But the Band Plays On: Community, Participation, Gentrification

How We Grow Grand Rapids

Polite society makes conflict a dirty word, a dangerous omen — something to be either avoided or tranquilized. When faced with conflict, there are always groups (whether formal organizations or social cliques) that seek to smooth over dissent while still maintaining the appearance of inclusiveness. So in a time when conflict about policing and gentrification has been rising and threatening the status quo, it’s useful to identify the inevitable attempts at controlling this conversation.

Recently, there has been a rash of forums and panels in Grand Rapids on the topics of development, gentrification, racism, and policing. Noteworthy among these was the August 20th “How We Grow” forum organized at Wealthy Theatre by the group Equity Drinks. It was sponsored in part by Spectrum Health and Bear Manor Properties, the latter most conspicuous for their enthusiastic commitment to development in the Wealthy Street corridor. The event was billed as a community panel discussion, and focused on the ongoing developments taking place in Grand Rapids and the related issues of displacement and inequality.

Despite the open doors and the anticipation of an informal community discussion, there were layers of mediation between the participants and the panelists. The least subtle of these was the heavy moderation, typical of forums like this, which shaped the content and the direction of the conversation. The ways in which the event was structured and scheduled also meant that certain voices would necessarily be more present. Events like this are typically scheduled in the evenings, on the assumption that most attendees work 9-to-5. It seemed to be primarily promoted via Facebook, where in-the-know “concerned citizens” could share it with their friends but not many others. And as with all Equity Drinks events, there was a networking hour before the forum commenced — implying that most attendees would come from similar professional backgrounds and would know how to, much less want to, network with each other.

Technology provided yet another layer of mediation to the discussion. Behind the host and four panelists, a massive display of the event’s Twitter feed updated in real time with questions and comments from attendees, imparting a fragmented mood to the event. While attendees’ attentions bounced between the panelists, their phones, their Retweet counts, and the display, the panelists didn’t engage with the questions or comments from the Twitter feed very much.

Excerpt from the Twitter 'Conversation'

Everything about the event, from the venue to the panelists, was respectable and safe, and so the people most comfortable engaging were respectable and safe. It’s not just formal organizations or companies that have an interest in quelling conflict, it is individuals as well. Locally, conversations about issues related to housing and development are often dominated by cliques of urbanists — an assemblage of neighborhood association members, aspiring politicians, urban planners and would-be urban planners, trendy business owners, local micro-celebrities, and their cohorts. These types are educated, tech-savvy, “green,” and typically self-identified liberals or progressives. They are cultured, glowing with civic pride, and utterly convinced that they are a part of the solution. They are diplomatically aware of their privilege, and yet simultaneously oblivious to how it lets them skillfully engage in more-or-less polite debates about things that others’ very survival depends upon.

These are the types that are the most comfortable engaging with discussions about development and gentrification, in the flesh and on social media, and who leave the most satisfied. To not engage would compromise their liberal sensibilities, but to take meaningful action beyond merely engaging and accommodating would compromise their stake in the economic growth. The sponsors of development, the sponsors of events discussing development, and the urbanist cliques that engage in these events become actors in a theatrical performance — though cast in opposing roles, behind the curtain they are members of the same company.

What should be immediately noticeable about the “How We Grow” event is that, if the intention is taken at face value, it was practically pointless. If one didn’t like the new developments and transformations taking place in the city, Tweeting about it wouldn’t do much. And for those who did accept or approve of the gentrification, lucky them — because it’s already happening!

But let’s give Spectrum Health and Bear Manor Properties a little credit here, the event was a bit more than a waste of time. By corralling people into a public discussion and encouraging criticism, a number of things are accomplished that are actually beneficial to the forces of gentrification.

For one, opposition is dulled into ineffectual criticism. First, a “we” is created, a contrived sense of community, and it’s implied that “we” have some nebulously-defined agency in affecting the outcome of gentrification. The terms of the conversation are set before it even takes place, most obviously in the name of the event itself, “How We Grow.” (As if growth is the only option.) By asking everyone to air their grievances, hostility towards gentrification is transformed through this false sense of community into an equally false sense of participation and inclusion. Antagonism towards gentrification then becomes critical dialogue within this “community.”

