Lauren Strayer: Between a rock and a Hard Rock Cafe

BY
BY LAUREN STRAYER: IN THE ACTIVE VOICE

Published November 20, 2003

At the end of the workday, downtown
Detroit empties. The city’s professionals rush to their Big
Three vehicles and head home. They drive away from the heart of a
city that seems a bustling metropolis during working hours but is
eerily quiet by 7 p.m. This is the downtown of a city for
commuters, not for residents. It’s a downtown without
community beyond the functional networks of the business world, and
despite last week’s contrary fanfare, it’s a downtown
for which Michiganders must demand more than a tired chain
restaurant and a trifling bookstore.

Kate Green

Last Monday, Detroit’s first Hard Rock Café and
first Borders bookstore opened simultaneously on Woodward Avenue.
The hype surrounding the new businesses portrayed them as symbols
of Detroit’s impending revitalization and transformation into
a tourist spot. Local media hailed the pair as the piece de
resistance of the new Compuware world headquarters and as the
harbinger of all the great investment the city is to reap for
hosting Super Bowl XL in 2006. Though it seems this pair is the
perfect partnership of novelty and stability and of tourism and
community, I am not convinced.

While it is more than appropriate that Motown finally has a Hard
Rock Café, policymakers need to be careful with such
economic investment. By nature, Hard Rock Cafés capitalize
on tourists’ desire to broadcast the extent of their travels;
they don’t focus on cultivating the community atmosphere that
Detroit lacks and needs. Like any other Hard Rock Café, ours
will not entice patrons to live, work and spend downtown. People
will come to the Café once, buy their T-shirts, and leave
— taking their revitalizing money with them.

The café may only be one business, but it represents a
risky trend. It’s possible that much of the coming Super Bowl
XL investment will be similarly unproductive in the long run.
Becoming a mecca of clichéd tourist attractions may be
profitable today, but it will not pay off in the days and years
following the 2006 game. Hosting the Super Bowl is a great
opportunity for Detroit, but policymakers and event planners need
to remember that the structural problems hindering economic
development today will not be easily fixed with a gimmicky
event.

Given this critique, it may seem that the opening of the
adjacent Borders bookstore is exactly what Detroit needs. If a
business can represent the antithesis of the Hard Rock
Café’s economic impact, that business is a bookstore
with the purchasing power and name recognition of Borders. Through
public events, book clubs, and a coffee café that invites
lingering, bookstores naturally build the sort of community
atmosphere that draws people into a city.

I would apply this positive analysis to the 8,000-square-foot
Borders if it were open past 7 p.m. on any weeknight or after 6
p.m. on weekends. With hours that vary so little from those of
typical working professionals, the downtown store will do little to
draw people into the city during those critical evening hours that
reveal Detroit’s vacuity. This store will primarily serve
Detroit’s professionals, many of whom probably commute past
other Borders locations on their way home each night.

The depressing truth of this situation is that Detroit
desperately needs more stores like Borders — under the right
circumstances. It needs big corporations to open stores and keep
them open late into the evening. While many of us in suburbia
lament the sprawl — over land and local business — of
the corporate big boxes, we often forget the economic stability and
advantages they afford our communities. We fail to remember the
positive economic power of big retail corporations and how they
define many of the favorable aspects of our suburban
lifestyles.

Retail and other industries have left American inner cities
detrimentally underserved. Without the products, services, jobs,
and taxes these ubiquitous stores can provide, many of the economic
problems of inner cities have been compounded or at least have gone
uncurbed. The conventional explanation for such retail deficiency
is the poverty of many urban communities. Fortunately, studies and
progressive corporations are finding that the collective purchasing
power of these communities is large enough to sustain new
stores.

Though the grand openings of Detroit’s Hard Rock
Café and Borders were overblown, they demonstrate the
difficult position of Detroit’s policy makers who must find
the right balance between the desperate need for investment and the
need for sound development policies.

Until then, I’ll be wearing my Hard Rock Detroit
T-shirt.

Strayer can be reached at "mailto:lstrayer@umich.edu">lstrayer@umich.edu.