NYC TO DETROIT: SCOTT GRIFFIN ON WHY HE MADE THE MOVE

PLAYGROUND DETROIT is thrilled to interview Detroit transplant and ex-New Yorker, Scott Griffin, at one of the buildings in Downtown Detroit he has recently purchased, 2051 Rosa Parks, in Corktown. Griffin has been very busy since re-locating in Detroit; he has also purchased the Geodesic Domes [behind Michigan Central Train Station] and most recently, aqcuired the Martyrs of Uganda Catholic Church.

2051 Rosa Parks is 100,000 square feet of space for classrooms, offices, retail, events, art, and entertainment in the heart of Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. This is also the new location of Corktown Cinema, an independent cinema that features classic art house, independent, foreign and cult films as a response to the shortage of art house venues in the city. Corktown Cinema aims to help Detroit rival Chicago and New York as a center for independent film.

Thom Fogarty, a PD corespondent living in Detroit, went to meet and talk with him about his move to the city. He arrives early, only to find Griffin picking up trash that was left along the streets near the 2051 building, which seemed like just another part of his daily routine. He asks Scott Griffin- the small-town Kentucky raised, later New Yorker, now Detroiter- to share his story of how he ended up in Detroit.

He starts at the very beginning: Griffin first attended college at Murray State University, recalling it as, “a stint so brief– I’m not even sure I bought a textbook,” Griffin said. He moved to Louisiana to pursue musical composition, particularly conducting. After his gig was up there he went through Baton Rouge and then New Orleans, where he worked as a rehearsal pianist and assistant conductor for the local opera company.  But Griffin needed something more challenging, so he sought NYC.

I decided that if I was really going to see if I had what it took, that I had to go find real context- like New York. After about a year or so in Louisiana, I did just that and moved to New York knowing no one, having no money from home, nothing–just me on my own, at I time when one could still do that.”

Griffin made a great number of friends once he moved to Manhattan and found himself living in The Chelsea Hotel for nearly 20 years. His early career in NYC was spent working as an Assistant Conductor for the New York Philharmonic .

It was a real privilege, I enjoyed it a lot. But ultimately, I learned there that conducting wasn’t for me… What I was mostly interested in conducting, was identifying young performers or composers who I felt like had significant talent, or a new vision.  Trying to help bring awareness to these younger people to help raise them in the musical community at large, because at that point, my opinion did count for something.”

While living in The Chelsea Griffin met his neighbor, Arnold Weinstein, who introduced him to William Bolcom and his wife Joan Morris, John Ashbury and Robert Altman. “Arnold was probably the most evolved person that I’ve ever met. Certainly the wisest. Arnold really became my mentor,” Griffin said. Taking the encouragement of friends, Griffin began to produce for people like Karen Findley, Ann Bogart, Arthur Miller, and eventually Robert Altman. Although his career was doing well, in June 2007 Stanley Bard, who had been so crucial to his success, was ousted from his position as The Chelsea Hotel Manager.

Overnight that family, the Bard family, were essentially thrown out into the street like a piece of garbage, even though they were the ones who made The Chelsea what it was and even though they were the majority shareholders of the asset. And a war was kind of waged to replace these people, to turn The Chelsea into some sort of booshwah Four Seasons type fauxhemian nonsense.”

Because of his allegiance to the family due to their support of him through the years Griffin tried to aggressively defend the Bards publicly– in the media, on the streets, and even in court. But the battle was ultimately lost. Griffin reflects on that time:

One of the things that I realized was that many of the opportunities that had come my way, in fact nearly all of the opportunities that had come my way to advance in life had been touched upon in one way or another by place, by the fact that I was at The Chelsea, which was what made these people, brought these people together, or kept these people together. And around that time, I was shown a picture of the train station by a friend in New York, Dimitri Mugianis, who is from Detroit, who happened to mention it in casual conversation.

I had never been to Detroit, never thought about Detroit, nothing; but when I saw this picture of the train station, my imagination was seized instantly because it looked to me at that time exactly like a building like The Chelsea. Clearly, it needed to be restored and so I simply went to Google, looked it up, figured out who owned it and sent them an email.”

