Ups and downs on dining in New Detroit

Is it just me or is this what food in Detroit looks like now?

Is it just me or is this what food in Detroit looks like now?

I’m not a foodie, I loathe that term, but I do like keeping up with the new restaurants in and around the city, and I like trying new things. And let me also say that even though we have a lot of new places to eat, I’ve been dining out and dining well as long as I can remember in Detroit. Family dinners at Fishbone’s and Giovanni’s, outings all across Mexicantown…we’re not new to this, despite writers fancying this place as an experimental playground for up-and-coming chefs.

Sometimes eating out isn’t always the best experience at some of the newer places. It can be tricky to criticize restaurants. For one, I’m not a food critic, and anyone who’s not doing this for a living is never going to be taken quite as seriously. Two, there’s immediate backlash for even thinking of complaining about restaurant service considering how little servers, dishwashers, hosts and other staffers earn. (I tip well, though — let’s be clear on that.) And, of course, criticizing anything in New Detroit is frowned upon by the booster crowd.

But, I’ve got air a few grievances on some service quibbles I’ve experienced lately.

1. Rushing me out the door even when it’s not crowded. Yesterday I had breakfast at Brooklyn Street Local, a fine place that I usually enjoy. It wasn’t a thousand degrees yet, so I ate on the patio. It was also super early, so barely anyone was there. So after I finish up, my server hands me my bill and says “you look like you’re ready to go.” Um, WTF? Didn’t ask if I’d like anything else. Didn’t ask to refill my iced tea. Maybe I wanted to chill out a little more and enjoy the sun? Have to admit I was caught off-guard by that. And yeah, I get it — a restaurant is not your personal lounging place or whatever, but just the assumption that I’m “ready to go” even when I’m not? Come on.

2. Not asking “Can I take your plate?” when you’re done and just taking the plate. It’s happened more than once at some of the newer places. I dunno, I think it’s just bad manners when you just whisk it away from me. (Worse: Constantly asking if I’m done, even when there’s still food on the plate.) Once I was having dinner with a friend at Punch Bowl Social when our server came up to us, said “I can take that from you if you’re done,” dumped my can of fries onto my plate before I could even respond and walked away. Rude much?

3. Generally being a dick about your house rules. Looking squarely at you, Green Dot Stables. So yeah, we’ve got the whole “entire party must be present before seating” concept down pat. I got that. And the “no separate checks in big groups” thing, got it. Annoying, but got it. So I was part of a large group that had hit up Johnny Noodle King and also wanted to go to Green Dot, but none of them were from Detroit and I told them about the Green Dot rule since we were all driving separately. After making them sign a blood oath to arrive at Green Dot on time, lest we face the penalty of death for not being there together, we get there and we’re put in the back patio until a table clears because it’s really packed. And since it’s packed, it’s extremely loud. We didn’t hear the server calling for a group party over the din, until someone looked up and realized he was calling for us. We hustle over to our server, who’s very clearly annoyed that we didn’t hear him over 3,000 drunk people yelling about the Tigers or whatever. He then reminds us that it’s a busy night and we’re lucky to have this table — um, did we ask for all this attitude? On top of that, our table was one chair short of the total number in our party, which meant Mr. Annoyed was even more ticked off when we asked for our missing chair. We did not separate the checks, but of course there was confusion when it came to running the cards for specific charges, as there always is with the one-check rule. Wanna bet that our server was annoyed by that, too? Yup. Bare minimum tips all around.

4. Hovering over the meal waiting for us to be done eating. OK, almost all you new places do this, big and small. It’s not just happening here in Detroit, either. Please stop this.

5. Community seating. Hello, Selden Standard. If I wanted to eat in my middle-school cafeteria, I would. So I had lunch with a friend there and I was praying that we’d get a table, but we got stuck at the community seats in the back with strangers. I’d rather not tussle over elbow space or play accidental footsie with a Grosse Pointe matron when I dine out. The community table is always louder than the rest of the place somehow, making it tough for casual conversation with the person you’re dining with. Bench seating is uncomfortable. And even though lunch was great, I found out way too much about the private lives of the people we were sitting next to. Sorry your sister is stealing money from dead relatives, lady.

6. Asking “how’s the food” three nanoseconds after setting the plate down. Bitch, these noodles are hot! I can’t even taste it without burning my tongue. Lotta places are guilty of this.

7. Reprinting a tab over and over. I see this a lot at the craft cocktail-type places — Wright & Co., Craft Work come to mind as places I’ve seen it recently. So if I order one drink, and you print out the receipt immediately and put it in a little cup in front of me, and you keep doing this every time I order another thing, isn’t that a waste of time and paper?

Now, tipping my hat to some pleasant experiences.

1. Making a good meal recommendation. I love when a server knows their stuff on the menu. I had an excellent porchetta sandwich at Ottava Via, something I never would have considered if my server hadn’t pointed me in that direction.

2. Making accommodations in less-than-ideal dining situations. My friend and I were sitting on the roof of HopCat when it suddenly got windy. Our guy asked if we wanted the shields let down to block the wind. Any other place probably would have asked us to move. (Although it’s insane that HopCat checks your ID at the door, and checks again when you order a drink…)

3. Always being professional during crowded times. La Dolce Vita is not new, but I keep coming back because I’ve never had a bad experience there. All restaurants should aspire to be like LDV. Another friend and I went to brunch there and our host told us they were expecting a huge family party to basically take over the place right around the time we showed up. They sat us anyway out on the patio and said don’t worry about it.

Okay, I’m ready for everyone’s lectures and corrections about working in restaurants!

So Will Crain’s Detroit Business Actually Hire Some Not-White People Now?

Man, that's a lot of white folks!

Man, that’s a lot of white folks!

The last time I visited the Crain building on Gratiot, I could count on one hand the number of black people that were there, and most of them were security guards and cafeteria help. So while I can appreciate Bill Shea’s stance on Kid Rock’s baffling embrace of the Confederate flag, I have to ask: When is CDB going to practice what they preach when it comes to diversity?

