Historic Construction in Detroit

The other week I wrote an angry blog post expecting for nobody to read it. Somehow Michael Jackman at Metro Times saw it and then Alan Stamm at Deadline Detroit ran with it too, and I managed to garner a bit of press on a couple of local news sites. But despite being cast as the hipster artist who hates progress and development, some good did come out of it. Robert Elmes, the director of the Galapagos Art Space, reached out and wanted to talk. I have to give him credit; I didn't expect someone to be so open and easy going after I had told him to "fuck off" and compared him to greedy real estate moguls. So we sat down one Sunday afternoon at my studio and ended up talking for two hours about art, development, and politics both here in Detroit and New York.

Let me start by saying this: I don't think that Robert is some dangerous or speculative real estate developer; that critique was pretty off base and unfair. I believe that he's got his intentions straight and he is, at his core, a really nice guy (I mean, this is as much as you can gather from two hours of talking to anyone). I think he's someone who's seen an art scene change dramatically in two decades, and he still sees himself as (and very much is) the artist and venue owner trying to promote good artists and nonprofits. He has a perspective that I don't: a front row seat to the rapid and incredibly damaging force of gentrification in Brooklyn. As much as myself and others in Detroit like to yell about gentrification, he's seen the effect over the entire history of his business, and from that he gathered a key insight: don't miss out.

In Williamsburg, Robert saw the missed opportunity of buying property early, which has resulted in himself and other artists being pushed out by real estate developers and rising rents. And in Highland Park, he see's that opportunity again, but this time he's going to be able to take his advice. Lack of land ownership prevented Williamsburg residents from controlling the direction in which their neighborhood was going. I had mentioned Malcolm X's quote on land and freedom in my last post, but it seems important to discuss its importance. Land gives individuals the ability to set their own destiny. They no longer pay money to someone else to live, but instead build their own capital that they can borrow or build against. It allows people the opportunity to decide what they want their neighborhoods to look like, rather than being beholden to external forces. Michael Jackman mentioned in his article about my post: "owning a house is a bulwark against the worst excesses of gentrification" 1. A noble aspiration, and one that was a large subject of the conversation with Robert. Is external investment and development like Galapagos contributing to the gentrification in the city?


Well, yes; gentrification is happening here in the city. I had a professor once tell me his dreams for activism in the city was to see investment and regrowth of the city take place without gentrification; that we could figure out a different path to a functioning city that didn't mean people losing their land or power in the city they called home. But I can tell you that that battle is lost. And 2015 is going to be the big tipping point in investment in Detroit. We've already seen it from large developers. The second half of 2014 was full of new announcements of big real estate or commercial development. The Arena District, Little Ceasers' New Headquarters, Professional Plaza's Demolition, Tiger Stadium Redevelopment, and more. It almost makes me wish I had taken more classes on 3D modeling and architectural rendering in school. This month WDET had a half-hour segment on "Detroit Today" which is worth the listen if you have a moment. Right now we're the darling city for investors who want to put their money somewhere that is both "smart and safe" as Sandy Baruah, President and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber says in the segment. And unlike other growing markets, investors don't have to take their money overseas to see returns.

With this growth in external investment comes competition over the real estate market. The "Downtown Development Districts" have already been picked clean of real estate deals; the skyscraper sale that Gilbert led has gained a few new bidders, and fixer-uppers in Woodbridge and Corktown are listing for close to $100k, if they're listed at all. But elsewhere in the city, Wayne county starting issuing tax foreclosure notices in November on nearly 62,000 properties, which amounts for a whopping 16% of the total properties in the city. Not to be outdone with the scale, it also seems that 37,000 of the properties (60% of the total) are occupied, which means that unless people get on payment plans, we're going to see a lot of people kicked out of their houses by their own county. That's not to say every one of the 62,000 properties will go to the auction; last year they only 22,000 of the 56,000 properties found themselves for sale 2. But it's an unprecedented scale that will likely mean a number of people will fall through the cracks. And all of this outside investment means one thing: each year, the tax auction is going to look crazier and crazier. More bids, higher prices, and more people without houses.

As Robert, two of my studio-mates, and I sat around discussing this impending doom, Robert lobs the question: How do you get more residents to own property?

