Calip “Cal” Williams is a Detroit native who decided to take his skill for making money to the Harper business strip on the east side.
“If I’m good at making money for other people, I might as well make money for myself,” said Williams, a former purchasing manager turned entrepreneur.
Williams took inspiration from a Russell Simmons interview where Simmons said rap music was a $3 billion industry thanks to record and concert ticket sales and clothing lines.
“I can’t rap. I can’t sing. I can’t produce music, but I do know how to dress,” he said.
After making some money selling clothes on his lunch break, Williams started selling clothes on the weekends at a car wash on Gratiot. That’s when someone suggested that he open a store at a property on Harper Avenue between Cadieux and Three Mile Drive.
“I stopped by at the time and 75% of the property was a hair salon, the other 25% was just a renovated space with nothing in it,” he said. “I saw that space and I said, ‘wow, this will be awesome.’”
So Williams and his late wife, Yolanda “Yogi” Williams, put together their first clothing store, Pinnacle Sportswear, on the bustling business strip and never looked back.
“I now own that whole building and several parcels on that whole block,” he said.
The stretch of Harper Avenue sits on the edge of the majority-Black Morningside and East English Village neighborhoods next to the Edsel Ford Freeway. Besides barber shops, it has international food chains, a medical marijuana dispensary, a car repair business and a grocery store.
The area is regarded by those based there as a destination for new entrepreneurs and small businesses alongside well-known staples like Wendy’s and White Castle.
It’s also an area being targeted for some city-led beautification. In recent days, an $8.2 million streetscape in East English Village got underway through the city’s Strategic Neighborhood Fund. The project, on East Warren between Three Mile Drive and Cadieux, will include resurfaced sidewalks and streets, bike lanes and on-street parking. At least one planned development nearby is getting a significant boost of its own. The $6.2 million project recently received a $1.3 million infusion in state funding to help transform a former bank building into mixed-use commercial and retail and affordable housing.
Many shops in the business district have come and gone, but even when COVID-19 threatened to stifle many, the entrepreneurial spirit never left. Business owners in the area, like Williams, say the corridor is on the “up and up,” despite less attention from the city than they would like.
‘This area is alive’
East side native Portia Powell grew up knowing of the busy Harper corridor. But it wasn’t until the owner of the permanently-closed Firewater Bar and Grill, one of Powell’s longtime clients from her days in the banking industry, approached her with the opportunity that she began visualizing her business in this corridor.
Powell bought the Firewater space in 2019 and was set to open her own Good Vibes Lounge in spring 2020, but, like most people’s plans that spring, the pandemic made her change course.
“We had just literally spent our last dollar on inventory. We had food and then fast forward a week, COVID came in and shut everything down,” Powell said.
Powell had to scramble to keep the bar and restaurant afloat, but eventually was able to open her doors to the public that year on Juneteenth.
“And now that Juneteenth is our actual celebration every year, we’re excited about it and I think it was meant to happen,” she said.
She said she is proud to have a nice looking spot right in the middle of a working-class neighborhood.
“There was this perception and misperception you’ve got to be downtown or you got to be in the suburbs to have a nice business or a business that looks nice or something that you’ve taken pride in investing money in,” she said.
Good Vibes Lounge has been running for nearly two years and Powell said she’s been able to reflect on the challenges and successes she’s faced so far. She said having a business in a less popular part of town has been a blessing.
“There are not many famous nice bars in the Harper corridor, so bringing one that people over here feel comfortable with and proud of has shown that this area is alive,” she said.
Powell is in the process of opening a second Good Vibes Lounge on the city’s westside.
People ‘appreciate us’
Other business owners on Harper are also actively looking for ways to expand. Matthew Mock runs the 313 Smoke Shop that sits in one of Williams’ properties. Mock said now that Detroiters can apply for recreational mairjuana licenses, he hopes to add a dispensary onto his business.
“It’s definitely been something I’ve been interested in for a while, even before the city figured out its (adult use ordinance) this year,” Mock said.
Like Williams and Powell, it took someone recommending the Harper area for Mock to see the opportunities that exist there.
“Someone was telling me I should open a business on Harper because there aren’t a lot of smoke shops in the area,” he said. “I get people coming in here every day telling me that there aren’t any smoke shops here, especially not any that are Black-owned.”
Mock, a 27-year-old Black man and Detroit native, said he is “definitely proud” to own a business in the city.
“I just love when people come in here and they’re surprised that I don’t just work here, but I’m the owner,” he said. “I could do a lot of things with my time, but I’m doing something that makes other people happy.”
Mock said because he launched during the pandemic, he is still figuring out his customer base.
“When we started, there were a lot of people struggling over here because of (COVID-19) and all the uncertainty, but we’ve just been taking it a day at a time and the people who come in seem to appreciate us,” he said.
Bathie Diop, a Senegalese immigrant who spent years in New York City before coming to Detroit, has owned the World African Hair Braiding Salon on Harper for six years. He said running the salon during the pandemic has been challenging, but things are coming back.
Diop said his hands are full with the business even though the building isn’t always full of customers. He doesn’t have plans to open up more shops, but if he ever does expand he said he would stay in Detroit.
“Why Detroit? Because this is where the Black people are,” he said with a smirk on his face. “White people usually don’t get braids and dreadlocks, so why would I go out to areas that are all white? My salon is for Black people, so even though people might say bad things about Detroit, I love it here because this is where the people who like my services are.”
Diop said his favorite part of owning a business on Harper is talking to people about their lives.
“I like to help people find work. I don’t have that many (employees) but I still get to talk to people all day and help people find food or work or just stuff to do nearby,” he said.
Detroiters can ‘spend our money right here’
Williams, whose wife passed away in 2019, now owns the clothing store BSB (Blue Since Birth) by Pinnacle, in his company’s original location, and Finishing Touch Salon on Harper by himself. He also owns the building that houses 313 Smoke Shop and several other Harper businesses, like a tax preparation service, but he said that will become a smoothie shop in the near future.
Williams said he’s happy to see younger entrepreneurs come into the area to serve the same people he has served for 25 years. He hopes more businesses come in and that his work will leave a lasting impact on Harper.
“I have been here a long time and I’ve seen what businesses are here and which ones are in the suburbs,” Williams said.
Williams said he hopes his legacy is that of a Detroiter who made things better for his neighborhood.
“I just want people who live here to know they can come shop right here, they don’t have to go to Grosse Pointe and other places (where) we aren’t wanted,” he said. “We can spend our money right here in our neighborhood.”
BridgeDetroit and The Neighborhoods, a City of Detroit storytelling initiative, have teamed up to identify thriving neighborhood business corridors across the city and highlight the entrepreneurs who power them.
How to be an entrepreneur on Harper
Here is a list of resources for entrepreneurs, residents interested in opening a business or with other concerns in the Harper business district.
Small Business Resources
Lashawna Manigault (Director of Small Business)
District 4 Manager
District 4 Deputy Manager