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Grand Rapid Growth video presents one-sided view

January 8, 2010

A new short documentary produced by Grand Valley State University students takes a look at what has been happening in downtown Grand Rapids in recent years. The two-part video hosted on Vimeo is upbeat and celebrates what appears to be a revival of the downtown area of Grand Rapids.

The video features Mayor George Heartwell, Sharon Evoy of the Downtown Alliance, Rob Bliss and a variety of on the street interviews with random citizens. Well, not completely random, since everyone interviewed for this video is White, which should tell you something about what most of these people think about what is going on in the downtown area.

The video begins with Heartwell discussing how downtown Grand Rapids was the retail hub up until the highway system was built. Heartwell rightfully points out that the highways system is what brought the rise of suburbs and shopping malls. However, what the Mayor fails to point out is that the highways were also part of a national military strategy under President Eisenhower, whom even called the highway project the National Defense Highway System.

Another consequence of the highway system was that it destroyed some traditional neighborhoods and displaced hundreds of working class families. This is a point often ignored historically and is repeated with today’s “development.”

Heartwell and Evoy both attribute much of the downtown’s revitalization to things like ArtPrize and events created by Rob Bliss, but they never articulate the real concrete benefits of such events. As we have pointed out before, ArtPrize and the Rob Bliss created events have been beneficial for businesses downtown because of the revenue that came with the people.

However, there is no discussion in the video of how these events have impacted some of the people living in downtown Grand Rapids, nor does it address the larger economic realities of this kind of “development.” The video doesn’t address that some people are being displaced because of the gentrification of downtown Grand Rapids, the increased police presence to keep poor and homeless people away from shoppers and the increased rental fees, which limits who can even afford to live in or near downtown.

The short film also does not point out that much of the downtown “development” has been funded by taxpayers through Downtown Development Authority projects or through tax breaks and subsidies to businesses in the downtown area, all of which are essentially paid for by the public.

There is one critical voice in the video, but his comments are pretty much drowned out by the endless praise of Rob Bliss and ArtPrize. Interestingly enough, at one point in the video Rob Bliss says that he is just giving people what they want. Bliss also says that he is primarily motivated by culture and pride.

Imagine how the recent changes in downtown would be viewed if the video producers had interviewed working class people, people making minimum wage, people living in shelters, minorities and recent immigrants? Would Grand Rapids be seen as the most economically stable city in the state, as Mayor Heartwell claims in the video?

To view the two-part video, go to this link on Vimeo.

Update: As of Sunday (Jan. 10) morning the link to this video on Vimeo is no longer accessible. It says, “Do you have permission to watch this video? If you do please first log in to Vimeo to watch this video.” Whether or not our criticism had anything to do with the change, it is unfortunate that those who posted it on Vimeo no longer want the general public to view it.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Kate Wheeler permalink
    January 9, 2010 3:41 am

    This is an interesting video. It’s ironic that trends that disrupt the lives of the working class, poor and homeless are being touted at the very point when foreclosures are skyrocketing, Michigan’s unemployment numbers are the worst in the nation, and homeless shelters are in crisis from increased need and a falling-off of donations.

    I read recently in the paper that an organization called Inner City Christian Foundation (or something like that) was planning to launch a project, currently delayed, to build a big complex of housing, restaurants, and offices somewhere around the St. Mary Hospital area. The article talked about how this organization existed to help low-income people, but the project didn’t sound anything like low-income housing to me.

    Does anyone at GRIID happen to know anything about this–is it going to create even more displacement via gentrification, or is it a project that’s actually intended to reverse some of the disappearance of formerly affordable neighborhoods in the city?

  2. Jeff Smith permalink*
    January 9, 2010 4:34 am

    Kate, it is interesting that you mention the Inner City Christian Federation project near St. Mary’s. This project is in my neighborhood. Over the past year they have torn down numerous commercial and residential buildings, 2 houses in the last week alone. The house I live in will be the last house standing in a two block area and we have not been able to get any answers from the City or the Inner City Christian Federation. I am continuing to try to find any information I can about this project and will certainly write about it if I do. In fact, if they try to force us out of the neighborhood, I will no doubt be the subject of news coverage.

  3. karen permalink
    January 9, 2010 2:23 pm

    Thanks Jeff for always giving us a perspective that we should hold. Kate’s comments and question are excellent; wish more people asked the kind of questions Kate asks.

  4. Kate Wheeler permalink
    January 9, 2010 4:47 pm

    Jeff, what a truly awful situation to be in, watching your own neighborhood being torn down around you and not even getting your phone calls returned.

