“What’s the password?”
The question was posed to me as I approached a vacant building on south Washington Street in REO Town. The asker was a sharply dressed 20-something man who looked like he had stepped straight out of the roaring 20s. A trilby hat, suit coat, dark vest. Sharp.
He rubbed his hands together as wisps of white breath floated away into the night. It was a strange question to hear on a Wednesday evening in Lansing. And the fact that I was standing in front of an apparently abandoned building made it even stranger. Luckily, I had an answer at the ready.
He smiled and swung the door open as I stepped into what might have been the most anticipated event of 2012 thus far. But perhaps I ought to back up and explain a little bit first.
In early January, a mysterious message was sent through the ether via Twitter. It invited people to attend an event dubbed Vacant Lansing and pointed to a website with little more than a kick-ass logo, the number of tickets remaining, a date, a general region of Lansing, and the words “Expect Nothing.” I was intrigued, but passed it off. However, as the buzz continued to grow across the social media networks and I noticed my friends jumping in, I finally relented and bought a ticket myself.
As the weeks wore on, little was revealed. Every now and then, an email from “expectnothing” would appear in my inbox. Little hints and nuggets were strung along like bird seed leading the Road Runner into a trap. Suggestions were made to “get dolled up” but also to remember that “baby it’s cold outside”. One email sent in code had each letter in the message shifted 13 spaces in the alphabet away. Once decoded, it instructed us to bring our own booze.
For a second, people began to worry that perhaps it really was a cunning trap set by Wile E. Coyote. Daniel Hogan of Ginger and the Geek fame suggested here that perhaps, “Vacant Lansing is some sort of elaborate “Gotcha!” prank: Those assembled, dressed to the nines, mouths frothy with expectations, and fingers aching to Tweet the first details they see, are led to an empty room, with a lone figure playing a sad trombone. A large arrow points to the single Exit, past a barrel of burning money, with the words #VACROLLED painted in red, dripping letters over the door.”
On the day of the event, a final email was sent directing us to go on a treasure hunt to find posters around town pointing us in the right direction. But just in case we didn’t have the time, they also provided geo coordinates. Immediately I plugged them in and discovered we’d be heading to an old building with no windows.
Sounds like fun.
When I stepped into Vacant Lansing, I was immediately struck by the venue. Sure, it was an old, vacant building, but the hardwood floors, exposed brick and ceiling rafters were beautiful. With a little work, the space would become a gem in downtown Lansing. How was this place empty?
Well, at least for one night, it wasn’t. The organizers had strung white lights throughout the rafters, set up a movie projector playing old 20s movies, put up a stage at the far end of the room and elegantly placed tables, chairs and a very cozy looking VIP lounge area. The south side of the room was cordoned off by some curtains. Behind them, bartenders on loan from various restaurants and bars throughout Lansing mixed era-accurate drinks (more often found at the Soup Spoon Cafe) to which we added the alcohol we brought to the party. And a professional photography setup encouraged attendees to pose with an old standup radio and a vintage chaise lounger.
Despite the elaborate setup, however, I’d have to say that it was the people of Lansing that really stole the show. Everywhere I looked, people were dressed to the nines, maybe even the tens. Colorful dresses, imaginative interpretations of flapper style, elbow-high gloves, intricate hair pieces, suits, vests, bow ties, fedoras – everybody looked fantastic.
The event grew and grew as the night wore on. Swanky bands (The Lansing Unionized Vaudeville Spectacle) featuring a stand-up bass and some excellent vocals kept the party grooving. Eventually, the live entertainment gave way to the pumping rhythms of DJ Rachel spinning some of her signature house music. Before I knew it, an all-out dance party had broken out.
Hundreds of people in their finest apparel dancing the night away in a vacant building in a downtrodden section of downtown Lansing.
On a Wednesday night.
What a special event.
I think it’s important to stop for a moment and take stock of this.
A group of friends sat together one night and lamented the fact that there
was little opportunity for them to expand outside of their established social circles and interact with the numerous fun, intelligent, lively people that they knew were out there. An idea sparked to create an event advertised from the ground up so that it would spread organically throughout the community, an event where the people in their city they love could come together for a night of fun and mingling. But they didn’t let it stop at an idea. They went out and wrote a grant proposal to fund their idea. They hired bands and actors to make the night unique and special. They chose a venue that would highlight the amazing spaces and opportunities to be found throughout the city. They raised funds to help out a local business – Reach Studio Art Center in REO Town – which serves as an, “imaginative, creative space where anyone in the Greater Lansing area feels welcomed and encouraged to explore and practice art making–all while connecting with neighbors, families, artists, and their community.”
To me, this is what makes Lansing special. It’s the people who refuse to allow history and circumstances to dictate to them what their city should be. Instead, they have a vision and go out to make it happen. You can find them anywhere and everywhere – running for city council, founding unbelievable food trucks, recording and promoting the local music scene, planting community gardens, making the city more walkable and bikeable, creating amazing events out of thin air, and so much more.
All you have to do is look around.