A closer look: Three ways Avenue of the Arts programming is changing S. Division

Ten years ago, a consultant told Dwelling Place’s Jenn Schaub that there would be a tipping point for that stretch of the South Division corridor affectionately called Avenue for the Arts, a point where the vacant storefronts between Fulton and Wealthy streets would begin to fill up and the redevelopment would only snowball from there. As the Avenue gears up to celebrate its 10th anniversary on Friday night, Schaub says they've finally made it.
10 years ago a consultant told Dwelling Place Neighborhood Revitalization Specialist Jenn Schaub that there would be a tipping point for that stretch of the South Division corridor between Fulton and Wealthy Street, where the vacant storefronts of the affectionately named Avenue for the Arts would begin begin to fill up again and the rest of the redevelopment would snowball from there. 

“I always thought it was so silly because everything that has happened so far for Avenue for the Arts has been so incremental,” says Schaub,  who is also coordinates Avenue for the Arts programming, supported financially by the nonprofit community development corp. Dwelling Place.
“We take a step forward,” Schaub pauses, “And another step forward. It’s a slow but rewarding process.”

It’s been a slow and steady decade of restoring a sense of vitality to the sidewalks of Heartside’s creative community, but Schaub says they’ve finally made it. They’ve reached the tipping point. 

10 new businesses have or will open up shop in an Avenue for the Arts storefront this fall, a mix of retail and gallery spaces that include Villa, Brothers Leather Supply Co., Bold Socks, KNITit, Bultema Group, Bombadil Books, Second Dance Consignment, 377 Project Space, Studio 341, Has Heart, and Woosah Outfitters.

So, as Dwelling Place and Avenue for the Arts get ready for a Nov. 6 open house celebrating the 10th anniversary of neighborhood revitalization programming, Rapid Growth takes a look at three of the (many) ways Avenue for the Arts is changing the face of South Division.
Jenn Schaub

1. Live-work flexibility fosters “incubator” effect
Renovations on South Division aren't all a product of Dwelling Place sponsored commercial spaces, Schaub says, but they’re located on the Avenue for the Arts and their owners are renovating the largely historic building spaces to embrace the same live-work concept. 

“By our count, Dwelling Place has about 40 live-work spaces in total,” Schaub says, and that number doesn’t even include the third-party landlords. Though South Division’s first live-work spaces didn’t start popping up until the mid-2000s, creative spaces are old hat for the corridor.

Leading up to present day, the Avenue has housed organizations like South Division Avenue Arts Collective, 10 Weston, and the regularly occurring Free Radical events, often seeking out ways to utilizing empty storefronts as performance and exhibition space that afforded the same kind of creative freedom contemporary entrepreneurs seek out today.

The collaborative exhibition space Craft House, for example, which opened in 2012 and has since experimented with how they use studio space at 40 S. Division Ave., trying out businesses models that range from providing artist shows to renting out space to artists, hosting pop-up exhibitions in the neighboring live-work space, and sometimes hosting small events.

It’s a low risk way to give members of the creative community a way to explore their full potential not only as artists, but also as entrepreneurs. 

2. Offering young artists a space to engage with creative community
The first Grand Rapids gallery Woosah Outfitter’s Erica Lang became familiar with was Sanctuary Folk Art at 140 S. Division Ave. and the the longtime Avenue for the Arts staple left a pretty deep impression. 

“I remember being super inspired by it and thinking that it made me want to start my own shop on South Division,” says Lang, who launched her brand Woosah Outfitters back in 2012 while attending Kendall College of Art & Design.

She says at the time, she’d just moved to Grand Rapids, and owning her own live-work space in general was still “far away dream.” However, encouragement from the now-neighboring maker shop Parliament Boutique convinced her to get involved with the Avenue programming, and in July Woosah Outfitters opened its flagship store at 131 S. Division Ave. 

She’s still close to Parliament the Boutique owners, whose website describes the trio as “a team of talented and diverse local makers who are joyfully invested in each other’s mutual success,” and is collaborating with one of the makers on leather work for patches and a new line of bags. 

“When I was looking for a space, the Avenue was a familiar community,” Lang says. “I think having neighbors that you’re inspired by and have good relationships with kind of helps you grow together and support each other and network with each other and each other’s customers.”

Relationships like the one Lang and Parliament Boutique owners are essential to growing a diverse small business population along the Avenue, Schaub says, especially among young business owners looking for ways to engage with each other and the art community. 

She says to help facilitate that, Avenue for the Arts’ Learning Lab require collaboration and rely on interns for a lot of the programming and event series, creating accessible opportunities for young people to showcase work long before art school graduations and connects them with other artists and entrepreneurs in the area. 
“It’s a really robust educational opportunity for young emerging artists and entrepreneurs,” Schaub says. “…However Avenue for the Arts programming has touched them, it has [allowed] them to chart their own course while also utilizing programming to help support the journey. The benefits are mutual — the outcome we see from that is surprisingly robust.”

3. Bite-sized community building
In what was essentially a response to community and Advisory Committee concerns, Avenue for the Arts began hosting a new event series called OPEN programming, an experimental program with an intentionally limited attendance cap of 15 people or less. 

“Our events have gotten too large. It’s hard to build a connection with everyone in the room if there’s 50 or 100 people. We want those 15 people that show up to have meaningful engagements with everyone in the room,” says Schaub, who recently hosted a luncheon for 20 different representatives from various new businesses and non-profit organizations along the S. Division corridor.

“With so many new businesses opening from July to September — from gallery spaces to small start-up concepts — we wanted to have a relaxed environment for them to meet each other,” she says. “There can be tension for new businesses moving on to a street with so many social service organizations, or for residents moving into the area who might be unfamiliar with the neighborhood, but as soon as you get them into a space and connect them face-to-face, those unknowns can be resolved.”

The bottom line
There are a lot of other more contextual, market-based reasons Schaub cites for the new sense of vitality on Avenue for the Arts, including a shifting economy and renewed reinvestment in the renovation of historic buildings in urban areas by big developers. There’s also other partnerships with community organizations outside of South Division like Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., who is working with the Avenue to assess street lighting infrastructure and helping with outreach to businesses encouraging investment in new and additional lighting. 

However, there is more to the method behind Avenue for the Arts programming than just a rebounding market. Rooted in nearly every event series and community discussion organized on the Avenue, there’s an idea that has fostered a fundamental shift in the culture there, calling on the community to change the way shop owners, artists, and residents alike do business and collaborate with one another. 

It’s that relationships matter — a lot.

“I think building relationships is what we do best. When we take on tough community conversations, it’s all about connecting individuals together to have a dialogue and bring them into the room,” Schaub says. “By building relationships between business owners, they can help cross-promote other businesses on the street — share the love. They can’t do that if they don’t know each other, and we can eliminate that sense of competition by recognizing the customers coming into the district help everyone.”

Written by Anya Zentmeyer, Development News Editor
Photography by Adam Bird Photographer
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