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Disregarding history & people: MLive’s take on the Division/Wealthy area

December 2, 2012

Editor’s Note: I lived in the neighborhood that is the subject of this article for 28 years and therefore have my own lived experience and bias of how I negotiated the people and history of the Wealthy/Division area.

Earlier today on MLive, there was an article about the expansion of downtown Grand Rapids, in the Wealthy/Division area.

Like most coverage up to this point, the article is very one-sided, taking the pro-development/pro-gentrification point of view. Much of the article presented a listing of all the “new developments” in the area and why they will make that area of the city, “a hot destination and a cool new gateway to downtown Grand Rapids.”picture-34

Such a statement is an observation of privilege and at the same time it denies history. The Wealthy/Division area has always been a destination of commerce, even though people would not like to compare it to the future forms of commerce.

People will come to shop at stores along Wealthy or stop in at the new downtown market upon its completion, but make no mistake about it, this area has been a destination of commerce for decades.

The more stereotypical forms of commerce that this area has been known for is the commerce of street drugs and sex trafficking. People, not from that neighborhood, would drive to the Wealthy/Division area to buy drugs or pay a sex worker. It was our observation through the past three decades that virtually none of those “buyers” were from that neighborhood and most were White men with money, based on the kind of vehicles and clothing they would wear.

In fact, those selling and buying drugs and those engaged in sex trafficking were never really from the neighborhood, but they used that neighborhood as a place to do commerce. Those of use involved in the neighborhood association and block club did our very best to discourage this kind of commerce, often at great risk to our own safety, but the main factor that empower the street commerce was the absentee landlords in the area that allowed their properties to be spaces were drugs and sex trafficking could be sold. It was also our contention for years that some of those absentee landlords were financial beneficiaries of the street commerce.

It is ironic that one of the people cited in the MLive article is the owner of the Shell gas station on the corner of Division and Wealthy. He made derogatory comments about how unsafe the neighborhood was, yet he made a ton of money off of that neighborhood, particularly since his prices for gas and basic food staples have always been outrageously high.

Those of us who were homeowners in this area, struggled to maintain safe spaces and were always fighting off outside investors who had set their sites on the neighborhood for land speculation or other projects that disregarded those who lived there.

Some examples of this outside land speculation are as follows. In the late 1980s, there was an attempt by a bus company to purchase a whole city block. This bus company did bus tours around the state and needed more land for parking buses than their existing location. However, part of this plan included to displacement of several families and their homes, so the neighborhood fought against it and won.

In the mid-90s, Catholic Central High School was looking to have an outdoor athletic facility closer to their downtown campus and proposed turning the same city block that the bus company looked at into an outdoor track & field space. Again, this would displace homes and families and the neighborhood said no.

In the late 90s there was an attempt to build a youth center in the area, with recreation space and computer labs. This project had some appeal, but upon further investigation, the neighborhood decided that these services were offered in many spaces near our neighborhood and that what we wanted was more homes to be built in the vacant lots that were being coveted by numerous outside groups. This project was also defeated.

Recognizing that outside interests would not go away, we began organizing neighborhood planning meetings. We organized a long-term neighborhood planning session in 1998 and then ICCF organized two additional planning sessions in 2000 and 2002, something I have written about previously. I do not want to repeat much of that previous writing, but do want to point out that in all three of those neighborhood planning meetings we made it clear that we did not want to displace people. In fact, in the 2002 Wealthy – Jefferson Development Initiative, it states, “All current home owners will be able to continue to enjoy their homes, including some form of protection against tax increases that could threaten their ownership in the future.”

Unfortunately, this did not happen and several home owners left, when ICCF bought the vacant land and then offered to buy them out in order to undertake a completely new development project, one that the neighborhood had no say in.

When MLive presents this neighborhood in the way it does with today’s article, it ignores history – a history of the lives of working class people, and it disregards the lives of people who struggled to make ends meet, mostly Black and Latino lives.