One could easily make an argument that straight-line business reporting requires more of an ability to crunch numbers rather than cultural awareness of the region where the coverage is based, but let’s think about this for a second here in Detroit, where we see racial politics intersecting with business development often. A quick scroll through the staff list at CDB shows exactly one editor of color in a sea of white folks on the editorial side. That would be, oh, completely opposite of what the city of Detroit looks like and certainly not reflective of Southeast Michigan as a whole.

Off the top of my head, it’s possible CDB has Detroit’s largest, whitest staff here, if you discount the smaller outlets like Model D and Deadline Detroit. You’ll see some black bylines every now and then — like mine! and I’ve always appreciated the opportunity to freelance for CDB, let’s get that straight — but what efforts has CDB made to diversify its staff, particularly when staffers have called for more diversity in the revival of the city they cover?

There’s an opening right now for a reporter to cover the city of Detroit. How much do you want to bet that a reporter of color won’t get that job? As Fox 2’s M.L. Elrick pointed out already, almost all of the city hall reporters in this town are white men, so CDB has a prime opportunity to keep the status quo there, which they’ll most likely do.

Daily Detroit, Please Get Your Shit Together

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I’m no one’s media critic; hell, everyone has something to say about the state of media in Detroit these days, so we’re all part of some weird collective that thinks it knows exactly how things should be done. But I know bullshit when I smell it, and there’s a steaming heap of it at Daily Detroit right now.

First, let’s talk about exactly what Daily Detroit is. They just came out of nowhere as a feel-good blog, obviously geared toward newer residents (and suburban hopefuls) of Detroit, since its entire focus is on downtown development, restaurants (you can never, ever go wrong with making a list of restaurants in Detroit, no matter how repetitive they can be since every list has the same 10 or 20) and rehashed press releases about new incentives for living here or whatever. There has hardly been any substance, but lots of pretty pictures that would lead you to think that Detroit is just a fine and dandy place to live and we’re not suffering from any of the societal ills plaguing other major cities. Except we are, and now Daily Detroit has suddenly realized this.

I don’t read Daily D, though I “liked” them on Facebook. It’s already irking that Daily Detroit doesn’t actually publish daily. It’s obvious they don’t have a copy editor. But still, I check them out every now and then, just to see if they would evolve.

They haven’t.

When every other local outlet covered Motor City Pride against the backdrop of the state of same-sex marriage in the country, Daily Detroit put up a photo gallery and described the pride fest as an explosion of “glitter” and “face-painting.” Not only is this a violation of any basic, intro-to-journalism class — boiling down the celebration of a marginalized community into photos with zero context about why those people are celebrating, and never revisiting the subject again until next year — but face-painting? Really? That’s what you decided to highlight?

It took a lot to hold back when a list — oh, another list? Cool journalism, bro — of books to read about to Detroit included exactly zero authors of color. Oh, there’s exactly one (of ten) books about black life in Detroit, but that’s it. But again, you can’t fault that, since at that point, I was trying to allow Daily Detroit and its rookie staff to grow.

But now they’ve dived head first into the treacherous waters of racial inequality in Detroit, and their “I’m a white guy from the suburbs who’s lived downtown for two months and therefore I’m an expert” slip took little time to show. Line by line, I just…couldn’t even deal.

The racial divide in Detroit is a big topic of conversation lately.

Lately? As in, over the last few days? Have you seen what’s been happening in Detroit for the last 10, 20…100 years, even? We’re already off to a running start into the abyss.

Whether it’s gentrification of downtown and midtown, access to water, diversity in the workplace, new vs. old Detroit, or incidents like the beating of Steven Utash, the conversation has cropped up in a lot of different ways as Detroit tries to rebound economically.

Midtown should be capitalized. You should know this since you guys write about it all the goddamn time. Access to water isn’t the issue — payment for the bills are. (Here’s where you should hire both a copy editor and an actual editor.) And while the beating of Utash was tragic, remember that one guy in Inkster who was beaten a few months ago? Like, wouldn’t that be a fresher reference or at least be mentioned alongside Utash, even if it didn’t take place in the city? (Oh, and by the way — the conversation has “cropped up” [ugh] outside the city limits.)

“Rebound economically” lets me know exactly where Daily Detroit stands on where their biases are. Capital interests, at any cost of those that might not benefit from them in the long run. But, oh, it gets better.

At about 4:30 p.m. on Saturday we got word that Al Sharpton’s National Action Network would be at a protest in front of the Atwater Brewery at 5:30 p.m. The protest was related to an eviction dispute involving the owner of the Tangerine Room Supper Club, Darnell Small, and owner of the building and Atwater Brewery, Mark Reith.

“We got word” = “We read in Metro Times,” first of all. I mean, if you’re going to aggregate, cite the source.

At 5:30 p.m., the corner was up to what seemed to be usual business. Atwater patrons sipped beers on the sidewalk, a food truck had posted up by the back entrance and a game of corn hole carried on inside. 

Good eye for detail, but what the fuck does corn hole have to do with this situation?

At about 6:30 p.m., a group of about 15 African American protesters with the group National Action Network, began to rally “Hi Ho, Hi Ho, Atwater has got to go.” Aside from the Channel 7 news van, it seemed as if we were the only other media outlet present.

Oh, boy. Couldn’t wait to identify their race, could you? (But on this note, if you’re going to be “media,” the AP style is “black.” Or at least throw a hyphen in African-American. Jesus.) I mean, there’s a tactful way to do this. Photos could have stated the obvious. Or you could have explained somewhere in the story what the National Action Network is. But hey, let’s go ahead and juxtapose the “usual business” at Atwater with these “African American protestors,” because that’s not awkward at all.

(Side note: Fellow media rarely, if ever, acknowledge what other media outlets are at a scene of a protest. Because who cares?)

Here’s where things got strange.

Here’s where I know you don’t know what the fuck you’re doing.

