The Lost Art of Transformation

For most suburban kids, exploring Detroit wasn’t exactly encouraged. Whether your parents sold you on its bad reputation, or the city just never gave you a good reason to visit, the skyline was always just looming (safely) in the distance.

But for local artist and Avalon anthropomorphic sign-painter extraordinaire Gabby Buckay, Detroit had plenty to offer.

“I have hazy memories of things that have a nostalgic appeal now. I remember going to the original Hudson's when it was on Woodward… I remember going to Santa Land and being absolutely terrified... I remember going to Eastern Market… Then when I was a teenager and we got our licenses, my friends and I would drive past the Heidelberg Project or go to the D.I.A., thinking we were very cosmopolitan. I just remember it felt special because we were seeing things a lot of people in our high school weren't, and it was fun to be able to explore something that was a little bit taboo.”

Those experiences galvanized Gabby’s reverence for Detroit early on, and ultimately inspired her to move to 1217 Griswold in Capitol Park. The building was a cornerstone of the Detroit creative community, rising to cult-fame for its critical role in the birth of Detroit techno music and as a live-workspace for countless artists over decades.

“I still have a nostalgic feeling for it, but that building was a total shit hole. The previous landlord had done virtually no maintenance, so it was completely doomed.”

She lived there happily for 16 years, until developers purchased the building in 2014 and evicted Gabby and her fellow residents. Turns out Capitol Park was slated to become the center of a new arts district, complete with modern galleries, luxury apartments and retail.

The evictions made headlines and thrust both the developers and tenants into a gentrification debate that was growing particularly heated at the time.

Developers defended the decision, citing the fire marshal’s assessment that the building was unfit for occupancy and that the change would give the artists and musicians at 1217 Griswold a new and better platform to present their work.

The tenants argued they were losing not only their homes, but also their work spaces and doubted they would be able to afford what was sure to be significantly increased rent. Above all though, they were simply upset and confused by the inherent irony in giving artists the boot to make room for an arts district.

In the end, Goliath won and the glory days of 1217 became mere memories for those who called it home. And though the evictions were a serious blow, Gabby was more concerned with the larger implications of Capitol Park’s transformation.

“It was cool they bought it, but the way they handled the evictions and the plans they had for 1217 and the rest of Capitol Park was kind of depressing. Like, of course it's going to be remodeled into expensive lofts. It's disappointing, but it seems like downtown is going to become one giant homogenous blob. It would have been cool to do something unique with it instead. I mean, why not build things that aren’t just novelties, but truly contribute to infrastructure and support the backbone of a community?”

At the same time, she understands the realities facing Detroit: It needs critical mass and tax revenue. It needs functioning buildings and businesses and bodies to fill them. It needs to be safe and welcoming to new-city-dwellers and suburbanites alike — and it sometimes takes shiny new things to make that happen.

“There’s lots of good happening with development. If I run out of turmeric I can go to Whole Foods now. There's like fifty thousand coffee shops downtown now. I used to get coffee at a party store that closed at six. My friends and I didn't have cars, so we had to walk to Greektown if we needed anything after 6pm. So it’s heart-warming to see a lot of things that were in a state of decay being loved and utilized again.”

And despite the nostalgia for what was lost, like any true Detroiter, Gabby accepted the change, adapted and forged ahead.

“I mean it's really easy to be curmudgeonly. It's not just because I love Detroit, but because change is hard in general. It's hard for most people to not be either nostalgic for the way things were, or sort of have that attitude of like, ‘I was here first so I'm more invested in the city. I'm more of a Detroiter.’ But we have to accept that change can be good too — you just have to take what makes you happy from it. I have wonderful friends that have moved here from other states because it's a unique place and they're able to buy a house. And they’re doing wonderful things. They’re bringing fresh ideas and perspective.”

Ideas, perspective and, as important, foot traffic. Gabby puts her artistic talents to work at several independently owned businesses that — despite some misgivings about particular aspects of the city’s development — are thriving as a result of the influx of newcomers.

“It's wonderful that people I work for are succeeding. They've put in so much hard work. They’ve stuck around and had so much faith and perseverance. For many, it was never about the money — it was about the principle of being something for the community to count on. Something the community could see succeed.”

After the eviction, Gabby moved away from the ever-brightening lights of downtown to a neighborhood on the east side.

“As much as I loved living downtown, I moved over to Farnsworth. It's a diverse community of good artists and weirdos — which I say with high praise. A lot of people have lived here their whole lives or for many, many years, and there are people that maybe moved in two years ago, or a week ago. There's urban farmers and the Back Forty Orchard. There's a place on the corner where they have shows — and it's just cool. It’s kind of like living in the prairie. Downtown I lived in a six-flight walk-up and I had a dog, and it was really fun but I didn't realize how hard everything was. This is only the second place I’ve lived in Detroit, so it's nice to have two different perspectives — a neighborhood and also downtown.”

Stories like Gabby’s are not uncommon — the vacant ruins of urban areas will always be ripe for artists hungry to create, and they will almost always fall victim to gentrification when the developers come knocking.

But in Detroit’s case, maybe some good can come of that. Read any interviews with former residents of 1217 and you’ll feel their passion for their work and for Detroit. So, while being uprooted is, in a word, awful, perhaps other artists like Gabby will continue to explore the city beyond the boom. Neighborhoods where there’s still space for creativity and the spirit of 1217 can live on. Where strangers become friends who work together to create a community of their own design — rather than living in one designed for them.

After all, isn’t that what being a Detroiter is all about?

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