The corner of Hubbard and Porter streets hums with activity. Work vehicles have packed
the ground out in front of the Whitdell apartment building into hard earth. Slabs of dumped concrete and mounds of sand adorn the ground outside, and a duo of portable johns graces the attractive courtyard, while tarps billow and flap above in the windows of the building's imposing Moorish-influenced facade.
Though some houses down the street seem askew or overgrown, this building is the grandest of various "named" residential buildings such as "The Murray" across Hubbard Street, or, cater-corner, the "Suffolk." Unlike those quainter, older buildings, the Whitdell seems right out of the arabesque-crazed 1920s, with brickwork flourishes in beige, salmon, tan and brown, shaded at the corner by a twisting honey locust tree.
But unlike the luxury "loft" developments sprouting around downtown Detroit and Wayne State University, this building will have subsidized units for rent to artists, and even an art gallery.
Helping oversee the project is Aaron Timlin, director of the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit, or CAID. Timlin is the kind of guy who's involved with a multimillion-dollar redevelopment project, but still needs to get a ride because his car is in the shop again. While giving a quick tour of the Whitdell apartment building in southwest Detroit, he is already waylaid by a communications consultant, answering questions while dodging the workers who keep scurrying through the building.
The 36-year-old native Detroiter first met up with the people at Southwest Housing Solutions when he was asked about doing murals for housing developments. The group is part of a corporate family with a mission "to improve the health and well-being of individuals and families while making southwest Detroit a great place to live, work and play." The mission includes creating affordable housing and spurring economic development.
Some time ago, Timlin had brought up the idea of creating affordable housing for artists only. What might have been a passing punch line elsewhere took hold, and now it is seeing fruition in the Whitdell Artists' Affordable Housing Development, another of more than two dozen buildings Southwest Solutions has helped rehab in southwest Detroit. Timlin says few groups have more experience navigating the maze of tax credits, subsidies and loopholes.
"They process building and construction paperwork," he says, "We manage the artists' end, accepting applications and proposals."
And the applications will likely pour in. The building will have 1-, 2- and 3-bedroom apartments for "artists" encompassing sculptors, painters, musicians and writers as well as a gallery and other resources for residents and the community. The apartments will have modern construction, including sprinklers and wireless options. One-bedroom units will start around $320 per month, and 3-bedroom units will start around $550.
The basement, now a forest of aluminum studs, will house the Ladybug Gallery, a pottery studio, children's art classes and an artists' resource center. Upstairs will be an artists' haven, with courtyard sculptures, paintings in the hallways, and model apartments decorated with an artistic flourish.
Timlin says CAID and Southwest Solutions are even exploring co-op options, where artists can not only rent but can stake out claims as members and owners. "That way," Timlin says, "they're not going to be 'gentrified out' of a community they helped build."
Timlin says he sees signs of this kind of gentrification in Cass Corridor, where many artists tenaciously held on for years only to be priced out by sparkling condo developments and loft conversions. Listening to him talk, one gets the sense that Timlin and company have taken pains to keep the project on mission, with educational components, an artists' resource center that includes job-hunting resources and portfolio-building materials, as well as a way for people in the neighborhood to get involved, as gallery-goers, patrons and students.
But the Whitdell doesn't represent CAID's only involvement in new spaces. The group is currently staging shows in a disused carriage house on the north side of Warren Avenue west of Trumbull, near Wayne State. Timlin says the group intends to use the eye-catching two-story garage seasonally for exhibits with a "community component." It's a perfect space for intimate site-specific installations. Upcoming art shows will include such unusual materials as felt and broken glass.
See CAID's latest opening, the 2007 Actual Size Biennial at CAID (5141 Rosa Parks Blvd., Detroit; 313-899-2243) and at the Ladybug Gallery (inside the Whitdell apartment building, Hubbard at Porter, Detroit) 6-10 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 20. Scheduled to coincide with a new opening at the Carriage House Gallery (1532 W. Warren Ave., Detroit).
Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor at Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]