Flint, MI—On May 4, 2023, Flint businessman Phil Shaltz announced one of his downtown ventures, 501 Bar & Grill, would be transitioning to a safe space concept called The District.

The announcement was met with support but also a host of negativity and confusion online.

“Flint and safe space don’t really go together do they?” wrote one of hundreds of commenters. 

“What does that even mean?” said another.

Shaltz and his partner in The District, Jerrid Heidel, told Flint Beat that there has been other feedback as well, but not about the business idea so much as the two heterosexual, white, cisgendered men behind it.

“It bothers me that it gets so personal. That I’m a ‘sleazy bastard’? That’s hard for me [to hear],” Shaltz said about the comments he’d received over the past month. 

He said he and Heidel had been told they were taking advantage of the LGBTQ+ community in rebranding as a safe space, and some people had even wished them outright failure.

Given all of the pushback to the announcement, the pair considered not moving forward with the change at all, he explained. “I literally called a couple people and I said, ‘I’m calling you because somebody’s got to lift me up and tell me if I’m out of my mind.”

But after those conversations, during which friends assured him creating a safe space in Flint is “the right thing,” Shaltz said he felt reinvigorated to meet The District’s projected opening on June 21, 2023.

“I’m so dug in,” he said. “We’re going to move forward, absolutely.”

What is a safe space?

When discussing the origin of the term safe space, many scholars and journalists cite Moira Kenney’s 2001 book, Mapping Gay L.A.

In it, Kenney traces the term back to gay and lesbian bars in the mid-1960s, when anti-sodomy laws were still in effect, saying that such bars served as safe spaces or “somewhere you could be out and in good company — at least until the cops showed up.”

The term was soon picked up by the women’s movement, and later by educational institutions and professional organizations. Its definition has subsequently broadened beyond the bounds of LGBTQ+ culture, exclusively.

“This is an important and ever evolving conversation,” said Stevi Atkins, CEO of Wellness AIDS Services, Inc. in an email. “A safe space is an inclusive and equitable environment. It implies that anyone entering that space is ultimately free from any type of harm. However, we know this is not always the case.”

Wellness Services has been operating in Flint since 1986, and, Atkins noted, opened its Safe Space Ally Drop-in Center in 2010 “to provide a space for members of the LGBTQIA+ community.”

She said Wellness closed that programming due to COVID-19’s social distancing requirements, and her staff have since been discussing their own rebrand of the center, given the ongoing dialogue around the term safe space.

“Much of this has come to the surface because of the increase in hate crimes, the creation of anti-LGBTQIA+ laws, and the targeting of the communities we serve,” she said. “But unconscious bias and perceived safety also play a role. We do not have the ability to ensure physical and emotional safety at all times, and I think this is the challenge. Business owners, managers, and community leaders can certainly intend to create and foster inclusive environments, but are they always safe for everyone? No.” 

Soon after 501’s announcement, Amber Weyn, The District’s associate manager, said she too had noticed much of the initial critique toward her new workplace was centered around the term safe space.

“When we say safe space, we mean an inclusive, safe space for all,” Weyn said from a booth in the soon-to-be club area of The District.

She pulled out her phone and started reading off comments on Facebook, some of which inquired whether people were “unsafe” before the bar’s new designation and whether “Make America Great Again” hats would be allowed on the premises. 

“We’re not saying that it’s only LGBTQ+,” Weyn said, setting her phone back down. “We’re saying that if you’re a Trump supporter or you’re a Biden supporter, it doesn’t matter, you are welcome in this building… We want people to know we don’t care if you’re Black, white, brown, purple, green, gay, straight, transgender. You are welcome.”

Weyn has family in the LGBTQ+ community and has worked for multiple gay clubs in the Flint area, even helping orchestrate a walk-out with staff when a former manager refused to address an employee by her preferred pronouns.

Weyn said she doesn’t see that being an issue with Shaltz and Heidel, calling them “amazing businessmen with amazing hearts.” She said she’s hoping people will give The District a chance to prove itself before writing off her new bosses’ attempt to create an inclusive, welcoming environment in Genesee County.

“Don’t judge it until you come in and see it for yourself,” she said. “I can sit here and tell you and everybody in Flint and the surrounding areas all day long, what it’s going to be, how it’s going to be. But words are words. Come in and check it out for yourself.”

