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Buying a Neighborhood: Capitalist Narratives and Rockford Construction

June 1, 2016

Yesterday, MLive ran a story entitled, Developer wants to bring excitement back to his old West Side neighborhood. The article focuses on the person of Mike VanGessel, the CEO of Rockford Construction, who was raised on the westside of Grand Rapids.Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 2.56.11 AM

The MLive article has all the components of acting as a stenographer to power: pulling yourself up by your bootstraps narrative, associations with other “investors” and gentrifying a neighborhood and calling it exciting.

Still doing Business on the Westside

The MLive paints a narrative about Mike VanGessel that makes it sound as if anyone from humble beginnings can end up be wealthy. With both print and video, MLive takes us through VanGessel’s old neighborhood attempting to frame his westside roots and his company’s takeover of the westside as another Great American success story. But then, we get what the westside native is really up to:

Three years after moving the company’s headquarters into the neighborhood, VanGessel is working on a series of plans and projects aimed at revitalizing the gritty, working-class neighborhood into an entertainment, shopping and residential neighborhood.

The Rockford CEO wants to transform the neighborhood from a working class neighborhood and make it upscale. In fact, the development projects that Rockford has in the works on the westside will mean that many of the traditional westsiders could not even afford to live in the new apartments. It is as if VanGessel and friends want to write out of history the 1911 furniture workers strike. Or maybe, what VanGessel and company are really doing is saying that just like the furniture barons, they will dictate the future of politics on the westside.Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 3.06.11 AM

Well-heeled Investors?

The MLive article also reveals that the Rockford CEO has developed important relationships over the years with other power players in the area, specifically Rich DeVos, Mike Jandernoa and Pete Secchia. While these powerful individuals are referred to as “well-heeled investors,” nothing is said about their contempt for working class people.

DeVos, Jandernoa and Secchia all have a long history of buying politicians and influencing public policy. Each of these men and their families are part of the political and economic elite in West Michigan. They all are part of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, the West Michigan Policy Forum and sit on numerous boards to make sure that they get what they want. This means they all were in favor of making Michigan a Right to Work state, imposing economic austerity measures that have been brutal for working class families and have attacked public sector unions. By acknowledging that VanGessel sees these men as trusted partners, means that he puts himself in the same class as them.

Buying a neighborhood

However, the real focus of the MLive article is on the numerous gentrification projects that Rockford has embarked on just west of the Grand River. In every instance, the MLive article communicates that these so-called development projects should elicit nothing but praise. Market rating (read upscale) housing, beer gardens and other forms of commerce are the focus of what Rockford is really doing on the westside. In addition to the new projects, they continue to buy property along Bridge and Stocking streets, in what VanGessel calls “the super block.”

We know these projects are having negative impacts on the working class families that make up much of the westside. There is displacement from these development projects, with houses being bulldozed in recent years and more buildings to be “demolished” on the super block.

Then there are the other, more hidden dynamics, with increased property taxes, increased rental costs and the radical change of the neighborhood culture on the westside. Having spoke with numerous near westside residents about these issues at recent housing forums, it is disconcerting that there are no voices critical of the Rockford projects. However, this is the role that news media plays when  when they act as stenographers to power.

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