The creative drive of Grand Rapids is what moves this city. However, as the city moves into an uncertain future, long-time locals worry about the fate of their favorite hot spot, while newcomers are eager to see the next exciting attraction. The conflict between making room for the new while protecting trusted community spaces rages on in this period of growth.
This is especially true in the arts, where businesses and community leaders recognize and wrestle with identifying and supporting that which makes the city unique. Jumping into the time-worn conflict of creative expression vs. capital, two local institutions have partnered up to rebirth their missions, recommitting to a city hungry for growth, as well as history.
Way back in 2003, a small group of community members and creatives met in a bar discussing how difficult it was to host artistic projects independently. As they saw it, there were no spaces for pure expression; the city at the time only offered venues to sell and commodify art. From this conversation came a simple idea: let’s create a truly accessible space, and do it without the pressure to turn a profit.
The Division Avenue Arts Collective (DAAC) was, as George Wietor, one of the many founders and early contributors to the project, says, “always about community, perpetuating the weird, and offering the freedom to create.”
The original DAAC on South Division.
Explicitly anti corporate and non hierarchical from their inception, the DAAC stayed true to this mission. Over 10 years, they built an all-ages arts venue in a humble room on Division, open for the public to rent and do just about anything within reason. For those 10 years, the community finally had a space to be weird, put on an art show, dance, and/or play with their band. Most importantly, they had an opportunity to be truly free in their creativity. No more dodging cops busting up do-it-yourself concerts hosted illegally in somebody’s basement; the underground was fighting for space in the mainstream and legalizing to protect longevity.
Their push for recognition was initially well received and the community embraced the idea. The city cooperated and even bent some rules by dusting off an old dancehall permit, and grandfathering the organization into old land use regulation to help the DAAC continue and remain legitimate. The constantly shifting, less than organized, people behind the project self taught how to keep things above board as they learned the ins and outs of owning and operating what was quickly growing into an important community institution. But despite doing everything in their power to remain sustainable, there were still market forces beyond their control that threatened the long-term viability of the collective.
In 2013, as the DAAC prepared to celebrate its 10-year anniversary, having managed to somehow scrape together rent month after month, a business decision which they had no ability to influence forced them to shut their doors. The building they were renting space in was being sold, and there would be no more room for the DAAC to rent. Capital changed hands behind closed doors and the arts were left without a home.
Without a space and with little money at their disposal, it seemed it would be the end of The DAAC, but there was another market force which hadn’t been fully realized: the power of community, and the social capital The DAAC had earned over a decade of operation. As the overwhelming support for their cause came pouring in after the announcement of their closing, there was a realization that they didn’t need to stop. They could keep pushing for the arts and for the future generations. All they needed was a space.
Charity Klein-Lytle, current board member at the DAAC and co-founder of Girls Rock Grand Rapids, recognized that the support shown for the DAAC was a community demanding something they didn’t have access to. “The DAAC is a manifestation of a community’s need for the space to express itself,” she says. It’s the same desire that inspired the first conversation in 2003 and motivated the DAAC's earliest conception. The community was making it clear what they wanted. All that was left was for the next phase of negotiation between creative impulse and market forces to begin.
Concurrently, as the DAAC struggled to keep their dream alive, another beloved community darling, this one having been a mainstay in its location since 1982, was shutting its doors. Ownership of the Gaia Cafe had decided to move on in 2014, leaving long-time patrons shocked. Business was good, the menu was unique, and the homey atmosphere had over the years built a community of regulars who were deeply saddened to see it go.
However one person, Andrea Bumstead, at that point a manager who had been working at the cafe for nearly seven years, decided it wasn’t right to let such a community institution die. When asked what motivated Andrea to purchase Gaia and keep it alive, she said, “I am not taking on this role for myself. There is a bigger community and they want it.” She purchased the branding rights and business name, and began seeking investors to rebuild in a new location.
The community was certainly behind her. Hundreds of people were able to raise over $30,000 to help Gaia find a new home. However, despite their successful crowdfunding campaign through Kickstarter, Andrea was having difficulty finding a home. Contracts were drafted then abandoned, banks were backing out because of a lack of collateral and the risk inherent to a restaurant, however popular, and it seemed investors weren’t necessarily seeing the value of the social capital Gaia had. Slowly it became clear that an alternate approach was needed.
The parallels between the DAAC's story and that of Gaia Cafe were immediately recognized when Andrea Bumstead and Charity Klien-Lytle met. “When I first met Charity it was like the stars-aligned,” Andrea says. Both Andrea at Gaia and the acting board members at the DAAC were working to keep something they loved about Grand Rapids alive, while struggling against the need for significant capital to occupy space in the community. A change in approach was needed, and soon they realized that by collaborating, going in as partners and purchasing a building themselves, they could both achieve the needed capital investment to maintain longevity and protect the institutions they loved, allowing them to grow as the city does.
They had a common goal, and decided to get creative in their approach as so many Grand Rapidians do, and they combined their efforts.
The building that will be renovated to house the DAAC and Gaia.
Finally, Andrea, Charity, and Lizzie Grathwol, a third partner who will be acting as building manager, were able to find investors attracted by the stability now being offered by their diverse business model. Investors recognized the appeal of having two distinct businesses which could compliment each other, not to mention the additional space for rent in the building which could one day provide a third revenue stream, and it wasn’t long before they had the funding needed to make the purchase.
The Creston Neighborhood welcomed them with open arms too, recognizing the need for such distinct and ‘funky’ attractions in their business district. Then, just this year the Grand Rapids Planning Commission unanimously approved their special land use, and it was finally official: Gaia and The DAAC were back. Two beloved institutions, who through the power of community support were able to resist the pressure of the market and preserve something unique about their home.
The community is certainly eager to see both Gaia Cafe and The DAAC return. Keep an eye out at 1553 Plainfield Ave over the coming months as they continue to build and get involved in the neighborhood. The DAAC in particular has plans for fundraising events in the fall, with details being announced soon.
If interested in getting involved with the volunteer powered DAAC please reach out at: [email protected]