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Detroit Will Close Massive Arts Complex, Evicting Over 100 Tenants

The city is shutting down the Russell Industrial Center, a decades-old mainstay of the Detroit art scene, due to violations of local ordinances and safety and building codes.

The Russell Industrial Center in Detroit (photo by Jeff Cancelosi)

Tenants of the Russell Industrial Center awoke to some bad tidings yesterday: eviction notices were delivered to the more than 100 people, many of them artists, who currently work (and in some cases, live) in the massive former auto complex. As laid out in a story by the Detroit Free Press, the evictions presage the closing of the complex, due to multiple violations of city ordinances and safety and building codes, according to Detroit’s Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department (BSEED). The Russell has long been a locus of artistic activity in Detroit, housing dozens of studios, shared work spaces, and galleries, including Cave, as well as an exhibition hall that has hosted the annual erotic art expo The Dirty Show for the last several years.

While the closing of the facility is a major blow for its tenants — offering, as it did, gargantuan studio spaces for low rent — it has serious motivations, particularly in light of the Ghost Ship tragedy in Oakland, California, last year. The evictions “are terrible for all of the tenants, but as a former tenant of seven years, the landlords were also terrible for the tenants,” artist Andrew Thompson told Hyperallergic. Thompson and his longtime studiomates moved their shared work space out of the Russell a few years ago.

Inside the studio of painter Nancy Mitchnick, located in the Russell (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Indeed, the lo-fi conditions at Russell lend it an appealingly scrappy, off-the-grid aesthetic, but have potential real-world consequences.

“They have erected walls using combustible materials, illegally installed plumbing and heating systems in numerous units without the proper permits, inspections and approvals,” said BSEED Director David Bell in a statement regarding the closure. “During a recent inspection, the smell of natural gas from the multiple illegal installations was so strong, DTE had to be immediately called to correct the leak.” The evictions follow a report on WDIV-TV about Russell’s dozens of failed fire inspections.

The Russell is a decades-old mainstay of the Detroit art scene, and thus, in many ways, irreplaceable — it’s an environment rife with at least as many creative connections as safety hazards. Though individual artists should have no problem finding places to rebuild their studios, it’s difficult to imagine something new on the scale of the Russell, which boasts some 150 tenants at a site whose footprint measures over two million square feet. The complex has long hosted quarterly open studios and also housed businesses — in violation of their permits, according to the city — that make it a unique destination for lovers of visual and performance art, start-up entrepreneurs, flea marketers, and the kink community. The loss of working space and a shared community hub is devastating.

Yet, as a former Californian with many friends who lost people in the Ghost Ship fire, I must admit that, on balance, it would not be comparable to the devastation of losing members of the artistic community en masse, were a fire or other catastrophe to strike. Spaces come and go, but the Russell’s unique population of creative minds, downright freaks, and dedicated Detroiters is of lasting value.

A recent exhibition at Cave Gallery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Still, as with most aspects of Detroit’s urban planning, it’s difficult to imagine pure motives behind the eviction. The Russell anchors a nebulous former industrial zone located at the nexus of still-operating train tracks and two major area highways. One imagines there are at least a few developers who would love to convert the space into something higher-end, and the displacement of longtime tenants is, of course, a necessary first step. One must further consider what impact the release of all these artists back into the wild will have on the city’s ecosystem of neighborhoods; essentially, it will create a surge of gentrifiers cut loose and looking for new venues.

“Fundamentally, the Russell was useful because it was cheap,” recent tenant, artist, and Cave member Eli Gold told Hyperallergic. “Anything that brings it up to code is going to put the price in a place where it’s cheaper to move to unregulated buildings in Highland Park.” And as displaced tenants contemplate their options, it must be considered, too, that any ex-industrial complex will likely run into the same structural and safety concerns eventually.

This move, in Gold’s words, “portends the creep of gentrification and the pushing of creatives to the further fringes,” which points precisely to a potential secondary motive: the leveraging of a massive surge of displaced artists to create inroads in new neighborhoods. It requires little imagination to foretell the fate of the current occupants of those neighborhoods, or “fringes”: where artists pioneer, original residents seem to disappear.

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