Our attempts to take pictures and get quotes were met with angry resistance from the protestors, who would not comment on the purpose or significance of the demonstration. Two members of the group disrupted our ability to take quality pictures by recording us with their smartphones and holding them up to our lens, and standing in the way as we moved to get a better angle. Obstruction of journalism, if you will.

My goodness. Where to start? No journalist outside their newsroom says “get quotes.” There are manners to this. You don’t go to a source or anyone else you’re interviewing and say “hey, can I GET a QUOTE?” Because that’s what you’re reducing them to: A quote. Words are powerful, yes. And it’s your duty to tell a story, yes. But these are people. Humans. Life beings. Not quotes.

“Disrupted our ability to take quality pictures.” Well, boo-fucking-hoo. You didn’t get your “quality” pictures for your site. There are photographers who lose their lives in places way more dangerous than a protest outside a microbrewery. But whose story are you trying to tell at this point? These protesters didn’t owe you anything.

“Obstruction of journalism, if you will.” HAHAHAHALOLOLOL this is precious. This isn’t a public, government entity withholding documents from taxpaying citizens here, Daily D. It’s a protest. If they’re blocking your way, maybe next time step a little ways back and observe from afar?

It was confusing to say the least; there we were to tell the story, their story, and we were met with direct resistance and shouting as if we were in fact, the enemy. What was a great opportunity for a conversation became a confrontation.

They’re not here for a conversation, guys. They are here for a protest, and you guys want to sing Kum Ba Ya. And at this point, you’ve been injecting yourselves into not just the story unfolding on the scene, but also in how you’re relaying it back to me, the reader. Every sentence is dripping with “me, me, me.” Why couldn’t we get these photos? Why couldn’t we get these quotes? Why won’t these people talk to us?

As the protest moved inside of the Atwater Brewery, we pulled aside Mr. Small. We talked to him for a bit about the particulars of his situation, after all, that was the story we came for. Are black business owners being targeted and pushed out of the city? Or is it other reasons? Sadly, there was very little information to gather.

Maybe there’s little information to gather because Small is trying to figure that shit out his damn self. You’ve got a business owner in a sticky situation, trying to preserve his livelihood, trying to figure out his next step, and you’re shifting blame on him — your source — for not complying to your requests in the middle of a protest. A protest that was likely to already be running high with emotion, but made even more tense by the way you guys were acting there. We’ll get to that in a second though.

The dispute between Small and Reith seems legally complex, and unfortunate. According to Small, Atwater has still not granted Darnell access to his space and has withheld his key from him for four weeks. We asked to see legal documents supporting their case, and they said there’d be more on Tuesday. If that’s true and they’re defying a court order, that’s not right and it is a situation that deserves attention. It also seems like this could of been solved a long time ago and in a much simpler manner.

If it’s legally complex — and you don’t have the right to tell us it’s “unfortunate,” because the reader determines that — then it’s your job as a journalist (since that’s what you say you are) to break down those complexities for us, the readers.

You’ve got Small’s side of the story. Now where’s Atwater’s side? You know, that’s basic journalism as well — getting both sides. Tenant-landlord dispute? You get both the tenant AND the landlord!

“If that’s true.” WHAT. WHAT. You are the journalist! It’s your job to tell us what the truth is, not speculate on if something is true, or ask us, the reader, to determine what the truth is you’re trying to report.

“It also seems like this could of been solved a long time ago and in a much simpler manner.” Could of been. COULD OF BEEN. My inner copy editor is screaming. But who the fuck made you judge, jury and executioner to determine if this situation could have been solved? You just said this situation was “complex.” Now you’re saying it’s simple? What the hell?

The Reverend Al Sharpton was not present.

No shit? But what does Sharpton’s non-presence have to do with the situation? Is the nationwide president of the NAACP expected to show at local-chapter demonstrations? Or, let me give you an organization that’s not race-based so you can understand: Is the Pope supposed to show up at every Archdiocese of Detroit event? (You have heard of the Archdiocese of Detroit, correct?)

It appeared that the National Action Network had gotten wind of the event and was exploiting it for their own agenda, which could explain the inability to comment on the situation.

You don’t make that determination. But go ahead, keep injecting yourself in the story.

When we pushed for answers about why the protestors behaved as such, we were told basically that it was because we weren’t the right color. We were told the protesters didn’t know who the players were.

They’re not a government entity. They don’t owe you anything, no matter how much you “push” them. They invited the media to the event, sure. That means it’s your job to listen to their protests and observe how they go about doing so. Why question their “behavior”? But you know what, I’m so confused at this point because I only have your side of the story. And that side is being filtered through the lens of someone with little experience as a reporter, but a lot of experience as a white suburban transplant.

So we left, unsure of what more there was to do, uncomfortable about our reception, and confused about the tactics employed by the protestors. We were reminded of the hot national topic of videotaping the police and the push for mandatory body cameras.

I…can’t even. How did THIS situation even remotely make you think of the numerous amount of police brutality incidents that are driving the body-camera conversation? How? You didn’t get a few iPhone shots of a protest, big deal. But you relate that to the injuries and deaths of citizens at the hands of police?

The Detroit Police a Department did a yeoman’s job moving the protestors out of Atwater Brewery and back into the street where it wound down, with patrons still sipping their beers and the food truck still humming.

Whoa, thank goodness that food truck is OK! (Also, if I have to Google a phrase, like I did with “yeoman’s job,” you probably shouldn’t be using it. Hire an editor that can help you present information in a way most readers can understand.)

The next morning we received an apology from the spokesperson for Darnell Small, who was very clear that he was “in no way the kind of man who wants anyone mistreated – especially members of the media community who are trying to tell his story.” Some of the National Action Network folks, according to him, thought we were working for Atwater.

Wait for it…

When I unzipped my jacket later, I realized I was wearing my shirt which reads “The City of Detroit: Pretending $hit’s All Good Since 1701.”

