Free Press article on artists at Whitdel apartment building

November 14th, 2008
The Whitdel apartment building in southwest Detroit

Renovate, add artists and  create energy

by JEFF GERRITT, Detroit Free Press
November 14, 2008


Put creative people on blighted blocks and good things start to happen. In post-Katrina New Orleans, for example, young artists are leading a cultural uprising. The KK Projects in the long-neglected St. Roch neighborhood have turned dilapidated houses into contemporary art installations.

No disrespect to the Big Easy, but no place has more creative juice than the D. Southwest Housing Solutions Corp., a nonprofit that has developed 400 units of affordable housing, is building on that energy at one its southwest Detroit projects.

And good things are happening at 1250 Hubbard. The newly renovated Whitdel apartment building, with an art gallery and ceramic studio, has become a national model for developing affordable housing and attracting the creative class. The 31-unit property opened in January and now has only five vacancies. Circled by wrought iron railing, it includes an outdoor courtyard, expansive lobby with ornate plaster and a foyer of copper-colored Pewabic tile.

The building’s fall and rise is a familiar story in this blue-collar city. When the Whitdel apartments opened in the 1920s, they provided housing for workers who rode the trolley to the Rouge factories. But the four-story brick building deteriorated as Detroit hemorrhaged population and jobs, becoming a run-down hot spot for drug sales and prostitution. It sat vacant after the Wayne County Nuisance Abatement Program shut it down four years ago.

In 2006, Southwest Solutions bought the building for $450,000 and financed $5.7 million in renovations. Nonprofit housing developers bankroll their projects by selling low-income, historic and brownfield tax credits to private investors, including banks and pension funds. The federal and state tax credits enable developers to keep mortgage debt, and rents, low. At the Whitdel, sliding-scale rents for one-, two- and three-bedroom units go from $315 to $670 a month — little more than half what they would cost with conventional financing.

After buying the Whitdel, Southwest Solutions asked the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit to help restore the building. The exchange led to a partnership. CAID now uses the 1,500-square- foot Ladybug Gallery in the basement for exhibitions, including video art, sculpture, paintings and drawings. A ceramic studio will provide art education and workshops to neighborhood children and other residents.

CAID also makes tenant referrals. Whitdel is open to anyone with an income of no more than 60% of the area median, or $29,300 for a single person. But Southwest Solutions seeks painters, musicians, writers, sculptors and other artists. They now occupy 10 of the units and make the place special.

When I first walked into the lobby last month, tenant Gerald Butler, a 53-year-old flutist, was playing “Amazing Grace.” He played it from the heart. For the first time in his adult life, he has a real home.

Butler feels blessed but, after a lifetime of letdowns, accepting the good can be as hard as facing the bad. The one-bedroom apartment he moved into a month earlier was still practically empty. Most of his stuff sat in a shelter and he was almost afraid to move it. After decades of living on the streets and in homeless shelters and relatives’ basements, Butler still couldn’t believe his new life would last.

“You’re almost afraid to hope,” he told me. “I can’t believe that last February I was on the street, freezing.”

Butler, who has battled alcoholism and mental illness, learned to value his life and take responsibility for it. He works as a street outreach and peer support specialist and also as a musician in his five-piece Recovery Band. He has played around the state, including performances at the Gem Theatre and Detroit Yacht Club. Clean for 13 years, Butler now earns enough to make the $455-a-month rent.

Another tenant, Christina Perez, 23, grew up in southwest Detroit and graduated from the University of Michigan last spring with a degree in English and creative writing. She works as a benefits coordinator but has also written three books of poetry, applied to graduate school and taught poetry at Western High School. Perez enjoys staying in a spot where artists mingle and mix.

That creative vibe should spark residential, entertainment and retail development around the Hubbard Street neighborhood, as have dozens of art-space housing projects in cities nationwide. The southwest Detroit neighborhood, with a few vacant townhouses amid tidy homes, already has a comeback feel.

Southwest Detroit has more artists than any part of the city. It’s no coincidence that it’s also doing better. Whitdel should continue that progress — block by block, corner by corner. Turning a dying building into affordable housing and a gallery has given artists on the front lines of urban redevelopment another foothold in southwest Detroit.

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