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Miracle on Division Avenue
A seedy section of Grand Rapids now bustles with artists who both live and work there. Has the city found the partners it needs to redevelop South Division? Hey, it worked in Soho ...

By Curt Wozniak
Photography by Michael Buck

In 1998, the four-block stretch of South Division Avenue between Fulton and Williams streets was a corridor of boarded up and blighted buildings where the city’s homeless population slept in doorways and the various forms of illegal commerce greatly outnumbered the legitimate merchants in the once-teeming storefronts.

In other words, the perfect place to open an art gallery.

“It probably wasn’t the brightest thing to do,” confessed Reb Roberts, who opened his Division Avenue gallery — Sanctuary Folk Art — in early 1999. “If I’d have gone to a business consultant, they probably would have said, ‘Well, you don’t really want to go down on Division Street …’”

Good thing he didn’t go to a business consultant.

At the time Sanctuary Folk Art was born, thousands of passers-by zipped along the city’s main north/south surface street and saw only a neighborhood that was down on its luck. But Roberts looked deeper. He took notice of an already vibrant community of outsider artists.

Reb Roberts

“I have a love for intuitive work anyway,” Roberts said, “and I felt that this group of artists — even though they didn’t have any real financial means to promote themselves or to fit into the main stream of the art community — I felt that they were really a big inspiration to me.”

Heartside Ministries had begun nourishing those intuitive artists in 1993 with an art program designed for the neighborhood’s homeless and low-income residents.

“We were going to do more regular education classes — GEDs and that kind of thing,” said Ruth Swier, who launched the art program with her husband, Glenn. “But then we discovered that so many people in the neighborhood were really artistic, but they really had trouble being able to afford supplies.”

The Swiers began delivering art supplies to the different missions and service agencies along Division Avenue. As the program grew, Heartside Ministries dedicated more space to art. Today, the organization operates Heartside Gallery — a street-level art gallery/studio — and a pottery program housed in its basement.

Along with Roberts, the outsider artists of the Heartside Gallery have become the de facto godparents of a budding South Division arts scene. Over the past two years they’ve been joined by more than 50 young artists, designers and sundry creative-types, all of whom have moved into combined living and working spaces along the “Avenue of the Arts” — as the community development organization Dwelling Place has rechristened Division Avenue.

Originally incorporated in 1980 by a coalition of area churches and other organizations united in their mission to provide affordable housing and vital services to individuals and families, Dwelling Place has a long history of rehabbing and renting properties along South Division — including the buildings at 140 S. Division Ave. (home of Sanctuary Folk Art) and 54 S. Division Ave. (Heartside Gallery). However, overcoming generations of disinvestment and negative perceptions one building at a time can be a slow and difficult process.

Executive Director Dennis Sturtevant watched as the Van Andel Arena sparked a renaissance along Ionia Avenue. He witnessed the comeback of Commerce Avenue after big investments by Thomas M. Cooley Law School and Western Michigan University. But in his words, “Nobody seemed to be able to figure out Division Avenue.”

As Dwelling Place explored strategies for reinvigorating South Division, Sturtevant kept coming back to the same point: It doesn’t bother artists.

“They are not only tolerant of diversity and some of the grittiness of the street, but they actually embrace it, and have been very, very good partners in other cities in trying to bring life back to some of these tougher areas to develop,” he said.

Heather McGartland

To evaluate the idea’s potential for success, Dwelling Place hired a consultant from Artspace, a Minneapolis-based firm committed to creating affordable space for artists and arts organizations in cities across the country. The consultant met with more than a hundred Grand Rapids artists, among them Kendall College of Art & Design alumni A.J. Paschka and Nick Stockton.

In 2003, Paschka, a photographer, and multi-media artist Stockton were roommates. They were both looking for studio space in Grand Rapids, but after paying rent on their apartment, their monthly studio budget was meager.

“As an artist just out of school at that time, if you didn’t want to leave Grand Rapids, you were basically looking for something that wasn’t provided here,” said Paschka.

Their quandary was almost universal among the city’s young artists: “When you’re just starting out in your career, how can you afford two rents?” Stockton asked.

Dwelling Place listened.

By the spring of 2006, Dwelling Place put its first 23 live/work spaces on the market in the Martineau Apartments, which span 106, 120 and 122 S. Division Ave. Late last year, 14 live/work spaces in the Kelsey Apartments were added — all of them LEED-certified as environmentally friendly construction.
As of mid-September, the 37 units — plus a storefront at 136 S. Division Ave. converted into live/work space by furniture designer Cameron Van Dyke and his wife, painter Rachael Van Dyke — housed 56 residents combined. A handful of units were vacant, but Dwelling Place had a waiting list of prospective tenants for each one.

The spaces, which range from around 850 square feet to more than 1,600 square feet, feature artist-friendly amenities such as utility sinks, skylights, adjustable track lighting and open floor plans with moveable walls.

All of the spaces meet building codes for residential occupancy, but for the most part, these buildings were all originally constructed for other uses: retail, warehouse, furniture showroom, etc. Merging flexible, open areas for creativity or commerce with the private areas of life — most spaces don’t have separate bedrooms — is a brand new concept in Grand Rapids, even though Dwelling Place consultant Artspace has worked on similar artist housing projects elsewhere, dating back to 1979.