OK, you know what? I can see why the protesters were distrustful of you. Because you weren’t even dressed like a journalist. Well, OK — you weren’t dressed in a way that would make people think that you’re a professional working for a professional organization. You were dressed like you’re working at Atwater. Or going to Atwater. You didn’t have on a button-up shirt or some other career-casual clothing, did you? No khakis, at least? Not saying this is how journalists dress 24/7. But you’ve got to at least try to look the part.

I can bet you didn’t have professional equipment. Just your iPhone, right? Which is great — I use my iPhone as a voice recorder sometimes. But never as a camera; that’s what cameras are for. And I bet you had no press pass or any other identification that showed you might be a journalist. When I worked at MLive Detroit, it was hard as hell trying to “brand” ourselves because no one had heard of MLive (or they thought we were MLife, the casino rewards program) and we didn’t have press passes for the longest time. Eventually, our employer gave us branded book bags, stickers and other MLive swag and the oh-so-coveted press passes so we could prove to security guards, law enforcement, attorneys and, oh, aaaaaaannngry protesters that we were media. You don’t have any of this, do you? You think your Facebook following is enough to prove who Daily Detroit is?

You want to be a journalist in this town? Start acting like one. Put on some big-boy pants and grow up.

Start by reporting the facts; don’t be pissy at “protesters” and try to create an issue where there is none. I see what you did there with that subhead: “What happens when the protestors, not the cops, are the ones blocking the journalists?” You’re very unfairly conflating national protests with this ragtag group here in Detroit. You’re sending signals that all protests are like this; all “African American” protests are like this.

Hire a goddamn editor. Run spell check. Jesus.

Keep yourself out the story. That’s journalism 101.

But most of all, stop calling yourselves journalists. You’re bloggers, and not behaving like very good ones. You don’t deserve that title. It’s an insult to the actual journalists in this city doing the work. You’ve crossed every line there is to cross in this one story, and you have the nerve to throw around terms like “obstruction of journalism” as if you guys are the New York Times or some shit. You’re not even Examiner.com-level at this point.

You don’t deserve to represent this city if this is how you’re going to report what’s going on here. You want to talk about issues like race, class, inequality, economics and fairness? Build a fucking DeLorean, go back about 10 years and take some college courses or something, because that’s the only way you’re going to get a clue. But at this point, I’d just avoid it altogether. Sensitive issues in this city are being told by people who have no idea how to talk about them, and that’s something I have a huge problem with.

All the things I’ve done since I last updated my blog

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I took a job at an ad agency since I last really updated this blog, which is a great gig but I can’t talk about since we have a lot of secret info about our clients. But from that time until now, I’ve neglected this place (again). Someone asked on Reddit recently if all I talk about is race. I do talk about it a lot, but I replied that it’s not the only thing I write about. Then I realized…it’s been a minute since I’ve done a roundup of all my writing and reporting.

When I last updated, I was hustling for any freelance job I could get. Now I’m a little more relaxed with a full-time gig and all, but I still like to keep my reporting sharp with occasional assignments. And I branched out a lot — from literary writing to pop culture to a few national bylines. I got an honor from SPJ’s Detroit chapter, which I’m proud of. I might be in a documentary? And I gave permission to a German textbook to republish one of my essays.

So without further adieu, here’s everything from June 2014-ish, to now.

I jumped head first into advertising and named two of Ford’s newest models – sort of.

I racked up a bunch of bylines for Reuters covering the Ted Wafer trial, the Joe Weekley trial and a few other subjects.

I still continued writing for Jalopnik, touching on things like the annual Sketchbattle, Cadillac leaving the city, classic mopeds, advice for entrepreneurs, calling out the water and police department’s not-so-great social media skills, the “Detroit” episode of The Simpsons, the Dream Cruise, squatting hippies, a mysterious disappearance of an annual enthusiasts’ event, life after municipal bankruptcy, a car that drives on water, “Transformers,” calling out the New York Times (and getting them to respond!), interviewed victims of GM’s faulty ignitions, calling out Gawker Media on their continued shit, riding in a McLaren and trying to find the RoboCop statue.

I contributed to Bridge’s “Brunch with Bridge” until the section folded earlier this year. I wrote about a whitewashed Pure Michigan ad (which was taken down after the column ran), respecting “old” Detroit, my family’s history in Detroit, the overuse of the term “blank canvas,” fought with a boomer, and the stupid fireworks law.

I talked to Eater Detroit about my favorite restaurants in and around the city.

I guested on the Midtown to Metro podcast a bunch of times talking about land use, new/old Detroit, and life after bankruptcy. We also drank great beer every time.

I wrote a few things for Metro Times about the (pending?) sale of Cooley High School and went back and forth with Nolan Finley about black people in downtown.

I wrote about the experiences of Corktown business owners and the legendary Capers restaurant (which touched on plans for revitalizing City Airport) for Crain’s.

I talked to Michigan Radio a few times, including pieces on life in Detroit after bankruptcy, Republicans in Detroit, and fun business ideas.

I talked to the Michigan Daily twice about progress in Detroit. And I didn’t even go to Michigan!

I was an NABJ panelist and gave advice about journalism on the wild, wild Internet.

I wrote an essay for Transmission, a literary journal published by the NYC-based Satellite Collective, about my teenage years in the city.

I wrote another essay about coming to terms with your race in the “new” Detroit for The Periphery here in Detroit.

I landed my first byline in The Atlantic talking about black characters on daytime soap operas, earning me a number of Angie & Jesse fans following me on Twitter.

I wrote about Chaldeans fleeing the Middle East and landing in Metro Detroit, the largest concentration of Arabs outside the continent, for Foreign Policy.

I co-hosted a Twitter chat, #YourDetroit, about what changes we’d like to see here. And gave a few extra thoughts to HuffPo.

I contributed more to The Architect’s Newspaper, talking about a local co-working space and an architectural display in Ann Arbor.

Model D thought I was cool enough to be one of the local bloggers you should be reading.

I read “We Love Detroit, Even If You Don’t,” aloud for the first time in front of MSU students and other readers of “A Detroit Anthology,” and spoke on a panel about the book at Signal-Return.

