How We Talk about Progress: Urban Terrorism in Grand Rapids

In East Hills of Grand Rapids, vandalism has popped up as a recurring problem. After some disturbing letters and threats, it is clear these “urban terrorists” believe Wealthy street and the nearby area are being gentrified. Gentrification is when an urban area gets revitalized and higher income people start moving in and renovating the buildings. This process frequently displaces lower income residents, especially in large cities like Chicago where entire low-income housing structures (ones that are not vacant) are sold and renovated as condos, leaving the former residents scrambling for new affordable housing.

Nothing this extreme has happened in Grand Rapids. The past few years has just been decrease in property values all over the city. But the reverse demographic shift (the people who moved out to the suburbs or a better life are moving back into the city for a better life) has finally hit West Michigan.  So when this neighborhood, with businesses like the Green Well, the Winchester, and Wealthy Street Bakery, which have sprung up in the last ten years, sees this kind of economic development, it is an exciting new trend for real estate statistics and has implications for Grand Rapids’ economic situation.

This whole state is in trouble, and we all know that. My point here is that gentrification is not happening in this area, but something else is. And we should pay attention.

It is tempting to jump on any band wagon that shows economic activity in a part of town that used to be more run down. It is easy to slap the “improvement!” label on any neighborhood that has an influx of white people and new businesses. We keep seeing articles about great things happening and the pictures show brand new stuff that looks old fashioned and hip, white people riding bikes fashionably, and the words “local first” everywhere, and we say it’s so much better than it was before. This is kind of like telling a person who lost a significant amount of weight how amazing they look now. The classic response is, “well geez, did I look that awful before?”  What are we implying when we say “wow, this neighborhood has really turned around!”

We have to be careful about how we talk about progress and improvement in neighborhoods. What was the neighborhood like before? Was it truly empty? Because there are neighborhoods in Grand Rapids (Burton/Eastern area) that have thriving businesses that aren’t related to stuff white people like, and are very diverse economically and racially. Moreover, when I drive through these neighborhoods I constantly see people waving from their cars to each other or meeting on the street. There is definitely a close-knit community among the black population in SE Grand Rapids and I fear we are ignoring this by only measuring progress by economic development.

I can see why this would happen though, because right now we equate, subconsciously, upper economic class with white people. We subconsciously think, “how can we get white people back into this neighborhood?” because we see that as a sign of the return of safety and vitality. And this might contain a kernel of truth sometimes, but this mode of thinking is more dangerous because it’s so insidious. This kind of thinking perpetuates the racism that still exists everywhere, the racism that cripples people from being happy about who they are.

Whether it’s The Green Well or Happy’s Pizza that’s a hopping place on a Friday night, we should call it good.

The terrorists could be anyone, from white suburb kids to old angry people. What they’re doing is incredibly wrong and they’re actually sabotaging a valid point with misunderstanding and fear mongering.

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3 thoughts on “How We Talk about Progress: Urban Terrorism in Grand Rapids

  1. you’re so right, kim. what these terrorists are doing is incredibly wrong, but it also serves to show us, as people who love the city of grand rapids, that we will never make true progress until we understand that embracing the racial, economic, and cultural diversity of this city is the only way to be truly progressive. it’s not about black or white, rich or poor, or even CRC or otherwise. it’s about building truly symbiotic relationships between the existing and new in our neighborhoods, not kicking people and businesses to the curb in the name of “renewal” and expecting all sides to put smiles on.

  2. You provided a nice take on this situation, and stated the obvious though never publicly mentioned assumption that “white neighborhoods” are an improvement.

    But my question is when gentrification does happen how are the current residents forced out? Is it because:

    – Landlords increase rent
    – Landlords discriminate against prospective renters
    – Landlords sell buildings to developers
    – What else?

    But if people own their own houses or buildings, how does the gentrification happen then. Is it because?
    – Taxes get higher?
    – Or the owners sell to developers for a nice profit?

    Is it usually the case that in these black or mixed areas that there are more renters than owners? Is there an average percentage of renters to owners?

    Just curious.

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