DETROIT, United States – On a sunny Thursday afternoon, I meet Nefertiti Harris at her salon in the Cass Corridor, one of Detroit’s comeback neighborhoods. Harris is a tall, slender, smiling woman with long locs wound neatly around the crown of her head. She suggests walking over to Shinola’s storefront around the corner. The upscale watch and bicycle manufacturer recently converted a 5,000-square-foot former Jeep warehouse into a storefront, event space and juice bar. Bikes cost between $1,000 and $3,000; watches range from $400 to $800. A bottle of Drought’s cold-pressed organic juice costs $10.
After checking out the colorful, cavernous space, we sit at a rustic wooden table out front. As we sip from bottles of extravagant raw juice, it is difficult to discern signs of bankruptcy from our perch on Canfield Street, a popular destination for new businesses.
Just a few minutes after taking our seats, a young woman approaches from across the street. “Do we need to move?” Harris asks. “I know you’re trying to film something.” The woman explains that her company is moving to Detroit and that she is making a promotional video to air at South by Southwest. “We’re making this video about our move to Detroit,” she says. “We’re showcasing the cooler, hipper places, showing people that Detroit’s not all bad, that we have fun, cool things for you to do down here. We’re convincing other people to move to the city.”
Harris, flashing a warm smile and striking a model-like posture, replies, “Well, it might not be a bad idea to have some living people in it, then.”
So much conversation about this city alternates between, on the one hand, depopulation and fiscal distress and, on the other, local billionaire Dan Gilbert’s skyscraper collection and the influx of young, white tech entrepreneurs. By hewing to the themes of vacancy and rebirth, the conversation often overlooks the city’s approximately 700,000 residents and 50,588 businesses, of which 64 percent are owned by African-Americans and 50 percent by women, as of 2007.
Harris, for her part, has been living in Detroit since the 1980s, after she moved from her native Chicago, where she worked as a model. Once in Detroit, Harris started a natural hair care business. She came to the idea through her disillusionment with the modeling industry’s preoccupation with Western standards of beauty. “Because I am an African-American woman, I noticed that many African-American women had a standard of beauty that they could never attain. I wanted to change that,” she says. When she first started cultivating her own locs, Harris explains, many African-American women viewed unpermed, loced hair as unkempt and unprofessional.
“A lot of times I would have to hold their hand, walking them through this process of coming out of their perms. They had a lot of concerns about what their family, boyfriends or fellow church members would think,” she says.
During the 1990s, Harris worked out of the kitchen in her home, which was then in Detroit’s Boston-Edison neighborhood. Her client base, consisting of mostly professional women, grew quickly. In 2003, she and three other women started Cass Corridor’s Spiral Collective—a large space on the corner of Cass Avenue and West Willis Street shared by the four business owners. Dell Pryor, a stalwart of the Detroit art scene, operates an art gallery in the space. Her daughter, Sharon Pryor, runs a boutique called Tulani Rose. The other two members of the collective are Janet Webster Jones, owner of Source Booksellers, and Harris. Jones joined the Collective after working for nearly 25 years as a mobile book vendor, specializing in history and memoirs. Harris launched her salon, Textures by Nefertiti.
As Harris’ business continued to grow, she imagined expanding into a full-service salon with a nail technician, aesthetician and massage therapist. In 2009, she relocated Textures 100 feet down Cass Avenue. Similarly, Source Booksellers moved into a storefront across the street, where it hosts Saturday morning exercises and tai chi sessions in addition to readings and discussions. The four women continue to promote and support each other’s businesses.
Harris goes to great lengths to support her nine women employees. She takes an active role in their lives, discussing goals and finances. “Women are nurturers and teachers, and this is the way we do business,” she explains. “You care about the people around you. If the people around you are doing well, you’re doing well.” Textures’ endurance and growth in an environment fraught with turbulence and uncertainty suggests that this approach has served Harris well.
The salon is airy and intimate. When I arrive, the stylist chairs lining the perimeter of the room are all occupied. The salon’s fullness contrasts sharply with the sense of vacancy that pervades many of the city’s streets. Some clients face mirrors on the wall, speaking softly with stylists. Others face the center of the room, chatting, laughing or looking at their cellphones. A man with locs hanging over his shoulders sits in the center of the room consulting a stylist. Two children huddle on a couch, engrossed in handheld video games. Harris floats through the salon, engaging clients and employees in casual conversation.
Harris’ clientele represent a cross section of city residents: artists, musicians, city workers, professionals and students from Wayne State University. Some folks drive in from other cities in southeast Michigan. Harris is conscientious about maintaining a comfortable and relaxed atmosphere in the salon. She describes the place as “a respite,” a safe space where people can talk about anything or nothing at all, a space that offers its visitors a sense of belonging.
When I ask if clients discuss Detroit’s bankruptcy filing, Harris shrugs and says, “It’s a passing conversation…. I don’t know what bankruptcy means for the city, or for me. I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing. What else can I do? I have no control.”
Harris has neither a pension nor health insurance. Nevertheless, she remains optimistic. “I know what’s going on in Detroit. It’s depressing,” she says, “but you can’t pay attention to the fear …. It’s down to a dollar, and that’s when you buy.”
Back at Shinola, it’s clear that individuals and investors are doing just that. In September, a Canadian investor group scooped up all but one of the 22 properties up for auction in North Corktown, the historic neighborhood where Harris currently lives. A handful of organizations—Revolve Detroit, Hatch, D:hive and Detroit Soup, among others—now offer support to entrepreneurs. New businesses are sprouting around town. Among them is Harris’ newest venture: Tarot & Tea, a spiritual tearoom, in West Village, a few miles from Textures.
“I’m seeing a lot more young people, and a lot more creative energy here,” Harris says. “I see folks taking chances. I think Detroit is a wonderful place where you can take a chance and start a business, do what you want to do, and get the support that you need to do it.”