I wrote about black male mentorship in the city for MetroParent and BLAC.

I wrote a few other things for BLAC, including black residents in Macomb County and a cover story about getting to know the 313.

I wrote about Asian businesses, and Jewish and black residents working together for New Michigan Media.

I was on Al-Jazeera America and Al-Jazeera and was sufficiently awkward, so it’s a good thing I can’t find those video clips.

I wrote about a number of things for Forbes, including a major ad agency coming downtown, the Shinola backlash, going inside Deadline Detroit and TrueCar.

I gave lots of press to the things Red Bull is doing in Detroit to the Detroit Free Press.

I wrote about the end(?) of the Freep’s high school apprenticeship program for Columbia Journalism Review.

I hosted a Q&A with Motor City Muckraker for the Detroit Press Club and later joined the Press Club’s board.

And, of course, I started writing a book for Belt Publishing, which published the “Anthology.” I’m also writing a regular column for Belt as we approach the publication date. So far I’ve talked about Northland Mall and the definition of a Detroit hipster.

Phew! I think that just about covers it. As always, more to come.

Don’t watch the Aaliyah biopic; read about her instead


There are clips floating around out there of the made-for-Lifetime (by now, it’s in a different league than made-for-TV) biopic of Aaliyah, the latest in the channel’s assembly-line output of stars fallen too soon. The Anna Nicole biopic was OK. I didn’t see the Brittany Murphy one. Supposedly a Marilyn Monroe one is on the way.

In theory, the Aaliyah biopic should be lightning in a bottle. It’s a great time for black actors and black stories on TV; not since the peak of UPN and WB have there been so much color on the small screen. And it’s a great time to be nostalgic about 1990s and 2000s R&B. The TLC biopic on VH1 was hot like fire. (Double the references in that pun there, can you catch it?)

The thing about the TLC biopic is that no one wanted to give it a chance. Not only did it feel too soon (I mean, neither of the two surviving members are close to the retirement ages of biopic subjects in the past), but the standards were so high for the actors that we were all skeptical. Fortunately the cast and crew (especially Lil’ Mama as Left-Eye, whew!) proved us wrong. Based on these clips from the Aaliyah movie, I’m not getting that same feeling. Just watch this (clicking the link opens the video in a separate link; click here if that doesn’t work for you. WordPress!).

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Aaliyah deserves better. If you’re old enough to have lived in Detroit when “Back & Forth” first hit the radio — I mean, when it first started getting airplay, before the album came out — you remember that everybody claimed to know the girl. Everybody’s cousin used to date her, she used to babysit for everybody, she used to be at all these spots. Keep in mind mid-90s Detroit, where we still had big stars living and still putting out music, we hadn’t had a new star emerge from the city that was correctly positioned on the seismic sound shift that R&B was going through at the time. Several tried before and after; y’all don’t remember Perri or Body or — let’s take it way back — Fabu, do you? But there’s a reason why Aaliyah, Monica and Brandy hit like they did.

History has painted Aaliyah as a private, mysterious person, but in truth she really told you everything you needed to know while she was here. Just prior to her death, she gave a wide-ranging interview to VIBE answering things you should not be asking about today: No, she never was with Jay-Z. Yes, the “Sparkle” remake was originally made for her. There’s a reason why she wore her hair with the single bang. Read it all.

The clip above deals with Aaliyah’s marriage to R. Kelly. (The dude playing him looks nothing like him.) Again, why watch, when you can read all those details here — again in VIBE? But if you read this one and the other article, there’s something Aaliyah does in both situations that tells you everything you need to know. See if you can figure it out.

I used to think about immature things

I try not to jinx things, because when I read too much into what I think are good signs of something, I don’t get the expected outcome. I just try to take things as they come, rather than hope for the best.

But there are some signs I can’t ignore, and they’ve been creeping up little by little rather than all at once. Like for example: A few weeks ago, a literary mag reached out to me about submitting some work for an upcoming issue. I decided my topic, wrote a nonfiction essay draft in two days. I told no one; just was able to get out some thoughts on a topic I’d always wanted to write on. But then, someone on Twitter I went to high school with began reminiscing on the topic I had just written about, and I’m like, “did she hack into my laptop and read my essay?” Signs like that are what’s been happening.

High school — and increasingly college, too — is where my headspace is lately. So another one of these signs come up, and it’s one of my high school classmates (hey, Lhea!) hitting me up over Facebook about jointing a writers’ group she wants to get going. Without hesitation, I say yes.

I’d always wanted to write fiction again. I’ve verbalized this to people close to me, and just in general conversation. What journalist doesn’t want to write a novel? I used to write short stories all the time from elementary school until college. But that stopped. A lot of things stopped when I walked on campus: I stopped working out, and I stopped writing. And every New Year’s resolution for the past few years, I’ve resolved to get back in shape and start writing again. I haven’t stuck to either one.

I’ve started and re-started fiction writing so many times over the years. Somewhere around here is a journal I started when I was living in Grand Rapids 10 years ago for a newspaper internship. Unfinished. Somewhere on automaker press release flash drives are half-written chapters. Somewhere in another journal I kept from sophomore year (I think) until around 2009 is a list of book titles and their accompanying ideas. And now that I think about it, there’s an idea for a screenplay in there, too.

I told the writers’ group today that I spent so many years in journalism writing non-fiction that it’s hard to swing the pendulum back in the other direction. I deal in fact and truth and fact-based opinion and data-based truth, so to pull fantasy out of my head — did you Renaissance people know that I used to bang out those short stories in like, a day? a half-day? — for an all-out story was something I’ve been struggling with for more than 10 years.

So to write, you have to have freedom, and sometimes you gain freedom through catharsis. After our group session ended, my high school homie and I got to talking about high school, and we both offered our testimony in the years since 2002.

