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.

Transportation Options: Bus Rapid Transit in Grand Rapids?

ast year, Grand Rapids voted down the Silver Line. Thankfully, we are getting another chance to get Bus Rapid Transit in our city, something that would save households money (for all you Dave Ramsey worshippers) and revitalize Division Avenue.

We would get federal money for this project, not only for the bus but to revitalize the buildings surrounding it (already in the works!). The dense commercial area will create much more revenue. And this change would affect properties on Division all the way down to 60th Street.

Please Note: this is not a bus in the same sense as The Rapid is a bus system. This thing would go fast. It’d be more like a subway than a bus.

To continue only driving our cars to get around, building cities for cars, and pouring money into cars is a backwards way of thinking. If Michigan really wants to rebuild its economy, it has to move forward and forget its autocentric past.

Vote yes on Bus Rapid Transit. Grand Rapids deserves options for transportation. It’s nice to be able to walk places. It’s nice to read on the bus and not have to find a parking spot. It’s healthier. It’s cheaper. It looks better. It keeps you sane. It’s more efficient. It provides more equal opportunity. Even if you’re Republican. Even if you couldn’t or wouldn’t use it. Please vote yes.

So this is the New Year and I feel tons different. TONS.

F irst things first, before I forget: there is an electric car in Grand Rapids that looks like a silver cylinder that drives around Easttown a lot and I have seen it on Plainfield at midnight one night this past fall. If you know anything about this or the owner please contact me! When I saw it, it was a very dark night and I thought it was an airplane without wings. Further sources have told me this is a bad description.

Sorry to contradict Ben Gibbard’s sentiments but I am feeling TONS different from my last post, which was written last year. Now I don’t know how to even phrase the ideas going around in my head.

A conversation I had the other day with a Taoist summed everything up: by playing part in this political game we are distracting and impeding ourselves and our kids from dreaming.

Good.is, and online magazine, features many solutions and rarely rants or fosters useless anger about problems. Another plus: it is not high on itself, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously.  Their Ideas for Cities series makes you think outside the box, something we sorely need to do right now.

If you think about it, America is very young. We are a little over 250 years old. We were born yesterday. There is no reason to stick to anything that isn’t working for us.

I can translate the questions from my last post into ideas. For example: Why don’t we know our neighbors? I guess I meant this as a rhetorical question but it’s more effective if you try to answer it. What if instead of calling police about loud music, we confronted our neighbors politely?  Do we not think people will comply if we had even the shallowest of relationships with them? More rhetorical questions, but it’s more what I meant.

What if instead of waiting for crime to happen and then arresting and imprisoning people thus ruining their lives forever, we sent in interveners, who basically distract and dissipate a bad situation?  We do this with our kids all the time. All the time. When I cried/whined as a small child, my dad would hold me up to the mirror and I would see myself and start laughing. It’s not that hard to distract someone from what they’re doing, especially when they’re in a drunken rage.

(Side note on crime: the public eye is the best non-violent weapon against crime in a densely populated place. Rural areas don’t have a public eye. That is why guns are so valued out there, because if a girl is getting gas alone in the middle of nowhere, who is going to step in if no one sees some rapist approaching her? And how are we so sure crime won’t move to sprawling places as they become more and more dilapidated?)

If police officers walked the streets of a city again, they would be preventing more crime. Here’s why I think so: a police officer in a car has a literal barrier from the neighborhood around him; he becomes anonymous. When we see police cars, we think of their targets, which are usually speeding cars and drunk drivers, we don’t think of them as interveners in a house break-in.  A police car comes and goes in a neighborhood. A strolling officer lingers for ten to twenty minutes. And the citizens get to know him, too. He becomes a presence and everyone feels safer and more connected.

We don’t even need to leave intervening and patrolling to the police force. We can do a great deal of that on our own.  When I was in college, my boyfriend of the time told me that he heard a guy yelling at his girlfriend repeatedly in a very abusive manner. After some minutes of this, there was heard the voice of a very loud, very friendly sophomore who said “Hey! Whatcha doin’ out there?!” in a tone of loud curiosity without a hint of even threat. This dissipated the situation completely. When we intervene, we give people a self-awareness they didn’t have a moment before.

