Russell Industrial Center/People’s Arts Festival/J. Paul Ghetto/Progress

 

Budweiser does its part of the People's Arts Festival at Russell Industrial Center.

Budweiser does its part of the People's Arts Festival at Russell Industrial Center.

 

On Saturday, I attended the third annual People’s Arts Festival, a massive exhibition for Detroit-area artists that that takes place in the Russell Industrial Center, a massive former factory space that is now primarily home to artists of various kinds.

 

Studio space at Russell.

Studio space at Russell.

 

 

There is something unmistakably tonic in the feeling of listening to techno and electro, music that excites dreaming about the future, in a setting like Russell, which by its nature inspires reflection on the past.

Booth of Detroit Manufacturing, a T-shirt concern, at the People's Arts Festival.

Booth of Detroit Manufacturing, a T-shirt concern, at the People's Arts Festival.

Folks wandering around Russell Industrial Center during the People's Arts Festival.

Folks wandering around Russell Industrial Center during the People's Arts Festival.

This was different than the typical abandoned-factory-rave experience, though, just because the Russell has never really been abandoned.  Last week, I got a tour of Russell Industrial Center from Eric C. Novack, the Operations Coordinator for the site, and a writer who I got to know a few years ago from his submissions to Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood.

At the time, I was managing editor of the Neighborhood, a site which concerns itself above all with the experience of living in and writing about New York.  Just to spice things up, I added a section called “Detroit, Capital of the 20th Century” and put out ads in Detroit-area website to solicit pieces from writers there.  My thought was that Detroit and New York embody the opposite poles of the spectrum of possibilities available to a postindustrial U.S. city, and I thought it would be interesting to see how stories by New Yorkers and Detroiters, primarily about the cities that they live in, would be similar and different.

Russell Industrial Center has a complicated history, having hosted auto body suppliers, direct-mail advertisers, and many other different types of businesses since its construction (from Albert Kahn’s design) was completed in 1925.  Today, the owner of Russell Industrial Center is Dennis Kefallinos, also the owner of the restaurant chain Nicki’s Pizza, as well as a wide variety of other properties.  

Eric says that when Kefallinos first bought Russell in 2003, the vast, 2.2 million square-foot property was barely populated.  At that time, “

there were 10 artists and 30 businesses” in Russell, Eric says.

 

 

 

 

 

Today, Russell has 160 commercial tenants, of whom 90% are artists.  

 

 

 

 

 

Eric says that Kefallinos was able to fill large portions of Russell just by offering artists 1000 square feet for the low rent of $560/month.  By 2006, they had filled enough of the spaces to be able to turn a profit, which Kefallinos will still be able to do for a significant portion of time because so much of the space is still empty.

 

 

 

 

 

“Of 2.2 million square feet, only 750,000 is in use,” Eric says.  “We could keep doing this for a long, long time before we see rent increases.”

An Iggy Pop poster by Mark Arminski.

An Iggy Pop poster by Mark Arminski.

I spoke to Mark Arminski, a legendary designer of rock posters and longtime Russell tenant (Arminski is one of the subjects of a new documentary, American Artifact: The Rise of American Rocker Poster Art).  He said that Russell has become a success story due to a gradual process of tenant and landlord getting to know one another and the ways that they do things.

“When the Greeks [Kefallinos] first took over they had no idea how artists work,” Arminski said.  They thought they work 9 to 5, so they only gave us heat at those times. But they’re coming around.”

Mark Arminski in his studio at Russell Industrial Center, brandishing a new drawing that he has recently done of Michael Jackson in "Thriller" mode.

Mark Arminski in his studio at Russell Industrial Center, brandishing a new drawing that he has recently done of Michael Jackson in "Thriller" mode.

 

 

When I was at the People’s Art Festival on Saturday, I met with another old friend from my “Detroit, Capital of the 20th Century” days, J. Paul Ghetto (who would prefer that I use his pseudonym).

J. Paul was one of the best Detroit contributors to the Neighborhood back then.  He wrote a series of stories under the rubric of “The Midtown Report” about the single life, the vague rumors that a decent supermarket would open at some point, and working for the state government in Midtown Detroit.  The stories had a coolness to them that made Detroit feel like a really awesome place to be single.

J. Paul Ghetto (right) and me.

J. Paul Ghetto (right) and me.

 

We had dinner at a soul food restaurant in Southfield, a suburb to Detroit’s north, called Beans and Cornbread.

 

 

As with Eric, it was a thrill to finally meet someone who I had corresponded with regularly for a long time.  We talked about a lot of things, over the course of which J. Paul got on his soapbox with a lot of frequency.  J. Paul was raised in the 50’s and 60’s by parents who both worked at Ford, and disciplined J. Paul and his brother extensively.  He said he felt completely out of touch with the younger generation in Detroit, some of whom have been grabbing headlines for their involvement in armed robbery attempts against movie crews and the kidnapping of Matt Landry.

J. Paul said that he had just retired, but that he was not getting much work done on his novel, which is about how a fictional first-African-American President discovers an attempt by terrorists to finance the purchase of weapons of mass destruction using a new, highly addictive drug that they had synthesized.  To prepare for writing the novel, J. Paul has been reading a lot of Ian Fleming.

After we ate dinner, J. Paul dropped me back off at Russell, where I watched a DJ and grooved down.

This brings us back to the beginning of the post: that feeling of past and future, together, that certain combination of sound and space can create.  

 

Around midnight, at the end of a DJ show hosted by Motor City Blog, burlesque dancers performed.

Around midnight, at the end of a DJ show hosted by Motor City Blog, burlesque dancers performed.

 

 

One interesting thing about the set was that it appeared to be a female-dominated affair.  The DJ was a woman, and she had a crew of female friends all dancing in small open space in front of her turntables.  Then, there was a burlesque show of the winking, postmodern “burlesque” variety, that seemed designed to entice and intimidate in equal measure.

I looked around.  It was the end of my last Saturday night in Detroit.  I realized that I had been trying all month to recapture feelings that I had experienced as an adolescent, and that this moment was the closest that I was going to come to achieving that goal.

I felt satisfied, though.  I went home with the feeling that, somehow, progress had been made.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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~ by electrorefutedrobo on August 31, 2009.

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