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It’s cool, if you’re White

June 21, 2010

This morning on, the Grand Rapids Press posted a story that will be in today’s paper entitled, “Grand Rapids’ Uptown neighborhood held up as model of urban revival.”

The article is a follow up to stories that appeared Sunday on what young people think about Grand Rapids and the State’s Cool Cities initiative. From the very first sentence, the reporter equates being cool with being in certain neighborhoods and going to certain businesses.

In fact, the whole article (apart from the State’s Cool Cities manager) cites people who own businesses or are purchasing something at a business. This emphasis on the commercial element can lead one to conclude that being cool is equated with making money in a neighborhood district.

The article also cites Guy Bazzani, a local businessman who has done well financially constructing LEED-certified buildings throughout the city. At one point Bazzani, who is talking about public perception of crime in the Uptown area, says, “people that embrace diversity are very comfortable here.”

This is an interesting comment from Bazzani considering that everyone cited in this story is White. So, how is it that the Press reporter did not talk about what is cool in the Uptown area with anyone who is not White? Was this intentional or just a coincidence? Either way it doesn’t really matter, because readers will not know the intent of the reporter. The important point to make here is that everyone cited is White and that is how people could read the story. Some people may not notice this and that most likely has more to do with lack of awareness and privilege.

The last point that is worth noting which intersects with the other two points about the business focus and the racial representation, which is something that is missing in this story. The article paints a happy picture of a thriving area of the city, but omits any of the negative consequences of what all this commercial development has created.

Property values have gone up as a result of all of this development, particularly along the Wealthy Street corridor. Increased property values means higher taxes and increased rental costs, which has inevitably led some people to leave the neighborhood.

Another consequence to this gentrification has meant that many minority residents have felt alienated by all of the new businesses, most of which are owned by White people. Many African American people I have spoken with have felt added pressure both economically and culturally because of the commercial development projects.

Another omission in the Press article is the numerous minority owned businesses in the Uptown area. The reporter did not talk to the owners of Sandmans, the Guatemalan store on Wealthy or former gallery owner George Bayard who left Wealthy Street because of increased rent costs. Journalists cannot claim ignorance on such important matters, even if their “angle” is to write about “cool neighborhoods.” If the Press is going to address diversity and neighborhood changes they need to identify both the positive and negative consequences to these kinds of developments.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. stelle permalink
    June 21, 2010 2:43 pm

    As a witness to the “whiting” of Wealthy Street over the past few years, I have to say this post is right on. Another concern is the huge increase in automobile traffic. Since working class residents of this part of the city are already struggling with higher asthma rates, has anyone stopped to ask how the increase in vehicle emissions is gong to impact their health?

    Also, many of the folks living here use bicycles–especially children. There are no bike lanes, area drivers dangerously resent sharing the road and white business owners are up in arms about having bicycles on the sidewalk.

  2. Erin Wilson permalink
    June 21, 2010 2:58 pm

    I have for a couple years been encouraging anyone interested to consider using the theatre – possibly in partnership with WSBA – to educate tenants about home ownership programs. My thought was that home ownership could create “anchors” and ensure a number of existing residents remain residents. There is a number of Baxter / West Eastown / East Hills renters who could potentially utilize ICCF-type programs to buy, instead of rent. Maybe it’s a bandaid on a heart attack. I lived through gentrification in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and I saw its effects in the East Village – the only effort that seemed to have real benefit was rent control, which allowed existing low-income tenants to retain affordable housing, as the overall property values exploded. One of my relatives has lived on 1st/10th since the 60s and pays rent in the hundreds, which is unheard of in the East Village – but if he were gone, the neighborhood would be even more bland.

    It’s interesting to consider that whites were fleeing Uptown 50 years ago, most specifically in my neighborhood, south of Wealthy.

    Jeff, what other ways could one contribute positively to a solution? What would be a solution? If some existing tenants could become homeowners, and take advantage of an increase in tax base (from the addt’l businesses and homeowners) this might have some benefits…?

    I live on Dunham and we’re the only white family on the block. Not the only homeowners, though. Several African American homeowners in Baxter joke about being “delighted” by gentrification because “it makes their property value go up each time another white person moves in.” Home-renters, on the other hand, likely would not share this perspective.

    Do you know how much George’s rent went up? I didn’t know that was why he left. He is missed. We loved having his art for sale in the theatre lobby. It looked great and we were grateful to be connected to a longstanding local business this way.

    But I do agree with many points you raise and, having been here for a decade, I see increasing “symptoms” of gentrification. I walk/bike home from the theatre every night (sometimes very late) and walk through 10-50 gang members and their friends, in an increasingly-concentrated stretch of Baxter. And of course there are often half a dozen police cars at any given moment.

    More black-owned businesses would be excellent, especially retail. But how to inform prospective business owners about options? Are there any programs? In the block of buildings adjacent to our Annex there is a business called Cutz ‘N Jamz which would be another good example, perhaps, of African American owned businesses in Uptown. I like them a lot, they’re good neighbors. I hope they’ll be there a while, they have done great things with that long-abandoned facade.

    So it’d be great to have a collection of ideas of what could be done. Is gentrification an unstoppable force that cannot be tempered? What has / hasn’t worked in other metro areas? Do you have thoughts on what rent control has done in NYC? Any suggestions for tenants here?

