In this rapidly-revitalizing Michigan city, a derelict former print shop becomes the home of an arts-based social justice organization

Over the past six years, we’ve had quite a few articles documenting the impressive revitalization efforts of Kalamazoo, Michigan. In many cases, the Kalamazoo County Land Bank—with its visionary Executive Director, Kelly Clarke—was involved.

That’s the case in this story, too. The Kalamazoo County Land Bank was one of the first community organizations to formally adopt the powerful 3Re strategy (repurpose, renew, reconnect) for revitalization as its slogan and modus operandi.

In March of 2021, the Kalamazoo County Land Bank announced that a derelict building that formerly housed a print shop at 10 Mills will become the official home of the Urban Folk Art Exploratory, a grassroots organization that supports arts-based social justice.

According to Kalamazoo Eastside Neighborhood Association Director Pat Taylor, the Urban Folk Art Exploratory will be a welcome addition to Merchants Crossing, a collection of formerly vacant commercial buildings and parcels in the Eastside’s River’s Edge District. Just a five-minute walk from downtown and situated along the Kalamazoo River, the site was originally home to the Merchants Publishing Business and has housed numerous other businesses over the years.

It is so good to see so many positive developments happening on the Eastside! And not just for our Eastsiders, but for our entire community,” said Taylor.

The Land Bank acquired these properties through foreclosure several years ago and partnered with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, who completed a limited environmental effort at the site and associated with surrounding parcels.

Founded in 2005 by executive director Remi Harrington (shown here, and in the feature photo), the Urban Folk Art Exploratory uses hip hop, agriculture, and various arts and design media to address issues of inequity in the community. With experience in advocacy, nonprofit and human services, she’s also the former Community Farms Coordinator at the Kalamazoo Valley Community College Food Innovation Center and veteran dance teaching artist.

What’s more, Harrington is the organizer, administrator and cofounder of Zoo City Farm and Food Network, a network of minority-run cottage food businesses, urban farmers, and folk artists that sells at the Bank Street Farmers’ Market, among other sites. Harrington also founded the Edison community garden, Tegan’s Storybook Garden, about which she wrote a children’s book.

Set to open its doors in summer, 2021, the Urban Folk Art Exploratory’s mission is to provide a voice to the Hip Hop community to activate social change through the arts. The Urban Folk Art Exploratory promotes the use of Urban Interventionism and Human Centered Design principles to support economic vitality, environmental sustainability, and cultural preservation of neighborhoods and communities.

We are using a human-centered design lens to attack some of the social problems that are pervasive in our community like blight, homelessness, and workforce development,” said Harrington.

The building on Mills will house a Community Design Center, a creative coworking space, an art gallery, an art shop, and serve as the headquarters for West Michigan Center of Urban Interventionism.

As an organization, we are focused on how the built environment and the public space can be utilized to have social impact,” added Harrington. “This type of design stimulates a lot of involvement from the community.

Examples of design-oriented, social justice work includes street art, temporary building structures used for housing, and urban agriculture. “We support using art and design to mitigate social problems,” Harrington explained. “We also provide a voice to the hip hop community to activate social change through the arts.

Harrington has worked with the Land bank for several years, initially as a renter of a vacant lot for Tegan’s Community Garden, named after her daughter, through the Adopt-A-Lot program.

The Land Bank has been an amazing partner because they help residents to utilize spaces that have been vacant, abandoned or functionally obsolete to create opportunities for industry in agriculture, art, and design and various aspects of community development. This is especially important for small or underrepresented developers because we have a different relationship with the economy and money systems than most big developers,” said Harrington. “The Land Bank provided me with the opportunity to participate as a small black woman developer and I’m in it to win it.

We have had the privilege of working with Remi for many years,” said Kelly Clarke, Executive Director of the Kalamazoo County Land Bank. “She is creative, energetic and pushing the envelope about how we think about and exists within our current systems. She challenges us to be our best selves and to make systemic change from the heart and with a lens of curiosity and openness to new ways of thinking and relating. We couldn’t be more pleased and honored to have partnered with her on the Urban Folk Art Exploratory.

Excited about this long-held dream coming to fruition, Harrington said the new facility will allow the organization to expand local opportunities to “practice the premise and walk the walk.

On June 5, 2021 from 1 to 7 p.m., Zoo City Farm and Food Network will be holding a membership drive at the Urban Folk Art Exploratory at 10 Mills. The public is invited to attend the event to learn more about both organizations.

In addition to guidance and support from the Land Bank, Harrington said she is also grateful to Intersect Studio, the Miller-Davis Company, the County Brownfield Board and Rachel Grover, Envirologic Technologies, Inc., O’Boyle, Cowell, Blalock & Associates, Inc, and the organizations’ funding partners, which include the Kalamazoo Community Foundation and the Stryker Johnston Foundation.

All photos courtesy of the Kalamazoo County Land Bank.

See the Urban Folk Art Exploratory website.

See the Zoo City Farm and Food Network website.

You must be logged in to post a comment