Thanks for making Detroit cool, artists. Here’s your eviction.

The old furniture showroom at 4731 Grand River in Detroit features a mural of sign language spelling the word “LOVE.” Since 2001, it served as an arts incubator. An ownership change prompted evictions last month.  (Bridge photo by Joel Kurth)

DETROIT –  A mural on the front wall of a onetime furniture showroom on Detroit’s west side features giant hands spelling the word “LOVE” in sign language.

The mood inside 4731 Grand River, though, has been downright glum of late after an ownership change prompted a mass eviction last month, emptying a building that served as an incubator for Detroit’s thriving arts scene since 2001. The building offered cheap studio space to 31 artists and served as headquarters for the Grand River Creative Corridor, which painted murals on 15 once-derelict buildings between Rosa Parks and Warren avenues.

“It was artists moving back to Detroit that started the renaissance, and now those are the people getting pushed out,” said Pat Domanski, a painter who was forced out of her studio on Grand River in May along with the others.

Arts advocates say that’s reality nowadays in Detroit: The city is hip in part because of its bohemian vibe, but as public art has helped boost property values artists are forced out through rising rents or building sales.

Just west of bustling downtown and Midtown, the Grand River neighborhood is still gritty but becoming a redevelopment hotspot, with a nearby housing village of Quonset huts and plans for chic restaurants. Owners of the arts incubator, who bought the building for $185,000 in 2000, sold it last year for $1 million, public records show.

The new owner is seemingly the unlikeliest of evictors: Allied Media Projects, a nonprofit in Detroit dedicated to social change and “media for liberation,” according to its website. It took out a $2 million mortgage and plans to update the building to serve as its headquarters, along with other progressive nonprofits.

The goal is to use the building to “remediate the impact of gentrification at a minimum and resist the structures that perpetuate gentrification,” said its executive director, Jenny Lee.

The irony of a group fighting gentrification by committing one of its most brutal acts –  eviction – isn’t lost on Lee.

“It sucks that our vision has to come at the cost of artists who have used and loved that space,” Lee said. “There’s no way around it. It absolutely sucks.”

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She said she’s had “sleepless nights” because of the evictions, but they were necessary because her nonprofit and others are also getting squeezed by rising rents in Detroit.

The evictions follow a host of other studio spaces for artists  – including the Russell Street Industrial Center – that have closed, sold or displaced artists, said Sintex a well-known Detroit graffiti artist who used to live and work in the Grand River incubator.

“The growth of Detroit has forced artists to definitely hustle more. Instead of everyone being in the city, they are spread out more, to suburbs like Hazel Park,” said Sintex, who was born Brian Glass.

“The days of finding studios in old industrial spaces [in Detroit] are long gone.”

Detroit graffiti artist Sintex lived in the arts incubator and his murals helped create the Grand River Creative Corridor, which he says has since become gentrified. (Courtesy photo)

Owners of the incubator say they sold in part because “it’s extremely difficult to own property in Detroit now” because of new fees and regulations, said Derek Weaver, a developer and principal of 4731 Group LLC in Detroit that owned the building.

“We took a lot of pride in serving the creative community before Detroit was on a renaissance or comeback,” he said. “We were the first ones in a derelict neighborhood and people were getting shot outside the building.

“But with the politics happening in Detroit now… small guys like us aren’t able to make a go of it as well.”

Rochelle Riley, Detroit’s newly hired director of arts and culture, declined comment.

‘Last of a breed’

The building at 4731 Grand River in many ways reflects how much the city has changed in the past few years.

Before Detroit’s bankruptcy and the 2013 election of Mayor Mike Duggan, the City of Detroit didn’t always follow its own regulations. Taxes weren’t always collected. Nor were water bills. Enforcement of building, safety and blight codes was so lax it was sometimes nonexistent.

That was fine by Weaver and the arts community, he acknowledged.

“When we first developed the property, we were given leniency because the city understood it was a catalyst for change,” Weaver said.

