Miracle on Division
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
“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
“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.”
had begun nourishing those intuitive artists
in 1993 with an art program designed
for the neighborhood’s homeless and low-income
“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
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
in 1980 by a coalition of area churches and other
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.
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
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
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
Dwelling Place listened.
By the spring of
2006, Dwelling Place put its first 23 live/work
spaces on the market in
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
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
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
“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
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
“That never really was the plan to begin with — to make an income
it,” England said. “It was more something that we wanted to do
to help promote the neighborhood.”
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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