Ehsan Taqbeem has a vision for Conant Avenue, a commercial strip that runs from Detroit’s east side into the neighboring city of Hamtramck: colorful rickshaws riding up and down the thoroughfare, first-rate Bangladeshi restaurants with a welcoming vibe, and clothing shops that compete with the big-box stores. And, the most important part: tourists. Busloads of them.
The 56-year-old Taqbeem—the CEO of an auto-retrofitting service and founder of the Bangladeshi American Public Affairs Committee—isn’t just fantasizing. This is the aspirational plan he and other community leaders have devised for “Banglatown,” a neighborhood that has steadily drawn immigrants from the Indian subcontinent during the past decade.
About 6,000 of the nation’s 277,000 Bangladeshi immigrants have found their way to Wayne County, which includes Detroit. (They are mainly concentrated in and around New York City.) Bangladeshis started trickling into Detroit in the 1930s, to find work in the auto industry, and now include doctors and engineers. Buoyed lately by the depressed city’s affordable housing prices—luring migrants from New York—they form a small but growing community.
“There’s a lot of Bangladeshi restaurants, grocery stores, clothing stores, “but it is predominantly catering toward Bangladeshis,” Taqbeem says. “Now what we’d like to do is kind of go to the mainstream.”
Having experienced economic troubles of epic proportions, Detroit could definitely use a new tourist destination. The city, an estimated $18-20 billion in debt, filed for bankruptcy in 2013 after decades of job losses due to the deteriorating U.S. automobile industry. It emerged from bankruptcy last December, but its financial future remains daunting.