Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Eastside series.
Solomon Carpenter always had a head for business.
As a young man growing up on Kalamazoo’s Eastside, Carpenter made money selling street drugs. But even back then, he was civic-minded, donating cash and time to replace broken basketball backboards at Rockwell Park, giving away bikes purchased from Walmart for youth who completed 30 hours of service to the neighborhood, or “soapboxing” guys who were littering in the streets.
“I always spoke against guns,” he says. “I never liked guns. But I never spoke against the other criminal behaviors that we did.”
Carpenter sought to make his small urban neighborhood better, but until he had time to reflect in prison, he didn’t see how he might also be contributing to the community’s problems.
“I was trying to balance my good with my bad,” says Carpenter. “At the same time I’m picking up trash, I’m littering the community with drugs. At the same time I’m putting up backboards, I’m tearing down families.
“The criminal justice system decided to challenge that way of thinking.”
When he was released from federal prison three years ago and returned home to the Eastside, having had 70 months to reflect, work and educate himself while incarcerated, Carpenter wanted to make a difference in the neighborhood he loved.
“What if I subtract the bad? What if I pick up the trash, and there’s no bad to bring that down?”
He wanted to bring positivity to the neighborhood and model an alternative to youth who might be tempted to make a living through illegal means.
“Prison for me was a period of my life that I did a lot of self-evaluation, a lot of prioritizing, a lot of soul searching, if you will,” says Carpenter. “And I started realizing the impact that my previous lifestyle had on my community. It was something I was regretful of.”
For three years after his return, Carpenter worked as a store manager at Metro PCS, then at Denso Manufacturing, while talking to friends and mentors, including Dwayne Powell, a childhood friend who currently serves as the Neighborhood Business & Special Projects Coordinator for the City of Kalamazoo, about possible business ventures on the Eastside.
Eventually, he began to crystallize his vision.
With the help of an anonymous Angel Investor who continues to serve as a close consultant, along with Powell’s encouragement and guidance, Carpenter acquired the former Frank Barrett Salon, a multi-use blue building at 1516 East Main St. He renovated it, rented out the upstairs apartment, and in April, opened the multi-stylist salon called Slayed Cartel Beauty Bar
, which is a brand owned by stylist Shadia Crenshaw. A Grand Opening is planned for Monday, May 13 from 4 to 8 p.m..
Solomon Carpenter, a lifelong Eastsider, is excited to see his business, Slayed Cartel Beauty Bar, come to fruition.
“We always knew it as Frank Barrett’s Salon growing up,” says Carpenter. “Now we see it as ours, a changing of the guard.”
Slayed Cartel is not your typical salon, however. Thanks to careful vetting and a conveyance of his vision, Carpenter is renting only to stylists who understand that he wants a business modeled on the former PlayHouse Barbershop where Eastside youth, like Carpenter, went not only go to get their hair cut, but to get advice, guidance, and encouragement.
“You could go down there and not only relax, but learn from the elders that was kicking it down to us,” says Carpenter.
As a father of four daughters and two stepsons, ages 11 to 26, Carpenter wanted something similar on the Eastside, a place that fostered meaningful conversation and support, one that was not just “a gossip salon.”
“In order to mirror what the PlayHouse was to us men, I want to bring in stylists that are not going to be about love and hip hop or this or that baby daddy,” says Carpenter, who has spoken at length to each of the three stylists who have currently rented space.
Ericka Harris, a licensed beautician and former Eastsider who knew Carpenter growing up, was quick to come on board. She liked the “good, friendly atmosphere,” and the way that Carpenter “carries himself as a businessman.”
“There’s a lot of support for everyone,” says Harris. “No one has an attitude problem. You get a warm, friendly greeting when you come in. He gets input from each of the stylists about how to make things better and helps us feel this is ours. We already feel like family.
“It’s definitely going to blossom into something amazing,” says Harris. “I can already feel it.”
Carpenter feels it, too. “Ultimately, people are going to walk in there and walk out feeling much better because they’ve had conversations like, ‘Girl, there’s a women’s workshop here.’ Or, ‘Let’s think about creating a mom and daughter group.’
“I want it to be more of a place that is agenda savvy, where clients learn about events and girls are going to create think tanks. That’s why I’ve been really slow in my selection of who to staff. I want girls to say, ‘Yeah, I read that book. Next time you come, I’m going to bring it for you to read.’”
In realizing that vision, Carpenter has intentionally created a “homey, soothing” atmosphere through the muted colors in the decor and clean, organized stations.
“The finessing of it is what’s going to allow it be calming and challenging,” says Solomon. He has sought stylists who are positive and grounded, no matter their personal style. “You can be who you are, but I just want you to be positive, optimistic, energetic, and hopefully a learning, teaching type of stylist at the same time,” he says, “which is hard to find.”
