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Popps Packing

12138 Saint Aubin
Hamtramck, Michigan 48212

Graem Whyte and Faina Lerman

By Walter Wasacz
May 23, 2014

When Graem Whyte and Faina Lerman bought a former Hamtramck meat packing plant in 2007, they weren't planning on becoming catalysts for neighborhood growth and redevelopment.
Whyte, a sculptor, metalsmith, woodsmith and fabricator, and Lerman, a conceptual artist and modern classical dancer, were just looking for space to live, work, and maybe put on a few shows a year. They found what they were looking for in a 4,700-square-foot building on St. Aubin at Carpenter at the edge of the city, along the porous, often indistinguishable Hamtramck-Detroit border.
Welcome cool art space, Popps Packing.
By late 2008, art and community along Carpenter St. -- which separates the two cities between I-75 and Conant -- began to merge, becoming something else entirely.
That year, fellow artists (and friends) Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert purchased the infamous "$100 house," soon to be re-branded the "Power House," an action that produced spectacular unintended consequences, spurring re-investment by artists, musicians, architects, and other creative young adults in a former Polish- and Ukrainian-American neighborhood more recently inhabited by African-Americans and a growing ethnic Bengali population.
That neighborhood, about 10 blocks east of Popps Packing, was dubbed Banglatown, “the Power House neighborhood,” or simply NoHam (“north of Hamtramck”). Until recently, the area around Popps Packing remained nameless. Not anymore. Whyte and Lerman are now calling it the "Northwest Territories," an expanding urban range of residential and commercial properties in Hamtramck and Detroit, with potential for more outside-the-box community projects.
Community: local
Standing at the intersecting sidewalks at St. Aubin and Carpenter, Whyte points down each street, commenting on how the original planners of the neighborhood got it right when it was designed over 100 years ago.
"This neighborhood works, and has such potential, because of the connections that were built into it," Whyte says. "You can get anywhere from here, walk or bike in any direction, and get to where you want to go."
He looks across Carpenter at an abandoned storefront that will become a general store and trading post called Popps Emporium, planned for demo and construction this spring with a projected opening this fall. The Detroit building was picked up at auction for $500. Also on the Detroit side of Carpenter is Poppa Joe's Guest House -- part of the artists residency enterprise Lerman and Whyte began at the flagship building about three years ago -- and a house where friend and fellow artist Carrie Morris has plans for a puppet theatre.
Since Popps Packing launched seven years ago, the neighborhood has seen a steady growth of new residents and assorted creative projects.
Keinhaus, a performance space that recently featured a concert by Hamtramck-based free jazz-modern classical improviser James Cornish, is now across the alley from Popps on Lumpkin St. Farther east, Record Graveyard, one of the Midwest's best buyers and sellers of vinyl, re-located to Carpenter near Mackay St. Bridget Michael, Lerman's partner in Tzarinas of the Plane, bought a house on St. Aubin; Nathan Tonning, who moved from Montana to do a residency at Popps, rents a flat on St. Aubin but also bought a house he is rehabbing on McPherson, a block north of Carpenter and adjacent to where Whyte hopes one day to build an orchard and sculpture garden. The project would require purchasing several vacant properties on Carpenter and McPherson.
Another interconnected long-term project -- a dream at this point, really -- is to link the Northwest Territories and the Ride It Sculpture Skate Park in the Power House neighborhood with a trail that would snake its way through the over-grown alleys and vacant properties west of Jos. Campau, connecting with redeveloping Banglatown neighborhoods on the east side of the main drag, then stretching to Davison. The trail would likely also go near Whyte's Squash House project, also part of the Power House community network.
"To (the trail) we'd need to work with the City of Detroit on a bunch of properties, something that will take time to make happen," Whyte says. "The idea is to connect, or reconnect, neighborhoods that have been linked historically."
Art: global
Despite increasing efforts put toward community projects, Popps Packing has not been slacking on its primary art mission. Once content to do an exhibition three or four times a year, Lerman and Whyte now have a calendar that features up to nine shows a year at 5-6 week intervals. Most of the shows include artist talks.
The residency program is in full swing, attracting artists from all over the world, and the couple is in the process of acquiring nonprofit status to help with funding. Recent residents included people from Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, and Denmark. The Danish artist left his mark by converting a 1989 Mitsubishi van into a fully functional sauna that sits in the sculpture garden on the north side of the building.
"We encourage artists with children to apply for a residency," says Lerman, sitting in the upstairs kitchen of the two-story building. "We've created living spaces to accommodate families." Lerman and Whyte themselves have two young children.
Whyte walks downstairs into a raw living room that doubles as an exhibition space during art shows. It opens up into another large room that contains a communal kitchen that opens up into the yard filled with sculptural pieces -- some finished, others works in progress. In the east end of the building is a huge studio where Whyte keeps his tools and shapes metal and wood. (He's exhibited his work in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Washington D.C., and Detroit and Hamtramck galleries.) Residents are welcome to use the studio, which also has a performance stage in the far back that can hold up to five or six musicians.
"We've already done some music shows here and plan to do more," Whyte says. "It's a fun atmosphere back here."
Back upstairs, Lerman says one of the benefits to operating a nontraditional space like Popps Packing is meeting people from all over the world who "really get Detroit, and really love Hamtramck.
‘They walk all over the city, they love the food, the bars, the cultural diversity. We saw slow, steady growth [at Popps Packing] the first two years, but now it's really flowing. The neighborhood has come alive, there is more foot traffic, because so much more is happening all around us."
Walter Wasacz is a Hamtramck-based freelance writer, editor and consultant. He was Model D managing editor from 2010 to 2014. 

All photos by Doug Coombe.

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