Hanging in Midtown: Power of flowers goes vertical at Forest Arms rehab

The approach is spectacular. A short walk from Cass Avenue via leafy Prentis St. to Second Avenue reveals details in slow motion of an early-20th century masterpiece. Sometimes even the most catastrophic events happen for a reason, and this could be one of them. The Forest Arms, which burned in early 2008, claiming one life, displacing residents and businesses (including Amsterdam Espresso and Peoples Records -- the latter relocated to 3161 Woodward Avenue) and devastating the Midtown neighborhood on the south end of Wayne State University, now literally crawls with the colors of regeneration: greens, reds, cool purples and hot pinks.

The new life greets you instantly upon entering an open courtyard, where a Detroit party is breaking out. There's beer, wine, finger food and an acoustic guitar virtuoso sweating out tunes in the early evening heat. There is cause to celebrate. The Forest Arms rehab is progressing quite nicely. The newly-cleaned red and white brick facade shows off impressive design features that give it the regal look of an urban castle. Sculptural neo-goth angels hang out on the arched entrance; an ornamental crest four floors directly above invites your eyes to explore the rooftop. When you do, you see people hanging out up there, above the hanging vertical gardens. Someone is addressing the crowd with a beer and a bullhorn. We hear the call and make our move upward.

A quick scoot up to the top -- using a wide stairwell under reconstruction -- reveals even more extraordinary views in every direction. To the southwest, the Michigan Central Station and Ambassador Bridge; directly south, downtown skyscrapers gleam in the dusk; to the east, the Medical Center looks as if it can be grabbed with your hand; and to the north, the buildings on the WSU campus and in New Center also look within easy reach. Underfoot, the roof is new. It's a beautiful thing, taking in the sprawling Detroit panorama while being naturally high. Let's clarify that: one half of a beer was consumed, courtesy of Traffic Jam & Snug.

That's most appropriate, considering that it is Scott Lowell and Carolyn Howard of Traffic Jam that bought the 105-year-old Forest Arms last year and are behind its rehab. The couple has already redeveloped Midtown properties the Blackstone, the Aronda and the Beethoven apartments. Completion of this project is expected in late 2011 or 2012. This continuing story would be good enough if it were only about them.

But the exciting part of the Detroit future narrative is about collaborative and auxiliary projects. Somebody takes a bold step, others jump in with some expert help, neighborhood and community groups get involved. Then, along the way, we throw a few parties and enjoy the fruits of the labor. It's all more than good.

This party -- and, more importantly, the hanging garden -- was the work of Team Detroit, an amalgam of creative problem solvers, advertising, marketing and communications innovators. The idea for the Forest Arms redo was hatched by TD Creative Director Toby Barlow and is administrated by Ryan Schirmang, a Chicago transplant. He wasn't entirely unfamiliar with the area. Schirmang went to the University of Michigan, where he met Phillip Cooley, former fashion model, Slow's Bar-BQ co-owner and Corktown and Midtown developer. Cooley helped out at Forest Arms by lending the team a crane-like machine used to hang flowers, each bunch coming with its own hydrating bag. The last time we saw him, Cooley was playing cornhole in the courtyard, humbly declining to take credit for his work. "I just hung a few flowers," he says.

Schirmang says the idea behind the project was not merely to beautify the building during its rehabilitation but to "capture the spirit of growth that we're all part of in Detroit. There is a momentum here, lots of people with energy doing great things, and we wanted to keep it going."

With the help of 75 volunteers, and important partnerships with the Greening of Detroit and the University Cultural Center Association, flowers were installed in May. They have been maintained all summer by green thumbed members of the UCCA. The flowers will be removed in late September or early October. Similar projects are in the planning stage for next spring, Schirmang says.

"We don't have any building picked out, but we want to do it again," he says. "Whatever we do, it has to capture the soul of the city. Detroit is wide open with possibilities and we just want to be a part of making good things happen."

Walter Wasacz is FilterD editor and loves the regenerative power of flowers.

All photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography
Contact Marvin here


Hanging flowers bring back to life the Forest Arms

From the rooftop of the Forest Arms

The party moves upward

Food by Brother Natures Produce

Reflecting the Forest Arms

Courtyard Living Room

Hanging Gardens from inside the Forest Arms  

Read more articles by Walter Wasacz.

Walter Wasacz is a writer and the former managing editor of Model D. You can find more of his writings here.
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