It’s obvious that not everyone in Grand Rapids benefits equally from what is proposed as growth, and that some are even hurt by it. Different people interact with this growth process in very different ways. Events like this acknowledge that point, but insist that we can move past any issues and move forward with the process if only everyone could participate in some way. Landlords and tenants, business owners and workers, and people who experience drastically different levels of privilege and power are suggested to be “in it together.”

Excerpt from the Twitter 'Conversation'

In this way any conflict is reined in to a non-conversation. Then, the fact that the “conversation” happened can be used as proof that everyone’s voices and needs have been included and addressed — a rubber stamp on the original plan, whether or not it has actually been meaningfully affected by opposing voices. Organizers and moderators are lauded for talking about the tough issues, while the strongest opponents, or those most affected by the issues they’re discussing, are either side-stepped or glaringly absent from the conversation.

In addition to this process of recuperation, public forums on contentious issues act as a pressure release. The idea of a “public sphere” is an abstraction where everyone can supposedly contribute to an equal exchange of ideas. What’s insidiously behind this is the fact that there are powerful people, groups, and institutions which can produce a disproportionate amount of influence within this public sphere. Sound bytes and slogans are produced by think tank intellectuals and deployed by the media, politicians, and through social media to manipulate the most people in ways most beneficial to power, while many rant and rave on Facebook or in MLive comments to seemingly no effect. But it actually does have an effect – it reinvigorates and validates the sphere that power can then use to much more artfully manipulate.

Another effect of dutifully entering one’s critiques into the metaphorical suggestion box of these public forums is that it gives power the chance to form a response. Public relations people, various paid staff, and neighborhood boosters can hear what the complaints are and develop arguments and strategies to defuse them, all while the forces of gentrification go untouched or are even bolstered.

Events like “How We Grow” and the urbanist cliques and organizations that stage them ultimately seek to avoid social conflict. Those who sponsor these events have no reason not to believe that the current system works for everyone and they have an abiding faith in the idea that it will work for everyone—if they just make the right changes after the right collective decision is reached. Unfortunately, events like this often hide structural oppression, naively assuming that everyone has the same access to power or that everyone will be comfortable coming to them for help. At best, there may be a tweak or two proposed, but in the end, there is no path for meaningful action. There is self-reflective hand-wringing, i.e. “we need to do better” or wondering aloud (or at least on Twitter) if the restaurant we are eating at is “just” in light of the conversation that happened. But at the end of the day, nobody needs be too concerned, because the “conversation” happened and the performance of awareness has been staged, and everyone can go back to doing what they were doing.

Controlling the Narrative, Controlling the Streets

In the weeks and months after the August 2014 police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the issue of policing in the United States was at the forefront of discussions. For those who experience the physical and psychological brutality of the police, these discussions were not new. Nevertheless, a seemingly endless barrage of politicians and pundits discussed policing, reform, and the possibility for change as if somehow the reality of policing as a white supremacist endeavor had escaped them for all these years. The results were predictable: the debate was shifted towards body cameras, ShotSpotters, community policing, and other solutions that didn’t challenge the underlying system of policing.

This was true in Grand Rapids, where much of the debate around policing centered on the topic of body cameras. Following a protest in response to the decision not to indict Darren Wilson and a community forum, any general criticism of the police was quickly channeled towards calling for body cameras. The call was initiated by the non-profit organization LINC who dubbed the campaign #OperationBodyCamGRMI. It was enthusiastically taken up by the City Commission despite initial objections by both Police Chief David Rahinsky and the Grand Rapids Police Officers Association. Even after the City of Grand Rapids issued a broader set of recommendations for improving relations between Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD) and city residents, much of the public debate still focused on body cameras. In its place, there was a steady stream of articles on body cameras, giving updates on how they would be paid for, how cops who tested them thought they would work, new policies governing their use, limits of cameras, and what company will be providing the cameras. In effect, what could have been a comprehensive discussion of the nature of policing and racism in Grand Rapids was narrowly contained.

Rosalynn Bliss at Police Use of Force Training
Mayor elect Rosalynn Bliss participates in a GRPD “use of force” training for the media and City Commissioners.

The limiting of this conversation is important as it highlights a way in which the Grand Rapids Police Department and police in general seek to operate in the post-Ferguson world. Police have begun to understand that managing conflict and public perception is a critical aspect of their daily activities. In light of both heightened scrutiny and the reality that police keep killing people, managing perceptions has become essential. The United States Conference of Mayors identified this as one of its core recommendations for improving relations between police departments and the communities they police. Police across the country have undertaken media trainings and are developing sophisticated media strategies that seek to manage events.