Derek Weaver, a developer and principal of 4731 Group LLC in Detroit that owned the incubator, said he and a partner sold the building last year because doing business in Detroit has become too difficult. (Photo courtesy Crain’s Detroit Business)

Artists didn’t have formal leases, paying $300 to $500 a month. Besides art studios, the building housed an art gallery, tattoo parlor and an after-hours strip club on the fourth floor that mysteriously burned after tenants were evicted, said Sintex. On the roof were tents and more parties, he said.

“It was a cool environment. That place was definitely the last of a breed,” Sintex said.

He said he moved into the fire-damaged space in 2012, cleaned it up and installed a skate park and store for graffiti artists. He paid no rent in exchange for helping Weaver develop the Grand River Creative Corridor, painting murals and inviting graffiti artists to do the same on empty buildings and on large boards in vacant lots.

Some of the work is striking. Next to the incubator, on an abandoned building is “Our Land Til Death 2,” a mural by Sintex featuring slain Detroiters including Malice Green and Aiyana Mo'Nay Stanley-Jones, who were killed by police, and Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American beaten to death by autoworkers in 1982 during tensions over Japanese auto imports.

The mural “Our Land TIl Death 2” overlooks the parking lot of a onetime arts incubator on Grand River in Detroit. The building is slated for demolition, and its creator, the artist Sintex, is hoping to save it. (Bridge photo by Joel Kurth)

The city wasn’t amused by the murals. Under Duggan’s orders for his “war on graffiti,” the artwork –  and Weaver – generated several blight tickets and fines of nearly $8,000 in 2014, before the mayor relented, dropped the citations and apologized.

The area is now a tourist destination, with write-ups on TripAdvisor and tours for out-of-towners.

“We changed the property values. The values went up. We set the standard for bringing people into the area, using artwork to tell a story about a culture,”  Sintex said.

“What’s going on now in Detroit is gentrification, stuff with no meaning.”

He left the incubator a few years ago after a falling out with Weaver. The building’s issues worsened. Heating and cooling systems needed work, as did the elevator.

Property records show the building went into tax foreclosure in 2013, and the owners took out two mortgages for $375,000. Property taxes increased from $4,000 to $5,500 from 2012 to 2017, records show, and were set to jump this year after a reassessment, said Weaver, who became a partner in the building after the foreclosure.

Another view of the onetime arts incubator. Along with Sintex, Derek Weaver invited artists to paint murals on empty buildings along Grand River and paint on boards in vacant lots. (Bridge photo by Joel Kurth)

The city’s new stormwater drainage fee, which charges buildings based on the size of their roofs and parking lots, slapped an $800 monthly charge to the building, Weaver said.

“It was becoming more and more difficult to keep rent affordable,” Weaver said.

Weaver said owners spent $700,000 over the years on the building –  which he called a “passion project,” and his partner, Ric Geyer, had moved to Atlanta and was approaching retirement.

By word of mouth, they heard Allied Media Projects was looking for a new building last year, and thought they found a perfect buyer, Weaver said.

“We could have easily listed the building, sold it to a real estate developer, kicked everyone out and developed ritzy condos,” he said.

“But we didn’t want to do that. We put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into the project and felt good about selling it to a nonprofit.”

‘We didn’t expect to get evicted’

Artists at the incubator felt good at first too that the new owner is a nonprofit whose website says it’s dedicated to “art, media and technology projects working for social change,” Domanski said.

She and others said Allied Media initially promised to allow artists to stay, but then served them with evictions this spring.

“These evictions just go against everything you see on their website and what you hear about them,” said Domanski, who last month moved to a smaller studio in Royal Oak.

“I was hopeful when they bought the building that things would continue. We all expected rent would go up but we didn’t expect to get evicted.”

Lee, of Allied Media, said she agonized over the process. She said the group tried to respect artists it was displacing, freezing their rent and offering them leads on other spaces.

Jenny Lee is executive director of Allied Media Projects, which bought the arts incubator on Grand River last year for $1 million. She said she’s anguished over evicting artists.

