Drive down Michigan Avenue on Detroit’s southwest side and you’re inundated with temptations of junk food. McDonald’s, Church’s Chicken, Little Caesars Pizza, gas station food, liquor stores, strip clubs, all the makings of a “food swamp” — a term coined about a decade ago to describe places where there is plenty of food, little of it healthy.
But tucked aside a vacant commercial building, insurance office, and auto mechanic shop sits a bright spot, The Michigan Squeeze Station. Inside this small, brightly painted shop, milkshakes are swapped out for healthy smoothies, greasy sliders make way for vegan wraps, and cold-pressed juice takes the place of liters of Faygo pop. Handmade jewelry, essential oils, and hoodies made by local creators line the display shelves. Booty boot camp workouts, yoga, and other exercise classes are held in the space’s backyard, while open mics, and restaurant industry nights take over the space after dark. U.S. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib made an appearance there as part of her re-election campaign in 2020. In its year and a half in business, it’s become a place to recharge and connect with community.
The Michigan Squeeze Station transports Detroiters to an oasis of self-care.
“We have a McDonald’s down the street, and I just want people to know that for the same amount of money, you can get a healthy food over here, you know, just break that feeling that healthy food is expensive,” says owner Denisse Mendez, who opened the shop in July 2020.
A couple of miles southeast sits L’ArteSano Cafe & Juice Bar, where mother and daughter team Mayra and Alonda Torres specialize in freshly-made cold-pressed natural juices aimed at providing customers with a daily “limpia” or detox. The shop regularly hosts community events, such as a recent Argentine dinner and a show and happy hours where local business women can network.
“We deserve to have a spot like this here, because there is so much fast food everywhere you go,” says Alonda, who helped translate her mom’s Spanish for this interview. “It was a challenge when she first started, because we don’t know if people’s lifestyles are very different but we see everyone, from all ages and all races.”
“It feels great to be a part of Detroit’s growth and the growth of our neighborhood,” adds Mayra.
Mayra Torres, left, and her daughter Alonda, the duo that runs L'ArteSano Cafe & Juice Bar. (Photo by Serena Maria Daniels)
Indeed, much hype has revolved around the so-called comeback of Detroit, which filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history in 2013, and has since captured headlines for its influx of new developments and trendy restaurants and cafes in the city’s greater downtown area.
Outside of the main commercial districts, however, that new growth has remained uneven. In communities of color like Detroit (which is about 80 percent Black), access to mental health services, healthy food, medication, clean water, and other household necessities are lacking, and during the pandemic, those inequalities were put in the spotlight
On top of being more likely to contract COVID-19, Black Detroiters are far more likely to report not having enough money to pay bills, worrying about eviction, challenges in accessing medication, food, water, and other household necessities, according to a report published by the Brookings Institute.
That’s why spaces in the neighborhoods outside of more gentrified parts of town, where one can practice self-care are so important. Emerging to fill that need are a growing number of new businesses owned by entrepreneurs of color that provide healthy food and gathering spaces.
For Mayra Torres, opening L’ArteSano has been years in the making. She started by preparing fresh organic juices for her family and soon began sharing them with friends and co-workers. About six years ago, she enrolled in ProsperUS Detroit, a nonprofit that provides entrepreneurship training and development that targets Black, brown, and immigrant communities.
The mother and daughter team opened L’ArteSano in 2020 as well and say customers concerned about boosting their immune systems to stave off COVID-19 was what initially drew people to the shop.
Elsewhere in Detroit, Nezaa Bandele, founder of Paradise Foods, has been using her Jamaican identity to share stories about her culture and to advance wellness in the community through her plant-based, Caribbean-inspired cuisine since the 1980s.
Bandele, who commonly goes by Mama Nezaa, is working to take her pop-ups, catering, and meal plan services to a permanent home, as Paradise Deli and Marketplace.
In a Patronicity campaign, Bandele says the deli and marketplace will serve as a place rooted in community where people can come, explore, expand their knowledge of healthy food, and get educated about living a healthy lifestyle.
“It’s always like the food is just some medium to bring people together because everybody’s gotta eat,” says Bandele. “When you go to whatever space, whether it’s a pop-up or a brick and mortar, then you can have other conversations around wellbeing.”
Mama Nezaa standing outside of what will become Paradise Deli and Marketplace. (Photo by Serena Maria Daniels)
The Paradise Deli and Marketplace will be situated inside the the forthcoming headquarters for Allied Media Projects, which is currently redeveloping the so-called Love Building in Detroit’s Core City neighborhood at Grand River and 15th Street (editor’s note: Allied Media Projects is the fiscal sponsor for Tostada Magazine, however does not play any role in any of Tostada’s editorial decisions). When Allied Media Projects — a nonprofit that supports art, media, and technology projects working toward social change — began planning for its new location, organizers reached out to residents in the neighboring community to find out how they would like to see the space be used.
That’s where Bandele came in. The deli and market will occupy a space on the ground level of the building and she’s been involved in the community outreach to help inform her business model and residents’ food needs.
In addition to emphasizing a plant-based, healthful menu (think hearty grain bowls, salads, jerk bbq chickpea “burgers,” and vegan desserts), the marketplace plans to feature grab-and-go items made by local food vendors, a coffee and juice bar, and a “ghost kitchen” to be used for making gourmet pizzas. Beyond the food, Bandele envisions hiring residents who live in the immediate area, offer jobs to returning citizens through a collaboration with the Detroit Justice Center, host wellness classes, and partner with local schools to launch an internship program for students interested in the culinary arts.
In addition to the Patronicity campaign (which has a goal of $100,000), Bandele is working on grant writing and developing a business plan to make her goods and services accessible to residents at all income levels.
That business model hits home for Denisse Mendez, of The Michigan Squeeze Station.
She opened the shop during the height of the pandemic. She started opening up the space to others who had also launched their own businesses during the global health crisis. Slowly, she began to realize that the juice bar could be more than a place to grab a smoothie or sandwich wrap. During the summer, the shop’s backyard patio opens up as a nighttime marketplace where anywhere between 10-15 different vendors sell candles, stickers, clothing, and other merchandise. She’d have a DJ come in to play music, maybe invite a food truck. She charges vendors $20 a month — if they can afford it — to sell out of the space.
Whenever a vendor promotes their sales at the shop, that means more customers discover the shop’s menu, an array of tropical-inspired smoothies, fresh-squeezed lemonades, and raw juices — all with one ingredient in common: Love.
As for what it means to be located in Southwest Detroit, which like most parts of the city is still experiencing vast health disparities, it’s her mission to provide a source of wellness for the community.
“That’s why I decided to stay in Southwest, I call it my ‘hood, because it’s needed,” says Mendez. “This is what the community needs. To me, it’s just a personal mission to make this food accessible and affordable for people who are not around it. A lot of people who come into the shop, they’ve never experienced kale or spinach in a smoothie or even vegan wraps… Whenever that happens, I know I’m on the right track.”
This article was made possible through a collaborative storytelling effort with Tostada Magazine, a Detroit-based independent digital media organization that was founded on the premise that food journalism has the power to unify communities & preserve culture. It is part of “For Whom, By Whom,” a series of articles about how creative placemaking can expand opportunities for low-income people living in disinvested communities. This series is generously underwritten by the Kresge Foundation.
Serena Maria Daniels is an award-winning Chicana journalist and founder and editor of Tostada Magazine, a Detroit-based digital food & culture journalism platform that centers stories and perspectives of immigrants and people of color.