There are those, who out of ignorance and privilege, will say, “but isn’t the neighborhood better off with these new developments?” My response would be, it’s not an either or question. One cannot ignore history and people, just because they do not make for hot destinations. The great Indian freedom fighter Mohandas Gandhi once said, “there is no beauty, even in the finest garments, if it causes the oppression and suffering of some people.” Likewise, there can be no complete jubilation in changes taking place at Division and Wealthy if in the process people were displaced, discounted and forgotten.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Marty permalink
    December 3, 2012 1:43 pm

    What a bizarre article. It talks about “no progress if people are displaced, disccounted and forgotten” but essentially talks about only the drug dealer and sex workers who will be displaced. And these not being from the area. The improvements being done to this area will be a huge win for the area. And there is even a new school being built nearby. I do not understand how anytime someone comes in with improvements to an area that is neglected, run-down and hopeless is a bad thing? There is too many “what ifs” and not enough “here you go”

  2. December 3, 2012 1:49 pm

    Marty, did you actually read my article? If so, you completely misread it. Yes, there have been drug dealers and sex workers, but they were not from this area, nor the people who bought from them. The people who have been displaced were families who had nothing to do with the drug and sex trade. I made that point to say that that neighborhood has always been a destination for commerce, not just because the “market” is going in there.

    Also, when you say improvements, what do you mean and for whom? My contention as someone who has lived there for 28 years is that the benefits will be for upscale people, not the poor working class families that have lived in the Wealthy/Division area for decades.

    Please read the article before spouting off with privileged and naive comments.

  3. Mike permalink
    December 3, 2012 8:35 pm

    Your article lends a different and beneficial perspective to the development happening in the area. I think I got your well made point about commerce in the area. I did not particpate in the Wealthy Jefferson Development Initiative but from what I have seen from the plans and the work of ICCF I think you are being unfair to them and their work in the area as it pertains to who is benefits and their efforts in involving the community. As for the “benefits being for upscale people, not the poor working class families” I wonder if you could explain and evidence exactly whom all the parties are that are benefiting from the recent development, such as the Downtown Market and Tapestry Square.

    I think criticisms such as yours are often times not taken under consideration, both from good intentions full of ignorance and self serving avarice. However, I think that just calling the recent developments getting so much press gentrificaiton without backing that statement up without evidence is a disservice to the good that is being done.

  4. December 3, 2012 8:49 pm

    Mike, I appreciate your comments, but by definition, gentrification occurs when people are displaced and people have already been displaced in this process. When I say who will benefit from this, look at the new loft apartments that ICCF has put up, which are going for 1,000 a month. No one I knew who lived in this neighborhood over the past three decades paid anywhere near that for mortgage or rent. And as for the new market, of course I am speculating, but based upon the language used by the consulting firm hired by Grand Action before the construction of the market, they referred to the market as a tourist destination with a Disneyland like atmosphere. This is the 6th article I have written on this market and I believe I have presented ample evidence that gentrification is taking place. IF poor families of color have vacated their property for new development, what else can you call it.

    I do realize that this is not a all good or all bad dynamic and that neighborhood worked hard for years to develop a plan of improvement. However, we were excluded in the final process and that is hard to accept.

  5. Mike permalink
    December 3, 2012 10:03 pm

    Jeff, you are correct that gentrification occurs when people are displaced. However, I see no evidence of people being bullied or forced to leave beyond your statement in another article about a family that “felt” pressure to sell. I understand that just because I don’t see it does not mean its not happening but I just cannot be as critical of these developments for those reasons. As for the Market, I see this as a boon to both rich and poor in the area. The developer, Grand Action, is working hard to be inclusive of low income residents and minorities in both the development process, construction, and tenant mix. The Market will also accept bridge cards and include incentives for low income residents while introducing a culture of fresh and healthy food to an urban environment severely lacking such a thing. In addition, I think a $30 million dollar investment in a neighborhood with a poverty rate of 44% and median income of 35% is a thing to be applauded, especially considering the funding sources, both private and public, and community involvement.