Her 22-worker nonprofit rents office space in Midtown, and rent has increased $1,000 a month to $4,200 since 2011. For three years, the nonprofit has searched for another building only to be consistently outbid by buyers with cash, Lee said.

Lee’s said the building plans to house several groups including the Detroit Justice Center, Detroit Disability Power that also have faced rising rents or similar instability.

“Organizations like ours deserve to have spaces to do our work long-term and not be at the whims of landlords,” Lee said.

A former furniture showroom, 4731 Grand River in Detroit had served as an arts incubator since 2001, offering below-market space to artists and serving as headquarters for the Grand River Creative Corridor project. (Bridge photo by Joel Kurth)

Lee said the group plans in the next year to convert the parking lot to green spaces, build a community gallery and transition the building “from one for individual artists to a creative community hub” with space for neighborhood get-togethers, arts exhibits and performances.

“As social justice organizations who are not just railing against the system but attempting to model a world in which we want to live, we are really challenged to not just espouse a vision but embody it,” Lee said.

“That has become difficult in this economy and real-estate landscape designed to make things easy for people with large amounts of capital. The contradictions we have to navigate are very real and very hard.”

Initially, the nonprofit wanted to allow the artists to stay and occupy only the fourth floor of the building, Lee said. But Allied Media’s staff grew by 40 percent, another tenant needed more space and the City of Detroit wouldn’t allow the building to claim partial tax-exempt status as a nonprofit if it housed for-profit artists, Lee said.

‘There aren’t many spaces left’

When Bridge visited the building in May, several eviction notices were taped from studio doors, along with notes from artists imploring property owners not to discard their equipment. The notices were filed by Allied’s attorney, Anthony Adams, a former deputy mayor under Kwame Kilpatrick.

A rendering of Allied Media Projects’ plans to renovate a onetime arts incubator on Grand River to the “Love Building,” a headquarters for nonprofits and community gathering space. (Courtesy photo)

“This is gentrification,” said Millee Tibbs, a photographer and Wayne State University arts professor, told Bridge as she prepared to leave in May.

“This building is perfectly suited for artists, and the studios were affordable. Despite the mythology about Detroit, there simply aren’t many spaces for artists. I tried to find another space and just quickly became demoralized.”

Domanski and other artists remain bitter about Allied Media, saying the group “kept us in the dark” for months and complaining its property manager was unresponsive.

Lee said the group is committed, “in this very difficult and contradiction-wrought situation” to “preserve the history” of the incubator with a project like an oral history or mural.

Sintex, who was never paid for the murals that helped transform the neighborhood, said he’s philosophical about the changes.  He said he’s willing to give Allied Media the benefit of the doubt in a changing city.

Elsewhere in Detroit, his murals of Rosa Parks, Joe Louis and other Detroit icons have been destroyed when buildings they adorned were purchased or demolished as part Duggan’s blitz that has razed 18,000 vacant homes and businesses.

“The most important part of this narrative is you never know and appreciate what you have until it’s gone,” he said.

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Frank Koob
Tue, 06/18/2019 - 9:01am

Primitive societies subsidize art makers in their own ways. They value the contributions that artists make to the meaning of their communities. It is too bad that in a post-industrial universe art is Expendable and considered a commodity for the rich to purchase and sell at a profit.

Ren Farley
Tue, 06/18/2019 - 9:44am

I presumed the statewide cap on annual increases in property taxes mitigated gentrification in Michigan. Is that incorrect?

John Roche
Tue, 06/18/2019 - 9:39am

Too much of the rhetoric behind this story is implausible, to say the least. While I know little about the situation or Allied Media, it is tough to believe there was "no way around" the eviction of all tenants, as Jenny Lee claims. I don't doubt her sleepless nights; only the impetus for them. And Rochelle Riley "declined comment?" What keeps the city's newly hired director of arts and culture focused away from the city's arts and culture landscape?