    Great piece as always, Jeff. Thanks for all that you do. Miss seeing the Bloom flag. Hope the garden is thriving.

  3. gstilson permalink
    June 21, 2010 3:37 pm

    i just have to say that the whole “white” vs. “not white” angle of this review is almost as offensive as the original article.

  4. nai permalink
    June 21, 2010 4:21 pm

    personally, i’ve welcomed the changes on wealthy street. a number of diverse (see black) businesses have also sprung up (in particular the southern fish fry, which is delicious) and the wealthy street theater has on occasion put on events that would be considered ethnically diverse (hip hop awards).

    but more to the point, i have felt safer moving down the street late at night. having been mugged on sigsbee street, the road i had lived on for two years, i did not like that i had a legitimate fear of my own neighborhood. i’m happy to say that, with the new businesses and the clientele they’re bringing in, i feel it is much safer to move through that area after dark today than it was two years ago.

    i don’t understand why there is resistance to rebuilding areas that have been overtaken by crime and dilapidation.

  5. Jeff Smith permalink*
    June 21, 2010 4:27 pm

    Erin, there are certainly some models around the country that have done their best to avoid gentrification. Some examples are highlighted in the book “Streets of Hope” by Peter Medoff and Holly Sklar. What seems to work or what solutions are different from location to location, but I think from my own reading of this issue is that making sure that all residents are included in any “development” project is important, so that there is an inclusive ownership of what happens. However, the bigger issue is always equity, both racial and economic. Gentrificastion will always hapen as long as there are those without resources and those with and that translates as usually those with as predominantly White.

    In response to gstilson – It would be helpful for you to articulate how the article was offensive. Not only do I think it was not offensive, but it sheds light on an ongoing dynamic in local media coverage with racial representation. That the Press did not talk to anyone other than White businesses owners and consumers is just unacceptable, especially since the Upton area is a multi-racial neighborhood. My posting is not creating a us versus them, the lack of racial inclusion in the Press article is.

  6. Jeff Smith permalink*
    June 21, 2010 4:34 pm

    My critique of the Press article is not saying that any and all of the changes on Wealthy are bad. What I am pointing out is that the reality is much more complex than what the Press article presents. The Press omits both racial diverse voices in telling the story of the development along Wealthy St. as you point out and they don’t honestly look at the fact that some people have been negatively impacted by the changes.

    The point you make about feeling safer when walking in that area may be true in some ways, but with the area becoming more upscale there is also increased police presence, which does not always translate into people feeling safer. I ride bike as a primary means of transportation and with the increased traffic I do not feel safer.

    Again, the point is that the Press article is misleading in that there are limited voices/perspectives and it fails to acknowledge that the development as caused dispalcement and economic hardship.

  7. gstilson permalink
    June 21, 2010 5:03 pm

    specifically, i found the way you used the term “White people” to be offensive, in much the same way as it would be if you used “Black people” instead of ‘racial inclusion’.

    Also, what standard are you using to decide who is a ‘White person’? Guy Bazzani and Tami Vandenberg certainly don’t look to me like they were produced from the same gene pool. What about the diversity between them?

    I certainly do agree that The Press should take care to represent this city accurately, with special sensitivity to diversity, but if you want to live in a post-racial world (and I’m assuming you do from your passionate reaction to this article), you have to give up describing things in terms of skin color…no matter what color that is.

  8. Jeff Smith permalink*
    June 21, 2010 5:12 pm

    The standard I am using for “White people” are anyone of European descendancy, caucasians, people who in this society, whether they want to acknowledge it or not, have privilege because they are White.

    Actually, I don’t want to live in a post-racial society. I want to acknowledge and celebrate the racial differences that we all have. However, that also means that I will continue to draw attention to racial exclusion, White privilege and White Supremacy, no matter how it manifests itself.

  9. Erin Wilson permalink
    June 21, 2010 6:10 pm

    I’d say the “white” vs. “non-white” angle (to Jeff’s piece) goes to the *heart* of the issues experienced on a daily basis, in the neighborhood.

    Regarding the different subtleties of derma possessed by European descendents, whiteness was perhaps best described by Justice Potter Steward: “I know it when I see it.”

    Oh wait, he wasn’t talking about whiteness, was he 😉

    Great conversation, thanks for this piece.

  10. srdailey permalink
    June 21, 2010 6:13 pm

    interesting perspective here. i agree that the press should have created a more inclusive picture of the transformation taking place in this area.

    the thing that troubles me the most, however, is what’s the alternative? resist progress to preserve the current (or previous) neighborhood dynamic, even if it was a negative one? that seems more destructive than gentrification in my head.

  11. Erin Wilson permalink
    June 21, 2010 6:30 pm

    Does Bloom have the book “Streets of Hope” by Peter Medoff and Holly Sklar, in the library? If not I’ll look at Literary Life or KDL. Sounds very informative, thanks.

  12. Jeff Smith permalink*
    June 21, 2010 6:46 pm

    I don’t think it is an either or, but to avoid or minimize gentrification you must at a minimum figure out a way so that no one is negatively impacted from development projects. More importantly, we need to work for more equality in general, particularly along economic and racial lines, which would go a long way to minimizing gentrification.


  1. Protest Against Gentrification Dismissed as Prank « Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy

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