That email turned into a flight to Detroit with a visit to Michigan Central Station, and a lunch appointment with the Moroun family [which is the family who in fact owns the station]. “I’m certainly pleased to both call them friends and to say that my dealings with them have been completely above board, as straight-forward and honest as you could get at the old-fashioned corner store,” Griffin said.

 If you ask me why I came to Detroit, there are two reasons: Nora Maroun. Because when I arrived here, we had nice conversations and we enjoyed spending time with each other. But, nevertheless these are very busy people. Very hard-working people. They still took time–and again this is like the Stanley Bard thing, how many people are really kind to you, you know? These people took time out of their day and there was no gain to them. Zero gain to them.

I began to see Detroit, how business is done, where things are now and the incredible level of excitement that I feel on the ground here, from this kind of young community, a very serious focused community of people… I began to really think that this was a place that I could do something interesting in.

The people that surrounded me reminded me a lot of The Chelsea. But, one of the things that I saw here, that I still see and that I’m thinking about is that it’s not that there are not enough wonderful people in the city already. There are plenty of wonderful people here. The problem is there are not enough places to bring them together and keep them together.

So, even as we get more and more interesting people, it still has the effect of being quite dissipated, because it is spread out, it is dissipated. We need to create more spaces that bring people together for no reason. Not because they’re going to the book store and not because they’re going to dinner, but just because they’re going to enjoy a quiet conversation with a friend, or a quiet conversation with a total stranger that may become a friendship. We need to have more of these social spaces because that’s where change happens, is between real people.”

An aesthetics person and opportunist, Griffin says the architecture is what drew him to the locations he has already purchased.

So, once I began to see these opportunities, I began to see what I thought was an incredibly exciting chapter in this city’s life and when I saw that New York as far as  I was concerned was just over. I decided to come here full-time. So we bought this building last fall, bought the domes in february after that, bought the church a few months ago, and continue to buy other things.”

When asked how relationships between New Yorkers and Detroiters can help benefit Detroit, Griffin said:

I think that that kind of intrepid spirit of adventure that any real New Yorker has in the tips of their toes can go a long way in this city because I think people here for perfectly good reasons are somewhat fearful of the future. Fearful to really go for the brass ring. So that’s one way that I think New Yorkers can really help is to bring an added, different color of fearlessness.

The other thing that I think that New Yorkers can very powerfully contribute and one of the things that I really hope to contribute myself is that we–any recent New Yorker is the best living proof of the worst kind of gentrification. When we see what has happened in New York city in a neighborhood like Chelsea, where the entire neighborhood has been essentially destroyed for the real estate industry, or we’ve taken tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars out of the public sector and put them in the hands of private developers, that people who have been in that neighborhood for seven generation are now being forced out.

Businesses that have been opened since 1910 closing so that we can open another Starbucks. You know, frankly, if New York isn’t too good for that, then Detroit has to be. You know? At some point, and I think that’s one of the great ironies about Detroit: all the things that rich people say in all these communities… you know, “land trusts,” “not in our backyard,” “not in my backyard,” “we’re too good for that.” Those are all the attitudes I think we should have in Detroit.

Why can’t Corktown be as beautiful as the Luxenburg gardens? The Luxenburg Gardens is just a piece of land. It’s just that someone chose to make it very beautiful, and people chose to keep it up. Why can’t we do that here? We got a pretty good start.”  -Scott Griffin, owner of 2051 Rosa Parks Blvd.

PLAYGROUND DETROIT would like to thank Mr. Scott Griffin for his interview and for the outstanding example of what we believe can be the influence and the positive result from New Yorkers and Detroiters working together to create a unique, innovative, and future city for creatives.

 

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Thomas Fogarty is a recent addition to the PLAYGROUND DETROIT contributor team, focused on speaking with entrepreneurs and influencers in Detroit communities into ‘the PD spotlight.’ Thomas lives in the Virginia Park historic neighborhood in Detroit. He also is an active member of the community, involved with Restore Church, which in addition to providing traditional religious services, is dedicated to engaging the local community and restoring the area.

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