Question Mark
Tue, 06/18/2019 - 9:51am

Detroit is huge! Can’t these artists and nonprofits find buildings in other parts of the city that aren’t a part of the downtown area? Buy a building where things are cheap and try being a pioneer in one of these neighborhoods that needs something new and exciting. Stop following everyone downtown and do your own thing and you won’t have to worry about “gentrification.”

Tue, 06/18/2019 - 12:40pm

Two points:

1. This isn't downtown.
2. The people who created the GRCC weren't following anyone. They put the work in in that neighborhood long before it was cool to be a part of "Core City"

Tue, 06/18/2019 - 12:51pm

This is spot on. The city has over twenty-five SQUARE MILES of vacant and abandoned land. Over 900 empty buildings.

Tue, 06/18/2019 - 1:13pm

I think it's unfortunate, but you're absolutely correct. Detroit is still ripe with opportunities for artists, home rehabbers and the like.

Tue, 06/18/2019 - 5:02pm

I always love it when people don't do the reading, but still feel emboldened to post comments. If you had actually read the article, you would know: 1) Artists were quoted saying that they've been looking for new spots, but space for a studio is much more limited than you'd expect. They've scattered to the suburbs now and are, generally speaking, in smaller spaces than they had been. 2) These artists were here first. Their work improved the look and feel of the neighborhood. They made it desirable and less scary, and increased property values in the process. They're the leaders, not the followers. And the thanks they got for reviving the neighborhood is an eviction notice.

Tue, 06/18/2019 - 10:50am

I’d recommend developers read Drew Philp’s book “A $500 House in Detroit: Rebuilding an Abandoned Home and an American City” for insight into what developers and politics do to urban residents.

Tue, 06/18/2019 - 11:18am

Agreed! Really is a great read.

Robyn A Tonkin
Tue, 06/18/2019 - 11:09am

I think this is what always happens when monetary value returns to city core areas. I was working in Tampa, FL when artists and local diners in Ybor City, the old cigar making district near the port, were being squeezed by big developers, big bar owners and cruise port investors. I am descended from French and Indian traders who came to Detroit in the late 18th century. Their descendants were lakes surfmen, lighthouse keepers, street cleaners and fishermen. My dad was born in Delrey and lived his whole 96 years in Trenton, except for when he was in the south Pacific during WWII. I still have relatives working in electricity generation, so for 100 years, people in my family have kept the lights on in the tricounty area. The industrial buildings in Detroit were especially lovely examples of their kind, and well built. I can't be the only person with long time ties to Detroit who is glad to see these buildings cleaned up and modernized. Not everybody is so crazy about great big murals all over nice buildings. I have artistic skills and some talent in various fiber arts. I never for a moment tried to make a living with those skills, and if I had, I would have taken my lumps without complaining. Art just usually doesn't pay unless you have some kind of angle (a patron, a family connection, etc.) or you are willing to scrape by most of your life til your "lucky break". The phrase "starving artist" didn't come out of nowhere. When you have talent that nobody wants to hire you to express, you're going to get squeezed out by everybody who has dollar signs in their eyes. Nobody bought the buildings where all this art is being generated because they love art for art's sake, they bought them as investments.

Tue, 06/18/2019 - 12:15pm

No, they bought them because they were hip and the neighborhood had cashe as a place for creativity. That was a larger part of the buy in - in investment, not the ONLY one.

Wed, 06/19/2019 - 1:00am

“It was artist moving back to Detroit that started the renaissance, and now those are the people getting pushed out,” I wonder if those who contributed to this article skip biology for their art classes, and they failed appreciate the theory of evolution.
What is happening in Detroit is a natural evolution, it is like the evolution of a forest, each plant is displaced by its successor, the old had stabilized the environment and the next took advantage of the improvements and moved in, next will be the replacement of those who are moving in now and further changing the environment. As each new group moves in they change things enough that it appeals to someone new until things the appeal to the next wave. This will be the upward evolution until one of those waves becomes complacent about conditions, then decline begins and the cycle starts all over.
There are choices; change with the new wave helping to make the changes, make a place where you can change least, or move on to your place in the wave somewhere else. Bemoaning change will not stop change or even significantly modify it for like evolution it moves to accommodate the things that build on the past and appeal to the most in the new wave. Each can be an adventure, but it is the commitment that will determine how pleasing it is.