In Grand Rapids, the form has varied from the management of crisis to rather crass endeavors that seem almost painfully obvious. An example of the latter is Chief Rahinsky announcing that the GRPD will ask the Michigan State Police to investigate any officer shootings as a public relations move to avoid criticism. In the case of the former, there has been the appointment of a full-time “Public Information Officer”. The appointment was tied directly to the post-Ferguson discussion, with the GRPD claiming that it was another effort at providing police “transparency” for the public.

GRPD demonstrating a new segway for the news media.
GRPD demonstrating a new segway for the news media.

As a government agency, the Grand Rapids Police Department regularly issues news releases to local news agencies about incidents, investigations, and changes in department staffing. They’ve operated both a website and a Facebook page for years. However, the Public Information Officer demonstrates a new idea of policing that seeks to always cultivate a positive portrayal of police and quickly diffuse any criticism. One way this can happen is by simply increasing the number of relatively benign stories about the GRPD that appear in the media. In the last year, this has included stories about new police dogs, new Segway vehicles for police, media ride-a-longs with officers, police playing baseball with kids and feeding homeless people at a local shelter, and a father-son working relationship. These are obviously all crafted to improve the public perception of the police, largely by humanizing them or doing what Information Officer Terry Dixon said is to challenge the “negative” impression of law enforcement.

GRPD News Release

In response to Ferguson, there has also been a significant effort to improve the perception of police among youth, who often face the brunt of police aggression. Efforts like the Junior Police Academy are clear in their campaign to change the publics views. In addition, at least part of the body camera discussion was seeded by police which begs the question as to whether or not it was a strategic decision by police to go along with the cameras (especially once the GRPD realized that body cameras will exonerate them and not help residents).

However, the media strategy is about more than just the realm of ideas and portraying police as friendly members of the community, it is also about responding to criticism and neutralizing it. In the public relations world, this might be called “controlling the narrative”, and it is essentially what the Grand Rapids Police Department has been doing after Ferguson. Two high profile examples over the past year demonstrate what this new strategy looks like and both involve the police’s aggressive use of the media to silence criticism.

In an incident that happened in Martin Luther King Park on June 24, 2015, a GRPD officer—who was white—used a Taser to allegedly stop a fight happening at the park. A video from a bystander was posted on Facebook which shows the a cop pointing a Taser at 3 unarmed African-American youth ages 12-13. He used the weapon to keep them on the ground for several minutes until multiple cars came to detain the teenagers. As it should, the video prompted intense criticism of the GRPD both in this situation and more generally of their policing of people of color. Likely knowing that this might reveal the day-to-day brutality of policing, the Grand Rapids Police Department’s Information Officer responded aggressively, issuing a news release the next morning saying that the police officer “deployed the Taser properly.” The police also scheduled a media event to answer journalist questions and offered police video to incite them to come. This shaped the narrative by shifting the discussion from questioning police conduct to reporting the police perspective that the incident was justified (see the Mlive and WOOD TV 8 stories on the incident) and diffused what had the potential to become a crisis. Even if the GRPD’s justification seems absurd, it succeeded in controlling the situation and dominating official discourse, moving it away from police conduct and towards “preventing violence”.

GRPD Facebook Posting

A similar incident happened again in September. A party on Giddings Avenue on the Southeast side of Grand Rapids was broken up by police who arrested 9 people and Tased 1. In all, 35 police officers responded to the party. Once again, a video of the police actions was posted on Facebook and quickly spread across people’s social networks, being shared several thousand times. As was the case with the MLK Park incident, people were highly critical of the Grand Rapids Police Department’s actions. In this case, police declined to directly defend their actions pending a complaint via internal affairs, but they still sought to dominate the narrative and generally make excuses for their conduct. The GRPD released a video showing their perspective and made themselves available for comment. Later, they released a staggering 15 hours of video to the media. FOX 17 reported that the police said they released the video to be “as transparent as possible,” but the transparency claim hides the fact that by dominating the media narrative they are seeking to quell criticism.