The Problem With Property

It's a hard nut to crack. We brought up the possibility of collectivism: residents could pool money to buy land and property that they couldn't on their own. Robert mentioned the new program by Fannie and Freddie to provide 3% fixed-rate mortgages, hoping desperately to encourage people to take out mortgages, but people just aren't biting 3. I brought up subsidies, because if we're willing to subsidize $250 million of the Iliches' stadium, I'm sure we could agree to toss a few bucks back at residents. You might be able to get a deal in the Tax Auction, but it seems the Wayne County has started increasing the deposits on single and multiple property bidding to $2,000 and $5,000, which easly puts a lot of Detroiters out of the running 4. This new move by the county was supposively to reduce the number of bidders speculating on properties, but also had the added side effect of further stratifying the market. Regardless of the method, something is clear: if we're at all concerned about the place that current residents have in the future of Detroit, they need to have an option and the opportunity to own property here in the city. Having just gone through the home-buying experience, I can tell you that it's not easy to buy a house here in the city, and unless you have the cash, the time, or a mortgage, you're not getting one. I wrote a blog post on it earlier this year at the beginning of the quest, and it only got harder after I made an offer. I was fortunate enough to get a mortgage this year, something that only 500 people in the city managed to get in Detroit last year 5.

If you want neighborhood stabilization, we need to make more homeowners out of renters. We need more businesses, with a stronger preference on locally-owned businesses. I want more organizations like ProsperUS or Revolve Detroit here in the city with large budgets and bigger impact. I want every hardware store, restaurant, bar, and grocery store to receive the sort of money and attention that is given to the 7.2 square miles of the "Greater Downtown Development District." There's 135 square miles of the city the deserves the tax breaks, subsidies, and press but they aren't given it. Take a drive down Vernor in southwest; it's a tight community who weathered the economic crisis and you'll find that on that stretch nearly every storefront is occupied. The residential streets around are filled with people. They're a model for both what a successful neighborhood can be in Detroit, but you don't see that neighborhood getting a sexy article in the New York Times like their neighbor to the east.

Building Neighborhood Connections

And that's what my anger came down to in my last post. A bundle of misplaced anger at the most recent development to move into the area. There's a great disparity in money and attention here in the city, and Robert was just someone caught in the middle of it. He joked that he's still a pretty "short" player in the New York media scene, and you have to jump up and down a lot to get the attention of the press there. And while his press release was definitely more directed at his New York audience, a "short" player from New York is still a giant here in Detroit. I think that Robert is going to do his best to involve his new community in the development. Galapagos has a long history of hosting fundraising events and helping new artists get off the ground, and there's no reason why that won't continue. The hardest part in his work, more so that finding investors or managing the renovation, will be in involving the neighborhood he will soon be occupying. It's not always as simple as just opening the doors and saying that you're open to the public. Let me relate this with a story:

I worked with Revolve Detroit to run a shop pop-up shop over in West Village in 2012 to help encourage retail spaces in the area. For us it was a chance to show off the space to residents and get people excited about the possibility of having stores and resturants in a space that hadn't had them in years. We were doing it in conjunction with the Tashmoo Biergarten, a pop-up outdoor festival taking place in a lot on Van Dyke. I had been living in the neighborhood for a couple of months and figured it would be a good way to meet some of my neighbors at the same time. One late afternoon as Tashmoo was in full swing, a middle-aged black couple from the neighborhood walked into the shop and poked around. In making conversation, I happened to ask if they had been over to Tashmoo, yet.

"They don't want people like us over there" she said.

Now, there was no sign or spoken indication that Tashmoo was turning black residents away, and knowing Suzanne and Aaron, inclusion and neighborhood pride was at the core of the event. So where did this impression come from? It could have been the crowd, which tended to be white, affluent, and from outside the neighborhood. There was also the actual physical appearance of the space, with a small fence around (as required by law when you have outdoor event with alcohol). And even just the event itself: here was a fancy beer-and-food event that might be a bit outside of people's price range (I love pierogies as much as the next polish guy, but $6 for 3 of them can definitely seem extravagant). There was no racism, no malice, just an honest lack of dialog and conversation. It's hard to make spaces that are opening and inviting to everyone. I won't pretend that it's easy to do, but developers and business owners have the responsibility to ask themselves if they're building something that is accessible and available for people who live in the surrounding community. Racial and class tension is a real thing, and if developers prefer to build walled gardens, we will have learned nothing about the previous effect of income and social stratification.

I commend Robert on a big challenge ahead of him. He seems like someone who is looking to roll up his sleeves and make this happen. It sounds like he's also willing to move at a pace that will allow for these strong bonds to build. There will be plenty of opportunities for dialog between him and residents and local artists, and it will require both efforts on his part and on the community to build those relationships.

So, here's to 2015: hopefully the year for the other 135 square miles of Detroit.

Direct your hate mail to dylan@dylanbox.com

Cover Image: "12. Photocopy of Photograph (Courtesy of the Detroit Hockey Club, Detroit, Michigan). CONSTRUCTION OF BUILDING ADDITION, 1965, LOOKING WEST. - Olympia Arena, 5920 Grand River Avenue, Detroit, Wayne County, MI" Library of Congress