Native Daughters Navigate the New Detroit

By Rhonda Welsh

Rachel Lutz answered phones at her parents’ Greektown office when she was 12. During breaks, she explored downtown Detroit in Talbots’ ensembles. Back then, she didn’t realize that good little suburban girls were not typically allowed to walk Detroit streets solo.

“A lot of suburban parents back in the 1990s would not let a teenage girl wander around alone,” says Rachel Lutz, former Wayne State student and now owner of The Peacock Room and Frida. “I realize now how different it was. But to me it was just normal; they wanted me to experience the city.”

Two years before Lutz worked at her parents’ office, Jessica Care Moore and members of the Black Student Union collaborated with the NAACP to boycott the Student Center at Wayne State. She worked with a huge multicultural student and community contingent to establish the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday on campus. She didn’t subscribe to the expectation that inner city girls should function as minorities in a majority African-American city.

“In high school I was a 3.8 Honor Roll student with several varsity letters. University life instantly became a form of activism for me and I pretty much took the campus over,” laughs Moore, former WSU journalism and political science major, poet, producer of Black Women Rock! and founder of Moore Black Press. “Helping to create the King Holiday at Wayne was the most impactful thing for me in my university life. My father died in January 1994, I was depressed and I needed to attach myself to something important.”

Moore and Lutz share the desire to be actively involved in important undertakings. Lutz is a fourth-generation Detroit business owner and second-generation Midtown business owner, who has planned motorcades for the White House, advocated for women’s rights as a Detroit Police Department volunteer, planned fundraisers for nonprofits, and encouraged young people to become more active in politics, public service, law and government.

Moore is a five-time Showtime at the Apollo winner and outspoken political and social activist. She originally made her mark in the early 1990s but she continues to reinvent herself with her international show, art exhibition, lecture series and music camp “Black Women Rock! and through the release of her upcoming CD in collaboration with Jose James, “Black Tea: The Legend of Jesse James.” She has also performed with fellow luminaries like Nas, Saul Williams, the late Ossie Davis, CeCe Winans, the late Gregory Hines, Anthony David, Norah Jones, Amiri Baraka, Patti Labelle, Roy Ayers, Mos Def, The Last Poets, Sonia Sanchez, Talib Kweli, Nikki Giovanni, Steve Harvey and the late Maya.

The two women actively support each other’s projects; Lutz donated to Moore’s recent Music Camp at the Detroit Institute of Music Education and Moore wore one of Lutz’s dresses on the cover of her upcoming album “Black Tea: The Legend of Jesse James.” Recently, they sat together to share their thoughts about the city they love.

Q. What were Midtown and downtown like when you were growing up?

Moore: When I was growing up, I only came downtown to go to clubs. Then I went back home to my neighborhood.

Lutz: I started coming down here when I was a toddler. One of my earliest memories of being alive was being in the Whitney Building because my dad’s offices were originally on the second floor in the Carriage House. I remember crawling up those stairs and seeing the stained glass window. My parents always had us down here at the DIA and (in the 1970s and early 1980s) they joined other volunteers to work with Jeff Montgomery (the founder of the Triangle Foundation) to preserve Orchestra Hall. I had the luxury of being a visiting kid.

Moore: Growing up here was a luxury as well. “Old” Detroit was a fantastic place to raise children. I grew up on the west side near Joy Road and Tireman. It was a neighborhood full of kids. I want the city that I grew up in to return to itself. I grew up with all of this push forward to get to the new Detroit; I hope people know that the Detroit that was here was absolutely fantastic.

The Detroit that I grew up in made me. I am an internationally known poet and I went to Cody High School.

Q. In the midst of an ongoing national narrative about a “new Detroit” and “Midtown,” what are your own thoughts about Midtown?

Moore: When you rename things you have to understand there is so much power. There are people who have moved into this neighborhood who have never heard of anything called the Cass Corridor. And that’s branding on purpose. Midtown branding is not for people who have always lived here. Or for you who know that it already existed. It is for people who know nothing. They come in and the Midtown name gives them a clean slate. They don’t even know Cass Corridor exists. Branding is purposeful is all I am saying. Even if Midtown existed, nobody in Detroit called this area that, ever. I lived on the west side of Detroit. This area was considered Cass Corridor.

Lutz: To me, my existence was the Medical Center, the Cultural Center, Wayne State and Cass Corridor. But those are four distinct areas to me. I call it Midtown now because back in the 1950s they called the area midtown. They named it that because there was downtown and midtown. Midtown was the area was in between. It’s all in the eye of the beholder. I use Midtown as the name for all of the distinct areas.

Moore: It’s a way of life thing because I lived in New York. Now, I live in Corktown. I ride a bike and I am vegetarian. So the perks of gentrification are here. I like to walk. I like to go get healthy food. I can walk to Mudgie’s to get a vegan sandwich if I feel like it and some soup. I can get tempeh bacon on the corner…in Detroit. I didn’t grow up here with that, so this is for a new kind of people. I fit into it because I lived in New York for such a long time. The way of life works for me down here. Most Detroiters are not eating tempeh bacon.

Lutz: I love straddling those two Detroits.

Moore: What’s missing to me is that middle ground.

Lutz: I get offended when someone calls me a hipster. That reinforces the stereotype that everyone who is young and white is a hipster. I didn’t just show up here.

Moore: It’s a general stereotypical look and I’ve seen it everywhere — even when I was in Brooklyn.

Q. What was it like to be a student at Wayne State?

Lutz: What Wayne State did for me was help me to be present in the city on more of an everyday basis; before I was more of a visitor. Wayne State was the only college that I considered. It was a very affordable education. My parents were not able to support me financially so it was a school that I was able to pay my way through.

Moore: I loved Jack Lessenberry. I was a big fan of his. He told me to keep my naivety. I was very naïve and I thought journalism would save the world. I was one of the senior writers for the South End. I wanted to fight the good fight. I wanted to be Carol Simpson. Carol Simpson was my idol. Cliff Russell was my journalism teacher. I wanted to meet Coleman A. Young. He let me shadow him one day and he introduced me to Coleman A. Young.

Lutz: I started out as a political science major and I later changed to public relations. I volunteered and I interned. I worked for the White House as an advance person and then I discovered that I did not want to go into politics for the rest of my life. I switched to public relations because I knew that I could take that education into any field.

The conversation between the two friends went on for well over three hours. There were moments of agreement, some differing opinions and many, many laughs. But their hopes for the “new” Detroit are best found in the “old” Detroit made up of neighborhoods.

“I’m not going to be happy in Detroit until Joy Road has Wi-Fi. I want Joy Road to have a café,” Moore says emphatically.

“You’re a gentrifier, Jessica,” Lutz says with a laugh. “No, not gentrifying! It’s building up a community,” Moore explains as Lutz nods vigorously and smiles in agreement.