The Downtown Market is Succeeding

On The Rapidian, writer Levi Gardner recently published a provocatively titled piece “Why we need to start talking honestly about the Downtown Market.” The article makes some worthwhile points regarding the Downtown Market and its relationship to “the local food economy,” but in many ways, it misses an essential point. The Downtown Market isn’t “failing to meet expectations”, but rather, it is succeeding at exactly what it was designed to do: transform the immediate neighborhood and encourage an influx of money into the area.

In the discussion around the Downtown Market, it seems that many people have missed this, despite the Downtown Market being rather explicit in its goal:

“We wanted our Market’s location to serve as a focal point within the city while revitalizing a previously neglected area. The Market continues to spark redevelopment of nearby properties while reintroducing community neighbors to a once underutilized Grand Rapids locale.”

Thus, when the Downtown Market is assessed it should be judged less on its ability to address the food needs of the neighborhood—which it was never designed to meet—and more on its power to transform the neighborhood. In this sense, the Downtown Market should be seen as an agent of gentrification.

The Downtown Market is a classic example of a “pioneer” gentrifier as originally conceptualized by gentrification scholar Neil Smith. It is located on the far edge of downtown, in an area that has been identified as ripe for redevelopment. The Downtown Market is a way to convince people—visitors, longterm Grand Rapids residents with negative perceptions of the area, and investors—that the area is “safe”. It is no coincidence that shortly after the Downtown Market opened, a cage was constructed to prevent people from sleeping under the bridge at Wealthy Street and Ionia Avenue. Beyond “the cage”, the outside of the Market is surrounded by examples of “hostile architecture” aimed at excluding homeless people from lingering in the area. One need not be a conspiracy theorist to believe that the location of the bathrooms on the far edge of the building was a deliberate design choice to discourage their use by homeless people.

Cage Designed to Prevent Homeless People from Sleeping under Wealthy Street
The cage designed to prevent homeless people from sleeping under the Wealthy Street bridge.

The Downtown Market’s offerings are upscale in nature because the project is designed to attract capital to the area—and nothing more. An early statement on the project stated that it sought to create a “center of local food excitement”. It wasn’t to address the food needs of the longstanding community surrounding the Downtown Market, but rather to create a destination for visitors and a beacon for the new class of young professionals. For those who struggle financially, food is a constant source of stress, but for those with who do not need to worry about food insecurity, it is no doubt exciting to peruse the options at the Downtown Market. Food tourism and culinary adventures are a critical part of the lifestyle of gentrifiers and it is on that terrain that the Downtown Market is positioned. Crepes, gelato, fish tacos, distilled spirits, etc., are all designed to cater to a specific lifestyle demographic. Statements from the owner of the upcoming Social Kitchen and Bar at the Downtown Market that their $14 turkey burgers are “…really for everyone, rich and poor” are no doubt disturbing, but they make sense in the context of a development designed exclusively to cater to those with money. And even when in the pre-opening stages officials said things like “We will provide a resource to fill a void in what is virtually a food desert,” it always seemed more like a cover than a critical part of the mission. After the Market opened, it was perhaps surprising just how bad it really was, but if one had read behind the lines, it was clear what was going to happen. While the Downtown Market responds to criticism with claims that they offer food assistance (but honestly, how much can one buy using EBT at the Market), decisions made by the Downtown Market continue to show its relationship to gentrification, as was the case of the recent hiring of Torrence O’Haire, most known for opening The Bandit Queen and Propaganda Donuts on Division Avenue.

At times, the Downtown Market seems to be flourishing. At lunchtime, people in business attire purchase lunch from the vendors and eat cafeteria-style in the de facto commons area. It has the air of being a food court for the professional set. On weekends, a mix of suburban visitors, hip and professional urbanities, and young professionals with their visiting parents in tow create a mix that is no doubt an odd site for those who have lived in the area prior to the opening of the Downtown Market. Conspicuously absent are many traditional low- and no-income residents of the Heartside neighborhood. Comparing the Downtown Market to other public spaces—such as the Public Library—is an interesting exercise. It’s hard to know if the Downtown Market is succeeding financially. Anecdotes abound from people who leave the Downtown Market somewhat confused by the prices or coming just to “check it out.” Most of the jobs generated by the Downtown Market are relatively low-wage service jobs, evidence of the widening gulf in society between those who can be served and those who must serve. But the point is, the Downtown Market doesn’t even have to succeed financially, public subsidies ensure that it has low operating costs. And more importantly, its primary goal is ideological in nature.

Further, in conversations around redevelopment in Grand Rapids, we need to consider more closely the role that public and semi-public infrastructure projects can have in promoting gentrification. The Downtown Market provides a case study for considering this relationship. These projects—landscape improvements, redesigned parks, street improvements, lighting, etc—are always designed to attract private investment, which often means the “market-rate housing”, upscale restaurants, boutiques, and entertainment options that are part of the gentrification process. While the Downtown Market is operated by a for-profit corporation, it relied heavily on government subsidies and was promoted under the guise that its development would help “everyone” in some abstract way. Such promises are usually empty and should be scrutinized. Grand Action—which undertook the market’s development—previously built the Van Andel Arena with the goal of catalyzing development in downtown Grand Rapids in the mid-1990s. Their interest was clearly not in addressing the needs of the Heartside community—they set their sights much further.

Downtown Market Parking Lot
The Downtown Market as a catalyst for neighborhood transformation.

This seems particularly relevant as the GR Forward plan is up for debate. The Downtown Market was a product of collaboration between a private group (Grand Action), private investors, the Downtown Development Authority (DDA), and government entities. In this sense, it is to some degree similar to GR Forward, which promotes similar partnerships and infrastructure improvements with the goal of attracting “investment” and encouraging “redevelopment”. GR Forward also advocates for the transformation the neighborhood in which the Downtown Market is located, including among other things, a major transformation of Heartside Park largely under the guise of improving “safety” and reducing “illegal activities.” Since 2010, Heartside Park was conceptualized as a potential extension of the Market, a place for co-branded festivals and events. In light of how the Market is, this will involve a complete shift in the park and the likely displacement (both cultural and physical) of those who now spend time in the park.

The DDA celebrates their role in the Downtown Market stating that it “immediately catalyzed residential development.” In response to the criticism of the Downtown Market on The Rapidian, the Downtown Market responded with a lengthy press release highlighting all of their programs allegedly aimed at making the Downtown Market “a place where everyone feels welcome.” Over at The Grand Rapids Press, another article in a long line of glowing news coverage celebrates the latest business opening in the Downtown Market. The Downtown Market isn’t failing, it’s doing exactly what it was designed to do—and that is what is cause for concern.