Art Draws New Life to Old Town
But that group of artists saw beauty in the 19th century architecture that rose along the banks of the northern Grand River. Abandoned warehouses and general stores became studios. Crumbling storefronts became galleries. Lights began to shine and people filled the empty streets.
Today, that same cluster of city blocks boasts one of the highest concentrations of creative–minded businesses in Michigan.
“Art is in the DNA of Old Town,” says Terry Terry, one of the neighborhood’s urban pioneers. “It’s the very root and the soul of what makes us who we are.”
As one of the North Lansing’s earliest group of entrepreneurs and artists, Terry helped reconstruct Old Town into a hub for the city’s creative class. Originally known as the North Lansing Arts Association, the group conducted art events, music festivals and opened galleries on the corner of East Grand River and Turner Street in the early 1980s.
Galleries such as 2 Doors Down and the Otherwise became a magnet for local artists and art supporters and served notice that something was happening in this long-neglected part of town. Encouraged by local reception, the group changed its name to the Old Town Business and Arts Development Association, firmly instilling the name and identity of Old Town in Lansing’s lexicon.
“We used our spaces to facilitate creative conversations on how to make the area better,” Terry says as he reflects on his veteran business MessageMakers. “We drew pictures and did sculptures instead of just talking. We did things to visualize what the area could be.”
In the mid-1990s, Old Town got on the radar of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and was selected as one of six national sites for the Main Street Initiative. In 1997, The Old Town Commercial Association was formed to manage socio-economic redevelopment through the promotion of historic preservation, business recruitment and community outreach.
“We worked hand-in-hand with the government and trusts and associations,” says Terry, who now presides over the Michigan Institute for Contemporary Art (MICA), the area’s sole non-profit gallery. “That’s another reason why we’ve been able to accomplish what we have.”
Today, MICA is among the seven galleries that currently call Old Town home.
“We have an exceptionally strong creative mix in Old Town,” says Louise Gradwohl, executive director of the Old Town Commercial Association. “Lots of Main Street communities have a more generic business mix.”
Gradwohl is quick to point out how a concentration in the arts distinguishes Old Town from the 16 other communities in the Michigan Main Street Program. Turner Street, itself, she says, is like a mini art museum, with nearly all of the area’s galleries located on or near one of Old Town’s most active streets.
Visitors to Old Town will find galleries featuring fine art, pottery, sculpture, photography and jewelry within walking distance of a central parking area. Some venues, too, feature artisanal merchandise that carries local or regional appeal.
Galleries such as the Creole, Katalyst and Gallery 1212 Fine Art Studio typically feature an artist each month, as well as lend spaces for performances and community events. MICA curators Kirby Milton and Jack Bergeron provide opportunities for emerging and contemporary artists with progressive or experimental styles. Cooperatives like Great Lakes Artworks offer venues for artists to create and show art, jewelry and textiles. By the Riverside and the Absolute Gallery feature fine art and merchandise.
All the galleries, Gradwohl says, participate in the First Sunday Gallery Walk, allowing visitors and art enthusiasts to browse and stay engaged with local artists, curators and merchants.
“More than 100 people attend each month,” says Gradwohl. “For some people, this is their first step into Old Town. We’ve been hearing from business owners that they are seeing lots of new faces as a result of these walks as well as from other Old Town festivals and events.”
Gradwohl and Terry agree that art has served as a catalyst for the economic growth and development of the district.
Foot traffic, browsers and customers draw the interest of developers and prospective business owners who see the potential of a community with a vision. Business and community members want to be part of supporting and building a vibrant artistic core. New residents move into condos or lofts and breathe diversity and life into streets that stood vacant for decades.
While continuing to thrive as an artistic and cultural center, Old Town is still working to strengthen its appeal as a total destination. Associations are collaborating to woo restaurants, microbreweries, coffee shops and other nightlife and music venues to hang a shingle in Old Town. Rehab, too, continues on outlying buildings, with a look toward extending the corridor and strengthening the connection with Lansing’s traditional downtown.
“We’re definitely continuing on the uphill growth curve,” says Terry. “When I first moved here, Old Town was a ghost town. Today, Old Town is vibrant. There’s life. You have neighbors. There are plays and music and entertainment. We’ve come far and there is more to come as Lansing grows.”
Old Town Commercial Association
1232 Turner Street
Lansing, Michigan, 48906
Michigan Institute for Contemporary Art
1210 Turner Street
Lansing, Michigan, 48906
Article by Ann M. Kammerer | Photo by Thomas Shaver