  6. December 3, 2012 10:15 pm

    Mike, you don’t think that the families who were bought out by ICCF, only after they bought all the surrounding properties, felt pressure to move. Of course, they could have stayed and fought, but we know how difficult that is to do, especially when one can not afford legal assistance. In addition, gentrification is not just the physical removal of people, but the marginalization as well. As someone who has lived in that neighborhood for 28 years I can tell you that our neighborhood has always been the subject of outside interests, who have not been terribly interested in what those of us who lived there thought. Grand Action never talked to anyone in our neighborhood in the process and the only official who showed any interest in doing so was Commissioner Jim Talen.

    You say that we all should applaud the market. Yes, by all means, where would we be without the likes of Grand Action, DeVos and company. We would all be living in darkness without them.

    What I find particularly contemptuous is when anyone who hasn’t lived in the area knows what is best for us, not include us in the process and then to take the credit for make our lives better. Fucking unbelievable.

    And may I ask, why you have an interest in defending the market?

  7. Mike permalink
    December 4, 2012 12:03 am

    I really don’t know who the former property owners were nor why they sold. I guess I really don’t know how you and your neighborhood have been and continue to be marginalized by “outside interests” and why/how you continue to be excluded. It is certainly unfortunate and to no one’s benefit in the long term that this marginalization and exclusion continue. As to my interest in the Market, I personally look forward to its opening and think it will have a beneficial effect on the City in a huge number of ways, from economic development, which I am interested in, to health, community, education, business, food, etc.

  8. Anthony permalink
    December 4, 2012 3:24 pm

    Strong argument on both sides. But what Jeff has stated are very true facts, that unfortunatly are never delivered that way from our so called leaders . Either due to some personal involvement or not wanting to stand up to the guys with all the bucks in town. Honesty and integrity at that political level is very fleeting. You can massage the facts all you want and maybe to some form of ignorant success, but actual facts are facts if you choose to understand the real intent of those pushing one way or another.

    I personally favor healthy amounts of new and old when done the right way.

  9. GrridCheck permalink
    December 4, 2012 5:49 pm

    The area is far better off. I am glad that these people have put down their money to improve a blighted section of GR to the betterment of all people. Sadly the people that live there seem to see that any development that doesn’t meet their approval should be blocked. While their input is important, they dont have a right to make demands that what is built be built only for a social-economic class because they dont care for those “upscale” people moving in.

    They were free at anytime to have bought the land in question and developed at paradise for those people. They didnt….oh well! I guess 28 years of dilapidation and decay are preferable to clean, modern tax-producing business that provide jobs and opens a long-neglected section of Grand Rapids to commerce and life?

    Dont hate.

  10. December 4, 2012 5:54 pm

    Meaningless words from someone who won’t even tell us who they are. You have no idea what you are talking about. The neighbors who were moved out did not live in squalor or decay as you say and how would you know, since you did not live there. And its not about getting our way, it is about an agreement that the neighborhood came to with ICCF which said no one will be displaced. We have every right to be angry and every right to ignore your spineless comments.

  11. anna dondon permalink
    December 4, 2012 10:26 pm

    Hahaha captialist fuck telling poor people ‘dont hate.’ Hopefully your fear means we’re doing something right.

  12. GrridCheck permalink
    December 5, 2012 10:12 am

    Blah blah. The place was a wreck. Run-down buildings, abandoned homes, trash in empty lots. But of course it was this beautiful “poor people” paradise? Only a few out-of-touch elitists thought that area was fine the way it was.

    And these people were forced out. They saw how crappy the place was and they gladly got out. Much to your annoyance because they didnt stick around and fight those evil rich people that came in and did evil rich people stuff like actually fix up the place.

    It is sad that such haters still live in society, looking to keep places in a permanent state of dilapidation in order to perpetuate class warfare for some twisted agenda. Grand Rapids will be far better off with this development and will lead to even more quality developments south of Wealthy.

    If you hate such progressive developments so much, then why didnt you buy the land?

  13. GrridCheck permalink
    December 5, 2012 10:18 am

    ” captialist fuck “? So I take it you either don’t work, or take your paycheck and burn it, let alone know how to spell the word?

    You sit there and condemn people that are improving the city, and putting people to work as bad? What are you doing other then sitting around pretending to be some crusader for the “poor”? Sad people that stew in such regressive views.

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