“Safe spaces really go beyond non-verbal symbolism like rainbows and flags.”

Stevi Atkins, CEO Wellness AIDS Services, Inc. in Flint, Mich.

When it comes to fostering safe space, Atkins said that requires training, self-evaluation and just plain work.

“Wellness staff regularly participate in training around unconscious bias, cultural sensitivity/humility and working with people with historically excluded identities,” she said. “We provide these trainings internally and also participate in similar trainings hosted by outside entities to ensure we are incorporating best practices…Safe spaces really go beyond non-verbal symbolism like rainbows and flags. You have to be very intentional about incorporating these types of trainings into your work environment and putting in the emotional labor it takes to unpack your own bias.”

Shaltz and Heidel told Flint Beat they were coming to better understand many of the requirements Atkins laid out in the weeks following their announcement, though their operations team, including Weyn, will be tasked with implementing The District’s policies more directly.

For her part, Weyn said she felt confident that the bar’s existing staff, and those coming onboard to support The District’s additional hours, were already well-positioned to deliver on the safe space designation.

“This has always been a safe space for everybody,” she said, gesturing to the restaurant floor. The only real difference, she added, will be that one half of the restaurant will act as a nightclub moving forward.

To that end, she said she is bringing in a security team who has worked with her at prior clubs and has therefore learned how to handle situations when patrons disrupt the safety of others, whether with disrespectful speech or physical action.

“I can tell you with every fiber of my being my security is very well trained in taking care of situations like that,” Weyn said.

“I think it has to come from the community identifying it as a safe space.”

Samara Hough, Director of the University of Michigan-Flint’s Center for Gender and Sexuality

After weeks of feedback, Shaltz and Heidel told Flint Beat it seems The District will open to uncertain reception. 

Some in the community have offered support or come to the businessmen’s defense, while others maintain that 501’s rebrand is an attempt to cash in on a community with few other openly LGBTQ+ friendly options in the county.

That said, The District has booked an after-party event for one of Flint’s Pride Month events, and Shaltz noted that he believes the space will continue to evolve based on community feedback—assuming that feedback is actionable instead of personal.

“The music’s too loud. They don’t like the drinks. They don’t like the hours. That’s fair, and we can change those things to try to mold what we want it to be,” he said.

As for whether it will actually serve as a safe space, Samara Hough, the director of UM-Flint’s Center for Gender and Sexuality, says that’s for the community to decide.

“It’s really difficult to make a space fully safe,” she said. “Like defining it as a safe space? I think it has to come from the community identifying it as a safe space.”

Hough said she thinks it’s great that The District is intentionally named as a place “for all,” and hopefully, doing that means the new club will exhibit characteristics of safe spaces, like respecting pronouns, offering gender-inclusive bathrooms, and giving back to the LGBTQIA+ community in hiring practices or by supporting its causes.

“Is there a way that … this space is something that really celebrates the LGBTQIA+ community as a whole?” she said about what helps define a safe space. “I think it’s a place of connection, celebration and also a place of safety and belonging.”

When asked if he regretted how The District’s safe space concept was introduced to Flint, or if he’d have gone about rebranding 501 differently after six weeks of feedback and criticism, Shaltz said “no.”

“I actually am glad the way we did this because I’m getting honest reaction—whether it’s good or bad,” he said, a little over a week before the club’s projected opening. “If somebody’s gonna give somebody the benefit of the doubt, they won’t really react to the way I did this. They’re gonna wait and see, right?”

He said he isn’t expecting great financial success from The District, instead hoping to break even after seeing 501 Bar & Grill lose money over the past few years. 

Instead, Shaltz said, success for the new safe space would mean drawing the area’s LGBTQ+ community to Flint over other clubs in Michigan’s bigger cities.

“[If] I’m from the LGBTQ+ community in Pontiac—and it’s three months from now, it’s a Friday night—and I’m gonna go to Detroit to a gay bar, and they go, ‘No, I think we really want to go to Flint.’ That is huge,” he said.

The District is scheduled to open on June 21, 2023. Its hours will be 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Thursday, and 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. It will be closed on Sundays except for private events.

Kate is Flint Beat's associate editor. She joined the team as a corps member of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues....