A Canadian artist has bought the original Highland Park High School for $18,000. In New York he made money from old buildings by adding art. Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus reports that New York City style revitalization will bring money and people. Eventually some will say they’ve had enough of both. But that’s a long way off.
Robert Elmes is 48 and grew up in booming British Columbia.. He bought the 3 story Highland Park High school recently and plans to live in it. But for now he’s just visiting from New York a couple days at a time. He’s winding down after twenty years of doing his art and real estate project called Galapagos Art Space. He stood outside between two of his cracked up buildings. Pieces of metal screeched in the wind.
“Coming from a city like New York which continually builds on itself there’s nothing that’s left fallow. Nothing sits for long. To come here and see in this building all the copper taken out. All the cast iron and aluminum. It’s been stripped. It’s been scrapped. It’s a process I didn’t imagine would happen to this extent.”
“And then you still bought the building,” McCarus said.
“That gives us a chance to make it right,” said Elmes, “and rebuild it again.”
The song “Boom, Boom, Boom” was performed by the singer and guitarist John Lee Hooker. Hooker worked in the Highland Park Chrysler Plant, played at bars nearby then slept in the back of the record shop that belonged to Joe Von Battle.
Joe’s daughter is known as Marsha Music. She’s 60 now. She graduated from the school and does a stage show about growing up with the music. She heard Robert Elmes would be at the building and came to meet him.
“So you were talking about your vision of this place as an art center,” Marsha said. “What made you come to Detroit in particular? Because you certainly had other rust belt areas you could have chosen.”
Elmes answered, “So I thought about the values here in Detroit of hard work and reinvention. And the ability to take space and re imagine it into a modern use that supports community and supports revitalizing a city.”
“You know Detroit has always been a city of artists in which the arts served industry,” said Marsha. “When I think about a project like this in Highland Park it’s a continuation of the impulse of artists but unfettered by commercial need.”
Marsha is part of Detroit’s history and culture from the 20th century. That doesn’t mean she wants to be the sole voice of black people. Before meeting Elmes she figured she might be “hostile,” instead of impressed. She was surprised by “what a cool guy he was.
Then as she heard how successful Galapagos Art Space has been in Brooklyn she expressed worry for people there.
“So are the people in Brooklyn, are they bereft with the leaving of the space? Is that going to be just like a big empty ruin too? There with what was left?”
Elmes seemed to appreciate her concern then offered this dry assessment of people who come and go from what people there consider the capital of the world. “New York has the ability to regenerate itself continually. I’m not sure New York ever misses you.”
Detroit and Highland Park are getting a chunk of New York culture. Maybe its reverse brain drain. Ask people over 50 in any part of Michigan, even tiny towns up north. They’ll say yes my son moved to New York. Yes my daughter lives there.
Shawn Campbell grew up in Plymouth. She’s now one of about 50 district managers in New York. She’s like a city manager in the Michigan context. She lives in Brooklyn.
“When I came to NY, in 1988, I worked in the art world. My first job here was at Museum of Modern Art. So to have the art connection between New York and Detroit is exciting. I think New York has some disappointment as being a great city. I thought it would be artier than it is. I said many years ago, Oh yeah it’s not the art capital of the world. It’s the finance capital of the world. So art in New York is very finance driven. Whereas art in Detroit has always been far more grass-roots. And in some ways more real as an art city.”
Millions of people come to New York from around the world. The city changes fast. Parts that were all Jamaican or Puerto Rican have turned white. Campbell describes how even whites fear gentrification.
“There were some armed robberies in this neighborhood several weeks ago. And they were in these fancier places. So we had this huge town hall meeting. All of these anti-gentrification types came out. It became racial: not wanting so many white people to move in.”
Locals don’t like the criminals. But they don’t like the people who can pay for more expensive housing either. That makes housing more expensive for everybody.
“It was funny to me because a lot of the people complaining about it were the earlier arriving white people. So you go wait a minute. Were you supposed to be the last one of your kind? Were you supposed to shut the door behind you so nobody else could move in?”
About 10% of Detroit is white. Some whites here like being the only ones on their street. They’re comfortable with it rundown. Robert Elmes has already started to clean up his patch of Highland Park. He hopes anyone will follow him. Marsha Music does too.
“I think it’s very exciting to see this place brought back to life.”