Penal grandeur

Jun 11, 2008 at 12:00 am

"Yeah, this is McGill. This is dumb ass McGill. I locked the keys in 406."

That's a prisoner transport van, and on a recent weekday morning, officer McGill paces the parking lot of the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson because he left his keys in the ignition, with his gun and an inmate stuck inside. Some young guys behind barbed wire take a break from rounds of push-ups and pull-ups to check out the commotion. Who cares? The little fracas doesn't hold their interest so they resume their regimen.

Meanwhile, behind the doors of the state pen, a visitor is made to feel like a total idiot for not knowing how to open a storage locker.

"Haven't you done this before?!" yells the cop behind the front desk. "I didn't think so! Turn the key, let go and then push up with both fingers!"

"I said, turn the key, let go and push up with both fingers!"

Same ol' same ol' at the new state prison.

But life at the former state prison, now that's a different story. The place used to forbid its residents even to speak. Instead they passed notes. Those dudes couldn't even wear underwear.

Today, art rules.

"Can I put my nudie paintings back up yet?" asks a painter sitting at a receptionist's desk with a pug on her lap.

Michigan Republican Congressman Tim Walberg has just finished throwing a little shindig in the cell block. Leftover turkey wraps are snatched from the tables by catering waitstaff and an operatic pop song swims through the air.

In an effort to put Jackson "on the map" and boost the local economy, the former state prison — a 19-acre campus of gorgeous 19th-century architecture located a few miles from the center of the city — has been transformed into the bucolic Armory Arts Village. The Enterprise Group of Jackson, a development agency comprised of local business organizations, has created a colony for visual artists, designers, filmmakers and musicians to live and work together. Abstract artists can wander down the hall and paint to jazz riffs. That sort of thing.

The $12.5-million renovation project, supported by private and public funding (it's a tax-free Renaissance Zone), completed Phase 1 in January, just about a year from the starting date. So far, the community features affordable housing — starting at $410 for a one-bedroom, utilities included — as well as free private studio space, access to communal exhibit and performance areas, resource rooms with Internet access, a ceramic-sculpture studio and more. There are plans for an outdoor amphitheater to be built from a garage adjacent to the chow hall, a community garden in the massive yard and town homes.

Yes, it's a little creepy. But creepy is cool. Resident and guitarist Jimmy Reed has a new flat-screen TV in his apartment, yet iron bars grace his windows.

Director Jane Robinson, an artist and former probation officer (kind of a coming home for her), walks me through the underground tunnel that once took officers to their watchtowers. She offers some perspective on the industrial Jackson.

"The whole city was built around this prison, and it became a manufacturing town. There were canning, twine and furniture-making factories inside the prison. Trains would run right into the yard, drop off inmates and pick up goods. With most of that gone now, we need to develop our creative industry to make Jackson a place in which people want to live. Armory Arts doesn't merely benefit its own residents."

Built in the 1838, the prison was once a campus of stone and red-brick buildings — including cell blocks with skylights — surrounded by a 25-foot-tall turreted stone wall that extended along the perimeter.

When the prison became too overcrowded, a new facility was built in 1934. The National Guard took over the old prison in 1939.

Sometime thereafter, according to Robinson, a fire took out the administration building and the east wing cellblock. The west wing was salvageable, and the cell block has become a mixed-use space with a main gallery, and work studios. Sixty-two living quarters, 44 of which are now filled with glass-blowers, painters, sculptors and others, are located in a reconstituted warehouse.

Next door, galleries and boutiques housed in an old carriage wheel factory add more charm to the village. A children's art school and the organic grocer Real Goods share space in the brick building. Inside that very factory is where a few developers ran into a steel sculptor working independently; that gave rise to the concept of re-using existing space as a facility to turn art-making into a viable day job.

Sketches for future development on the prison premises feature bands playing on a promenade, and contemporary-looking buildings with retail on the first floor and umbrellas and awnings across a boardwalk. I've got to say, the renderings make me nervous. Forget about bars on your windows (we're used to that anyway, right?) this is the creepy kind of creepy.

Let's hope the developers are smart enough to realize that you shouldn't manufacture what best happens organically, and canned urban planning could stifle creativity. There's something to be said for leaving parts of the landscape and architecture untouched (the way it is now), because it allows artists the freedom to transform their own environment, and simply to meditate on the magic of nature. This unique Michigan landmark should look like it has a story to tell.

But what a mammoth undertaking. Across the country — don't get me started overseas — historic buildings have been reborn through creative initiatives. The Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan is a mind-blowing, medieval-meets-modern landmark that once housed the 7th Regiment, the first militia to respond to President Lincoln's call for volunteers in 1861. It's now home to world-renowned exhibits and such performances as the Lincoln Festival. Former armories in Pasadena, Calif. and in Palm Beach, Fla. have also transformed into art centers.

Can you imagine living in the Michigan Central Depot? Seeing a music festival inside there? Why is it so hard for Detroit to think like Jackson, a city nearly 27 times smaller in population and 11 times smaller in size? They certainly don't have big bucks, so there can only be one answer: Those city officials have got big heart. Come on, Detroit, where's the love?

Driving directions: Take I-94 to Exit 139-Cooper Street Exit. Turn right onto Armory Court. Turn right onto Mechanic and the Armory Arts Project is straight ahead. The approximately 75-mile trip will take an hour and 20 minutes. Call 517-998-3400 for more information or to set up a tour.

Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts and culture editor. Send comments to [email protected]