I talked about being laid off from my job and nearly losing my sanity during the year I was unemployed, and how I just never expected to find myself in this place. You have to understand, I’d not only held a job — some kind of job — since I was 15, I was always in the same job, usually. Most people who know me don’t know me outside of being a writer, be it on my high school paper, my college paper, or the real journalism jobs I’ve had after college. And when you’ve been doing it that long, you’re supposed to be continuously successful at it.

But I didn’t hide the fact that I was unemployed, and then all these words started falling out. The lightbulbs were going off. Why do we hide our failures? Because we grew up — or did we instinctively condition ourselves? — to hide secrets. There are certain kinds of kids in Detroit, the ones that come up through the Chryslers, the Bates Academies, the Hallys, the Ludingtons, the Casses, Kings and Renaissances, even the GPAs, U-of-D Jesuits, Country Days and the University Liggetts, and then they go on to the States, the U-of-Ms, the Howards, the Harvards — you spend so much time trying to keep up with your Joneses academically, socially, athletically, financially, that you don’t show your blemishes and scars. You don’t tell people about that abusive relationship, that job loss, that repo, that eviction, that abortion, that always negative bank account, that alcohol problem, that closet you still haven’t come out of, that divorce, and you try to hide it until you just can’t hide it anymore. And then black folks, you know we don’t publicly talk about finances and we don’t talk about that one cousin that just ain’t right, and so on, and so forth.

But now we’re 30, and we realize — we all are going through some very real, very adult shit. It’s OK that so-and-so got a divorce, because someone else got a divorce, too. There’s enough kids born to members of our class — two-parent household or not — to cast a “Saved By the Bell: The New Class” version of what we went through, with extras. And it’s OK to talk about these things now, because transparency can help others going through the same thing be transparent with themselves.

So yeah, this is where I’m at. I see all these visions and have all these creative juices. I’m nostalgic, partly because of my Sirius XM subscription. Pop2K plays every song from 9th grade to 12th, from college to my professional life. And Soul Town and The Groove is my mother’s record collection in radio form, the Earth, Wind & Fire records I would listen to and try not to scratch (though there might be a small skip on “Fantasy,” Mom). It’s putting me back in that space where I could write freely.

And why was I so fearless back then? I wasn’t popular, I couldn’t afford to dress the best, I couldn’t even get my hair on point most times, but I never had issues putting my stories out there. I came to this conclusion, too, that I spent so much of my college and 20-something years trying to re-create what I never had in high school — the popularity, the money, the braggadocio — that I might have lost my creative streak. Those stories I wrote were basically mini-screenplays. If they read like soap operas, it’s because they were inspired by the ones I used to watch with my grandmother and great-grandmother. If they borrowed heavily from the pop culture of the time — I specifically remember writing a story with a chapter centering around Jagged Edge’s “Let’s Get Married” — it’s because I was becoming a keen observer of such. I’m trying to find that place again.

I don’t plan to write the Great American Novel. I’m not even sure I want to write a novel right now; I think of the time a few months ago when an agent approached me about writing a non-fiction book about post-bankruptcy Detroit. I pitched, drafted a table of contents and some ideas, and never heard back. But maybe I want to do that. Someone asked me why not put together a book of all the columns I’ve ever written, but then I think — can’t people read that for free? But maybe I’d like to do a Sedaris-type book of essays. I don’t know. I’m just starting to feel excited again, that maybe I can really do this.

Some thoughts on ABC’s ‘Black-ish’

Note: I pitched this to a pub, but it was shot down, so since there’s no kill fee/agreement, I decided to post it here on my own site. Enjoy!

There’s a line toward the end of ABC’s “Black-ish” – officially premiering Sept. 24, but already available for free download on iTunes – where Andre Jr., the teen son of the protagonist, tells his father during a one-on-one basketball game that, “I’m just being me, I’m just not quite sure who that is yet.”

Inadvertently, this could be the tone of “Black-ish” going forward. The sitcom takes its name from dialogue in the pilot episode, in which Anthony Anderson plays an ad executive wondering if his family is “real” enough – and by “real,” we mean “black.”

Rarer these days are the network sitcoms that offer inside views of non-white families, but this season is shaping up to be a banner year – at least with ABC — with “Fresh Off The Boat” and “Cristela” peeking into Asian and Hispanic households, respectively. Neither of those shows, however, will likely be compared to similarly cast predecessors. “Black-ish,” a show about an upper-middle-class suburban black family, will, though.

With black families, we’re either the Evanses or the Huxtables, with the latter always having served as the answer to the former and rarely any middle ground. “Good Times,” as the theme song noted, was about a family barely keeping their heads above water. Save for the short-lived “Julia” and the occasional soap opera, “Good Times” was the ultimate culmination of decades of small-screen black characters – maids, nannies, other servants — in the working class.

But as time has put distance between the Evans family and our current conscience (even the real-life Chicago housing project where the family lived has been demolished) most of today’s creatives have been taking their cues from “The Cosby Show.” Bill Cosby wanted all African-Americans to aspire to be the Huxtables, but showrunners had the loftier goal of their creations having that show’s longevity and impact.

“Black-ish’s” parents have been in this space on other shows, swinging and missing. Anderson paired up with – of course – “Cosby” alum Tempestt Bledsoe for NBC’s “Guys With Kids,” a not out-and-out black sitcom but featuring a portrayal of a black family nonetheless. Tracee Ellis Ross was screen-married to another “Cosby” kid, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, for BET’s “Reed Between the Lines.” All four actors, but especially Warner and Bledsoe, were forced to address the inevitable Huxtable comparisons in press surrounding those shows, both of which were canceled.

Perhaps several shows with predominantly black casts are often upheld to the “Cosby” standard because there are so few outstanding examples to begin with, making their intended audiences their harshest critics. When BET gave us “Being Mary Jane,” an hour-long drama about a single, successful, career-driven woman dating a married man, the similarities to ABC’s “Scandal” couldn’t be overlooked. (“Mary Jane” star Gabrielle Union would exacerbate these comparisons by revealing she had pursued the role of Olivia Pope before being turned down in favor of Kerry Washington.)