Defending of police practices is a regular activity of the Information Officer. In response to news that the GRPD wanted to equip all police vehicles with assault rifles, Dixon was there to defend the decision even as the militarization of police has been criticized across the country. The same was true of the expansion of police surveillance cameras, which when pressed with questions about the price, Dixon responded, “Can you put a dollar amount on your safety?” Dixon seemed to welcome recording of police by residents, but at the same time dismissed it because it “only captures one particular narrow point of view.” At times, it’s getting across a core message of policing: that the use of force could be avoided if people simply complied. In some cases, the police must support their own while giving the appearance that they care about others. Rather than dismiss outright a local billboard proclaiming “Blue Lives Matter” or simply endorse it, Dixon replied with the seemingly more diplomatic: “Our law enforcement officers, they matter, but at the same time we also recognize and we know that every citizen that walks here in Grand Rapids, their life matters; every single one.” Perhaps needless to say, the notion that “all lives matter” has been a way of minimizing and diverting the Black Lives Matter movement, while “Blue Lives Matter” has invoked the idea of an imaginary war against police.

GRPD in action

In essence, this is what the entire post-Ferguson debate comes down to: putting a friendly face on the Grand Rapids Police Department while avoiding substantive change in practice. The much touted language of “community policing” provides an excellent example of this. As author Brendan McQuade writes:

“In the most general sense, community policing encourages residents to report crimes to the police and calls upon them to resolve disputes. Police are implored to get out of their cars and walk the streets, residents to aid in the hunt for the bad guys. But community policing is never simply a well-intentioned effort to bring the government closer to the people. It enlists residents and community leaders in the work of policing. It informally incorporates residents into the state’s repressive apparatus.”

Coffee with a Cop FlyerIn other words, while the Grand Rapids favorite “Coffee with a Cop” or partnerships with neighborhood associations might seem innocuous, it is not changing the underlying goal of policing, merely changing how policing happens. Community policing and the use of the media by police departments is part of a broader strategy that takes police in the direction of counter-insurgency. Counter-insurgency can be defined as an approach “characterized by an emphasis on intelligence, security and peace-keeping operations, population control, propaganda, and efforts to gain the trust of the people.” In this approach to law enforcement, the psychological or media-based battle for ideas are as important as physical control. However, the policing cannot happen without both aspects. Approaches such as “Weed and Seed” mix “community” based approaches of “seeding” a neighborhood with social programs while the hard edged “weeding out” of so-called criminal elements. While discussions of militarization of police often look solely at weapons, the emergence of counterinsurgency approaches also bears consideration. Since the 1960s, there has been a continual exchange of information between military and police agencies with community policing and counterinsurgency strategies of the police and military melding into a shared set of tactics, both domestically and internationally.

So when the Grand Rapids Police Department engages the media, partners with organizations, and participates in community forums, it does so not because it has fundamentally changed, but rather because it is adapting to a new reality. It is now necessary to control the narrative, just as they control the streets. The GRPD is all too willing to go in front of a crowd, smile, nod, affirm concerns, pretend to listen, and even engage in a little self-criticism, but it’s all part of a carefully concocted strategy that is designed to control and manage situations and to always put itself in advantageous position.

The Downtown Market is Succeeding

Downtown Market in Grand Rapids

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.

GR Forward & Making Brand Rapids

“When you think of Downtown Grand Rapids and the Grand River, do you find yourself thinking about what’s there now, or do you imagine the potential of what could be?”

This is the evocative question posed by GR Forward, a “comprehensive planning process” that is creating an updated vision for Downtown, the Grand River Corridor, and the Grand Rapids Public Schools. GR Forward is a partnership primarily between the City of Grand Rapids government and Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc – though with 132 people working on the three committees within the planning process, the list of organizations involved reads like a spilled bowl of alphabet soup: DDA, DGRI, GRPS, MDOT, GRIL… It’s one giant board made up of smaller boards made up of board members from other boards. And together, with the help of “community engagement,” they’ve spent the past year and a half drafting a beast of a plan to reconfigure most of the riverfront so that it’s accessible and can be used for recreation; to bring more event programming, businesses, and (primarily market-rate) housing to downtown; and, almost as an afterthought, to renovate and expand a couple of the specialized public school programs in order to “retain and attract families, talent and job providers.” The draft has already been approved by all the appropriate city boards and commissions, so now it’s up for public review and comment until late September, when it will go back to those same boards and commissions to be voted on for adoption.

