“It’s not easy. You have to have a thick hide to live with the criticism,” says Dale Newman. “I’ve never Googled myself.” If he did Google himself, he’d find such headlines as “DTE sues Ann Arbor landlord over alleged energy theft,” “Ann Arbor landlord ordered to pay DTE $637,273,” and “Former Michigan Inn owner arrested on felony assault charge.” Even worse are the reader comments that follow the online articles on MLive.com: “sick individual,” “rude, racist, condescending,” “heartless, soulless, disgusting!!”
So, meeting him in person, it’s a surprise to learn that Newman is charming and articulate, a philanthropist of sorts, and a dedicated family man. His office in the basement of Town Center Plaza on Fourth Ave. is full of pictures and mementoes of kids and grandkids. The life-size nude woman’s torso turns out to be a plaster cast of his wife, Christine Dong–“this was done when she was twenty,” he says, stroking it reverently.
For nearly fifty years, Newman has made a living off the bottom tier of Ann Arbor commercial real estate. His two most public debacles were his ownership of the condemned Michigan Inn on Jackson Rd. and the big judgment DTE won for meter tampering at his rental properties. Robert West, assistant city attorney, has prosecuted Newman many times over the years, mostly for building violations and assault (among other things, West says, “he decked a DTE worker who came to shut off the meter”). West says Newman also owes the city more than $30,000 in parking fines. “He buys beaters, registers them in fictitious business names,” West says. Fuzzy Dice Company, Granny Wheels, Green Beater Service–the city has a list of more than forty entities for which Newman has registered cars. Last year, West says, Newman went to jail three times for contempt of court for failing to provide records of his holdings.
“The police want to hang him,” says a downtown business owner. “The police would pay you to hang him.” (The AAPD wouldn’t comment.)
“Somehow I’ve become larger than life, and I have no idea why. It seems like people should have better things to do,” says Newman, smiling up at the ceiling of Eastern Accents, completely at ease. At seventy-one, wearing rumpled, frayed, but well-made corduroys and a silky shirt, he projects a demeanor straddling the line between bohemian glamour and something more genuinely feckless, but he doesn’t look like a hostile and belligerent scofflaw. He looks like Sting–perhaps after a rough night.
Surprisingly, Newman had suggested meeting at Eastern Accents. Surprising because the subject under discussion was the general mismanagement of his life which resulted in the recent foreclosure of the crown jewel of his properties: Town Center Plaza, the building in which the cafe and bakery is a tenant. But Newman claims he has no secrets. He discusses personal and legal aspects of his life with complete equanimity, ignoring the wide-eyed customers sitting nearby.
“He has no boundaries,” says Eastern Accents owner Carol Sun. “I try to respect the boundaries that should be there.”
While dozens of other properties have passed through Newman’s hands, Town Center Plaza is Newman’s emotional center. He bought the building in 1995. From 2007 through 2010, he and his close friend Jack Kenny, a photographer, had a gallery there. Open only on Friday nights, usually with live music and free-flowing wine, Fourth Avenue Gallery was as famous for its parties as for its art. The venture encapsulates a lot of what seems to make Newman tick: art, street life, and messy real estate deals.
Kenny is still friends with Newman and is one of the few people who will speak about him on the record, but even he admits Newman baffles him. “He’s an enigmatic guy to say the least. He’s a scofflaw. He’s a Republican, as opposed to me–I’m way on the other side of the table. But otherwise we get along great. He’s a generous guy in a lot of ways. But he does things his own way and thumbs his nose at authorities.”
Kenny isn’t the first one to be puzzled by the juxtaposition of Newman’s proud Republican politics and his proud alternative lifestyle, but Newman himself sees no contradiction: “Republicans,” he says, “are the ultimate existentialists.”
The gallery solidified Newman’s perception of himself as an artist. His photographs from that time, mostly of vulnerable-looking young women– photographs that carry a slight whiff of exploitation–may be controversial, but they have won prizes. In particular, a photograph called “Ophelia” (a nude woman floating in water lilies, taken in the swimming pool at the Michigan Inn) has continued to win awards.
