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 , and arose in comments at Birmingham Patch and at least two other media sites amid coverage of fights among patrons and .  

"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 . Task force board president Dwight Levens "doesn't feel we have enough information to comment," responded co-chairwoman Marcia Wilkinson.

Color-blind standards

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 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."

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 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"

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.




Dialogue isn't one-sided. Please add your thoughts below or contact editor Laura Houser at laura.houser@patch.com, or call 248-534-9780, if you would like to contribute to this series.

K Danielle April 25, 2012 at 11:42 AM
Diversity of race, culture, religion, age, family dynamics, sexual preference etc. should be encouraged and celebrated. But suggesting our community should tolerate dangerous behavior and continuos violations of societal norms is ludicrous. South's (Chen Chow/Ham Room/Corner) critics are not upset about the type of music played, nor the patrons' clothing choices. We are concerned about our safety and that of our friends and family based on continuos bad behavior by patrons of these establishments. Furthermore, the threat isn't confined to the immediate vicinity of the clubs. It is spreading to the nearby residential streets and establishments.
Trees April 25, 2012 at 02:28 PM
Hold on. Not everything is a racial issue. That's a knee-jerk reaction that stirs up publicity. If I got mad at this situation and said "a certain element", it would mean the low-lifes who go to a nightclub in a nice neighborhood so that they can get plastered and fight and shoot guns. "Troublemakers". As a Birmingham resident, I don't want "troublemakers" of any skin tone or ethnicity tearing up downtown for fun. People - of any color and ethnicity - who behave badly and disrespect the community will draw anger. It has NOT been my experience that Birmingham residents get paranoid or racist about people who are considerate good citizens. That young lady who shot the gun was white. And I don't want "her kind" here, - meaning, people who carry guns into nightclubs, drinking way too much, looking for danger, and shooting people in the street! Troublemakers come in every color and ethnicity. I live here because it's a beautiful and safe city with great schools. I welcome anybody who comes here for the same reason, and who wants to keep it a nice place.
R Jeppostol April 25, 2012 at 03:57 PM
I will agree that birmingham is pretty damn safe. So safe, that it almost makes you wonder who in their right mind agreed to have dozens of cameras smattered around the city spying on everyone. It also makes you wonder why in spite of these cameras the cops aren't able to solve anything.
KMH April 25, 2012 at 04:00 PM
We gave up on downtown after the teenagers took over. When we are looking to go out to eat, we go to Royal Oak where they don't seem to have that problem.
R Jeppostol April 25, 2012 at 04:17 PM
in case anyone hasn't noticed the several dozen or so cameras all throughout the city. http://www.fluidmesh.com/en/case-studies/case-studies/447-birmingham-police-department.html This is, in my opinion, the one and only reason why birmingham can never be the city it used to be:/
J Peter April 25, 2012 at 06:49 PM
This should and probably will become an election issue in the city. If the current mayor and commission doesn't take action to restore the community, I'm convinced residents will have a significant appetite for change. However, I still have faith that the current mayor and commission will make the necessary changes.
Victor April 25, 2012 at 10:57 PM
"The reality is that our community has changed," said Spadafore" YOU CHANGED THE COMMUNITY WHEN YOUR HUSBAND COULDN'T AFFORD HIS LARGE LEASE AND DECIDED TO ALLOW GHETTO DETROIT PROMOTERS TO RUN HIS BAR WITCH THEN TRICKED DOWN TO HAMILTON AND CHEN CHOW FOLLOWING SUIT. This is just terrible, looking at the pictures and the way some of the patrons are dressed is sick! how do they get passed the door is all im wondering? Lets not let spadafore dumb us into thinking the community is changing when all reality her family single handily ruined downtown Birmingham! If you look back and research you'll find that South started this mess on Sunday. Mark my words, the property value in Birmingham will diminish in no time thanks to South!
Blog Post April 26, 2012 at 12:22 AM
http://karendumas.com/2012/01/09/96/ Funny, Ms. Dumas seems to imply her hometown could have a "better quality of life" and she might move because of it. What is wrong with the "quality of life" in her town - shouldn't she just accept it? I mean, I am supposed to accept whatever happens here - not question it, not ask if it was preventable, not consider whether actions were taken that lead to the outcome, I am just supposed to accept it. "Stuff happens". But here she is talking about moving?
RSUE DODEA April 26, 2012 at 12:38 AM
Instant crowd control: Sunday night "Disco" nights! Counry music superstars of the '80s! Conway Twitty tribute acts! Osmondmania! Meet 'n greet with Lou Christie and Lesley Gore! The Golden Boys of Bandstand!
Greg Thrasher April 26, 2012 at 01:18 AM
There has a been a long history of incidents at many venues in Birmingham many of course did not involve Black people. The presence of Negrophobia of course has always been a reality in our nation especially in our nation's suburbs to observe it now unfold in Birmingham reflects a selective mindset. When whites and other racial and ethnic groups engaged in bad behavior it is rare that people indict these entire communities yet when events take place and involved a few wayward Black people the entire Black community is demonized and indicted such of course is a pathology of Negrophobia it is a knee jerk reaction that is predictible and tragic. I have complete confidence in our Police Chief and the Birmingham Police Department unlike many at least they don't speculate and float racial fiction about the nature of crime in Birmingham.
Greg Thrasher April 26, 2012 at 02:55 AM
Yolanda, Really?..Your post about Karen Dumas has nothing to do with this issue . Please spare us your pettiness. This is a very important topic and it does not deserve cheap shots.WTF
Greg Thrasher April 26, 2012 at 12:16 PM
South has always been diverse during my many visits even more do than churches, temples, school and city commission meetings in Birmingham. I would wager those with reservations about South have never been there!
Greg Thrasher April 26, 2012 at 02:13 PM
Photos never reflect reality they are at best snapshots of a frozen moment. As I noted in my previous post South 's patronage is more diverse than many other public venues in Birmingham plus their food is better than any church or commission or school board spread.
D. Cravens April 26, 2012 at 02:34 PM
I'm 25 year old doctoral candidate that grew up in the Birmingham area and can a test to the unspoken racial divide. I am an african american who is well educated, from a good family but growing up in the area was not always roses and rainbows like some residents would like it to seem. As a youth I would frequent the Palladium, Uptown 8, pogo etc.. I spent money and was a productive citizen, but if anything were to ever happen i.e. a fight in my local, I would be the first one to be approach, questioned or confronted by police officers, is this is when it was "safe". The point is after school I had an option to buy a condo in the area or to move to a more metropolitan area and i choose the latter because of the fact that the police in the area would tend to harras me because I'm young black and in a nice car, let it be known I have maybe 1 African American, the rest white and jewish, who would each tetify to the facts of this latent stigma of African Americans in the Birmingham/Bloomfield region.
D. Cravens April 26, 2012 at 02:42 PM
Excuse my mispellings I'm on a cell-phone
Greg Thrasher April 26, 2012 at 04:51 PM
South Bar is no different than other venues where incidents of racism and Negrophobia exist. I don't live my life being a paranoid Black person worried about what white folks think about me that is their problem not mine. I also tire of this ritual of white suburban venues and the people in these communties worried about the influx of Black folks. We have been in America for centuries we are not brand new nor a novelty. At the end of the day what matters is not South but the values of Birmingham . I am an advocate for the city and I offer no apologies nor do I seek affirmation from negrophobia whites and Black apologists both groups are just a small minority anyway in Birmingham. See ya at the SOUTH!!
Greg Thrasher April 26, 2012 at 08:02 PM
Pictures only reflect that singular moment of that len's reality..Please quote me in context more importantly I will see ya at the SOUTH!
E. Ford April 27, 2012 at 04:03 AM
Well, let us all be truthful. The two recent events, shootings and a guy walking around with a loaded rifle where committed by WHITE young adults. Some of the recent blogs reek of racism. I am Black and live 2 blocks from downtown Birmingham; when I go jogging at nite the only race I observe drinking, fighting, and cursing from Hagopian to Chen Chow are White young adults. Birmingham,you stereotype; I live in this town and my child is stereotyped and receives racial slurs and comments at school all the time. Birmingham, don't stereotype minorities because you have a personal dislike for a certain race or culture. Stick to the facts and educate outsiders on how you want and expect them to behave in our community
E. Ford April 27, 2012 at 04:07 AM
Yeah, stop with the race thing, all the drunks and trouble makers I see on Old Woodward are white young adults. Furthermore, the last three incidents were committed by whites.
Greg Thrasher April 27, 2012 at 02:09 PM
The inference from the observation of a singular photo is not material nor revelant..More important of course for people who look like me is no barriers of service based upon my hue etc....
Alan Stamm April 27, 2012 at 08:19 PM
Thanks for adding your valuable perspective to this conversation. It's useful and important to hear.
Alan Stamm April 27, 2012 at 08:22 PM
Thanks for adding your distinctive first-person perspective, D.C. It's a meaningful part of this conversation.
Flair Detroit April 27, 2012 at 10:31 PM
I'm glad you used ghetto instead of black because black is not the problem...ghetto is. However, you are making assumptions when you say Detroit promoters. Black people don't just live in Detroit. They live all over the tri-county area. There are numerous black parties everyday of the year where none of the undesired behavior occurs. There have been numerous incidents in Bham where whites are the perpetrators.


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