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Stir It Up: Dearborn gets funky

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I spent a lot of my formative years hanging out in the old Cass Corridor where the concentration of artists, musicians, writers, dancers, and more pretty much made it the coolest place in the world. And if you asked me at the time what places just weren't cool at all, well, Dearborn could easily have fit the bill.

Well, Dearborn is working on capturing some of that cool, at least in east downtown Dearborn (the side closest to Detroit) where City Hall Artspace opened in the fall. So far; so good. The first phase of the development, the transformation of the former Dearborn City Hall into 53 residential lofts and apartments, seems to be successful. It's full up.

"It's a successful model of rent controlled artist housing," says Barry Murray, director of economic and community development for the city of Dearborn. "Typically artists move into communities or areas that are less desirable with cheap rents for studios and living spaces. As gentrification came along they got pushed out."

The model Murray refers to is the Artspace model. Artspace is a Minneapolis-based business with a mission to "create, foster, and preserve affordable space for artists and arts organizations." It's been around since 1979 and operates in 20 states.

A lot of cool places just seem to happen. Low costs and unconventional attitudes attract starving artists who start turning empty buildings into galleries and having poetry readings and next thing you know a little bit of bohemia pops up.

However, in this case, it's being incubated by the city of Dearborn. Mayor John O'Reilly Jr. invited Artspace to the city. Artspace considered some 30 locations within Dearborn. It was during these deliberations that the city got the chance to move into newer buildings farther west on Michigan Avenue and the old City Hall complex became available. That turned out to be where Artspace thought they could be successful.

"We're going to be looking for walkability, for buildings close to other services," says Becky Carlson St. Clair, project manager for Artspace. "Low-income people with no cars need access to basic services. There's a bus line (near City Hall), a grocery store quite close by, and the city is redeveloping the area. They're looking at trying to build walkability and services into that."

Walkability is the development mantra that includes the idea that residents of a neighborhood should be within about a 20-minute walk of most of the services they need on a day-to-day basis.

The main building itself was attractive with its high ceilings, wide corridors and large windows. The extra buildings presented an opportunity to create more of the amenities that feed into a vibrant scene, not to mention that it's adjacent to a park. And its location directly across the street from the Arab American National Museum (AANM) proved fortuitous. AANM, with its cultural programs such as Global Fridays concerts, proved a great partner to collaborate with.

"The past three years we've been developing a concept for space in dialogue with them to launch an artist-in-residency project," says Devon Akmon, director of AANM. "Our inability to find a semi-permanent space for an artist to stay while they workshop here slowed that down. That's going to come to fruition this year."

The artist-in-residence will be housed across the street at City Hall. Another AANM program will be housed there in the second phase of development. Now that the residential space is up and running, Artspace is developing a second building in the complex to house commercial enterprises, nonprofits, office space. The Growth Center, an AANM program helping to develop entrepreneurship for immigrants and refugees, will be there. It also looks like the East Dearborn Downtown Development Authority will have an office there. It's not just space, it's community.

There's more along that strip of Michigan Avenue with the AANM Annex, Green Brain Comics, Stormy Records, and a slew of Yemeni restaurants. Synergy has already begun. The AANM Annex has hosted Comiquecon, which folks at Green Brain help organize. The AANM also organizes culinary walking tours in the area.

"There's a lot of promise and opportunity in East Dearborn. Artspace will catalyze that," Akmon says. "Michigan Avenue is getting a little bit more diverse and funky, creating a unique identity."

Funky is not a word normally associated with Dearborn. That's Detroit, where Parliament-Funkadelic put that style of music on the map. But the wall of separation between Dearborn and Detroit may be less formidable than it once was. East Dearborn is pushing its nearness and connectivity to downtown Detroit and its cultural institutions. That connection is made stronger in fact by the AANM, which organizes the annual Concert of Colors that takes place for several days each July in Midtown.

So there is some promise there. And it doesn't hurt that somebody is at least talking about regional connectivity in that direction.

As far as East Dearborn becoming a hipster paradise, well, we'll see. It's hard to imagine engineering a hipster paradise as opposed to something that organically develops. But these Artspace folks have a record of success and they do very serious work before they decide to develop in a community. That includes buy-in from the local government. You also need buy-in from the artists too. They will ultimately be the seeds of where this goes. Will they be able to produce artwork and support themselves there?

"Interaction among the artists in the building and synergies within the building will make the connection," St. Clair says. "That can engage the community and create broader areas of economic development that the city is looking for."

I'm a Detroit guy and what's going on in the city gets most of my attention. But the AANM is doing great multicultural programming that nobody in Detroit is doing — and I find that attractive. If someone else over there gets on the good foot and expands that footprint that's great for everybody.

Dawning of a different era

By the time you read my next Stir It Up column, there will be a new president in the White House. It was already disconcerting to me that he was elected in the first place. I had dinner with friends recently and someone mentioned that he hoped Donald Trump (there, I actually typed his name) would screw up spectacularly. I don't share that sentiment. I do not want him to fuck up the nation. With that said, I don't expect that he is going to do much good. What really concerns me is that with the all of our intelligence organizations claiming that Russia tampered with our election, there doesn't seem to be any process in place to invalidate such an election. Did we think this could never happen? As far as I'm concerned something very illegal just took place. And with our guy insisting on having his own private security rather than the Secret Service, I wonder if he is hedging on having folks with a personal allegiance around him in case of an attempt to arrest him. I know that is putting me in conspiracy land, but that may be where we are living now.

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