Heather McGartland operates a hair salon out of her street level unit at 126 S. Division Ave. The space, dubbed Imagination Creations, doubles as a retail shop where she sells her unique handmade jewelry, clothing and other creations. It triples as her apartment, the only indicators of which are tucked away in a back corner.

When shoppers do wander into her bedroom area, McGartland occasionally has to assuage some uneasiness.

“The whole concept of living and working out of the same space is still kind of new to people in West Michigan, so I think we’re educating people every day,” McGartland said. “But that’s what I like about it, because I get people in here and I’m always explaining, educating, inviting … and telling the whole story.

“For the most part, I’ve noticed the level of understanding grow already.”

The confines are inspiring, said artist/musician Hugo Claudin, who had previously rented warehouse space for the pursuit of his art. But, he said, “I could not live in it.”

That’s not the case with Claudin’s second floor unit in the Martineau Apartments — a space he promotes as Mexicains sans Frontiers. He’s got another name for it, too: “It’s a dream come true.”

Claudin used to book jazz shows at the now defunct Arco Iris. On the Avenue of the Arts, he hosts house concerts in his apartment, which is large enough to also serve as his painting studio and rehearsal space for his own various musical ensembles.

“Plus, it’s very cool for me to be able to live downtown,” he added. “I can put my drums on a cart and just walk them over to the Black Rose for gigs.”

The project has worked out well for Paschka and Stockton, too. Paschka’s second floor unit doubles as a photography studio. Stockton originally positioned his storefront space as a contemporary art gallery called FwdSpace. When girlfriend Sally England moved in last March, they transformed it into Space Craft, a shop specializing in local handmade craft objects and clothing, much of which is made by the couple themselves (with some produced by other local artists).

The shop has been slow to generate an income, but it’s delivered what Stockton and England — and the Avenue of the Arts project as a whole — wanted to see.

“That never really was the plan to begin with — to make an income out of it,” England said. “It was more something that we wanted to do to help promote the neighborhood.”


Above: Nick Stockton, Sally England and Sweet Georgia Brown (their cat).

In 2008, four newly renovated live/work spaces in Dwelling Place’s Verne Barry Place — formerly Dwelling Place Inn — will welcome more members of GR’s creative class to the Avenue of the Arts. The newly constructed five-story addition to the building, which provides affordable housing on its upper floors, also features two market-rate live/work storefronts. The addition was the first new construction along Division Avenue between Fulton and Wealthy streets in half a century.

Dwelling Place also hopes to continue discussions next year with the state’s Native American tribes to test the feasibility of a proposed Native American Arts and Education Institute — which has been discussed as an arts-related use for the former Harris Brothers building at 111 S. Division Ave.

And the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, a few blocks away at 41 Sheldon Blvd. SE, hopes to finalize plans for its move into a future development at the southwest corner of Fulton and Division.

“There is no doubt that the UICA’s move will create great synergy with the Avenue for the Arts as well as other nearby restaurants and retail,” said Jeffrey Meeuwsen, UICA executive director.

“We are very fortunate to have an incredible level of young, creative energy being poured into developing the Avenue for the Arts and the Heartside neighborhood,” Meeuwsen continued. “I’m pleased that artists are being recognized as talented community builders — and as such are nurtured with much-needed places to live and work.”

Encouraging developments are happening all along the Avenue of the Arts with more on the horizon, but blighted images of South Division still linger.

With South Division’s concentration of shelters and missions, the city’s homeless continue to congregate on the sidewalks outside the artists’ lofts. In addition, not every building along the street has been redeveloped. Witness the former home of Chaffee Brothers Furniture Co., 101 S. Division Ave., whose only artistic contributions to the Avenue are its boarded up first-story windows, which are covered in faded street-art.

In a part of a city where community pride had been absent for so long, regaining a neighborhood feel takes more than a couple of years. But many Avenue of the Arts residents are more than willing to wait it out.

“The police do so much good around here, but there are still issues to deal with in the neighborhood,” Annamarie Buller admitted. She operates a gallery called Fluxus out of her spacious live/work apartment in the Kelsey building. “But we don’t want to gentrify. We want to make this place diverse and keep it affordable, because income-wise, a lot of us artists don’t make much more than the homeless population.
“That’s what’s so great about this project. If you’re willing to stay, it gives you that room to grow in your career and build yourself up here.”

For careers in art to fully blossom along the Avenue, artists need to reach potential patrons from all over the city. According to Meeuwsen, the project is not viable in a vacuum.
“You cannot expect the artists and the area to thrive without support from the whole community,” he said.

That support has been trickling in. This past summer numbers rose to more than 400 shoppers at the monthly Avenue of the Arts artist markets. As attendance at such events goes up, the positive changes that already have taken place along these blocks get communicated to more people, replacing memories of a dispirited street with the experiences of spirited urban life.

“When people do come to one of our events, they’re really surprised that this is the same South Division they remember,” said Jenn Schaub, an Avenue of the Arts resident who also works for the Dwelling Place Neighborhood Revitalization Department. “I’ve heard so many times, ‘I had no idea this was here. I had no idea this was happening.’

“I think that’s huge. That’s why we keep doing event-based things, and inviting as many people as possible: Because you can’t believe it until you see it.”

The next Avenue of the Arts event is a winter open house called Urban Lights. It takes place from 6 -11 p.m. Dec. 7. GR

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