You don't have to be Dan Gilbert to make an impact: A hands-on reminder from atop a ladder
You need people like Dan Gilbert to rebuild a city, up in an office. But you also need people like Garrick Landsberg, up on a ladder.
The ladder was orange and tall, and it was standing alongside a defunct party store about 10 steps east of Indian Village. Landsberg, 45, was on a high rung, holding a tub of paint and a brush.
The store had begun the day in a vivid shade of yellow he called "1970s liquor store chic," as well as "kind of a blight indicator." It's funny but true: there's almost something in the building code that says distressed party stores have to be the approximate color of an airline life jacket.
Striking a blow for urban beautification last week, the ex-Marine was turning the second story of the brick facade on Kercheval Street at Fischer a dignified grayish green, with the bases of the boarded-over bay windows a darker green.
It was the sort of hands-on contribution to the well-being of Detroit that doesn't typically get headlines, awards or significant tax breaks.
What it does do is maybe extend the progress from downtown and Midtown to the places where people lived before the rest of the country decided we were trendy.
Also, it gets paint on your olive drab work pants, your black hoodie and your lightly bearded chin. But as with the cost of the building, it's a small price to pay.
Landsberg has a vision for the former Detroit Express Market, which began its sturdy existence 105 years ago as a candy shop and hardware store. He'll put retailers into what are actually three storefronts, tenants into the three upstairs apartments, and who knows, maybe grow mushrooms in the basement.
More immediately, he wanted to spruce the place up before the annual Historic Indian Village Home & Garden Tour on Saturday and Sunday.
"When you gonna open back up?" called a man in a muffler-impaired pickup truck, pausing as he drove past.
Landsberg smiled, waved and offered something noncommital. Then, as the truck rumbled away, he shrugged.
"Half the people want the liquor store to reopen," he said. "Half want to make sure that never happens."
'I love Detroit'
Landsberg is in the second group. There's no shortage of Wild Irish Rose and Mohawk bottles in the city, but there's a decided lack of the sorts of businesses people can walk to in what feels like a neighborhood.
He came to appreciate those later in life after growing up in your standard Sterling Heights subdivision.
From there he spent four years in the Marine Corps, then went on to Oakland University before collecting master's degrees in historic preservation and architecture from Columbia.
For income, he said, he's still taking on historic architecture projects on the east coast.
For outgo, he owns a half-acre agricultural experiment in Detroit called Four Arpents Farms, and he's in the continual process of resuscitating the home in Indian Village he shares with his wife and 2-year-old son.
Six years ago, his wedding announcement ran in the New York Times. Now he's growing gooseberries, currants, quince, and a squishy pear-like fruit called a medlar that was specifically insulted in two Shakespearean plays.
The gooseberry crop was set back a few years when the city thought his lot was abandoned and helpfully mowed it.
Still, he said, "I love Detroit. The ability to own a home outright and start a small business is really unparalleled."
Landsberg's mother also lives in Indian Village, and his brother is in Boston-Edison.
They've committed to the city to the point that while he painted, his mother, Christa, was on the sidewalk with a flat-nosed shovel, excavating weeds from between the slabs.
"I try to insist that she take breaks," he said, "but —"
"I want it done," she said.
Refurbishing the interior will be more of a long-term enterprise.
Landsberg found calendars in the apartments dated 1978. The former liquor store, empty since 2008 and decorated in Bud Light Modern, is littered with broken ceiling tiles and the other debris left by scavengers of wire and pipe.
He's figuring three to five years before he's ready for tenants. Then he'll decide what comes next.
He has tools, skills and goals — and the city has no shortage of peeling yellow walls.