Instant gentrification: Detroiters bristle over Galapagos’s plan for art empire

Big plans: Galapagos director Robert Elmes has his work cut out for him after buying nine buildings in Detroit and neighboring Highland Park to create an arts destination that he predicts will replace Brooklyn one day.
for The Brooklyn Paper
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DETROIT — Former Dumbo arts space Galapagos is barging into the Detroit area like it owns the place and could foster the same kind of gentrification it fled in Brooklyn, according to Motor City artists who are leery of the recent transplant.

Galapagos decamped in December, citing rent increases from landlord Two Trees, which had offered it discounted rates since it moved from Williamsburg in 2008. Now it is planning a veritable arts archipelago, most of it in a small city surrounded by Detroit called Highland Park. The team has bought up nine buildings, including eight adjacent ones in Highland Park, several of which formerly comprised a community college, and one in Detroit proper, all for less than $1 million, according to director Robert Elmes. There the new arrivals plan to build galleries, performance spaces, studios, and eventually loft apartments, plus a supersized version of the venue’s signature indoor lake. But locals are highly skeptical, in part because of Elmes’s lofty, New York-centric rhetoric about making Motown a national arts destination, which they say is tone-deaf and overlooks the people already living there.

The founder of an artist group with members in Detroit and New York called Playground Detroit is one such suspicious Michigander.

“There needs to be a deeper look at what his motives are and what he hopes to do here,” said Paulina Petkoski, a Detroit native who spent eight years in Brooklyn pursuing a career in fashion and returned home last July. “I hope that it’s a positive thing for the city of Detroit and for Highland Park.”

Galapagos’s arrival made a splash in Detroit, and Elmes’s statements raised the hackles of creative types who have long toiled in the cash-strapped city, where the murder rate is competitive and officials floated the idea of privatizing water and selling off the art museum’s internationally renowned collection to bring it out of bankruptcy.

“Cultural scenes need three things: time, space, and people,” Elmes told The Brooklyn Courier in December, his opinion of the cultural aptitude of Detroit’s 713,000 residents apparently not registering very high. “In Detroit there’s time and space. And the people are coming.”

Galapagos’s arrival sent one Detroit designer into a rage, prompting him to bang out an angry blog post blasting Elmes’s depiction of Detroit, saying the move drew attention away from a struggling Highland Park arts center, and griping that Elmes should hire designers from Detroit, not New York.

“F--- you. Seriously, go f--- yourselves,” Dylan Box wrote. “If you can give me a good reason to believe that you remember what it’s like to be an artist and not just a wealthy venue owner, I’ll apologize, but until then, you can piss off.”

Box did end up apologizing after Elmes read the rant and the two had a two-hour sitdown. The conversation prompted the blogger to declare Elmes truly supportive of artists and deem his depiction of the newcomer as a “dangerous or speculative real estate developer” to be “pretty off base and unfair.”

One Detroit gallery director who lived in New York in the 1990s said the ire directed at Galapagos is understandable, but it is nothing personal.

“I don’t really think the reaction positive or negative really relates so much to Galapagos as to an idea that by moving from Brooklyn to Detroit Galapagos somehow puts its stamp on a Detroit art community that has been a thriving, vital, energetic community for decades,” said Michelle Perron, director of Center Galleries, Kresge Arts at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies. “I think people are feeling turned off by the notion that without Galapagos we wouldn’t be very interesting.”

Elmes, for his part, thinks he has experience living with gentrification that Detroiters can learn from, and that the city and Highland Park are like Williamsburg was 20 years ago when he started Galapagos there.

“I’ll take all my experience from New York City and apply it here,” Elmes said during an hour-long drive around his new Highland Park ’hood. “I think if you rewound New York City to 1990, you’d find Detroit.”

The trick for artists, he said, is to invest in real estate early so that they don’t get priced out when outsiders get wise to the cool environment they have created. Galapagos fled rising rents in Williamsburg in 2007, before leaving Brooklyn entirely.

Box said Detroiters should take heed.

“He’s got a unique perspective on the matter that a lot of Detroit artists — myself included — have missed because we haven’t lived through gentrification of a neighborhood from start to finish,” he said.

Elmes and Galapagos are hardly the first Brooklyn transplants to take up residence in Detroit.

There’s such a constant flow of travelers between the two cities that four years ago Petkoski started a Facebook page to arrange ride-shares between them. The page now has 306 members posting a steady stream of requests for transportation and companionship.

The first phase of Elmes’s plan is set to be done by late summer 2016, in time for the first big art show of what he wants to be a biennial. He is also looking for investors to build the final, residential portion of the complex.

Despite her skepticism, Petkoski said she could be won over.

“Robert is a person with a lot of experience in making a large hub for artists and creatives that Detroit could benefit from,” she said. “It just depends on how it’s executed.”

Updated 10:17 pm, July 9, 2018
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Reasonable discourse

Homey from Crooklyn says:
Hipster Wars.....heh heh
March 18, 2015, 7:25 am
BrooklynArtsy from Park Slope says:
ooh, controversy! What a dumb article. Can you spell f-o-r-m-u-l-a?
March 18, 2015, 8:18 am
freddy from slope says:
Nice that Galapagos pocketed the $1,000,000 to buy into Detroit from running a facility whose rent was too high.

It will take more than that to resurrect the neighborhood they have moved to.

Good luck. I wish them well.

And, Detroit has a looooong way to go before gentrification matters. Call me when they stop tearing down abandoned houses.
March 18, 2015, 8:36 am
jjm from c. hill says:
Its crazy how much of a follower some people are. They hyped up brooklyn & said it was "up and coming". The hipsters & yuppies from middle-of-nowhere america came flocking in, driving up rent prices & displacing longtime residents. Now it looks like it may happen to detroit, unfortunately. So does this mean that all the hips & yups leave bk for detroit? If so then good riddance & dont get robbed in the D by the locals, which is pretty inevitable.
March 18, 2015, 8:37 am
BrooklynGersh from The WT says:
I'm just happy that the Brooklyn Paper showed the guts -- and the expense account -- to fly a top quality reporter to Detroit for an on-the-ground report. I didn't see that from the NY Times!

Haters gonna hate (hate hate hate hate), but the Paper's doing great (great great great great).
March 18, 2015, 9:14 am
Charles from Bklyn says:
No offense to Detroit, but they are lucky and blessed to have this venue move to their city. Detroit, you ain't that cool or in danger of gentrification. Please.
March 18, 2015, 10:01 am
Robert Elmes from Detroit / Highland Park! says:
Well, we love the second half of the article! When we decided to move to Detroit / Highland Park we very consciously chose to join a community that has spent decades and lifetimes building a city. Of the 400 emails we received (mostly from Detroit artists and cultural creators) only one was upset and it was from a New Yorker who thought we could have done more to stay in the city.

Gentrification, especially the evaporative version going on in NYC right now, is really about displacement. Detroit is a city that is experiencing areas of displacement (the Midtown area, for example) and the city has to be aware of the impact that has on communities and work to mitigate it. At the same time Detroit and Highland Park are still loosing overall population and together have tens of thousands of abandoned homes and buildings that in many cases ($100 auctions aside) sell for less than $5,000. We believe that the arts can help stop the slide in population and in our opinion the antidote to gentrification is home ownership. If, through our advocacy in Detroit and Highland Park we can help develop programs that result in home ownership, now, while Detroit and Highland Park are so inexpensive, then residents become stakeholders and balanced economic development takes place.

Dylan Box (mentioned in the article) is an incredible young writer and I recommend that everyone read his work; it’s smart, prescient and on target and it represents the sharp, intelligent thinking that is going on here. It matters who moves to a place and it especially matters what they do when they get there. In Brooklyn we hosted over 700 fundraising events for political action committees, local activist groups, small dance companies and cultural organizations of all stripes. We love our new home and feel lucky to be here.
Robert Elmes
Executive Director, Galapagos Art Space
March 18, 2015, 10:17 am
another Robert from Williamsburg says:
“I think people are feeling turned off by the notion that without Galapagos we wouldn’t be very interesting.” I don't think Mr. Elmes ever said that, or anything like that. I love when people put words in other people's mouths and then denounce them for what they didn't say.

I moved to Williamsburg in the early 80s and have spent a fair amount of time recently in Detroit. No way the Motor City is like Williamsburg in 1990. Heck, even the Brooklyn of the mid-70s was better than Detroit.
March 18, 2015, 11:43 am
freddy from slope says:

Don't forget the $20k weddings. That is why your rent went up.
March 18, 2015, 11:53 am
jjm from c. hill says:
Nobody is saying you cant have art galleries & things of that nature but think of the unintended consequences when things like this are being placed in low-income areas. Thats why there's tension in certain neighborhoods in bk. People are getting fed up with constantly being priced out or getting offered buyouts to move out of the neighborhood they grew up in. You cant just ignore it & act like its not your problem when technically it is in a way.
March 18, 2015, 12:05 pm
WonderWoman from Williamsburg says:
Only the author is bitter and the Brooklyn Paper editors seems asleep at their desks. No quotes in the article support this statement:

"But locals are highly skeptical, in part because of Elmes’s lofty, New York-centric rhetoric about making Motown a national arts destination, which they say is tone-deaf and overlooks the people already living there."

In fact, all the actual quotes in the article support the exact the opposite. What happened to the editors?
March 18, 2015, 1:48 pm
The Chooch from The Bohemian Magic Show says:
March 18, 2015, 2:21 pm
Michigan Transplant from Bushwick says:
The skeptics giving the cold shoulder to this guy are the same people that were given the cold shoulder when they decided to move to the Detroit area in the last 5 years. These "Detroiters" need to look in the mirror and understand this is the change they need.
March 18, 2015, 2:29 pm
Mike from Metro Detroit says:
A venue like this in highland park is great for the city and the surrounding community. The buildings have been vacant for years and this brings back life to them. This is an exciting time in Detroit and I'm happy to see how Galapagos Detroit will unfold for our emerging artists.
March 25, 2015, 8:48 pm

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