Lip Service to the Community

The GR Forward plan envisions a meticulously planned downtown, and consequently, the process itself was meticulously planned and facilitated. It was a well-designed process with slick advertising and an aggressive public relations campaign. It had all the right buzz words: engagement, community, stakeholders, decision makers, developers, businesses, non-profit and institutional partners, and the ever-so-important use of social media. In the end, they boast of having “engaged” over 3,600 people. If you attended one of their neighborhood meetings, you were treated to snacks, pop, and a lengthy presentation about GR Forward. Despite the lip service given to community input, the sessions laid out their vision for the total transformation of downtown. Following the presentation, there were some confusing “games” and “activities” to “facilitate” “engagement”, but the entire time, something felt off. There was a distinct sense that much of this was already decided and that the “input” really wasn’t going to change anything.

Perhaps this was why so much of it seemed to be talking down to those in attendance and why there was such a strong divide between the “experts” and “the residents”. It seemed to be more based on getting people to buy in to the plan rather than crafting it. For example, was anyone really supposed to believe that if they said they didn’t want the whitewater park, it would be excluded from the plan? Grand Rapids Whitewater was, after all, a partner from start – and surprise, surprise, work is already starting on that process. With much of the plan hinging on the Grand River and redesigning the waterfront, it’s also interesting that the City of Grand Rapids has already committed to building a portion of the riverwalk using GR Forward’s designs, even as the plan is up for community debate and discussion. The entire process seemed geared to encouraging more of what exists now: more market-rate housing, more hip restaurants, more local beer, and more scripted events.

Gentrification as Colonization

The GR Forward plan, despite its nods to diversity and opportunity for all, is a stunningly comprehensive plan for accelerating the gentrification of downtown Grand Rapids. This much should be obvious based on our understanding of gentrification. We know that the process of gentrification is generally spurred by a “paradigm of profiteers” made up of public officials, realtors, bankers, and developers, but that public officials (like, say, city planners and development authorities) are often the “chief architects” through initiatives like tax credits, grants, and policies (or, say, dreamy master plans). We know that the process invites entrepreneurs and investment into previously disinvested areas, and lures prosperous residents with new offerings like trendy eateries, wine bars, and cleaned-up parks. We know that this drives up rent and prices, changes the culture of the area fundamentally, and drives out previous residents.

But an idea as large as gentrification still seems to fall short when describing the totalizing scope of the plan and the motivations behind it – in how it reaches down through people and buildings to the land itself. It reeks also of colonialism, and indeed, gentrification can be understood as a modern expression of colonialism. As Jonathan L. Wharton writes, “While modern man might argue that today’s civilizations no longer have colonization in the antiquated sense, gentrification is the modern version of modern man’s obsession with land acquisition.” In gentrification as in colonization, those with power (be they developed nations or development firms) take possession of an area for their own benefit, with no regard for, or only self-serving interest in, the history and heritage of the area. In gentrification as in colonization, pre-existing culture is reshaped and destroyed in the name of improvement. Both processes rely on consumers (be they settlers or “young creative professionals”) who are generally unaware of or misunderstand their role in the process. And both processes result in a lose-lose choice for the previous residents: stay put and face marginalization and ever-increasing pressure, or leave.
Like any city’s master plan, the GR Forward plan seeks to rearrange existing space, services, land, and populations with an omnipotent hand. Not only would existing residents continue to be displaced under this plan, services like the U.S. Post Office on Michigan Street and the Public Services offices and storage area on Market Avenue would need to be relocated to make space along the river, the riverfront would be completely remodeled, and even the river itself would get reconstructive surgery. Beyond the question of whether these changes are good or bad lies the fact that downtown Grand Rapids is seen as a game board or blank slate upon which the whims of profit-driven authorities can be worked and re-worked. Why should they have that power? While there’s plenty to critique in the details of the plan, it’s this colonialist way of thinking about the world that enables any of it to happen in the first place, and which needs to be challenged and resisted with the greatest strength.

Excessive Control and Bureaucracy of Urban Space

GR Forward’s plan is for the control and management of urban space. While the plan speaks to the importance of vibrancy, cultural expression, and life in urban spaces, in actuality it limits them. It presents a vision of highly structured, managed, and bureaucratized public space—it’s the vision of a group of people who want to manage everything, who just can’t seem to let go and let things happen organically.

