How did Highland Park, Michigan compete and win against Brooklyn, New York? It was the abandoned Highland Park high school. A company called Galapagos Art Space bought it. Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus reports that a proven formula for urban revitalization is coming to where it’s needed most.
Galapagos is a set of Islands off the coast of South America. Galapagos Art Space is a company that did dance, music, theater and parties in worn out buildings in Brooklyn, New York. That triggered billion dollar booms in the neighborhood called Williamsburg and another called DUMBO. That stands for down under the Manhattan Bridge. It’s on the waterfront.
On the Saturday before Christmas, Galapagos held its final show in New York. The audience plus the cast of a cabaret totaled 300. The fun inside this building lasted six years… 20 years if you count Williamsburg too. The host was called Bastard Keith.
“Galapagos Art Space was never just real estate. This was a home and it’s where a lot of us became better artists.”
Galapagos was founded by Robert Elmes. He grew up in Western Canada and became a sculptor in Toronto.
“There’s a need a need for artists around the country to come to a place that’s not New York City. They’re bouncing off the perceived cost of arriving in New York and they need a new place to go.”
Elmes just paid $49,000 for the old Highland Park High School. It’s not the ugly 1970’s place on Woodward. It’s the original building from the city’s golden age a century ago. Its exterior is grey limestone. The auditorium and other features are intact. But a gutter hangs from 20 feet above. The wind bangs it against a brick wall. Thieves have removed dozens of window frames to rip out metal and sell for scrap.
Robert Elmes says coming to this tiny city within a city will be more satisfying than New York.
“I’m looking forward to the part of my career that I enjoy the most. That’s really helping from the brick up build community and build opportunity for artists who are in Detroit and are coming to Detroit and Highland Park.”
“It’s curious to me now, to think about Galapagos leaving and how it’s sort of the double-edged sword right?”
Shawn Campbell says some enterprises get hurt by their own success. She’s watched Brooklyn grow this way ever since she arrived with a political theory degree from Michigan State University after saying goodbye to mom and dad in suburban Plymouth. That was 1988. Campbell is now an assistant city manager. She went to Galapagos once for business, once for a bar mitzvah.
“So they spur some economic development. They bring the creative class in. That creative class then attracts people who become comfortable with the area. Those people move in. The real estate prices go up. I’m sure you can’t buy a one-bedroom in DUMBO for under a million bucks. It’s sort of Frankensteinian right? They attracted all this economic development but now they can’t sustain their mission because they’re outpriced.”
Starving artists got outpriced in New York. But Robert Elmes as both artist and businessman did not. Detroit has thousands of abandoned buildings. Conventional developers would say fixing up a building as big as the old high school would cost $50 million. Robert Elmes says no not that much.
“We don’t see that kind of pricing at all. I think it’s going to cost something in the area of $3 million to start to do what we want to do. So that’s our venue and it’s galleries and some studios. Focusing on the ground floor of this building. And the rest will come out over time.”
The U.S. Census shows the poorest city in Michigan is Benton Harbor. Almost as poor is Highland Park where per capita income is $12,000. The richest are Barton Hills, outside Ann Arbor and Bloomfield Hills with $110,000 and $104,000 respectively. Louis Starks is a lawyer from Iowa who is now director of economic and community development in Highland Park.
“If you look at what’s happened in Detroit, those who wanted to wait on the sidelines waiting for some sort of transformational move to occur… now they’re completely on the sidelines. So the same thing is going to happen to those who have sat and waited on the sidelines in Highland Park, Pontiac or any other distressed area. Because the real estate values will resuscitate.”
Dan Gilbert has made the transformational move in Detroit. This winter, Robert Elmes’ move has the ingredients to transform Highland Park.
Just like New York, this is about real estate and art together.