    I went to the Inner City Christian Federation’s website and I cannot not make sense of this project from what I found there. First of all, it’s listed as a nonprofit. Secondly, it makes no mention at all of this huge building project that was talked up in the article as a major business coup. Third, the organization asks for donations specifically to refurbish homes and then rent or sell them to low-income people–not tear them down to make a profit.

    Elsewhere I found an article from 2008 that described the project as a “mixed-use, mixed-income housing and retail complex” but emphasized that nationally known retailers would serve as anchors; the complex would have offices and restaurants; and that part of the money would be coming from federal tax credits. I’m guessing that’s where the token “mixed-income” is necessary–to get the federal kickback money.

    The recent Press article seemed to indicate that the project was on indefinite hold due to the economy, but good luck to you and your family in getting the answers you need before more bulldozers show up on your street.

  5. broken link permalink
    January 10, 2010 1:50 pm

    The link to the video is broken.

  6. January 20, 2010 9:28 pm

    First to Jeff Smith, I live in your neighborhood and I had the same questions. I called about the project and the receptionist transfered me to the Project Manager and although he was not available I left a voicemail message and he returned my call that same day and reassured me this was in no way going to affect my living space. I believe that If your questions weren’t answered by a simple phone call, voicemail, fax, mail or email then the good old fashioned “walk-in” would be preferable if you are that worried. Also, I believe you BOTH (Kate Wheeler) are being a little “one-sided” the work that ICCF does is to help families in need (myself included) and try to make stable and beautiful neighborhood. So quit complaining about when, where, who, what and why and wondering where all their money is coming from and if they are building restaurants. SHUT UP!!! Think about others that are less fortunate to be sitting in a warm house like you are. Lastly, quit SPECULATING be informed and read thru their website or “Walk-in” and ask to speak with the CEO instead of trying to defemate these people’s core values!!!! Oh by the way….ICCF has placed families in need in over 500 homes…what have you done other than write a stupid little article full of speculations? GET ALL THE INFO BEFORE YOU SPEAK PEOPLE!!!!

  7. January 20, 2010 9:36 pm

    Tony, I did walk into ICCF’s office on numerous occasions and was not able to get the information I wanted. After months the people I live with finally were able to get a meeting with ICCF, but not much information was forth coming. Having said that, I don’t think I said anything critical of the work that ICCF does…I was just commenting on my experience of trying to get information about what is happening in my neighborhood. I know plenty of people who have benefited from ICCF programs.

    I have lived here for 25 years and we have had 3 major planning sessions on the future of our neighborhood, all of them involving ICCF. I just want to make sure that what the neighborhood decided upon is the kind of development we eventually have here. Asking for transparency is not a bad thing, but something we should all ask for especially from organizations who receive public funding.

  8. January 21, 2010 7:30 pm

    I thought you’d say that you went there and still did not get answers so I got you the name of someone you can talk to…Ben is his name, he is the one that answered my wife’s questions. And yes, what you said sounded negative..i.e.,

    “In fact, if they try to force us out of the neighborhood, I will no doubt be the subject of news coverage.”

    I don’t think ANYONE, not even the city would force you out of your neighborhood without advance notice. I HIGHLY doubt that you would drive up your street one day and find that your house has been bulldozed down.

  9. Jeff Smith permalink*
    January 21, 2010 7:52 pm

    Tony, thanks for the contact information. I do already have the Director Jonathan Bradford’s info.

    Actually, cities can force you to leave your neighborhood. It is called eminent domain, where if the city decides that the greater good is to build a highway or other development you have to leave. This happened to hundreds of families in Grand Rapids when the highway was built through GR in the 50s and more recently when the city built parking lots on the westside they forced people to move out of a neighborhood that had existed for 100 years. Now, we would get a notice of this, but hopefully it will not come to that.

  10. January 22, 2010 2:33 pm

    Ok…I refuse to answer another one of your “Replies”….I know about eminent domain…but what I’m saying is…and read carefully…YOU DO NOT NEED ANY INFO….THEY WILL NOT FOR YOU OUT WITHOUT NOTICE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  11. January 22, 2010 8:47 pm

    I know they won’t force me out without notice and I never said they would. I was merely saying that “if they try to force us out,” meaning if the City used eminent domain.

    Tony, no one is demanding you reply to anything anyone writes, that is your choice. The original post was a critique of a video that is promoting the “improvements” to the downtown and what I was addressing was the problem of gentrification.

    The only reason I mentioned ICCF is that I was having (and still having) difficulty getting information about the development project in my neighborhood, which ICCF is heading up.

  12. September 26, 2011 7:34 am

    In the comlpicated world we live in, it’s good to find simple solutions.

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