By Camille Allen, junior communications associate
On the corner of Mt. Hope and South Cedar Street in Lansing sits a large, abandoned building formerly known as Walter French Academy. For years it’s presence has loomed over the area and has been victim to break-ins, vandalism and deterioration. But things are looking up for this building, as the state of Michigan has donated the property to the Capital Area Housing Partnership (CAHP), an affordable housing corporation serving the greater Lansing area. On Thursday, September 27 they hosted a community event at the site where locals could view the murals and tour the inside of the space.
“This building was donated to us in December of last year,” CAHP Executive Director Mikki Droste said, “and since that period of time we’ve been trying to figure out exactly what we’re going to do with this. We partnered with REO Town Art Attack so we could create these murals and make the building be the art piece that it should be in the interim of all the work that we’re going to do in it in the coming couple of years.”
CAHP’s Assistant Executive Director Rawley VanFossen assured us that their plans will fall in line with the organizations mission of creating affordable housing for residents.
“There will definitely be some component of affordable housing,” he said, “and the big thing today is to draw awareness to the site.”
President of REO Town Commercial Association Jeff Barker explained how REO Town Art Attack got its start by allowing artists to create public art of out materials from demolished property.
“When CAHP came to us about this project we loved the idea and were very happy to partner,” he said. “We are excited to continue our public art installations around the neighborhood and we are really excited about the future development here to include affordable housing and some community space here on the southside.”
As you approach the mural, you see a very fun array of pop culture icons looking back at you. From some of your favorite television personalities like Oprah, Ellen and Dave Chapelle, to the likes of great artists such as David Bowie, Frida Kahlo and Prince, anyone who takes a look at the gallery is bound to spot one of their favorite icons.
“We had like 500 names thrown around,” Joy Baldwin, one of the lead artists, said. “We were trying to make sure there was something for everyone, trying to maintain diversity, trying to make sure gender was equally distributed, it was really hard to narrow down names.”
What makes the mural even more fascinating is that it was a community effort. Children and adults alike came together and assisted the artists in this process. “The best thing about doing projects like this in the community is that it helps create ownership in the project,” Eric Schantz, another lead artist said. “Everybody came together to work to make this, and so for the next couple of years people can drive by and say ‘I worked on that, I’m part of that project.’ It’s a great way to bring life to a community, and redevelopment always follows art. Anywhere you look globally, the artists go in, art goes up, and businesses and everything follows right behind it.”
As tours of the building took place, Lansing residents asked about CAHP’s plans for the spaces that wouldn’t be transformed into apartments, like the old theatre and gymnasium. To that, CAHP does not have concrete plans. They hope to gather more community input to ensure the spaces are of benefit and use to those living in the neighborhood.
There are endless possibilities for the Walter French building, and in the good hands of the Capital Area Housing Partnership, we are confident that the community will benefit greatly from its redevelopment.