As Detroit Transforms, Foley’s Book Teaches Jackasses How to Behave

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you think, what with the relatively high property tax rate and the often labyrinthine permitting process—and he offers a list of local startup incubators and entrepreneurial service providers. The whole book is worth a read for anyone with local business aspirations, as he offers relevant advice throughout. Foley tells aspiring startup founders that, above all, they should realize they haven’t invented the wheel and behave accordingly.

Regarding an article that ran in Crain’s a few years ago about two up-and-coming entrepreneurs, Foley writes: “[They] simultaneously commented that Detroit offered endless opportunity for like-minded business owners because the city was a ‘blank canvas.’ Initially meant as a metaphor for filling in empty spaces, the ‘blank canvas’ idea has taken off like a rocket, becoming a catchphrase for the wannabe hopeful looking for a quick pull quote. Longtime residents bristle at this term, seeing as the city was never ‘blank’ to begin with. There were people in the neighborhoods where these entrepreneurs started opening up shop, and the ‘canvas’ was filled with the history that came before they arrived. To say the city is ‘blank’ is a total erasure of the city’s colorful past.”

He also tackles the democratization of opportunity, an ideal that local economic developers are starting to push: “A regular concern of longtime residents is that minority-owned businesses, particularly black-owned businesses, be included, and even prioritized, in the revival of Detroit. Critics of this ideal, often white, say they are tired of being scolded for their participation in the economic revival and often answer with the retort, ‘We’re all Detroiters no matter what!’ But it’s problematic when black businesses and residents across the country, not just in Detroit, have had a harder hill to climb when it comes to equality.”

Foley talks about the rise of Dan Gilbert’s downtown empire throughout the book, and like many Detroiters, Foley has complicated feelings about Gilbert’s revitalization efforts. “He’s done a lot for Detroit and he should be credited with helping to bring attention to Detroit on a wider scale,” Foley said during our interview. “He’s employing a lot of people in the city, and I absolutely can’t knock that. It’s more about the optics of a white billionaire buying all the buildings downtown in a city of impoverished black people. It makes me and many others very cautious. If Dan really wants to make change, he should go outside downtown.”

When we talked, Foley had some words of wisdom for new residents who want to make a good impression with longtime Detroiters. “Listen and observe. Don’t dictate, don’t assume, don’t think you know what the answer is. Ask, don’t offer.” He said the biggest mistake new Detroiters make is assuming the parts of the city outside of the downtown area are inhabitable. “Not every neighborhood is great, but not all of them are crap,” he added.

And despite a recent influx of white people, 79 percent of the city’s residents are black. “If you’re uncomfortable with black culture, you should probably think twice about moving here,” he said. The ideal traits for a potential Detroiter? “You should be open-minded, resilient, and not afraid to be uncomfortable.”

Aaron Foley will be at a book signing for “How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass” at 7 pm on March 18 at the Barnes & Noble in Rochester Hills, MI.

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