The big cities that many in Grand Rapids look towards as models are characterized by a genuine sense of unpredictability. People mix, forms of culture appear spontaneously, events happen without sanction. The most vibrant and exciting urban areas are often characterized by chaos: musicians play on the street, people gather, graffiti and street art appears without sanction, vendors are everywhere, people break dance on street corners, etc. There’s a lack of structure, a lack of cleanliness, and a certain “edge” that simply doesn’t exist in Grand Rapids.
In contrast, Grand Rapids—and GR Forward—presents a constructed vision of pseudo-vibrancy. Rather than a group of people showing a movie in their favorite park, we get the highly structured “Movies in the Park” as an official program. In place of improvised bucket bands, we get licensed “Pop-Up Performers”. In place of a vibrant underground art scene, we get “Public Art” (or even planned “street art”) and the attendant committees, rules, and regulations. Rather than simply gathering in the park, there is the facilitated “Picnics in the Park” series. We get the “programming” of downtown—a seemingly endless sequence of highly planned and coordinated events to appeal to a specific series of demographics. These modes of expression are to be commercialized, with an intertwined relationship between the “event”, “the sponsors”, and “the businesses” that surround it. Does the event exist for its cultural values, or for its potential economic ones? We get the constructed vision of “downtown as product.” It’s squeaky clean, it’s “family friendly,” and there is plenty of parking (for either your car or bike). It’s the “city as entertainment machine,” where culture is primarily a means for generating economic activity.

They Might As Well Charge Admission

If GR Forward has their way, all of downtown will be molded to their liking, and as a result the experiences we have will reflect that. The micromanagement implied in their plan is so meticulous it’s as if they played Rollercoaster Tycoon or Sim City all night before their planning sessions. “Gateways” welcoming people into “branded” neighborhoods and districts, like the ones at Disneyworld, are suggested for 13 separate roadways or underpasses downtown alone. They want to light all of the city’s bridges and adorn blank walls with LED lights. The signs and flashing lights will make it abundantly clear, we are experiencing downtown as a theme park or playground – where “fun” is engineered for the purpose of generating a profit.

Heartside Park, considered an obstacle to the city’s goals, is proposed to have gardens, lighting, a skate park, a hockey rink, curling courts, and a sledding hill. Similarly Calder Plaza is to have new seating, “mobile landscapes,” and a “Health Loop” around it connecting the Medical Mile to the river. Parklets are suggested for Monroe Center, Ionia Avenue, Commerce Avenue, Bridge Street, and Pearl Street. Bridge Street is to have façade improvements and signage, as well as a skate park underneath its 131 underpass.

Street furniture, lighting, signage, and landscaping are suggested to “upgrade” Fulton, Bridge, Pearl, Cherry, and Wealthy Streets, as well as Market and Division Avenues. Market Avenue is proposed to get a landscaped median. Public art and LED lights are suggested to cover highly visible blank walls. Even winter isn’t untouched, with proposed winter food trucks, winter parklets, and even “warming huts” being hinted at, to keep shoppers warm while walking downtown. They even suggest moving those big mounds of snow that pile up against buildings and putting them to recreational use!
The chances for spontaneity and the development of organic relationships with space dwindle with the level of management that GR Forward is putting forth in their plan. As we wrote about in “Ambassadors For Whom?”, highly organized space is the domain of malls or theme parks. These privately owned businesses are designed to facilitate a standard experience for consumers, specifically one that makes the owners the most money. It appears that GR Forward and other modern urban planners and developers are, consciously or not, borrowing their techniques.

Obstacles to Brand Rapids

GR Forward ultimately offers an exclusive vision of downtown Grand Rapids. It’s one that caters to the young professionals, the tourists, the empty-nesters, and the coveted demographic de jour. The downtown as playground metaphor only works if that playground has willing participants, but to get to that point, there must be removal and exclusion.

Even the “progressive” and “inclusive” language of GR Forward’s best PR people can’t hide the fact that there are currents in downtown that run contrary to GR Forward’s goals. One of the best examples is the Division Avenue corridor and the Heartside Neighborhood, which remains a persistent problem for the would-be gentrifiers and the colonizers of urban space. The area is home to those without homes, low- and no- income residents, and the social services that help sustain them.


