Houston White. Photograph By Nina Robinson
Houston White opened his barbershop, Houston White Men's Room, in north Minneapolis in late 2008. It became a hub for the Camden neighborhood's Black community, prompting White to create a sister business: Houston White Apparel & Accessories, a fashion line for "Black excellence." When the dual shocks of Covid-19 and George Floyd's killing hit Minneapolis, White's business ground to a halt, giving him a chance to reimagine Black-owned business in his city. He emerged with a vision--and a plan, which he calls Camdentown. --As told to Cameron Albert-Deitch
When you think of Black barbershops, you think of a mom-and-pop hole in the wall.
You don't always think of businesses that can scale, so I bought this building I absolutely loved, and started designing an upscale barbershop right in the center of not-the-most-savory neighborhood. I built it like I was building a McDonald's. It had a pool table. It was branded. The goal was always to build it to grow and be something that could translate to every Black neighborhood in America.
We used the space for game nights. We partnered with the NCAA's March Madness host committee a couple of summers back to bring a full-size basketball court to the middle of our street. We've had blues and barbeque festivals around the shop. We hosted Archbishop Bernard Hebda here on one Martin Luther King Jr. Day. A friend of mine tells this joke often: He was the only White guy to out-bling all the brothers at the Black barbershop.
Business was great. People used to come in, just to talk. It became the epicenter of community.
We closed down on March 8, 2020, and didn't reopen until August 2020. I still came into the shop every day because I needed it for my own mental health, but it felt really eerie and isolating. Normally, during the summer, it's bustling outside my window. I didn't see a whole lot of that. It felt like my city was in a collective funk. From the politicians to the police, it felt like we were just f---ing broken.
The closure allowed me to pause, and build a strategic plan for Camdentown. That's my initiative to build a Main Street in Camden around the barbershop with Black-led and Black-owned businesses that can provide for the community--and become a destination for folks who want to celebrate and enjoy Black culture from all over the state. You think about a Chinatown, or Little Italy, or any cultural epicenter. Minnesota doesn't have that for Black folks.
I've enrolled the Target Foundation, US Bank, and United Properties as partners. We have roughly $5 million right now. This summer, I'm raising $3 million more to support a cohort of Black entrepreneurs who will eventually be based in Camdentown. Over the course of the next five years, I estimate we'll need to see $50 million to build and support the entire Main Street. It's a mixtape strategy, like what rapper and entrepreneur Nipsey Hussle used to do: We're going to put out one good project, and then ask for more. Another good project, and ask for more. As we start to build buy-in, then we release the album.
Phase 1 started this month: We're renovating my building so the barbershop, apparel store, and a new coffee shop can operate in the same space. They'll share a lot of the same overhead, but they're independent companies, and each will have a much stronger chance of surviving and thriving. Realistically, if we do $1 million in revenue our first fiscal year, starting this September, that'd be great for us. Folks will be able to see that we need to scale this up and down the block.
Then, Phase 2: releasing this strategic plan to create more space, fund more businesses in the neighborhood, and connect Black business owners to capital and mentorship. There's phenomenal Black talent, but you have a 400-year deficit of knowledge, social, and financial capital. We've gotta build a bridge between bankers and young entrepreneurs who may be Black.
We'll reopen and launch Phase 2 in September, because we need this to be a summer of rejuvenation. I don't think we, as a community, caught our breath until the Derek Chauvin verdict was read. Everybody around here thought the verdict might not go as it did--and if it didn't, that our city would be torn up. Now, I see a lot of entrepreneurs making plans for the summer. I see concerts coming back. I see a lot of activity around street markets.
The whole f---ing city of Minneapolis is going to be on an emotional and mental sabbatical. We're going to enjoy all the things we used to take for granted. Then, we're going to use this pain and turn it into purpose, and let it fuel this amazing, vibrant Black future.