Cultural Mix in Downtown Tests Birmingham's Tolerance, Some Feel
'This situation is layered with many teachable moments,' MSU sociologist says of recent police incidents that have spurred outrage among some residents.
This story is part of a series on downtown Birmingham that explores issues raised by recent incidents, as well as the city's response to them.
It doesn't take a code-breaker to see barely hidden meanings in some comments about Birmingham nightclubs and the safety concerns surrounding them.
References to "outsiders" at South, The Hamilton Room and Chen Chow Brasserie arose in comments at Birmingham Patch and at least two other media sites amid coverage of fights among patrons and late-night gunfire around the corner from South.
"What we don't need are large clubs or party places that draw a certain element," a local parent said this week in a comment for this series; it wasn't published because of its apparent racial reference.
"South and the element it brings to my city, my hometown, needs to go away or change," a reader identified only as Karen posted on Patch on April 21.
Screen name anonymity also cloaked a reader posting on Patch's Facebook page as "Carlito's Way," who said April 16 that South patrons "need to go back across 8 Mile."
Although that tone has been rare in public comments on Patch, it creeps into reader conversations on this topic. What slips out sometimes is retracted quickly, as a teen's parent did after referring to "the right kind of patrons" for Birmingham businesses in her reply for the Talking About Safety in Birmingham series.
Thinly veiled racial references don't surprise Carl S. Taylor, a nationally known Michigan State University sociologist who grew up in Detroit. "(Birmingham's) demographics tip the racial discussion up front," he said. "The fear of Detroit is real, and has been for decades."
"South Sunday" events from 10 p.m.-2 a.m. feature DJs playing "urban contemporary" music in a suburb with about 700 African Americans (3.6 percent) among 20,100 residents counted in the 2010 Census. An online gallery of 384 photos taken at the club April 1 shows that African-American men and women were a majority of guests that Sunday night.
'Embrace the rich diversity'
"We embrace the rich diversity of people we serve," said South general manager Bethany Spadafore, "and we hope that others in the community will as well."
Karen Dumas, a Detroit public relations consultant and former chief communications officer for Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, sees a familiar pattern in reactions to late-night weekend incidents at South, The Hamilton Room and Chen Chow Brasserie.
"People automatically tap into their prejudices when issues arise involving people who don't look like them," said Dumas, founder of a 21-year-old firm called Images & Ideas Inc.
"Any undesirable behavior from someone of another race will be attributed to their culture or race. It's the easy way out, rather than attributing misbehavior to ignorance — which comes in all colors."
Moving past reflexive assumptions, in Dumas' view, takes "a personal commitment to tolerance through exposure to diversity."
Taylor sees current discussions in Birmingham as "layered with many teachable moments." As the MSU scholar sees it, "'Outsiders' is a reality that many (people) don’t understand will not go away because of their discomfort."
Open dialogue stressed
Public dialogue such as the one under way in this series of stories on Patch is important, Taylor added. "Your questions are the first step of what must be done by many communities," he said. "Local leaders, media and club owners need to communicate immediately. Communications is key to begin this process of establishing some objectives."
Echoing an idea proposed by residents, as well as by owners of South Bar, Taylor said: "I would strongly suggest ongoing discussions about the nightclub scene and youth culture."
Part of the focus could involve Birmingham's regional role in the local entertainment scene. "Urban youth from Pontiac and Detroit have nothing, with closing of many once-popular places in their communities."
One of those out-of-town patrons at South is 24-year-old Southfield resident Alexandra Johnson, who has spent time at South late at night a few times in the past few months.
Johnson said she can see how the recent incidents may make South undesirable for upscale crowds.
“I think the Birmingham residents’ concerns are valid because most suburban communities are not used to the violent crowds,” Johnson said.
“I don’t feel in danger at South. However, I am not as comfortable with the crowd it attracts.”
Kameron Harris, 22, also of Southfield, isn't bothered when going to the Hamilton Room and South on weekends. The violent incidents, he said, are isolated.
"It doesn’t happen often enough to be frightened," Harris said. "I never feel in danger."
From Detroit, Dumas also endorses a forum or town hall-like setting where "culture clashes can and should be discussed."
Blunt, air-clearing talk wouldn't necessarily flow frankly, she cautions. "Those who could help sway the opinion wouldn't risk backlash by being less than politically correct," said Dumas, Detroit's director of community relations when Kwame Kilpatrick was mayor.
Comments also were solicited from two leaders of a Race Relations and Diversity Task Force sponsored by The Community House. Task force board president Dwight Levens "doesn't feel we have enough information to comment," responded co-chairwoman Marcia Wilkinson.
Not everyone sees culture differences or diversity as part of downtown safety discussions. Commercial landlord Ted Fuller, an outspoken critic of South, said the focus is solely on actions — not people.
"We're intolerant of bad behavior — that's all it is," Fuller said. "Behavior is behavior, regardless of from whom it comes. And bad behavior is unacceptable."
From East Lansing, Taylor endorses the same bottom line: "Behavior is profiled, not race."
At South, Spadafore said the bar owners welcome open dialogue. "We cannot adequately address the problems facing our city without talking about them," she said.
"We have asked the city to lead a task force to address these problems and the city has remained silent. We have since asked the Birmingham Bloomfield Chamber to step in."
Next step awaits inquiry's end
That kind of dialogue with the city, however, could be a long time coming, City Manager Bob Bruner said.
"I applaud Mrs. Spadafore’s desire to address intolerance," he said, "but I do not believe it would be appropriate for city officials to engage the owners of South Bar or any other liquor licensee in such a task force while we are investigating their establishments."
At the business chamber, where South is a member, President Joe Bauman welcomes the role of intermediary — though not just yet.
"The chamber was asked by representatives of South Bar to host a meeting with the city and Principal Shopping District to continue the dialogue on finding a solution," he wrote in a statement. "We made the request to the city and were asked to wait until the Birmingham Police concluded its investigation into the most recent incident near South Bar and we have honored that request."
Bauman added: "We believe all sides in the matter are committed to finding a workable solution."
Spadafore, wife of South co-owner Joe Spadafore, faults city leaders for what she calls "Band-Aid approaches" such as ordering valet parking service to end at midnight instead of 2 a.m.
These are 'not new problems'
However, Spadafore said the time for discussion is now because Birmingham is already changing.
"The reality is that our community has changed," said Spadafore, a Birmingham resident. "And as a community, we need to embrace that change for everyone's benefit to peacefully coexist. The problems we face as a community also are not new problems to the city of Birmingham."
Spadafore said she and others at South wants city officials to "work proactively with the businesses, clergy and others to address any problem with a positive solution and outcome. Right now the city is just reacting."
Taylor senses a familiar script. "The racial current in the region is stronger than many want to admit," he said.
About the Series
Residents, business owners and visitors to Birmingham have an interest in feeling safe in the city. This Birmingham Patch series explores the voices of those who live, work and run the city of Birmingham. We hope it fosters a dialogue that illustrates issues and explores possible solutions.
- Talking About Safety in Birmingham: Residents React to Downtown Incidents
- Letter to the Editor: Educator 'Concerned That Birmingham is Becoming More of a Destination'
Dialogue isn't one-sided. Please add your thoughts below or contact editor Laura Houser at email@example.com, or call 248-534-9780, if you would like to contribute to this series.