Turnover of buildings on one block of Gratiot Avenue has set the stage for a transformation of an area familiar to anyone who regularly visits Eastern Market for weekend shopping or Detroit Lions tailgating.
The block is across the street from Gratiot Central Market, with Russell Street lining its western flank. Most visitors probably pay it little mind, other than to contrast the daytime bustle on one side of the street with the apparent emptiness of the other.
That’s understandable. Most of the block’s Gratiot-facing façades have looked dormant for years.
But that’s changing. Of the 13 buildings on the block, six have changed hands in the past three years. A seventh was sold in 2006. The six recent sales went to artists or businesses engaged in the arts — a fitting takeover for a block that’s harbored artists and their studios since the 1970s. All but a handful of buildings in the block have artists as owners, tenants or both.
The new owners are making improvements to their buildings, and many plan to install new businesses in them. The block is set to take on a brighter look as façades improve and doors reopen throughout this year. The investment will bring more attention to a creative community that has flourished under wraps for decades.
Among the newcomers is Miles Michael. The Royal Oak native left the Detroit area in 2001 to work in set design and construction in New York and Los Angeles. He came back when it looked like Michigan’s film incentives would spur work in his field.
Seeking raw commercial space, Michael in 2010 bought a one-story building toward the eastern end of the block from Butcher & Packer Supply Co. for $40,000. “It was a great steal,” he said.
The space previously had served as an adjoining storefront area for Butcher & Packer’s main building before the butcher supply business moved to Madison Heights in 2010.
The icing on the cake for Michael was the unexpected creative atmosphere. He’d been eyeing another building on the block, but then found out Hernan Bas, a nationally recognized painter from Miami, had just purchased it.
Bas did not respond to requests for comment. According to Wayne County records, he bought a two-story building in the block in 2010 for $40,000.
For Michael, this was one of first clues that he’d just bought a slice of an artists’ island.
“I didn’t know much about the block,” Michael said. “It’s a special place. The neighbors are awesome. There’s such a creative mix of great people.”
Michael plans to open a gallery and event space called Fourteen-Eighty Gratiot Gallery that will be a “a portal between New York and Detroit” street artists and curated by longtime associate Andrew Shirley. Renovations are under way, and a first official show is tentatively planned for spring.
The addition of Michael’s gallery and several other arts-related businesses will extend the reach of increasingly popular Eastern Market and could add another destination spot to Detroit’s greater downtown.
“It’s one of the coolest things going on in Detroit right now,” said Ryan Cooley, owner of O’Connor Realty Detroit LLC, which represented many of the recent buyers. “When it’s all said and done, it’s going to be one of the most active blocks in the city.”
The other recent ownership changes also illustrate the creative class investment interest.
Musician Joel Peterson bought the former Butcher & Packer building next to Michael’s in December 2011. With his partner Rebecca Mazzei, deputy director at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, he plans to turn it into a music café under the name Trinosophes LLC sometime this year. He said they are spending $60,000 renovating the building. Peterson also said he has received grant funding but would not disclose the sources or amounts, saying “philanthropic groups need to start taking their names off of stuff.”
He purchased the building through his entity, Crow Lodge LLC, with help from Eastern Market Corp., which, acting as a fiduciary, bought the property from Butcher & Packer and sold it to Crow Lodge on a land contract, said Randall Fogelman, vice president of business development for Eastern Market.
Meanwhile, Gregory Holm, a photographer and concept artist, is rehabbing two buildings he purchased last spring for a total of $37,500.
Under the entity 2:1 LLC, Holm is combining the two buildings into one and bringing back its art deco past, paying close attention to details such as period window handles, tiles, woodworking and decor. He plans to open a café called Frontera that will “take a very conceptual approach to food.”
He said the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. helped him secure $50,000 in federal grant money to bring up the energy efficiency of the building by at least 15 percent. Holm expects the total renovation, including grant money and the building purchase price, to come to at least $300,000.
The most recent purchase on Service Street was that of a three-story building toward the western end of the block by Market Holdings LLC, an entity set up by the owners of Royal Oak-based art print business 1xRun LLC. Owners Jesse Cory and Dan Armand are moving the business into their new space to accommodate growing demand.
Cory said they paid $400,000 on a land contract for the property. (Armand, a 2011 Crain’s “20 in their 20s” honoree, left his position as art director at Team Detroit last year.) The business is an offshoot of their gallery, 323East Gallery, which closed last month. They plan to open a gallery in their new space.
Further back in 2006, Pat Deegan bought a one-story building and runs his electrician business, Good Guy Electric LLC, from there. He paid $75,000, according to county property records. Deegan, who also is a loft developer with an artistic bent, said he has spent $85,000 on renovations.
From the Gratiot side, the view of what locals call Service Street seems to be that of another desolate Detroit block.
What might surprise passers-by is that, behind the boards and cinder blocks, artists have been bustling all along for decades. The Gratiot-side improvements will just let the rest of the world know it.
The block never has gone dead in all its years, despite how it’s looked from the outside, said Roger Gentry, property manager for Rocky Investment Co. LLC, owner of four buildings on the block, including the tallest, the six-story Atlas building, former home of the Atlas Furniture Co.
“It’s been that way so long, people don’t even look up anymore. When I tell people that there’s people in the Atlas building, their response is, ‘I thought that building was empty,’ ” Gentry said.
The Service Street name refers to the brick-paved alley behind the buildings, where hints of the activity can be seen as people gather outside to chat and go about their business. Even most of Butcher & Packer’s business took place in the back, not in the Gratiot storefront, locals said.
Most occupants maintain their entrances on Service Street. One of the people who can be seen entering her studio most mornings is Lois Teicher, a sculptor who makes large-scale outdoor pieces. One local example is a 14-foot tall stainless steel piece behind the Scarab Club at John R and Farnsworth streets.
Teicher has been working from the first floor of the Atlas building since 1983. She said Service Street has been full of artists throughout her time there, even though the Gratiot side might have looked empty. The first floor of the Atlas building was bricked up a few years ago after a break-in occurred in her space, she said.
She was drawn to the block because of the artists and enjoyed the parties they had, but at the same time, everyone was given space to focus on their work.
“There was a feeling of camaraderie and support — we’re all in this together,” Teicher said. “We all did our own work but would hang out outside and drink beer.”
The same holds true for a younger generation of artists. Bethany Shorb, artist and owner of neckwear business Cyberoptix LLC, has had a studio in the Atlas building since 2002. The block has its social components, such as a fire pit out back where people gather in the summer. For the most part, however, the people there are focused on their craft.
“We’re all workaholics,” Shorb said. “It’s kind of spartan as far as creature comforts, but for most people who are creating stuff, that’s not a priority.”
Ron Scott, a Service Street resident who also happens to have co-founded the Detroit chapter of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s, remembers the block from his days growing up in the nearby and now gone Black Bottom neighborhood. Then it was full of shops doing business in furniture, clothing and servicing Eastern Market butchers.
When Shorb moved in, Eastern Market was less lively than it is today and Service Street “was a little bit of a secret,” she said. Shorb, who also didn’t know anyone on the block at the time, said the concentration of artists happened naturally, not by committee or an institutional initiative.
“I don’t want to be curated into a building,” she said. “It’s not forced.”
Painter Jocelyn Rainey ran the jRainey Gallery in the lower level of the Atlas building from 1998 to 2009. It was a fortunate spot for an art gallery, though she didn’t know it the time. She became familiar with her new neighbors through bonfire parties or when doors in the buildings opened and she could see DJs and bands practicing.
“When I had my opening, all these artists came to my opening and said, ‘I live in this building, I live in this building,’ ” Rainey said.
Artists have been living at Service Street in noticeable numbers at least since 1978, when photographer Ameen Howrani bought a two-story building toward the western end of the block.
His wife, Arlene, took over the building after he died in 2010. Arlene said her husband bought the building for $25,000 and borrowed $100,000 to renovate it and create four loft units. He’d been to New York and wanted to bring some of the artsy loft lifestyle he saw to Detroit. Artists also were beginning to take over space in the Atlas building around that time.
“The whole block was creative. We used to call it an artists’ colony,” Howrani said.
Holm, the photographer who is renovating two buildings, is among the latest wave of artists attracted to Service Street’s bricks and bohemian atmosphere.
“The artists, we own this block. … It’s like Europe or Brooklyn back there,” he said.
Occupants expressed mixed emotions about the unplanned renaissance of the block. It’s good to see improvements, they said, but the changes will make the block less personal.
Shorb welcomed the changes. She compared today’s Eastern Market atmosphere to how it was before places like Supino Pizzeria and the Red Bull House of Art gallery were around.
“I say I like the monasticism, but 10 years ago it was lonely,” Shorb said.
An introduction to Service Street
Eastern Market’s Service Street block contains a wealth of creative connections and people:
• Paul Freel is owner of Trans-Love Energies LLC, a medical marijuana dispensary that operates out of a building also owned by Rocky Investment. John Sinclair, a 1960s activist who was a manager of the Detroit punk rock band MC5 and a founder of the White Panthers, played a role in Trans-Love but is no longer connected to it, said Freel, who is more commonly known by his nickname, Holice P. Wood. The Trans-Love space also once was home to KMS Records, another Detroit techno label.
• Derrick May has run his techno music label, Transmat, from a building owned by Rocky Investment Co. since 1988. May, a Crain’s 2001 40 under 40 honoree, is nearly synonymous with Detroit techno because of his pioneering work in the genre. Local artist Cedric Tai in 2011 brightened the building’s façade by painting individual bricks different colors, a concept he calls “brixels.”
• Pat Deegan, son of a retired St. Clair County judge, is a co-investor with the brothers Phil and Ryan Cooley, and their father, Ron, in the nearby Detroit Candy Co. Lofts building. Deegan also was a manager for Made in Detroit in the 1990s when the Detroit apparel company operated from Service Street. Deegan’s fiancée, Liz Blondy, owns Midtown dog day care business Canine to Five. Phil Cooley also owns Slows Bar-BQ.
• Painter Hernan Bas is an artist from Miami whose works have been shown at art shows in New York, Paris and Seoul, South Korea. His building was renovated by Nicola Kuperus and Adam Lee Miller, the couple behind Detroit electronic music act Adult.
• Felicia Patrick owns Midtown clothing shop Flo Boutique. Her husband, Djallo Djakate Keita is a drummer who plays in jazz, reggae and world music bands.
• Jonathon Taylor is a partner in Yancey Media Group LLC. Taylor helps manage the catalog of influential Detroit hip-hop producer James Yancey, better known as J Dilla.
• Ron Scott co-founded the Detroit chapter of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s and was a past host of the Detroit Public Television show “Detroit Black Journal” (now “American Black Journal”). Scott lives on Service Street and is host of the WKBD-TV show “For My People,” as well as co-host of the WDFN 1130 AM radio show “Fighting for Justice.”
• Joel Peterson is a musician who won a $25,000 Kresge Foundation artist fellowship in 2010. Peterson ran a music performance business in Detroit called Bohemian National Home LLC for several years and plans to open a music café on Service Street.
Gregory Holm, photographer and conceptual artist.
• Gregory Holm is a photographer and conceptual artist who gained attention as the organizer of conceptual art projects “Ice House Detroit” and “Fire House Detroit.” Ice House Detroit involved encasing an abandoned Detroit house in ice. Fire House Detroit was a series of sound installations and music performances at a former firehouse.
• Christian Fuller is manager of the rock group Electric Six and a Service Street resident for the past two years.
• Bethany Shorb, an artist who sculpts metal, paints and makes electronic music, also runs neckwear business Cyberoptix LLC from the Atlas Building and is one of the founding members of Eastern Market hackerspace OmniCorpDetroit.
• The late Ameen Howrani, a respected photographer, is credited as being at the forefront of Detroit loft developments following his 1970s purchase of a Service Street building. His wife, Arlene, continues to manage the building, and his son Ara, also a photographer (who took photos for this feature), runs Howrani Studios in the New Center area.
The Hudson-Webber Foundation pushed the Service Street transformation by giving $10,000 matching grants for façade improvements in Eastern Market, five of which have gone to Service Street properties. Eastern Market Corp. administers the program, and a third round of grants has been approved, said Randall Fogelman, Eastern Market Corp.’s vice president of business development. Service Street property owners Hernan Bas, Pat Deegan and Miles Michael each have received one grant, and Gregory Holm has received two.