So far, he has found three, and has room for two more. And Slayed Cartel Beauty Bar, well-situated in the middle of the East Main corridor, is quickly becoming a happening place, as well as a business, Carpenter says, that demonstrates to youth on the Eastside, “If you can do this, I can do this, too.”
Eastside now and then
A lot can change in five years. While Carpenter was serving time in three different federal prisons until he transitioned home at 35, he never saw family members.
Since he was out of state, his family would have to travel, and he didn’t want to “subject them to searches and stuff like that.”
Ericka Harris, one of the first stylists to rent at Slayed Cartel Beauty Bar, says she is excited about the salon’s positive atmosphere.
But separation from his partner and children was difficult, he says. “I left four young girls” and two older stepsons, he says. “When I came home, two of them are now women.”
He regrets the missed opportunities to interview their first boyfriends or to participate in driver’s education, as well as the daily interactions like the dollar they asked for to buy after-school snacks. “I forfeited a lot just to involve myself in bad behavior,” he says.
Not only had his children grown up, but the neighborhood was altered.
“When you’re gone for 70 months from a neighborhood where you lived for 27 years, you notice even the smallest changed detail, like if a tree has been cut down. I see the detriment that I was part of while living that lifestyle and conditioning a lot of the behavior of others and myself around me.“
What he noticed first was that there was less litter on the streets and no more groups of youth gathering on the corners. The phone booths, where he liked to climb and have a sit and a view, were gone. “We don’t have the foot traffic on the streets anymore. We don’t have the fistfights, the dice shooting, the going to the store to buy $4 worth of snacks and dropping every piece of wrapper on the ground.
“The guys on the corner are gone,” says Carpenter. “It’s still going on. A lot of things have moved indoors or behind the scenes. Now I’m just trying to correct the mentality.”
In many talks with Powell, Carpenter wondered, “How can we get these guys to know they can step out of one way of life into another when it’s a difficult transition, but better at the end of the day?
“How do you tell a young man who‘s obviously feeding his family and that might have the view of success as cars and clothing, to choose another way? How do you tell somebody who’s doing okay to struggle until to get to the next level,” he says. “It’s tough, especially for kids who didn’t have much growing up.”
And it requires organization. Carpenter points to governmental and educational institutions, family and popular culture, and long-standing racial inequities, as all aspects that contribute to a mindset that disadvantages African American youth.
“It’s going to take time,” he admits. “This is something that doesn’t happen overnight.”
Self-appointed Eastside ambassador
Part of Carpenter’s prison metamorphosis, which began at 29, involved opportunities for both education and employment he had while incarcerated. During his sentence, he completed 40 different courses, and also earned his Electrical Apprentice license and was certified in Heating, Ventilation, and Air Cooling.
“I came home with a desire to work,” says Carpenter. In prison, he started working for 19 cents an hour and maxed out at “a whopping 42 cents an hour,” he says.
“I told myself, if I can work for pennies, I’ll be fine when I get home.”
Shadia Crenshaw of Slayed Cartel Beauty Bar is one of the first to rent space at the new business.
He has put that work ethic into action, and with the opening of his salon, it’s beginning to bear fruit. As a thoughtful, well-read man who keeps a journal of motivational quotes, Carpenter is someone who when he speaks, people listen.
“I’ve been in the neighborhood for so long. A lot of the younger guys, even the older guys, I don’t know if it comes with the name or what, but they gravitate to who I am and my message in the community,” he says. “We’re close-knit.”
Carpenter hopes to leverage that influence to his advantage.
“Now I’m on the soapbox again,” says Carpenter. “I’m saying, ‘Look at what I’ve accomplished in three years. I’m showing you guys you can achieve greater things without maintaining that criminal lifestyle.
“I think it’s being well-received. The younger guys have had a chance to come into my shop and see me say, ‘I’m going to get this property and bring it to fruition.’ Now they’re saying, ‘Wow, man, you really did it.’”
To open an Eastside business on a main corridor that many Eastside residents would love to see developed is a sign of positive things to come for the neighborhood, Carpenter hopes.
“You look around and wonder, how in the world? We own nothing in our community. From the six liquor stores in the five-block radius, we own nothing. From the gas stations, some of the properties, we own nothing. When do we get a fair shake?”
Carpenter’s sees owning his salon as a step up the ladder, and a way to give others like him a boost. He recalls running from police as a youth, and having to stop and help the next person over the fence because he knew he was going to get over it, no matter what.
“As I step up,” he says, “I’d like to see someone else step up behind me.
“I made bad choices ahead of me going into prison—nothing violent, but I was making money outside of legal employment,” says Carpenter. “To go from being a drug dealer on one side of the street to a business owner on the other side is probably something that would never have happened if it hadn’t been for prison.
“And the dynamic for me now is, ‘How can I impact tomorrow in the best way I see fit?”
Photos by Eric Hennig, VAGUE photography.