Skift Take

The mainstream media currently has control of the Detroit travel story, but the Black Travel Movement is about to redefine what it means to visit the blackest city in America.

Mainstream travel media, which has historically been led by white journalists writing for white travelers, has mostly defined Detroit’s travel story. But the Black Travel Movement could change that narrative for what’s arguably the blackest city in America.

“In a lot of ways [Detroit’s decline] affected the black community more than others,” said Evita Robinson, founder of Nomadness Travel Tribe, a black travel community. “There’s a personal element to a visit to a city like Detroit for a group like Nomadness or others that are part of the Black Travel Movement. It’s more personal for us, because it’s affected us personally.”

Nomadness, which has more than 15,000 members, will hold its seventh annual barbecue in Detroit on July 28, but it isn’t hosting it there for the same reasons that mainstream travel media hail the city as an up-and-coming destination.

“We’re doing it for us by us,” Robinson said.

Mainstream Travel’s Detroit

According to mainstream travel media, Detroit is hot right now. In 2017, The New York Times ranked the city number nine on its annual Places to Go list, calling it “a comeback city set to make good on its promise.” Lonely Planet ranked Detroit number two on its 2018 cities list: “Young creative types jump-started the scene when they began transforming the crazy-huge slew of abandoned buildings into distilleries, bike shops and galleries.”

A couple of Detroit’s new attractions receive frequent attention. One is the Dequindre Cut, a two-mile greenway with artwork that recalls New York’s popular High Line. In 2017, Detroit also launched a new streetcar called the QLine that follows the Woodward Avenue thoroughfare, stopping at ballparks, museums, and theaters. It’s mostly useful for tourists and serves few residents.

The endorsements in The New York Times and Lonely Planet can easily inspire two types of travel. One trip revolves around new, white-run restaurants, shops, and attractions in the gentrifying downtown of a majority-black city. Another involves curiosity about an economy that tanked so dramatically; Detroit in 2013 carried out the country’s largest municipal bankruptcy, and it hurt black residents disproportionately.

“Slum tourism” exists in many cities, including Detroit. In 2013 the Los Angeles Times investigated Detroit photography tours in which white tourists gawked at struggling neighborhoods. In 2017, a downtown Detroit high-rise displayed a sign saying, “See Detroit Like We Do,” but the advertisement featured mostly white people. Along those same lines, the recent film Detroit was criticized for its tone-deaf representation of the city’s residents.

“You may have group trips with white travelers, them going on their own — [our] type of event is grander,” said Robinson. “I don’t think black spaces within the U.S. are shown with the levels and depth that they deserve, the nuances of our art, our culture, our music, our food.”

America’s Blackest Destination

In some cases, a comeback city can be just a city touting new attractions. But in what’s arguably the blackest city in America, it’s not that simple.

Detroit is 83 percent black and has the highest percentage of black residents among U.S. cities with a population of 100,000 or more, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In an unusual turn for Detroit, the city has its first white mayor in over 40 years.

According to Visit Detroit’s latest study, from November 2016, 86 percent of its visitors reside in the U.S., with 76 percent coming from outside Michigan.

With such heavy domestic visitation from outside of the state, the Black Travel Movement would seem like a natural source to boost Detroit’s tourism.

Only 38 percent of Detroit’s visitors are women while Nomadness’ membership is approaching 90 percent female. Visit Detroit reported having no statistics on visitors broken down by race, and declined to speak with Skift about the Black Travel Movement.

Detroit hasn’t seen much visitation yet from groups in the Black Travel Movement, but the destination is on these companies’ radar. Shannon Washington, co-founder and director of Parlour, a tour operator and travel magazine for black women, said Parlour hasn’t yet held an event in Detroit, “but definitely would be interested.”

Kent Johnson, co-founder of tour operator and community Black & Abroad, said the company was more focused on the Atlanta and New York markets, but would consider Detroit if there is demand. Tour operator and community Travel Noire, acquired by Blavity in 2017, said it has also not held events in Detroit.

The Promise of Black Travel to Detroit

Nomadness’ decision to encourage black travelers to visit Detroit could be a breakthrough in how the industry sees this destination — through the eyes of black Americans who have a stake in the black community.

Robinson noted the importance of “being able to scope the scene for ourselves and create our own narrative,” in addition to getting Detroit residents involved in the group’s barbecue July 28 and doing a large-scale service project.

Nomadness selected Detroit by member vote on Facebook, and during the vote, one member commented, “If Detroit is selected just make sure money is spent in our communities or at B.O.B.s,” referring to black-owned businesses.

“I think some people are actually going to be taking the weekend and splitting it between leisure activities with us and some potential business partnerships or investments,” said Robinson. “Particularly with a president like Trump at the helm right now, it is a powerful, powerful statement for a community in large mass, hundreds of black people, going into Detroit to celebrate and invest.”

Numerous Tribe members either live in Detroit or lived there in the past, but in a broader sense, the Black Travel Movement includes many descendants of the Great Migration. During the Great Migration years, roughly 1910 to 1970, six million black southerners fled the violent Jim Crow south for the urban north, and Detroit received a tremendous number of these migrants. Many were drawn to jobs in the then-thriving auto industry. Detroit’s population changed drastically as black migrants flooded in and white residents fled.

Nomadness’ finalist destinations for 2018 were Atlanta and Detroit, the latter winning overwhelmingly with 71 percent of the vote. In 2017, the Nomadness barbecue took place in Philadelphia; in 2016, 2015, and 2014, Atlanta hosted the event; and there were two events in New York before that. Attendance more than doubled in recent years, from about 250 in Atlanta to nearly 600 in Philadelphia. Nomadness is pivoting away from group tours toward these types of events.

During the Atlanta versus Detroit vote, a Tribe member commented that the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History was a Detroit-specific selling point.

The Wright is one of the largest, most-renowned black history museums in the country, and could inform part of the relationship between Detroit and the Black Travel Movement. The Wright delivers an immersive experience similar to that of the new Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., whose overwhelming success has already made it a black American mecca. The two museums have already collaborated in some areas.

When asked if the Wright had ever worked with a group in the Black Travel Movement, which boasts many millennials, a spokesperson said no, but that it had potential.“I think it’d be a great way to connect and engage a younger population. My team and I will look into doing some outreach.”

While part of the Black Travel Movement has black Americans traveling to international destinations that see few black visitors, Nomadness’ domestic trips lean toward established black hubs like New York, Atlanta, and Philadelphia.

Robinson said she’s had conversations about the possibility of events in Selma, Alabama, and Nashville, Tennessee, as well.

About visiting places with a significant black population, Robinson said, “I think we need it in this country right now.”


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Tags: black travel movement, detroit, tourism

Photo credit: The famous Joe Louis fist sculpture in Detroit's Hart Plaza, June 2015. Black travelers are redefining what it means to visit Detroit. Michigan Municipal League / Flickr

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