Art meets meat

Michelle Andonian says the urban realities of her neighborhood keep her photography grounded. Robert Crise Jr. says his large, raw space has fueled bigger and better installations and paintings. Brian Kritzman says the juxtaposition of his secure, tight-knit community and the potholes and overflowing dumpsters around his sculpture studio provide the friction necessary for creation.

All of these artists live and work in Eastern Market, the city's meat-packing and produce distribution district where renovated warehouses now serve as studio space. Many in Detroit's cultural community have targeted this neighborhood, often described in such urban hipster-friendly terms as "edgy" and "gritty," to make the leap from quiet studio quarters to full-fledged artists' district, with all the public venues such an area entails.

The hype may be somewhat premature. While artists have lived and worked in the Market for at least 15 years, to date there are only two galleries to lure the public into the area for purposes other than produce pickup, restaurants and nightlife. But if the proverbial cards are played correctly, this vision could well come to fruition.

Most artists, galleries and performers have been evicted from or priced out of Harmonie Park, the last area to be watched closely by artists and cultural connoisseurs. Converted warehouse space on the waterfront is ever more limited with the casinos moving in. So sights have turned to this little nugget of land wedged between Gratiot Avenue and the Fisher Freeway in the hope that it will give the city's arts community what it has desired for decades: an authentic, viable artists' district in the heart of the city.

Like many current residents, designer Eddie Sykes, who owns Big Biscuit gallery and Big Design studios with fellow designer Chris Benfield, has mixed feelings about his neighborhood's recently acquired allure. His position is understandable. While the increased attention allows him to draw significant foot traffic to his gallery and studio, he also lost his living space across the street in the old E&B Brewery building when his landlord capitalized on the area's newfound popularity by doubling the rent.

Why success hurts

Such gentrification of artists' quarters is an age-old phenomenon which sculptor Kritzman, a 10-year resident of Eastern Market, has seen played out across the city on numerous occasions. He explains the process: "What happens is -- it's funny, it's a double-edged sword -- you want to make your space nice ... and you start fixing things up and you put a garden in and pretty soon someone who paints on the weekends and is an executive during the day sees it and says, 'Hey, that looks cool.' And then they move in, but of course they can pay four times the amount of money you can and the landlord goes, 'Well, I didn't know I could get this kind of money for this space,' and pretty soon everyone's out on their ear."

The same scenario unfolded most recently in this city in Harmonie Park, about a mile west of the Market. Two key factors distinguish the areas, however. First, Harmonie Park is closer to the city's downtown redevelopment area. More importantly, outside developers descended on the city's former fashion district, evicting tenants and hyping such projects as a beer hall and a Metro Musicafe, both yet to materialize. In contrast, much of the development in the Market is coming from within and it appears that it is being approached with some sensitivity.

The biggest developer in the area by far is Rocky Russo, owner of Rocky Peanut Company, a popular store in the Market since 1957. Russo, with the assistance of son-in-law Robert Heide, has been converting buildings in the area into retail storefronts and residential loft space since 1985. He owns much of his block, as well as a strip on Gratiot that includes the six-story Atlas building. Additionally, Russo and Heide are in the process of renovating an old firehouse on Russell for three luxury lofts and a restaurant or other entertainment venue. (An illustration of Russo's diverse holdings: he owns buildings housing both Andonian's picture-perfect, finished loft and Crise's super-spare space.)

Maintaining diversity

Some of these residential developments -- including the firehouse lofts, one of which will be Heide's first to feature a conference room -- are priced well outside the affordable range of the struggling artist. But Heide has a reputation for accommodating his less wealthy tenants -- including Kevin Hanson and Chris Turner who operate the ultra-hip Johanson Charles Gallery on Division. Heide has also allowed the gallery to develop a sculpture park across the street on property he owns. Even as the opportunity for profit increases, with more young professionals eyeing loft space near downtown, Heide says he wants to maintain the area's diversity.

"We're not looking to drive out certain uses," he says. "It's about melding the uses together here, bringing more people and more uses into the market."

Benfield says if such a mix is to be maintained, development of an artists' district must come from the ground up. "If something's going to happen in the Market, it has to be a real grassroots effort. It has to come from the people who have been here," he says.

Some individuals in the Market complain, however, that Heide's hold on the area's scant development offerings precludes such a development scenario. His broad influence keeps less well-connected individuals in the arts community out of the running, they say.

Heide, on the other hand, says he may be one of few developers qualified for the job.

"I see a lot of people who think that it's easy to fix a building up. I think there's a lot of naiveté on the part of some people," he explains. "When you look at the buildings, there's not a lot available, that's number one. There's poor availability. The stuff that is available is difficult to convert. It's extremely expensive to do a quality job."

With a degree in civil engineering and several successful projects behind him, Heide certainly has little trouble convincing the city (which owns a hefty portion of Eastern Market property) and lenders of the viability of his proposals.

While grassroots ownership may not abound, however, it does exist. The Winder Street Gallery building, for instance, was owned and operated by artist Alan Deal, who is preparing to move from the city; the building has been purchased by another artist.

The dangers of cool

But Sykes and Benfield say the area's vibe has already been affected by an influx of young professionals and less serious artists looking more for a social scene than a creative one.

"People are just living here because it's cool, and they're unproductive and they don't give a shit. They really aren't here to make something. It was better, I think, when everyone was producing stuff," says Benfield.

"The energy was there and it was dirty and nobody bitched about it," recalls Sykes, who no longer lives in the Market, of the earlier scene. "Now it's like, 'Oh, we want all the walls white, and you're leaving all the cigarette butts in the hallway; we can't have that.' It's too fucked up."

Meighen FitzHenry, whose Critical multi-media space was located briefly in the E&B Brewery Building, is in the process of relocating within the Market. She believes certain features of the district will curb any large-scale yuppie influx.

"We still are the meat-packing district. Regardless of whether there's nice new windows in the space and you drive a nice car or whatever, you're still going to listen to animals getting killed and see carcasses out your window," she observes. "But that's part of the aesthetic of being in the Market."

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