Black spa owner faces parking complaints and perce...

Black spa owner faces parking complaints and perceived prejudice in Hamtramck

tiara boyd wearing a mask while standing in front of her hamtramck spa

Tiara Boyd at Esthi Queen Healing Spa in Hamtramck. Courtesy photo

Tiara Boyd, owner and operator of Esthi Queen Healing Spa, has found her business at the center of what she believes is a racist contention with Hamtramck’s Zoning Board of Appeals that could force her to shut down.

The day spa, which operates from 10 a.m to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, offers services such as facials, body waxing, manicures and mole removal. It’s been open since 2018 and operated in Southfield until March of this year. That’s when Boyd, who is Black, moved her spa into a mixed-use building on Florian Street, one storefront down from the corner of Brombach in Hamtramck. (The spa is located on the entry level and a residential apartment is located directly above it.)

The building is zoned as residential, which allows for special land uses, including bars, grocery stores and professional offices. Spas and salons are not listed as a permitted or special land use in the city ordinance, so Boyd needed to secure a variance from the ZBA. 

Boyd began operating her spa before she knew that, but started working closely with city staffers to go through the official process after she was notified. On July 14, the ZBA heard her case — and narrowly rejected her request for a variance, a decision Boyd is protesting and plans to appeal in court. 

To receive the variance, Boyd needed a two-thirds majority vote, or five of the seven ZBA members to approve her request. But members Nasr Hussain, Adam Alharbi and Malek Hussein voted against the variance, citing Florian Street residents’ disapproval as a key reason they did not support it.

In public comment, residents suggested that Boyd’s spa had made parking difficult for residents and could attract people who would make the street unsafe for kids. One commenter, who identified himself as Abdul, said, “I do not care about the parking, I can park three streets down. But I do care about the safety of my brothers and the safety of my [family]. And I do not know about the people that would go to that business — how would they act, how would they drive?” 

Boyd secured use of a lot shared by the dentist office next door and said the appointment-only spa only serves five to 12 clients a day — underscoring her belief that parking isn’t at the root of her denial. Instead, she asserts that ZBA members who chose not to approve her variance request and the people who spoke out against it were driven by racial animus.

“It’s a spa. What’s unsafe? What are you going to get from a spa? And the fact that this place is zoned to be a bar or a brewery, or a grocery store [makes it more] ridiculous to me,” Boyd told Detour. 

She also pushed back against other public comments that suggested that having a business in a residential area could be hazardous to the community. “There are Arabic stores in this neighborhood that are on residential streets — smack dab in the middle of the street. At least my business is on the corner,” she said.

The ZBA’s denial baffles and offends Boyd, who wanted to grow her business in Hamtramck in part after observing the city’s diversity. “I chose the building first because it was a beautiful building. But while touring Hamtramck, I noticed the diversity and thought about how that was great because I serve a diverse clientele. I knew that would make my clients feel more comfortable, more at home and safe,” she said.

Boyd describes her clientele as a racially-mixed group of adults, mostly 25 and older. “They are doctors, celebrities, school administrators, first ladies of churches — just a great set of clientele.” 

“We’ve never had any complaints, so the zoning board meeting was very much a shocker,” she added. “I had a grand opening in May and what people said at that meeting was never reported.”

Navigating city bureaucracy

Boyd said she simply didn’t know that she would need a variance until she was already open for business. She’d visited Hamtramck City Hall to apply for, schedule and complete the steps required to operate — paying all required municipal fees in the process — and no one at any application, inspection or licensing phase ever brought it up. 

When someone did mention it, she understood it to be a straightforward step like everything else she’d done. “[City officials] made it seem like it [getting the variance] wasn’t a big deal because I’d already done everything else,” said Boyd. “They called me and were like, ‘Oh, we missed something. You’ll just have to wait a few weeks for this meeting.’”

Detour was unable to reach any member of the ZBA for comment, but at a community meeting moderated by Omar Thabet of Motivate Me 313 inside of Randy’s Barbershop on July 23, Hussain was in attendance. He suggested that Boyd’s issue is with the mayor and the city’s existing zoning ordinance, not the ZBA. 

Mayor Karen Majewski “is the head of the planning commission and she is the one who chooses which uses to prohibit,” Hussain said. “One of them she prohibited is the spas in a residential neighborhood. In order for the zoning board to approve a business that’s prohibited, [the business] has to show a list of certain criteria. One of them is to show hardship — that this property cannot be used for any other thing except the use they want. We looked at it and we didn’t see any hardship.” 