Wed, 06/19/2019 - 6:07pm

That isn't biological evolution. That's urban gentrification. If the city doesn't support its artists, it will fail to "be cool," fail to have "cool neighborhoods." See: San Francisco- rising rents, dropping diversity and culture.
There is a middle ground with the greatest chances for everyone to survive. Detroit can be that place.

Thu, 06/20/2019 - 10:00am

Calling it 'gentrification' is simply a media contrivance for headlines and a way to create conflict of emotions, and find a way to blame the changes such rents and diminishing of diversity as controllable elements of the evolution of the human environment in communities.
In reality as the forests changes [ebb and flow in diversity of species, in ecology that appeals to the species] by building on what flora and fauna changed and created so do people in Detroit [and other communities] change Detroit feeding the evolution of Detroit.
The idea is not rail against the dynamics of evolution [in nature and Detroit], but to recognize what is happening and be part of it not trying to stop it.

John Roche
Sun, 06/23/2019 - 2:48pm

You are confusing biology and capitalism, which have no natural relationship. Flora and fauna don't evolve as per their net worth. Although Trumpians trumpet the notion that large checks trump science, they (and the rest of us) will be dead long before any "new wave" of what you call the evolution of Detroit allows these artists to return to their native habitat, to borrow some of your rhetoric. The earth's forests are dying because of exactly the type of progress you espouse. None of the contributors to this discussion believe that Allied Media can save the world by allowing the affected artists to remain in their rented spaces, but most recognize this situation as symptomatic of societal decay. You, on the other hand, aver that, via these very evictions, they are contributing to a natural and healthful flourishing of the universe. That so many on this planet agree with you is both hilarious and horrifying.

Just my thoughts
Wed, 06/19/2019 - 9:44am

So if taking a shabby, rundown building and putting a million dollars into improving it, paying property taxes to the City of Detroit, and generally saving a building from eventual decay and ruin is "gentrification," the City of Detroit needs way more gentrification.

Sun, 06/23/2019 - 1:25pm

The article does give the impression of young artists who think they can continue to do "cool" things and never have to sustain themselves, never have to take on the responsibility of supporting themselves in the real world. Like most artists i work from home. With a successful career outside of the art world i could never afford to maintain an outside studio. It all seems nonsense to me, and nearly everyone i know.

Fri, 06/28/2019 - 10:27pm

Gentrification isn't the problem, and it's disappointing when a publication uses a buzzword to bait readers. If artists could make a decent living from their art, there wouldn't be a story.

Fri, 07/12/2019 - 6:56pm

The mural in the cover photo does not spell LOVE in sign language. Please correct your caption!

Sat, 07/13/2019 - 3:17pm

HOW cum "ALL" the money and where Hidin....O`Bma Affordable rents are not enforced?
milloin of $$$$$ for demolition BUT not for Living.brownfield Money Tax-free...Property taxmen get ?got bonus of $ 90.000 ..Take out Artist / music /paint/what has Detroit got.another Train?bus going up or down the street and the Old one running in circles(not Pontiac to detroit as original design35 year ago)to bring Jobs )68 new busses cloud have created more jobs all over Detroit> still waiting for MODT promised to take the train to thanksgiving parade in Detroit in 2010....9 years it is getting very cold .hot waiting.Plus the state spend ove$$$$ million on "NEW" cabooses standing in OWSSO>any trail runs in 2019!What about the Company in Southfield wit there vision of train to Brighton and AnnArbor over 30 years>are they still getting taxpayers money for the retirement?

Todd Priest
Mon, 12/30/2019 - 9:10am

Good grief. It hurt my brain to read this. Thanks.

Todd Priest
Mon, 12/30/2019 - 9:04am

We are racist when we leave and racist when we come back.