Endless comedies about 20-something friends can stand alone next to, well, “Friends.” The comedy graveyard is filled with “Cosby” clones — “Charlie & Co.,” “Minor Adjustments,”  “Me and the Boys,” “The Royal Family,” “Built to Last” – and those that can’t be mentioned with the Huxtables in its footnotes – “The Bernie Mac Show,” “The Hughleys,” “My Wife and Kids.”

To be sure, “Black-ish” seems funny enough. Laurence Fishburne is a scene stealer; it’s as if we’re catching up with Dap from “School Daze” at the 25-year Mission College alumni picnic. Ross’ character is biracial, as is she. And Anderson finally seems to be growing up, after years of being the kooky sidekick.

But if “Black-ish” can survive a first season – and ABC hasn’t had a successful, long-running sitcom with an all-black cast since the aforementioned “My Wife and Kids” ended nearly a decade ago – it, too, may be asked to take the “Cosby” test. And then again, maybe not.

“Black-ish” confronts identity issues head-on in its pilot, dancing in the middle of the intersection of class and race rarely touched on in “The Cosby Show,” and given, at best, the very-special treatment in later shows like “Sister, Sister” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” Turns out, those issues are what fans of the latter show have held in higher regard. Few recall the time an armed robber held up the Banks family during Christmas, but everyone remembers when Carlton’s blackness came into question when he tried to pledge a fraternity.

It’ll be interesting to see how far “Black-ish” can go, what it wants to be, and whether audiences won’t be worn thin too easily. And let’s say “Cosby” never finds its way into conversation. It’ll then face the next issue so many other black sitcoms face: unnecessarily being compared to white ones. It’s Wednesday night lead-in? Another suburban-family farce, “Modern Family.”

My Month Of Freelancing — May 2014

A bit delayed, but here it is. Last month, I had a goal of three publications a month. I hit that target, so we’re still good.

The song of last month was “Cotton Candy” by The Sylvers. It plays regularly on Sirius XM49.

1. I started May with my first of (hopefully many more) columns for Bridge.

Detroit doesn’t have stop-and-frisk, the controversial New York City police policy of randomly stopping individuals to see if they’re up to no good. But if you pay attention to what’s going on with Belle Isle, it seems we’re taking at least baby steps toward it.

2. I ended May with a quick Q&A for the BNP Media-owned National Driller. (See, I can tackle all subjects!)

Hands-on experience is a necessary lesson for all disciplines, and drilling is no exception. Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport, Pa., this year welcomes a drilling rig simulator to its campus that shows students of the trade how the industry works.

3. In the middle of May, I strung for the Detroit Free Press for Movement and also told you about the Black History 101 Mobile Museum partnering up with the 5E Gallery. (It was the first time I’ve done something for the Freep since I was an apprentice there in 2001.)

If a hip-hop time capsule were unearthed, its contents would surely resemble what’s on display here. “Yo! MTV Raps” trading cards. Lauryn Hill on a 1998 cover of Time, the first time the news magazine featured hip-hop. Public Enemy-branded bandanas. Movie posters from classics like “Breakin’.” A rare Notorious B.I.G. doll. How El-Hakim and 5E Gallery founder DJ Sicari Ware arrived at this point is a study in Detroit hip-hop history.

 

To get a full idea of just how much sound was reverberating through Movement on Saturday, you could step inside one of the three dozen or so portable toilets near the edge of Hart Plaza. There you could feel the rhythms coming from every direction. On one stage, a live local band from Detroit. On another, a DJ spinning nu-disco with French lyrics.

4. As usual, I contributed a bunch to Jalopnik, with a few standouts:

How Lowriders Helped Boys Become Men In Southwest Detroit

Every year during Cinco de Mayo, there’s a tradition where men and women gather around Impalas, Regals, Caddys and other rides for “Blessing of the Lowriders,” an only-in-Detroit event where steel, salvation and stereotype-breaking meet.

Once Again, Gawker Is Absolutely Fucking Clueless About Detroit

The thing about living in Detroit is that when something goes viral locally, you pray that if it reaches a national level it gets translated to the masses properly. And it’s a fucked-up game of Telephone that Gawker writers fail at every goddamn time.

The Difference Between Detroit And Metro Detroit: An Explainer

After the Detroit Silverdome/Pontiac Silverdome dustup between Jalopnik Detroit and Gawkerthis weekend, quite a few readers questioned why Detroiters got so offended if a city in question is technically part of the metro area. There’s a reason for that: Most cities in Metro Detroit are worlds apart.

4. The Metro Detroit explainer got me a spot on The Progrim (second time!) with Mike P. Check me out.

June is under way.

My month of freelancing — April 2014

Starting this month, I’m going to start chronicling where I’ve been and what I’ve written. My goal is this: At least three different publications a month. So far, so good.

I’ll also try to throw in a random, unrelated song for the month. It’s Bjork’s “Bachelorette” for this month. Heard it on XM35 and can’t get it out of my head. Yes.

COMMENCE THE SELF-PROMOTION!

1. I contributed a bunch to Jalopnik, but here are three standouts:

Here’s How Not To Crowdfund A $3 Million Detroit Mansion Purchase

There’s no doubt that Detroit is bustling with young creatives with the romance but not the finance to make their dreams come true. So we’ve got Kresge grants and Gilbert bankrolls, but crowdfunding is one of those things that we still have a tricky time with. Case in point. Here’s a bro who wants to turn the $2.8 million Col. Frank J. Hecker House in midtown Detroit, a 21,000-square-foot railroad baron’s mansion, into a “coworking heaven.”

The Times Chronicles The Plight Of Young, White Detroit Entrepreneurs

Guys, there are risks and rewards in opening a business in an American city, and the Times is ON IT. Specifically, the New York Times, whose reporters are still allergic to black people in one of the country’s largest black cities.

ABC Wants You To Visit Detroit But Skip Visiting Detroit, Wait What?

