It’s easy to call the stretch of Grand River between Warren and Rosa Parks a hot mess of asphalt. On a sweat-soaked summer day, it doesn’t look like much more than another vacant lot next to another liquor store built on the back of yet another burnt-out neighborhood. When the sun finally sets, the streetlights don’t come on to illuminate some hidden majestic element. In 24 hours, little more is offered here than overgrown grass, long odds of escape, and, as a teasing consolation prize, a towering take on the Detroit skyline.
But if you squint, you can make out Derek Weaver’s vision for this stretch of street. A lack of city services and a high rate of crime doesn’t mean the end of the line. There’s hope in the days ahead for this ZIP code.
In just two years, the aptly named Grand River Creative Corridor project Weaver helped found is taking hold. It’s waking up delinquent building owners. It’s activating the community. It’s sharing the stage in a neighborhood where crime and vandalism seemed like the only act.
The main attraction? Art, and plenty of it. Dozens of Detroit artists — brand-name street artists and fine artists, many recently graduated from the College for Creative Studies — have contributed well over 100 murals to 15 buildings throughout the GRCC. Sintex, FEL3000ft, Kobie Solomon, Christopher Batten, Alonzo Edwards, Malt, Monster Steve, and many more have all participated. Mini art parks have taken over several vacant lots, displaying the diversity of artistic offerings the project aims to embrace. While shopping local is a priority, artists from California, Germany, France, and New Zealand have left their mark as well.
The GRCC got its start when an opportunity to reverse the fortunes of Detroit-based 4731 Gallery transformed Weaver from a 26-year-old serial entrepreneur with a knack for real estate into a community organizer.
“My passion has always been in property turnaround,” says Weaver, who grew up in Monroe County and attended Wayne State University. “When I originally came into 4731 Gallery, it was strictly a turnaround project. We would take care of our own but not the neighbors. I didn’t know the difference between an oil painting or a graffiti piece.”
What Weaver lacked in understanding of Van Gogh and Warhol, he made up for in boosting occupancy rates and implementing long-dollar logic.
Founded in 2001 by business consultant Ric Geyer, 4731 Gallery understood art. It knew the value of incubating young artists. But come 2010, the four-story building, complete with a first-floor gallery and 31 studio spaces, needed a jump-start. Tenant turnover was a perpetual problem. The proximity to stable neighborhoods and cultural hotbeds like Wood- bridge and Midtown wasn’t enough to draw prospective businesses.
“Things deteriorated a bit,” Weaver recalls. “When you fill a building with starving artists, they tend to not pay the rent.”
Brought in as a managing director, Weaver restructured everything. Rental rates were slashed for new and existing tenants. He began courting more entrepreneurs.
“Reducing the rent instantly decreased turnover and, therefore, the failure rate of small businesses that want to call this building home,” Weaver says. “The ability to offer an inexpensive space with all utilities included can help artists and entrepreneurs discover their passions and dreams.”
Weaver was right. Today, the building is fully occupied by an diverse group of tenants, including tattoo artists, hair salons, recording studios, and a small church, alongside graphic designers, photographers, and painters.
That success allowed Weaver to look past the sidewalk he owned and into the neighborhood he shared. Was it possible, he wondered, to attract other businesses to the area? Who was responsible for allowing viable building stock to rot? Could he change the perception of the neighborhood? At the very least, could he brighten it up a little?
Detroit street artist Sintex started by adding some flash to the front of the gallery. That drew a small crowd. Next came an entire wall. The neighborhood came out in full force. Weaver was on to something.
He then set his sights on American Integrated Supply, a nuts-and-bolts neighborhood business since 1943. The owners had seen Grand River at its best and its worst. They embraced the idea of art on their walls as a defense mechanism against vandalism without artistic merit. Across the street, the automotive salvage yard and the liquor store saw the benefits, too. In a reversal of roles, Weaver says, some of the same “vandals” who had previously terrorized businesses now see themselves as “contributing artists.”
Weaver began reaching out to more building owners, effectively bringing more brick-and-mortar canvases into the fold.
Detroit Hardware began to offer paint at wholesale pricing. Home Depot offered free rentals on any tools they might need along the way. Students at Wayne State’s medical school fulfilled their community-service obligations by cleaning up the strip.
Thanks in large part to Weaver’s vision, the GRCC has received donations from various local businesses and corporate entities — including grants from nonprofit organizations like Midtown Detroit Inc. — and more than 500 hours of volunteered time. He’s also chipped in about $10,000 out of his own pocket to help the cause.
As the outdoor public art collection began to grow, tours soon began to roll through the corridor — art students from Bowling Green University, a busload of senior citizens from Rochester Hills.
Weaver and the GRCC are all about promoting local artists and bringing back the neighborhood. As for bringing business back to Grand River, that remains to be seen. But Weaver remains confident that his attempt to bridge the gap between artists, entrepreneurs, and investors will succeed.
It’s a tricky tightrope to walk, but Weaver’s out-of-box thinking has gotten him this far. The relationships he’s built with local artists have helped the community see him as more than just “that country club guy.” In return, Weaver’s a come a long way from seeing 4731 Gallery as a run-of-the-mill turnaround project.
In 24 hours, it’s tough to see the changes happening on Grand River. But over two years, it’s easy to see the paint on the wall is a part of a change that’s bound to stick.
For more information, visit 4731.com.