I started my walking tour of Lansing’s plucky Baker neighborhood late Wednesday afternoon by flashlight, picking my way through the broken toilets and random debris of a cavernous 1925 school. I ended the tour just before sundown, crouching behind a giant hot dog to dodge possible gunfire.
There won’t be another Walking Wednesday quite like last week’s showcase of the troubled but plucky area centered on the South Cedar Street corridor south of I-496.
Lansing’s periodic neighborhood strolls, organized by the city’s neighborhoods department, are meant to showcase cool places, connect residents with a range of services and help the area’s entrepreneurs and do-gooders network with each other. You can talk with a community police officer, find out about financial services, get information on health insurance and connect with other local organizations.
There was nothing ordinary about the star attraction of Wednesday’s tour — the hulking Walter French Academy building at 1900 S. Cedar St., a junior high school built in 1925.
Vacant since 2008, the school’s sheer size and craftsman-like beauty come as a shock, even to locals who have never been inside.
The school was donated to the nonprofit Capital Area Housing Partnership by its owners, the Louis J. Eyde and George F. Eyde families, after being placed on the National Historic Register in 2015.
Rawley van Fossen of the Capital Area Housing Partnership led us through the dark, debris-filled corridors, counting us off at every dark turn, so nobody would be left behind.
“Seven, eight, nine,” he murmured as we entered the cavernous gymnasium.
The 200,000-square-foot school has indestructible terrazzo flooring, fancy masonry, lots of heavy wood trim and ornate sculptural touches like lion heads you just don’t find in new builds.
The new owners plan to turn it into “workforce housing,” for people and families at or below the area’s median income, but Van Fossen is looking for ideas on what to do with the a snug, 500-seat auditorium and two huge gymnasiums, a beautiful 1925 original and an addition built in the 1950s.
About 30 people toured the building Wednesday. Van Fossen heard a lot of suggestions, including a restaurant/coffee shop with outdoor seating, a community theater, a jazz club, a culinary school and a skilled trades training site. Lansing City Futsal, a local franchise for an indoor version of soccer, is looking at the gyms and Peppermint Creek Theatre Co. is looking into using the auditorium, according to Van Fossen.
We ended up in Room 207, a typical classroom, now covered in cigarette butts and Uno cards left by squatters. Classrooms like this will become one-bedroom apartments with sunlight, a fine view of Cedar Street and a chalkboard.
“Ready to rent, anybody?” Van Fossen asked.
Along Cedar Street in the Baker neighborhood, you can feel the century-old urban fabric stretching and morphing in slow motion.
A block north of Walter French, a former second-hand store at 1701 S. Cedar Street was showing off a new look. The building was a Kroger store in 1927 and Dicker and Deal from 1973, until it grew out of the space last year and moved to the old Coscarelli’s Restaurant space to the south.
Mountains of carpet, old cabinets and counters and accumulated junk have been hauled from the first floor. The old gun showroom is now a gallery popping with whimsical art by Tod Parkhill of Okemos.
Stacy Potter, son of owner Gary Potter, said he hopes to convert the space into a gallery, with studios for artists above, “following the trend of REO Town,” the resurgent Lansing neighborhood to the west.
Parkhill wants to be among the first studio renters. “It’s the sort of project I’ve always wanted to run, but I’m a starving artist, so I’m hitching my wagon to this,” he said.
A woman and a man walked in off the street and quietly cased the room. The man whispered two words to the woman: “Door jam.”
“Yes!” the woman replied. The two visitors were Emily Heidrich and Prince Solace of nearby Habitat for Humanity.
Heidrich told gallery manager Annie Signs about “Door Jam,” a charity project where artists create projects from salvaged doors at Habitat’s ReStore and auction them off. They needed a place to show the art and hold the auction this November.
“This would be a pretty cool place,” Heidrich told Signs.
They excitedly exchanged cards. Nearby, a knot of onlookers watched as retired art teacher Helene Murray tipped a wine glass upside down to let vines of color drip downward.
She was demonstrating alcohol inks that can be used to color hard surfaces like tile and glass.
“Just push that brush around let it drizzle,” she told a woman bent in concentration at the table, painting a tile. “The colors are unstoppable.”
“Can you drink it?” someone asked, intrigued by the word “alcohol.”
“Depends on what color you want your stomach.”
In a vacant lot, a few blocks from the aspiring gallery, hot dog man Tim Starr of Five Dog Starr was dispensing free frankfurters from a seven-foot-long, hot-dog-shaped trailer.
Starr had already gone through about 120 hot dogs by the time I strolled by.
As kids ran past her to reload at the wagon, Julie Durham, director of development for Habitat for Humanity, explained that Habitat has targeted the Baker neighborhood for two week-long revitalization programs in July and September. An army of 150 to 200 volunteers will do home repairs and painting, fix porches and windows, mow and edge lawns.
“We’re working on this neighborhood because it needs it,” Durham said. “The crime rate is higher, the poverty rate is higher, home ownership rates are lower, so there’s a lot of reasons statistically this neighborhood needs some help.”
She was interrupted by shouting on the corner of Linval and Isbell streets, two houses away from our impromptu pocket park.
Two men standing on the corner were arguing with a man (or men) in a van. Word spread that one or more of the yelling men were waving guns.
We crouched behind the hot dog wagon, putting six feet of wooden weiner between us and whatever was next.
“We’re keeping it real here,” Durham cracked. She hustled her husband away with her young daughter.
“You want to take her and head — somewhere?” The minivan cruised past, with the window open, and continued west. We cautiously peeked over the hot dog and stood erect. Within 15 minutes, half a dozen patrol cars lined the streets. Several officers were conferring calmly with the men on the corner.
It was past 8 o’clock and time for Walking Wednesday to end, anyway.
Unperturbed, Starr gave out the remaining 40 hot dogs to the neighbors, but they hustled away before he was finished with them.
“Wait. Need some ketchup and mustard?”