Every neighborhood has a story; however, Old Town’s happens to be unique.
Flashback prior to the 1970s, the neighborhood of Old Town was known as North Lansing. According to Jamie Schriner, long-time Old Town resident, the area was considered a ghost town and notorious for being a dangerous place with sketchy bars. Where the modern day Urban Beat business stands was a particular bar called The Mustang that had a reputation. A man named Robert Busby came to the neighborhood and changed everything.
Schriner, current Old Town Commercial Association board president, remembers Busby for the vision he had for the community. As an artist, Busby’s creative mind helped facilitate the change he brought to Old Town.
“He came into the neighborhood in the 70’s, renovated and lived in a number of buildings,” said Schriner. “He really saw the beauty in the neighborhood.”
Some of these buildings include where the modern Vintage Marketplace is, as well as, Polka Dots. Schriner said that Busby put the second story in above Katalyst during his renovations. The heart of his legacy, however, rests with the Creole building. It was the final place of his residence, as well as, a prominent art gallery and performance venue.
Schriner spoke in detail about the history of the Creole building, saying it received it’s name as it originally was the Creole Cigar Factory. It also housed Dunham’s Hardware in the 1920s. When Busby purchased the building, he decided to open the north side into what would be known as the Creole Gallery. The gallery displayed many different art shows and hosted live entertainment weekly. Students at local Lansing Community College also had their art displayed in shows.
“I can’t even tell you, after Robert passed, how many people came up to me and said that they had their first piece sold or had their first showing in the Creole,” said Schriner. “Or even that Robert bought their first piece from them and encouraged them to do art.”
Craig Mitchell Smith, a prominent glass artist, sold his first piece at the Creole Gallery. Schriner believes Busby was the one who bought it. Busby was the man to help prominent artists, such as Smith, get started.
Schriner bought her first home in Old Town in 2000. She started by volunteering at the Festival of the Sun for a few years before applying for the executive director position at the OTCA in 2005, switching from her job to a non-profit side of work.
“I had no non-profit experience besides volunteering for them and loving them,” said Schriner. “They decided to hire me, so I got to know Robert very well.”
Schriner believed Busby to be a huge mentor and friend to her. He was known to have a tremendous sense of humor that was not seen. She described it as, “very unexpected because he was so quiet and unassuming that it made it more special when you saw it.”
Aaron Matthews served on the OTCA board with Schriner for about six years. Throughout those years, Matthews also came to know Busby from working with him various times.
“He was the most generous and genuinely caring person that I’ve ever met,” said Matthews. “He was the first to really open my eyes to the possibility and approach of making where you are a place you want to be rather than complaining of deficiencies or looking elsewhere.”
In February of 2007, Busby was tragically murdered. Matthews said the neighborhood felt the initial shock, however, rallied around the memory of Busby and his approach to life. Following his death, his daughter, Ena Busby, took over the Creole. After holding onto the Creole for several years, Ena Busby decided to sell the building to Schriner. Schriner purchased the Creole and made plans to renovate the loft portion upstairs to move into.
The Creole Gallery stayed as it was for a few years before a group came along to shape it into what it is today. Sam Short moved to the area with his wife, bringing years of restaurant business expertise. After meeting his business partners, Al Hooper and Matthews, The Potent Potables Project was born.
“It’s really kind of a cool area,” said Short. “I’m a city boy, but it reminded me of home and what real cities are like. Robert had a whole lot to do with this, the redevelopment of that core.”
Matthews moved to Lansing in the fall of 2002. The law firm he previously worked for came to Old Town in October 2004 from Okemos. Matthews connected with Hooper shortly after moving to the area, but met Short more recently.
“Sam was referred to me as an attorney when he moved to Lansing,” said Matthews. “He was looking to open up a bar/restaurant and identified Old Town as a place he’d want to do so. I was the attorney who could help him with liquor licensing and other legal issues.”
Short, Matthews and Hooper co-own and operate a combination of restaurants in the area that the Potent Potables Project encompass. These include The Cosmos, Zoobies Old Town Tavern and The Creole.
In an owners meeting, the idea for a restaurant/bar being place in the Creole was proposed, said Short. After some back-and-forth about what kind of experience they wanted the creole to offer, the group decided on a restaurant centering the theme around art and engaging with locals, while providing some music.
“This thing morphed and then under a year later, we opened The Creole in September of 2015,” said Short. “Fine dining and French, low country blend cuisine.”
One of the main attractions inside The Creole are the walls. Short said that Busby spent a lot of time and care sanding them down. Busby took into consideration how he would be showing art, while also displaying the walls as art.
“The opportunity for us to do something in the creole space, former Creole Gallery, to stick with that name and make it into something that we hope Robert would be proud of has helped keep some attention on his legacy,” said Matthews.
Taking a look just inside the doors of The Creole, is a montage on the wall of art. This includes a couple of Busby’s pieces, New Orleans artists artwork and a self portrait he created according to Short.
“We wanted to transform the place into a restaurant,” said Short. “But at the same time make it a tribute to the vision that Robert had, his creative drive and this ‘let’s make something from nothing’ feel that Old Town has.”
Following Busby’s death in 2007, the idea of a memorial garden to honor Busby was proposed, according to Schriner. Money was fundraised over the course of the subsequent years to purchase plants and a sculpture that Maureen Berquest-Gray created. A total of 400 grasses in gallon pots were scheduled to be planted on a rainy day in September of 2013.
“We had all of these grasses, had scheduled 2 hours, and we thought ‘oh no, no one’s going to show up’,” said Schriner. “Within 45 minutes, every single grass was in the ground we had so many people show up.”
With temperatures on the rise, each Sunday an event called Weed and Feed to help clean up the garden will begin again. A breakfast with all of the volunteers typically follows the management of the garden. Schriner said an endowment fund was created at the Capital Region Community Foundation for people to donate to. Ultimately, Schriner hopes the fund will grow big enough so that Old Town will be able to use some of the money to pay for the maintenance of the garden.
Associate professor at the University of Southern California Amy Murphy is an expert in urban planning. Her knowledge of how a single founder impacts a neighborhood can be used in the perspective of Old Town.
“In the case of a town founded by a single person, there might have initially been many such overlaps between what we might think is OK for a private person to do or think when dealing with developing their own properties, and what might be later considered dictatorial or undemocratic when those decisions get expanded to controlling or dictating other people’s lives in the form of a town,” said Murphy.
2017 marks 10 years since the death of Busby. In the time since, many changes have occurred in the neighborhood. The bridge in Old Town crossing over the Grand River was named the Robert P. Busby Memorial Bridge to commemorate Busby. A plaque on the south side of the bridge notes his effort in the community to revitalize Old Town. Businesses have flourished, volunteers have made their impact and the neighborhood has revitalized to become a true place of interest.
“I don’t think that had he not been down here to start it that that would have happened,” said Schriner. “I really think that’s what his legacy is, he created a family.”