555/4731: Making Space to Create
Tucked away in an industrial corner of one of Detroit's hottest
residential districts are two buildings that don't immediately get your
As you travel north by northwest on Grand River
from downtown, following the western border of the Woodbridge
neighborhood, the first of the two catches your eye. In faded letters
across the top of the building the numerals 4731 come into view. Then
the numbers appear again below on the same wall, which faces a parking
lot, and in a smaller lighted sign that beams out onto the main avenue.
Go up a few short blocks farther to the intersection of Grand
River and Warren and see the second building, a sprawling, two-level
structure that once housed a business called Michigan Tent and Awning,
now home to 555 Gallery. It is dark, except for the muted street lights
that surround it, and the glow that comes from a nearby radiator shop.
the outside the buildings look like relics of Detroit's industrial
past, their brick facades worn by time and neglect. Residential housing
nearby — what remains of it — is in worse shape. Entire blocks on the
west side of Grand River have been leveled, with only the odd church,
light manufacturing shop and a few wood-frame houses still standing.
walk in through the door of the 4731 building, and suddenly the world
changes. A sense of place and purpose begins to take hold. Ric Geyer,
the owner of the two buildings, is here to make sure you feel the life
surging within these old walls.
"We've come to a point where in order to work we need to be more
creative," says Geyer, 50, who greets his visitor wearing a classic
fedora hat, a blue button-down shirt, gray slacks and brown loafers.
"Talented people are this city's greatest assets. As we change from an
economy based on manufacturing to one where more innovative jobs are
necessary, we have to find ways to feed the employers of the future."21st century model
way of doing that is to establish "arts incubators," places where
people can work on their projects within a micro-community of
like-minded artists, musicians and entrepreneurs. His business model
has a 21st century stamp all over it: Geyer has an MBA from the
University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, by day he works for
multinational accounting giant Deloitte & Touche, and he also
served as Gov. Granholm's executive-on-loan for the state's Cool Cities
Initiative. On top of it all, he has savvy for edgy, investable — and,
he says, profitable — real estate ventures in neighborhoods long
forgotten by traditional developers.
He and wife Carey bought
the four-story building at 4731 Grand River in the summer of 2000 and
18 months later he says it began filling up with "angry young urban
artists. And then, it began to morph into something else."
says most of the tenants who now occupy the 27 studios on three floors
are arts entrepreneurs, people starting up businesses in new media,
video, photography and film, web and fashion design. Some artist
studios remain and the group Electric Six
has its rehearsal space at 4731 Gallery
, but Geyer says that the building is not where you'd likely find welders, metal workers and woodcutters.
A quick tour reveals the diversity of 4731 tenants, from a modest-sized
suite shared by filmmakers Alisa R. Lomax of Bourgeois Bomenan
Productions and Nicole Sylvester of Autumn Rain Features to a larger
studio leased to Rod Murphy-El, a photographer.
afterrnoon, Murphy-El, whose motto is "your image is everything," was
preparing to shoot a hip-hop group in his studio.
"I do a lot
of my work here," says Murphy-El, who previously had a studio at Wayne
State University, where he's taught photography classes. "Musicians,
In another studio, Stephanie Whitfield was
settling in to begin working on her line of handbags, handcrafted
sterling silver jewelry and other accessories.
The tour ends on
the fourth floor, a massive space that Geyer still hopes to develop.
From here, you see the Ambassador Bridge glittering to the southwest,
downtown's skyscrapers rising to the south and Wayne State University,
the Cultural Center and the Detroit Medical Center to the east. And to
the north is 555 Gallery, hidden behind old St. Leo's parish (now home
to the George Crockett Academy) and sharing a block with that radiator
shop, phase two of Geyer's ambitious incubation project.555 and partnerships
Launched in Ann Arbor's Technology Center in 2002 and evicted in late 2003, the 555 Gallery
moved to a former Ypsilanti warehouse about a year later. But that
space was temporary, and the collective began looking for another
location in 2004. Geyer said when he found out about the group's plight
and their possible interest in moving to Detroit, "I sat down and
talked with them and told them 'I'll buy you a building.' " By the
summer of 2004, 555 Gallery was up and running in Geyer's building at
4884 Grand River, and it began programming a series of wide-ranging
visual and sonic art shows over the next 18 months.
of the highlights include "12," which showcased a dozen emerging women
artists; a one-night installation by Rico Africa with music by house
music powerhouse Mike Agent "X" Clark; a University of Michigan student
photography show called "Shoot. Kaboom"; a provocative exhibit called
"Fabric of Fear", which addressed American life in a post-911 world;
and "Modus," an electronic music event that featured Seattle's Bruno
Pronsato and Montreal's Pheek, two little known but respected rising
stars on the underground dance scene.
555 will open two shows on Feb. 10: "Show Love," an exhibition of
recent work by regional artists; and "Urban: Jungle Love and
Femo-Technology," a show exploring the roles of artists as citizens
through the themes of women, African-Americans, technology and
alienation. Later this month, an exhibition called "Sound Art" will
open and, in March, the gallery will host its fourth annual video
Geyer says that the bridge built
from 4731 to 555 is one step in re-building the urban fabric of
neighborhoods like Woodbridge — and other neighborhoods across Detroit.
But that doesn't mean he's just another dreamer with his head in the
"Look, we need to bring people together and build
partnerships," Geyer says. "It's not easy, but it works. We see it
working. When something is successful, it breeds more success. We have
the catalyst in 4731, and we have the energy. If I have to buy another
building for another group of artists, I will. We just need to keep it
all moving forward."
4731 Studio BuildingRic Geyer4731 Gallery555 artist Carl Goines555 artist Monte Martinez
All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger