Stateside: Lansing neighborhoods bringing life back with art

Sep 13, 2012

REO Town's past

Ryan Wert is a young entrepreneur who’s been living in REO Town for the past 8 years. REO Town is a neighborhood on Lansing’s south side that used to be home to the R-E-O Motor Company. This was a vibrant working class neighborhood, but now the main street is pretty vacant except for a few new office buildings.

"We've been robbed twice, three times within the first couple years we lived here," Wert says.

“When we first moved here there was one couple that we sort of got along with but otherwise sort of kept our heads down and then we sort of kept our heads down otherwise,” Wert says he didn’t think the neighborhood was dangerous but added.  “It was uncomfortable. We’ve been robbed twice, three times within the first couple years we lived here.”

But Wert didn’t give up on the neighborhood after that. He owns two houses in REO Town. One is his own, the other he bought for $8,000. He turned it into a recording studio where he works with local bands like the Verve Pipe.

Art Attack

Wert is part of a team that’s been trying to revitalize the area through art. He recently put on an event in REO Town called “Art Attack.”

Here you can listen to live music from local bands, scan through art vendors and watch local artists work on a public art competition. The task for the competition is to take a pile of junk taken from a condemned house in the neighborhood and turn those materials into art within an afternoon.

Some artists were welding old metal to spell out the words REO Town. Others were using old doors or metal ceiling tiles as canvases to paint on. Wert says this event symbolizes what’s happening in the neighborhood.

"We are pulling things out of REO Town that is sort of trash and making it into something new that's art. We sort of see it as a lot of what hopefully will happen in this area moving forward."

“So the idea is we are pulling things out of REO Town that is sort of trash and making it into something new that’s art. We sort of see it as a lot of what hopefully will happen in this area moving forward. There’s a lot of cool run-down buildings but a lot of people are coming in with big ideas for them,” Wert says.

Graffiti culture

One artist featured at REO Town’s “Art Attack” is Sam deBourbon. He’s been bringing character to the neighborhood with his graffiti.

“A couple years ago and friend and I got caught over in East Lansing painting under a bridge that later got demolished,” deBourbon says.

And deBourbon got in trouble. He was charged with vandalism and had to do 40 hours of community service in order to clear his record. Ironically, his community service project was to cover an old motel with graffiti. The motel was set for demolition in REO down. It was an eye sore that attracted crime and prostitution.

“For my entire life I never saw it as that nice motel. It was always kind of like, ‘Whew, that’s a crack motel,’” deBourbon says.

The project got a lot of attention and helped kick off the renewal of REO Town. Now property where the motel once stood is used for events like “Art Attack.”

Old Town: The leader in art revitalization

And this idea has worked before. Less than two miles away from REO Town is a neighborhood just north of the capital called Old Town. There, the streets are filled with refurbished historical buildings, café’s and boutique shops. It’s home to a handful of music festivals every year. Terry Terry lives here. He was part of the movement to change Old Town back in the 80s.

“I’m continually amazed, but it used to be a ghost town when I moved in,” Terry says. “Things were quiet, buildings were boarded up.”

Terry and a group of artists opened up galleries in Old Town. They used the galleries to bring people together and have conversations about how to change the community.

And it’s been successful. Old Town has been awarded at the national level for the changes it’s made. It went from a 90 percent vacancy rate to a 10 percent vacancy rate over the past 30 years.

Terry says he likes seeing what REO Town is doing. And he says, it might not take REO Town the three decades it took Old Town to become the neighborhood it wants to be.

“Because Old Town set an example of the rest of the city,” Terry says. “When I moved in here people thought I was crazy. It took a lot of effort to get the city and others to help what we were doing.”

REO Town's future

And it looks like REO Town is already getting a lot of outside support. Construction is underway to make the streets more walkable and bikeable. And businesses like the Board of Water and Light and GM are bringing in around 800 employees. With a new look and more people to help renew REO Town, there’s talk that restaurants and a brewery could soon set up shop in a vacant building in the neighborhood.

"REO town is becoming a neighborhood where people want to live," Wert says. "It has an identity."

But Wert, the fearless urban pioneer who put on “Art Attack” says REO Town “is becoming a neighborhood where people want to live and it has an identity.”

Wert says, once most of the construction projects wrap up in the next year REO Town will start becoming a dramatically different place.

Support for arts and cultural reporting on Michigan Radio comes in part from a grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts.