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 attention.

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.

From 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.
But 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

Geyer's 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."

Geyer 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.

On recent 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, models, everybody."

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.

 Some 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 festival.
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 sky, either.

"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 Building

Ric Geyer

4731 Gallery

555 artist Carl Goines

555 artist Monte Martinez

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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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