I’m a little bit confused by this ABC News (by way of Travelzoo) piece that encourages people to visit Detroit. If I haven’t made it plain by now, I’m all in favor of Detroit tourism — except this piece is telling you to skip all the best parts of Detroit.

2. It’s every black journalist’s dream to be published in Ebony (or Essence or Jet), so I marked that off the bucket list last month with an update on what’s going on with the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History.

In the Cultural Center of Detroit, it’s impossible to miss the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History, with its enormous black and gold African mask hanging above its main entrance. A quick stroll through the main floor indicates all is well. And the sun is finally pouring through the massive skylights, covered way too long in snow from Michigan’s second-most-brutal winter.

3. I got the lucky Detroit journalist invite to Craig Fahle’s Friday Follies segment on WDET. Listen here.

4. I did a quick write-up on the developments in Palmer Park for The Architect’s Newspaper — in print, too!

The city has attracted new residents in search of lower rents, prompting near-capacity occupancy in the city’s downtown and Midtown districts. Business districts, universities, and other usual trappings of urban life anchored both areas. Palmer Park, on the other hand, is relatively far-flung from the hustle and bustle. Like so many of Detroit’s older neighborhoods, it was conceived for turn-of-the-century auto barons and executives seeking country homes in open settings, but not too far from the central business district. The neighborhood’s centerpieces are a 30-acre park and a golf course, with a winding boulevard of apartment buildings in styles ranging from Moroccan to art deco to English Tudor.

5. I previewed Red Bull House of Art’s latest cycle and told you about each one of the artists exhibiting there. (My favorite part of this coverage was talking to a self-described housewife who now has studio space in Corktown.)

Paula Zammit has one of those Hollywood-ending stories in the making as we speak. Right now, we’re in the beginning of the second act. After years of raising a family and working as a sales executive, Zammit waited patiently for her youngest child to leave for college before deciding to go back to college herself. Initially, the Lathrup Village residents enrolled at Schoolcraft College for culinary arts. But every cooking class was booked. Thank God, she says. To fill up credit hours, Zammit turned to art classes.

6. I’ll be honest, I’ve been super critical of Model D in the past. But I’m glad they listened to my rant about how much it irritates me when you guys use the term “the neighborhoods.”

You don’t hear “Belle Isle to 7 Mile” anymore because now, more than ever, Detroit is separating. It’s one thing to rep your neighborhood (or, as so often the case in Detroit is, your cross streets). It’s another to separate your neighborhood from the city completely.

7. Finally, The Detroit Anthology is out in a few weeks. Metro Times spoke to our editor and curator, Anna Clark, and MT gave me a nice little shout-out. Awww.

Anna Clark wears many hats. A freelance writer living in Detroit, her work has appeared in The New RepublicAmerican Prospect and Salon, among others. She’s a writer-in-residence for the InsideOut Literary Arts Project, a gig that sees her teaching creative writing at Detroit high schools, and she’s also a board member of Write a House, a residency program that aims to fill three houses in a neighborhood north of Hamtramck with writers. She also edited A Detroit Anthology — a collection of stories from the likes of Jalopnik’s Aaron Foley, noted sociologist Thomas Sugrue, and MT’s very own Larry Gabriel to name a few — which will be released by Rust Belt Chic on May 12. 

Stay tuned for May!

Open for business

Self-promotion makes me uncomfortable and the term “branding” makes me itch, but I’ve been told I should be doing this more as a freelancer.

I feel I’ve been pretty good at “putting myself out there” since I have been independent. (We’ll talk later about how I feel the term “freelancer” has a negative connotation.) But since I have to think of myself as a business, I should advertise. So here goes.

I’m a writer first. I’ve been in journalism all my life (bylines in the elementary school paper, son!), but working professionally for almost a decade. I’ve written general news. I’ve written entertainment. I’ve written education. I’ve written automotive. None of these are “hard” or “soft” topics; they should all be treated with the same level of respect. Therefore, if you need someone to report on any of those subjects — anything from one-off strings to long-term projects — let me know.

Living in Detroit, the city is one of my main subject areas. But it’s not my only subject area. I could probably give you a story about luxury sales in Germany vs. those in America, or I could recap your favorite crime drama. I’ve interviewed mayors, children, grieving parents, automotive executives, a man who sells raccoon meat, your favorite rappers, aging rock stars, racists and 100-year-olds on their birthdays.

I’ve written a lot. Therefore, I think I know my way around a sentence beyond journalism. I could write you a press release or your marketing copy. Many people in the last year probably found me through some snarky blogging I do over at Jalopnik Detroit, but I’ve been blogging long before that. Need a guest blog? I can do that. Need a ghost blog? I could do that, too.

Among one of my many current freelance projects, I’m doing community management for a soon-to-be-launched automotive enthusiast site, which means I could manage your social media accounts if you need me to. I can tell you what works, what plays to certain audiences, how to get noticed and how to make sense. Why, just the other day I picked out a promotional hashtag!

Oh, speaking of site launches. I was behind the scenes of MLive Detroit before that launched, so I know a thing or two about getting a new project off the ground. I’m very proud of my involvement with that, as it’s now one of the most-read news sites in the region. So if you need someone who’s not afraid to take risks with new developments, let me know.

I’m comfortable on radio and on camera; I’ve done local radio here in Detroit, provincial radio in Canada and lent my voice to a national launch of a new public radio show. I told you where a certain city councilman was hiding on the news and I’ve recently appeared in a soon-to-be-aired Web series about Detroit.

I also don’t mind offering guest commentary. I’ve done that for publications big and small, and if you need someone to offer up a quote or two for your journalism class project, I can do that, too. Ask me anything!

I started my career as a copy editor, so if you need a once-over on that essay you wrote (I live with a microbiologist; do you know how many scientific papers I’ve had to edit over the years?) or if you’ve got a project you need some help on, I can do that.

Finally, if I can’t help you, I probably know someone who can. I’m fortunate to know lots of talent always willing to lend a hand.

So let’s talk. Want to do some business? Email me at aaronkfoley[at]gmail[dot]com.

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