ+ business corridor, one created with intentionality and an equity-minded approach. “Some cities have these neighborhoods, but they’ve become gentrified — are they still conducive for people of marginalized identities within the LGBTQ+ community to truly be themselves in those spaces?” he ponders. “We’re talking about creating a Utopian space, where there are people of all identities being able to live, breathe and work in an area that is made for everyone.”

To get there, Heard says it is vital that every voice is invited to the table. “It’s time for us to have this conversation. Detroit is well-positioned for this compared to other places because the standard of living here is so much more affordable than other major metropolitan areas, yet we don’t necessarily have a destination for LGBTQ+ people to go to,” he says. 

Another key factor Heard sees as a benefit for Detroit as an ideal location for a new LGBTQ+ business district is related to the racial makeup of residents here. Over 80% of Detroit residents are Black, according to 2020 Census data — only two cities in the country (South Fulton, Georgia and Jackson, Mississippi) boast a higher percentage of Black residents and both are much smaller than Detroit. An LGBTQ+ business district in Detroit would organically reflect the kind of intersectionality other regions envy and attract tourists from outside the city. 

Heard’s hope is that establishing a new LGBTQ+ district in Detroit would lead to a space inherently more authentic than some neighborhoods he’s visited. “You could put a rainbow crosswalk anywhere, but if it’s not in a place created with intentionality, if it's not a place with LGBTQ+ ownership and investment, is it sustainable? I think Detroit can actually do that very well.” 



Detroit’s Historic ‘Gayborhood’

For a time in the post-World War II era, downtown Detroit boasted a long list of gay bars, but by the mid-1950s, the gay city population was swept up in the mass migration northward, including to the Palmer Park neighborhood. But by the ‘90s, the mostly-white segment of this population moved to places like Ferndale and Royal Oak, which remain primarily white. While the area around Six Mile and Woodward is still a minor hub for the Black queer community, there isn’t a true LGBTQ+ business corridor in the city limits today.

The late Greg Piazza, the author of “A History of Detroit’s Palmer Park” and a resident of the neighborhood in the ‘80s and ‘90s, told WDET in 2016 that he remembered a truly gay-centered experience. “There was one building we called ‘The Barracks,’” he told the outlet. “48 apartment units, 46 of them were gay men.” Piazza recalled eight bars, two gay-friendly bookstores and two gay-friendly restaurants. In time, though, the neighborhood changed. “I just turned around one day and it was like everybody was gone,” Piazza told WDET. “All my friends were gone.” Many, he said, had moved north to Ferndale. 

Historian and MSU professor Tim Retzloff, who has extensively studied the migration of LGBTQ+ folks across Michigan, told WDET in 2016 that Palmer Park was still a gay neighborhood — “It’s just now an African-American gay presence and not a white gay presence,” he noted at the time. Eight years later, LGBT Detroit still holds parts of its annual Black LGBTQ+ Pride celebration, Hotter Than July, in the neighborhood, as it has for the past 30 years, but few would argue that Palmer Park is still a truly queer-centered enclave. 

In some ways, the Chamber’s vision for a new LGBTQ+ district would pick up where the Palmer Park of the ‘70s and ‘80s left off, but there’s an important distinction in a renewed effort championed by the DRLGBTCC —  building a queer presence that reflects Detroit’s Black culture and a more expansive reflection of modern LGBTQ+ identities, including trans voices that have historically been left out of the conversation. 

Jeynce Poindexter, who serves as co-executive director of Trans Sista of Color Project, case manager with Ruth Ellis Center and a board member of the Michigan Chamber for Reproductive Justice is happy to hear the Chamber is seeking to create more intentional spaces for the community to thrive. “Some may think it’s pushing for too much, but I think it’s spot on with the progression of our neighborhoods — it mirrors evolutions,” she says. “So many times, efforts don’t get supported because of naysayers.” Poindexter has faith in the Chamber and in Heard’s leadership. “He’s a visionary for what can be,” she notes. “That’s never to be stifled.”

Detroit Business District

How Can Queer Investment Help Grow Detroit?

Central to the Chamber’s survey is gauging whether today’s LGBTQ+ community in Detroit finds value in pursuing an LGBTQ+ neighborhood anchored by queer- and ally-owned businesses. Heard feels there is support for the concept, but can’t predict what the survey will reveal. “We need to find out why, if the survey tells us that people don’t actually think we need an LGBTQ+ neighborhood, why they don’t think we do,” he adds. “Are there additional barriers that the Chamber and other nonprofit organizations and governmental entities need to uncover and supply support to fill in some gaps?” 

