By MJ Galbraith
November 10, 2014
Art doesn't follow development, says George N'Namdi. Development follows art. And he should know. In addition to running his N'Namdi Center for Contemporary Art
, George N'Namdi has been steadily acquiring property along Grand River Avenue with plans to develop the city's first art gallery district, scheduled to begin rolling out in spring 2015. He's involved in other place-making projects, too, including one on the edge of Brightmoor. Another at 6 Mile Road and Livernois Avenue is also in the works.
N'Namdi first began investing in Detroit in 1978, when he and his wife opened the Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse of Detroit as a way of honoring their daughter, who died in 1974. The school has been open since. Around that time, he also purchased a 40-unit apartment building in Midtown. Of course, it wasn't called Midtown back then; it was the Cass Corridor. N'Namdi says he thought then that the Cass Corridor could become Detroit's version of Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood.
Rather than purchase more buildings and follow a career in development, N'Namdi chose art. He opened his gallery—then called Jazzonia—in 1981 in Harmonie Park. A few years later, he moved to the David Whitney Building, changing the name of his business to the G. R. N'Namdi Gallery. In 1988, N'Namdi left Detroit for suburban Birmingham, where he would spend the next 13 years. But by the mid-1990s, N'Namdi began to eye a return to Detroit. After several years of searching for the right building, N'Namdi purchased 52 E. Forest Ave. in 2001, where the G. R. N'Namdi Gallery and the N'Namdi Center for Contemporary Art have been ever since.
“People told us we were nuts for moving back and I told them that no, this is going to be it,” says N'Namdi. “You gotta understand, Midtown did not look like this. We were part of the catalyst that put Midtown in high gear.”
With his move back to Detroit, N'Namdi says he got into the creative place-making field without even realizing it. Soon, N'Namdi watched other art institutions like the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) and the 71 Garfield artists' live/work space open nearby. The Sugar Hill Arts District was later defined. Since then, overall development has rapidly increased in Midtown—as he says, development follows art.
Proud as he is of what's been accomplished with his gallery and arts center, N'Namdi is concerned that the rapid development seen in parts of the city like Midtown is erasing a significant part of the Detroit's soul. N'Namdi sees blocks that are losing their funky edges, becoming more similar to the suburban downtowns of Birmingham and Royal Oak than anything. He also sees fewer and fewer African American business and property owners in the greater downtown area, which is troubling. Diversity is what makes major cities work, he says.
“We need something where you really feel diversity in ownership, in property ownership and business ownership. I think we need to have that to keep Detroit on track. Let's not lose everything. Because you'll end up with a bigger schism between the greater downtown and the communities. And you don't want to have that because you'll have created your own 8 Mile within the city,” says N'Namdi. “So how can we be more inclusive to where people feel like they can take advantage of everything happening in greater downtown?”
In creating the West End Gallery District, N'Namdi answers his own question. Centered around the intersection of Grand River Avenue and Rosa Parks Boulevard, N'Namdi has purchased six buildings and seven parcels of land and is looking to buy three or four more buildings. He's creating a district of art galleries, retail, and restaurants. Rotating pop-up businesses will be featured. A school for artists will offer courses on the business side of the industry, enabling people to make a living in the art world.
While developing West End, N'Namdi is going to be sure to not sand off the rough edges. He wants to keep it funky, he says, and a place where everyone feels welcome. He hopes it will act as a sort of gateway, a place where people can meet in the middle and relate to one another. Where art and development meet, so too will neighbors.
“We have to be very conscious and purposeful in our making a holistic and diverse community,” says N'Namdi. “And that's why I think Grand River is so important because it will allow for that to happen, not only in the planning but in business ownership and support. It's important to have that.”
All photos by Doug Coombe.