Since the Fourth Avenue Gallery closed last year, people say Newman’s life–always eccentric–seems to be unraveling. Dong, his wife of forty years, has left him, and is living somewhere out west (though Newman and others insist they’re on good terms and speak regularly). He’s living in the basement of Town Center Plaza with his parrot, Fred. Life as an artist blends with life as a self-made social worker, and he claims he has retired from property management. Homeless, troubled young people flock to him, and his generosity to them is legendary, though many also find it creepy. Especially troubling are the young, attractive women who model nude for him, but Newman speaks openly of how he has helped them and doesn’t really care what other people think.
“I would like to explain him to somebody, but I can’t explain him to myself,” Kenny says. “He’s a generous, artistic guy.” Another past recipient of his largesse says: “He has a soft spot in his heart for helping the underdog, for helping the little guy get started.”
Town Center Plaza, the building Newman is trying to rescue from foreclosure, is not particularly attractive–a lot of the front is covered by a modern-style metal facade, probably installed to cover fire damage sustained in the 1950s. But Newman doesn’t seem to notice the tawdry touches. Instead, he lovingly points out the mosaic tile wall in the dark and largely unused front foyer: “It’s such an excellent example of this tile work typical of the late ’50s, early ’60s.” (Newman has U-M degrees in art and architecture and in mechanical engineering, and he comes off as a credible architecture critic.) Ignoring the leaks betrayed by the buckets of water on the floor, he proudly points out his own improvements, including a stunning Art Nouveau-style stair rail of gracefully twined steel tubing he designed and commissioned.
On the second floor he nimbly picks his way around stacks of moldering furniture, old appliances, and unprotected artwork, both his and others’. Suddenly a figure emerges out of the freezing cold gloom. “Oh, hello, Brian,” Newman says. Brian, apparently one of his social work projects, quickly melts back into the shadows.
By law, Newman has 180 days, or until late June, to redeem the property. “I don’t see that I’ve lost it,” he says. “Literally every piece of property I’ve owned has been at this state. I’m way too casual about how I run businesses, but [I have] more than enough time to put something together.”
Newman is currently trying to borrow a million dollars to rescue the property and put a new roof on it. In mid-March, he claimed to be “80 percent sure” he had the financing lined up, and those who’ve watched him over the years say he can probably do it. Though he says he’s transferred his property to his children, many believe that he still has lots of remaining real estate–not to mention boats and vintage cars–stashed away, under other names. “He’s been in foreclosure twice before,” says Pam Craven, co-owner of Salon Vertigo, one of his Town Center tenants. “He always comes up with the money in the eleventh hour, on the courthouse steps,” she laughs. In any case, Vertigo and Eastern Accents have leases that will protect them in case of a change in ownership.
On top of the $1 million Newman needs to retain Town Center Plaza, there’s that $637,000 judgement to DTE. But he waves that away as water under the bridge, claiming the utility company has “just dismissed the case. This was the letter from the attorney.” He shows an empty envelope date-stamped March 11, 2011, from a Livonia attorney and claims to have misplaced the letter inside that lets him off the hook. (DTE didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
At the foreclosure auction in January, the building was bought by a mysterious entity called Fourth Avenue Financial, represented only by an attorney. Newman suspected Ed Shaffran, a large player in Ann Arbor downtown real estate, was one of the principals, and Shaffran confirms it (Dennis Serras of Main Street Ventures is another).
But even Shaffran won’t take any bets on the likelihood that his group will end up owning the building. Newman has “a 180-day redemption period, and he’s got a lot of investments,” says Shaffran, whose own office is across the street from Town Center Plaza. “My understanding, and it comes from very reliable sources, is that he has provided the venture capital for a medical product which has the potential to make a lot of money.”
Shaffran doesn’t know what resources Newman can muster in the coming months, but says: “He may redeem this. I believe at the end of the day, he’ll hit a home run.”