One argument in favor of LGBTQ+ business districts comes in the form of political power.
In fact, one recently proposed redistricting map created by the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (MICRC), a bipartisan citizen’s group established through a ballot initiative in 2018 to create fair Congressional maps, focused on a “community of interest” comprised of LGBTQ+ voters in Metro Detroit. One potential new House district proposed by LGBTQ+ advocates would have combined Ferndale with the Palmer Park neighborhood. While the map piqued the interest of many community members, it did not ultimately gain enough support to move on to the next stage.

Pamela Alexander, co-founder and first DRLGBTCC board president, says she feels a renewed sense of momentum for a new LGBTQ+ district in Detroit, a city she says is well-positioned to support and grow such an area. Detroit, she notes, is a powerful city that attracts international visitors and a place that values and encourages intersectionality — factors that would surely help the queer community establish a successful business corridor.

Alexander says it’s time to develop an LGBTQ+ business district anchored by businesses credentialed by the Chamber. “I was a resident for 25 years,” she says. “I lived, breathed and shopped in Detroit, but after I came out, there was something missing. I knew where the restaurants were where folks kind of gathered who identified as LGBTQ, some of the clubs and other places that over time tended to somewhat diminish. Today, our community is still spending millions of dollars here.”

Beyond the clear monetary value in keeping queer dollars in Detroit, Alexander acknowledges that on a personal level, it just feels good when she knows she’s in the “right place.” “It’s that feeling of “This is what it is supposed to be,” she says. “To walk into a business that I know is owned and operated by a lesbian or just anyone within the LGBTQ community gives me not only a certain amount of pride, but I know that this is the way it’s supposed to be.”

Businesses working toward certifying their organizations within a credentialing body like the DRLGBTCC are connected and partnered with organizations throughout the country — a network Alexander says is worth many millions of dollars. “It gives me great pleasure to know that the Detroit LGBT Regional Chamber of Commerce is without a doubt a strong presence, one that has built a strong voice for the community and contributes to growing the infrastructure in Detroit,” she adds.

Queer Black artist Tiff Massey is one resident working to develop inclusive opportunities for Detroiters through her endeavors with commercial real estate. Massey seeks out buildings, often in and around the Avenue of Fashion neighborhood where she grew up, that have been forgotten — before they can be snapped up by developers she said lack real intention when it comes to growing Detroit in an authentic way. “There’s not a lot of investment into what we’re actually adding to the landscape,” she told Pride Source earlier this year. “There was so much money and investment poured into the history of the city of Detroit, and to see the juxtaposition of that — that none of these [new] structures are really gonna hold up like some of the historic structures. I want to see what can be added of value, outside of just recycling a building, essentially.”

Massey’s vision includes a new community art center she plans to offer as a “white box” space where community members from all walks of life can gather and create art.

How the Detroit Regional LGBT Chamber of Commerce Supports Local LGBTQ+ Workers and Employers

The Detroit Regional LGBT Chamber of Commerce is a key driver for this kind of support. Not only does the organization support LGBTQ- and ally-run businesses, but they are available to help individuals for their entire professional lives, Heard says. “From the time you start your first job to after your retirement, we can help you connect with other people,” he adds. “Or if you’re looking to start a business or to help invest, we’re here to assist you there. On top of all that, we’re here to advocate for policy to make it easier for you to start your business and to find the capital you need.” 
Heard says the Chamber has grown to become a trusted connector of its 11-year history, linking both business owners and employees to services in the legal, insurance, financial, real estate fields and others. “We connect people to others who respect and understand and who are often a part of the community,” he says. “We are the organization for everything when it comes to LGBTQ+ development and professional services in the city of Detroit, and we’re the only place in the state centering LGBTQ+ people. We’re here to support you as a young professional and when you're headed for retirement.”

Ready to participate?

Access the survey, which was designed to be completed in about 10 minutes, at detroitlgbtchamber.com/survey. Or, if you’re heading to Motor City Pride, visit the Rocket Companies booth to fill out the survey in person (and snag some amazing incentives!). Your responses will help the Chamber determine whether there is  interest in developing a new LGBTQ+ business corridor in Detroit and how the organization can best support the effort. 

Heard encourages community members to reach out to him and the rest of the LGBT Regional Chamber of Commerce board of directors. “We’re bold enough to ask questions of our community,” he notes, “And I want you to be bold enough to ask all the questions of us and our board. We’re here at the service of our community.”

Ultimately, Heard wants to do right by the city he loves. As he told Pride Source in 2022, “If Detroit wins, we all win.” 

This content is made possible through our partnership with the Detroit Regional LGBT Chamber of Commerce. Partnerships like these enable Pride Source to produce free, quality storytelling for the LGBTQ+ community.



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