The crime issue is the issue with the most viable solution in my eyes right now.  Our issues with food, unemployment, homelessness, and the environment have livelittle solutions to them but will need huge reworking to deal with, and this change will happen beyond most of our lifetimes.

And it will happen, and change will happen in your life. Because at one point, we all decide to stop distracting ourselves and to live our tiny insignificant lives. Everything that happens to you in 2010 will be important in ways no one will ever recognize– not even you. The best you can do is live in your moment, appreciate the scope of your world and your mind, and to invite others into it.

If we start thinking like we’re going to be okay, maybe we’ll finally realize that we already are.

I will stay in Michigan

I am staying because blighted neighborhood is not a death-sentence label. 20 years can change any place. We have full control of our urban environments. All we have to do is organize.

Grand Rapids is a beautiful city.

I’ll be paying close attention to Robert Israel’s plans for Bridge Street in the coming years.  The problem I stated in my last post about being able to do anything with enough money can also be a solution.

Five Ideas to make Grand Rapids more Liveable

or Livelittleable.

I’m having a blogstorm kind of day. Some days, the urban planning blogworld overwhelms me and I ignore it, but today I patiently sifted through my Google Reader and found so many good ideas.

I wanted to apply them to my home city.  Grand Rapids has a sizeable downtown but probably 4 or 5 times more land dedicated to suburbs. Streets like East Beltline and 28th Street and Plainfield suffer incredible blight and traffic problems, mainly because they’re stuck in the 1950s. There are so many suburbs that walking anywhere for many residents is impossible. Division Street looks like hell in most places. Homelessness is rampant.

But back to the good ideas. Heere are five I’ve read about today that could work in Good Ole GR:

1. Google Maps should include Bike and Transit directions/estimations. And they are working on it. Chicago’s Transit Authority is set up so you can google directions that find the best combination of subway and bus transit to get to where you need to be. I used it all the time in Chicago. Grand Rapid’s bus system is used  and functional, but it’s not practical for quick trips. Aside from most buses having half hour between stops, it’s hard to know which routes to connect to get where we need to be. Google Transit has four cities from Michigan participating (Ann Arbor, Holland, Lansing, Detroit) but not Grand Rapids. Come on now!

As for bikes, there are plenty of trails in Grand Rapids, and one brochure that tells you where they all are. But what if you could use trails to get places? What if they were used for more than just recreation? The trail by my house on 28th and Eastern connects me to Division street in a much safer (and more pleasant) way than using 28th. If we had the trails on Google Maps, we could measure distance, map routes, and with our buses’ bike racks, fluidly use bike and transit instead of cars.

2. LEED-ND for new neighborhoods. LEED-ND is the newly approved system for neighborhoods, grading them on diversity, walkability, and green infrastructure. It’s like LEED for buildings and done by the same company. With Grand Rapids still expanding, this could be a good tool to create more neighborhoods where people actually want to live (real estate demand is proven to have moved from suburbs to walkable neighborhoods). So if new neighborhoods get to market themselves as LEED-ND Platinum instead of garages with rooms in the back, maybe we’ll get more residents and more money flowing around.

If you don’t believe me about walkable places, look at Woodland Mall. That place was failing once Rivertown was built. It was seriously suffering. But then the Bar Louie/Red Robin/Cheap Theatre/On the Border square popped up and the mall is doing great. So great, that Barnes and Noble wanted in on the action, reversing the trend of big box retailers moving farther and farther out into the boonies (like TARGET). Yeah, it’s still a mall surrounded by a sea of parking lot, but at least it’s showcasing the success of a good common area.

3. Bypassing Suburb Roads. Plans for an Oregon suburb to make it more connected really excited me, especially since the connections were not for cars.

The point of this is to cut down the distance one would have to walk or bike to get somewhere. The mess that is suburbs-on-a-map would not be less of a mess, however.

