RapidBlog: Reflections on the DAAC, by Emma Heemskerk

Nearly ten years ago, Tommy Allen, lifestyle editor at Rapid Growth, was writing for another publication in Grand Rapids and covered the opening of a new space, the Division Avenue Arts Collective (DAAC). The DAAC was the third arts-focused business attempting to make a go of it in the former Elite Restaurant space on Division Avenue. For this interview, he spoke to one of the founders of the collective, Emma Heemskerk in 2003.
Upon hearing of The DAAC’s rapid eviction from their space in the heart of the Avenue for the Arts, Allen wrote to Heemskerk -- who had just completed her Masters in Urban Planning and Policy, Community Development, from University of Illinois at Chicago -- to ask a few questions for his editorial. What he received instead was a personal reflection on The DAAC's history and contributions as well as a cautionary reminder of why a growing city needs to be aware of the diverse voices that bring vibrancy to our city.
The DAAC has had immeasurable impact on the lives of many (mostly) young people on an individual level -- to empower them to make a difference in their city, to participate, to take ownership, to create something from nothing. And since its beginning, I have always felt that The DAAC had grown to take on a life of its own. The DAAC -- the word, itself -- became a neighborhood force, a name we mulled over in our initial apartment meetings on Wealthy Street in Eastown, a name I -- now a Chicago resident for six years -- hear people who I do not know mention in conversation. Little did we know The DAAC would be so fulfilling for so many -- a force for relationships, creativity, new connections and experiences -- and it would do so while never fitting into a neat and tidy organizational box. We were driven to be radically democratic, collectively organized, volunteer-run, and innovative.
What the idea for The DAAC initially grew out of was an interest in growing and supporting the independent music scene. I remember our very first meeting as I tagged along with Ben Schaafsma as he joined Kevin Nunn (Mulligan's), Jeff Vandenberg (The Meanwhile, The Pyramid Scheme), George Wietor (Issue Press, The Rapidian, G-Rad), and others at East Hill's Pickwick Bar in early 2003. The talk was mainly about starting a music venue (Schaafsma had previously booked shows at the Pop Café, which had recently closed, like many of the independent music venues, before its time). Then, that grew into a desire to create a space for community -- an open, public space.
As the idea of a space became more of a reality, art in various forms other than music became part of our already wide vision. At the time, friends of ours were running an arts space at 115 S. Division Ave. called Swim that sadly closed, but conveniently for The DAAC, it was around this time that our ideas were becoming solidified, at which point Ben signed the lease. He just went for it. I wondered where we would get the money from for rent, but we all just made it work together. Every month we shoe-string-budgeted, but it didn’t matter because that was not what the whole thing was about. It wasn't about making money.
Beyond the individual level, The DAAC has served as a stopover for independent musicians and artists from around the nation, creating connections with local artists and musicians and young people, and introducing many to this place called Grand Rapids -- the place where I grew up. It has served as a safe space for alternative ideas and education, and as a catalyst for community building on Division Avenue, weathering the transition from what was considered a 'bad' area, to a street shut down and construction, to the advent of The Avenue for the Arts. It has served as a stable force and advocate in the neighborhood, even when unpredictable financially.
For many visitors, what ended up coming out of The DAAC was a lot of really unique shows that folks would never be able to see in Grand Rapids otherwise. Small, no frills, intimate shows from bands, many of which went on to become very well-known. There is something about seeing art and music live -- and supporting it by being there, even if you do not necessarily care for the band or the artist -- that is invigorating and unpredictable. There is the same quality about organizing collectively. You never know what will come of those experiences. That is where connections happen and relationships form.
Unfortunately, oftentimes alongside community building in a neighborhood, comes gentrification.
Having recently taken a course on gentrification as part of my studies, I know that the often misunderstood idea of gentrification occurs in part as a result of the tear down and build up cycle of the market and the commodification of space, particularly in areas with good architecture or housing stock and occupants who have little political power.
Local actors market the desirability of an area, encouraging consumption, and in turn, driving up the price of real estate and forcing long-time community members out and sterilizing culture. While some people may believe that gentrification benefits a neighborhood economically, the biggest problem with gentrification is displacement -- because it disrupts the community fabric.
We didn't (or at least I didn't) understand or fully comprehend at the time that The DAAC was so much bigger than us in the sense that what we were doing was not only creating community, but it was subverting mainstream consumerist values, even if we didn't intend it to.
I know now that the ideas we were acting on are similar to the idea coined by Henri Lefebvre known as "The Right to the City." (Henri Lefebvre,  Writings on Cities, p. 158) His contemporary, David Harvey, writes:
"The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights." (David Harvey (2008). "The Right to the City"New Left Review 53. pp. 23–40.)
The DAAC represents the type of innovative institution that so many cities are striving for in this economic downturn, particularly in Michigan, because of its community impact, dedication to place, and economic multiplier effects. 
Chicago's 2012 Cultural Plan calls for "Do-it-yourself  (DIY) galleries launched and operated by artists," "long-term leases to encourage artists and organizations to remain in cultural districts as they grow and gentrify," and "revise[d] zoning, building code and license regulations to encourage artist live/work/retail/co-working/incubator spaces." (City of Chicago Cultural Plan 2012. October 2012. p.17)
These are just a few of the forward thinking changes that would have helped The DAAC continue building community in The Avenue of the Arts and for which Ben Schaafsma advocated in Sunday Soup, a food-based artist micro-granting project (now replicated at over 90 sites internationally), and explored in his many endeavors concerned with supporting artists.
When I heard that The DAAC was being displaced last week, I felt mixed emotions. It has meant so much to me and many others' lives. It signaled the realities of gentrification's disruptive impact as well as a great 10-year milestone. Whether The DAAC is on Division Avenue or elsewhere, the important thing is to keep subverting through positive collective organizing, to keep exercising our right to the city, supporting artists, taking action, and choosing community over commodity.

Disclaimer: RapidBlogs are lightly edited and honor the stylistic decisions of the writer. Views and opinions expressed in RapidBlogs do not necessarily reflect the views of Rapid Growth Media or its staff. 
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