In an interview with the Arab American News, Hussein denied that his rejection stemmed from discrimination and claimed instead that Boyd was given preferential treatment by the mayor. 

City officials in her corner

Majewski said that she expected the spa to be approved for a variance and that she was personally excited about Boyd’s new business when it opened, even inviting her to a congratulatory meeting back in June. 

“We’re open to a variety of new businesses and we especially like small businesses. In a city like Hamtramck, a small business in a residential neighborhood is something that we actually encourage; it’s part of our identity, part of this streetscape,” Majewski said. 

Mixed residential and small business streetscapes are both part of the history of Hamtramck and part of the city’s current master plan, she added, echoing comments made by some of the ZBA members who voted to approve Boyd’s variance.

“I didn’t realize that there were going to be any kind of zoning problems or anything like that because that’s not something that the mayor’s office handles,” Majewski continued. “But, I was really excited about the business and really impressed with Boyd’s professionalism. So I was surprised when I heard that the ZBA denied the variance.”

The mayor also agreed with Boyd’s concerns about prejudice, calling comments made by some members of the public and the three ZBA members who voted against the variance “racially coded.”

During the July 14 meeting, ZBA member Eric Anderson voted to approve the variance while condemning an “undercurrent of coded language” in public comments. 

“When I say coded language, I’m going to say [there were] bluntly racist undertones against the business,” Anderson said. “I think the way people approached their comments like, ‘Oh, nothing against the business owners,’” is fairly coded, but not subtly. It’s saddening to me as a hypocritical decision when we have been fairly permissive as a board for things that don’t always perfectly meet the criteria, but meet the criteria well enough and have a direction. I fear if we don’t approve the request, it would be a hypocritical double standard and driven by prejudice.”

The view from Florian Street

The day spa on Florian Street. Credit: Courtney Wise Randolph

Florian Street, like Hamtramck as a whole, is racially and ethnically diverse. Historically a Polish enclave, the city’s white and smaller Black populations have declined as its immigrant communities have grown over the last few decades, with many residents hailing from Yemen and Bangladesh, as well as Bosnia. 

An estimated half or more of the city’s population is Muslim, and residents elected the first majority-Muslim City Council in 2015. Boyd’s ZBA battle is not the first zoning issue that’s exposed differing community factions, whether over cannabis businesses, driveways and enclosed front porches or the design of a mosque.

Racial divisions weren’t top of mind for Boyd’s neighbors, however. Daniel Little, who is Black and said he’s lived on Florian for a few years now, sees the spa as a welcome addition to the neighborhood. He said he’s seen no change in parking availability since the spa opened and has been greeted warmly by Boyd’s clientele whenever he’s near the building. “I see a lot of good-looking, well-dressed ladies going in and out of that spa — and when they had an event, I was invited in. Why would I have a problem with that?” 

But he rejected the idea that opposition to the spa is racially motivated. “I don’t think it’s racial. It sounds to me like somebody is having a problem and decided they just don’t want her there.” 

Mackenzie Moses has lived in Hamtramck for several years and moved to Florian Street in June. She has a specialty hair business and said that she hoped to meet Boyd to inquire about possible job opportunities. Moses also said that she has noticed that parking is a little harder right now, but she attributed that to construction near the opposite end of the block rather than clients of the spa.

Robert Clark, who has lived in the middle of the block on Florian for eight years, hadn’t realized a spa existed at the end of his street. “It’s a good idea though; my wife might like to go there,” he said. 

For the time being, Esthi Queen Healing Spa is still operating. Boyd started a petition in protest of the ZBA’s decision, which now has more than 3,000 signatures, and said she will appeal the denial. “I will be here long term. I’m not going to let anybody run me off,” she said. In addition, she hopes to join the ZBA and Planning Commission in Hamtramck herself. 

“I told the mayor and the City Council, there is some mess going on here and you all need some help. There are no Black faces on their boards to represent other Black people when a situation like this happens. So, it’s like okay, now I’m here to help other people.”

*This article originally reported that Esthi Queen Healing Spa opened to the public in March 2021. The spa opened to the public in May 2021. This has been corrected above.*

Courtney Wise Randolph is a native Detroiter with a heart for people and their stories. A WDET Storymakers Fellow, she also writes for nonprofits and individuals through her small business Keen Composition.