4. Better bike parking is an overlooked need when thinking about alternative transportation. I can easily bike to Meijer for most of my needs, but I don’t usually because there’s nowhere to put it. The Artprize-featured tree bike racks are not only made and designed locally, but they provide parking and shelter for bikes while not being an eyesore.

Talk about a community identifier. Bike parking is so easy and cheap. It takes one parking space for a car to park roughly ten bikes.

5. Using the River. At Green Grand Rapids, an idea charrette I attended in May, I loved the ideas of better farmer’s markets, bike lanes, and storm water management. I shot down the white-water rafting on the Grand River idea, though, because when it was lined up with other ideas, it didn’t seem as important. But as I walked up and down the Grand River during Artprize, I realized how beautiful parts of the riverside are. The park off of Monroe is nice, and there’s a waterfall by the pedestrian bridge. But there’s no reason for people to be by the river except for to walk. What if we did use it for canoeing or kayaking or white water rafting? Or energy?  Is it possible? I have no idea. But it could add to a list of things to do in GR, and generate more revenue.

The bottom line here is that we all know how badly this state is doing. But leaving isn’t the solution. Time for new dreams. What are your ideas?

The Actual Top Ten of Artprize

Well, the list is out. I realize none of the items on the list are on my list…I expected that. Some of them really surprise me though. That open water one came out of nowhere.  I haven’t seen about half of them, so that gives me more to look at!

My writing about Artprize has gotten me a lot more readers. Thanks for visiting and please bookmark me, as I write about goings-on in Grand Rapids often. I deeply love this city!  This past week has made me realize how truly overlooked and beautiful it is.

My Top Ten ArtPrize Entries

We in Grand Rapids are waiting to hear who made it in the top 10 in Artprize. Voting ended last night and the B.O.B. was buzzing with last-minute viewers. I wanted to post my top 10 personal favorites–of what I’ve seen, mind you, which isn’t half of what’s out there.

10. The Car Chase – It makes you feel like you’re part of a Fantasy-Action movie scene. The women in the water are surprising and the flying insects are delightfully scary.

9. Triangle by Deborah Hyde – This piece is a quilt. I have never seen a quilt like that. Not only is it a beautiful image, but it’s intricately done. I don’t know. Something about it strikes me.

8. Clasp of Hands by Suzanne Jacobs John Forsythe – I love seeing a bronze sculpture that isn’t a bunch of kids saluting the American flag or reading books on a bench outside of a library. This one is just beautiful. The hands found throughout are mysterious and the angel-woman at the top is gorgeous and broken, her wings out of place. Love it!

7. Loss by Tad Mckillop – This one got an emotional reaction out of me. I have no idea what hydrocal is but the statue was life size and unmoving, just as the concept. How many of you have felt like that woman? I guess I love sculpture – especially the ones that look mythological and human at the same time.

6. Saugatuck Portrait Collection by James Brandess – This choice might seem unlikely to you, but if you went and saw this while a certain woman was there, you got to experience an overwhelming explanation of how interconnected all of the people in these portraits are. She started explaining the project and then went into a 15 minute spheel, pointing at a person, explaining them, pointing at another person, explaining their connection, and so on, while knowing all of their names and life stories. And when she was done, she said “So, you can see that everyone in Saugatuck is connected and it’s quite remarkable” as if she had only given 2 examples instead of fifty. I was amazed. And I love Saugatuck. It’s a great little town.  I love the Red Barn.

5. Time Cannot Exist Without Memory by John Magnan – We sat on this oversized bench the other day and I felt like a little kid again. Exactly the point. I like the concept behind this art. I like it when artists use simple concepts and let you sit on their pieces. Haha.

4. The Secret of Three Dimensional Ultraviolet by T. Mikey – He had two pieces in the B.O.B. and the first one I saw was the Wizard of Oz, which of course won me over immediately. I like these pieces because they use an unusual medium and frankly they look trippy. It does Alice in Wonderland justice by making it trippy/creepy, which the book totally is.  And then I think of Wizard of Oz, and I realize Baum may have been on drugs.

3. R. Temus by Norma Randazzo – This one had beautiful detail and I like the homage to Artemus–and that she wears a fur coat. Her arrows are beautiful! Reading the artist’s statement and, well, everything she wrote, she seems like an interesting person.

2. A Line through the Center of Space by Gary Pennock – In the basement of the B.O.B., one corner was really dark and surrounded by a partition. I went into it and looked down a tube and was sucked into another reality, never to return. Or, that was my experience. I loved this piece, it played this constant noise and made you feel like you were experiencing infinity. If I’ve ever told you about my infinity dream, this was the closest thing to it. Quite an accomplishment there.

1. The Sharing Tree by Michael Glenn Monroe – I met this artist and he gave me a children’s book he illustrated and his wife wrote. It was adorable. I am forever partial to children’s art and felt it needed to be on here. The tree isn’t necessarily children’s art, but it definitely accommodates them.

AND

Rise Up Grand Rapids by Charlie Brouwer – I had to put this one on because it’s my great uncle’s work!  I love that the ladders are borrowed and that from a certain angle, my church looks like it’s growing out of a nest of ladders. I love the mindfulness of the state of Grand Rapids and Michigan in general, the hope it embodies, and the truth it speaks that we can only get out of this mess by helping each other. It is not sentimental or Barney-esque or mushy gushy or “gay,” I won’t let it be. It’s vital to our survival.

Both of these works are in Cathedral square and were the first ones I saw. This is by far the best thing to ever happen to Grand Rapids. It’s like a miracle. Grand Rapids has felt like a real city this past week, and now that we’ve seen what it can be, we can work toward the reality.

Why Grand Rapids needs Bus Rapid Transit

It’s been embarrassingly long since I’ve posted. I’ve been doing some cool stuff with GVMC. For the past two weeks we have been going around to different townships and planning out how we’d want future populations to be allocated (10 acre lots? Suburbs? Towns?).

We’ve also been doing stuff with Brownfield money, and today after an interesting conversation, I’ve realized how important the Silver Line was.

The Silver Line was a proposed bus route that would run up and down Division, a main corridor of Grand Rapids. It’s also a crumbling corridor. Division has a rep of vacant buildings, XXX stores, and homelessness. It got voted down, and everyone I know was saying “they already have a bus, and no one new would use it.”

What didn’t get communicated, back in May, was that this bus-line was more than a bus-line. It was going to be fast–it’d have its own lane, control over traffic lights, go as fast as a subway. It’d essentially be a subway but in bus form. Commuters could take this bus rapid transit to work downtown, instead of driving themselves up and down US-131 every day (which, by experience, I KNOW gets really bad during rush hour).

Along with bringing hundreds of people downtown, where they don’t have to worry about parking, this line would make the surrounding properties tons more valuable. With office-job people commuting and looking out the window at stores, this ignored street would not be ignored anymore, by default.

The government has already given us money to rebuild and clean up contaminated and blighted sites along Division. The structure is already there–it is a walkable street with churches, clubs, restaurants, and infrastructure. All it needs is a new face.

Imagine Division Ave becoming like State Street (that great street) in Chicago. It would add a whole new dimension to Grand Rapids. It would connect towns south of Grand Rapids, too.

The main point is, you older people with families may want a big yard and no people around, but that kind of landscape alone sucks the economy dry. You’ve forgotten the young people, who want a place that’s a place (so many have left Michigan for Chicago, what does that tell you?), these young people who become young professionals who almost drive our economy. No wonder Michigan is doing so poorly, all the legislation supports penny-pinching families! Where’s any thought to any other age group? We need our places back.

But all of that rested on a BRT line, which all of you voted down. Tsk tsk tsk.

Woonerfs–Shared Streets

Firsly, the Grand Rapids Press had a big fat article on the front page on Wednesday about installing sidewalks on 28th Street. Is this not a direct response to my Letter to the Editor?  I’m going to say it is!!! YAY!

Also, I found this great webpage with tons of examples of “traffic calming” strategies, but most of them are actually encouraging towards bikes and pedestrians. From the Federal Highway Administration??! Fascinating!   My favorite new word is woonerf–a shared street found in Europe and Japan. Basically a street where people can walk and bike, and cars can mozy through, too, if need be.