It’s no surprise that GR Forward identifies the Division Avenue corridor as an area that needs “improving.” But as is often the case with generic calls for “improvement,” the language is coded. In this case, GR Forward makes it clear that its primary concern is dealing with perceptions that the area is “unsafe.” Thus, the plan calls for numerous efforts to make the area “safe.” The question is of course for whom should the area be safe? Those who live in the vulnerability of life on the streets and the copious dangers that can accompany that life—or for the new economic transformation of downtown? As one might expect, GR Forward talks about creating a so-called “true mixed-income district” but the focus is primarily on the safety of commerce, the new downtown residents, and those who visit the area. It calls for the further expansion of the Downtown Ambassadors program, which has been adopted as a soft form of policing to manage low-income and homeless peoples’ effect on business. It speaks of incentives for business expansion, new apartments for “young professionals,” new street lighting, and other efforts aimed at improving “perceptions of safety.” The problem is of course that these are often small steps towards gentrification and they will displace people over time, creating a phenomenon—already documented in Heartside—where long-term residents will feel like strangers in their own neighborhood.

Moving beyond Division Avenue, Heartside Park is identified as a special area of concern. Since its creation, the park has been a gathering spot for Heartside residents, although tensions between police, residents, and new developments have existed almost since its inception. The tensions increase with each new development as the area experiences a culture clash. GR Forward frames the park as an area that “needs improvement” noting “…the current use of the park for illegal activities … has fostered negative perceptions about the park and the surrounding area.” They assert that the park “…needs more programming and people to root out the activities that deter use of the park.” But as in the case of much of GR Forward’s plan, it sounds like a road map for further displacement, replacing one group of people—who hang out in the park because they have nowhere to go—with another who want to enjoy the park as an “urban amenity” to a new 21st century lifestyle. People should be having picnics with goat cheese and wine from the Downtown Market in the summers, not playing basketball on the courts (which appear to be removed from the redesign of the park). One can already see the lines drawn in Heartside Park with well-dressed Market patrons eating $4 ice cream cones on the far southern edge of the park, while a completely different crowd in terms of demographics, hangs out at the other end.

A Failure at an Impossible Goal

Words like “diversity,” “accessible,” and “inclusive” are sprinkled throughout the GR Forward plan. Planners heard a “constant refrain” of people saying they want a downtown that is “welcoming and inclusive,” hence so much agreeable language. However, the plan is at odds with the ideas of “diversity and “inclusion” as it presents a vision that is for the benefit of those with economic power (a form of power that that often correlates with others, pertaining to gender, race, and class). In a highly imbalanced society dominated by structural and implicit power structures, it is largely impossible to create a plan for diversity, inclusion, or accessibility. For an organization that can get so specific about things like trash cans and the design of light fixtures, it is nevertheless telling how little GR Forward says in this regard.
Take the proliferation of events and entertainment options advocated by the plan—how can it be that an effort overseen by so-many well-paid consultants, organizations, and PR people could say nothing about having culturally diverse forms of entertainment? Is this an intentional exclusion—a rather subtle yet keen acknowledgment that the new downtown is to cater primarily to white tastes—or just an incredibly bad oversight that highlights a major underlying flaw in their vision of the “new” downtown? The emptiness of the diversity discussion is also apparent in the plan’s approach to housing and affordability. They embrace the continued development of so-called “market-rate” housing in downtown, as if “the market”—motivated entirely by profit—will ever embrace diversity in more than a token way. More disturbingly, while the plan offers words in favor of “a mix of housing types” and “a mix of incomes,” it seems considerably more concerned with the need for “more income density” (read: more people with higher incomes). In their discussion of housing affordability, they argue that part of the problem is that “affordability” is inherently hard to define. They even assert that “what is affordable to one family is not to another.” While objectively true, they sound a lot like the developers marketing $700-$800 studio apartments as affordable.

There’s also cause for concern when the plan advocates for housing for the so-called “missing-middle” that is excluded from low-income housing and can’t afford the high-end of “market-rate” options. The limits of this were shown quite clearly in the Grand Rapids Press when reporter Jim Harger urged readers to feel the pain of a couple who just couldn’t manage to find an apartment in downtown until 616 Lofts came along to fill that void with a 2-bedroom offering for $1,400 a month. While the plan does claim to support the increased development of affordable housing, it places its faith in the market, hoping that incentives will encourage developers to incorporate affordable housing and that more development downtown will create jobs, which will in turn increase incomes. Of course, if the solution was just as simple as getting a better-paying job, people wouldn’t need low-income housing in the first place. How many people living in low-income housing or on the streets are going to be able to get a job as a web developer in the new downtown economy?

Exploiting the River

Most people living in Grand Rapids, including those living downtown, don’t notice the Grand River. It’s caged by cement flood walls and hidden behind buildings. Consequently, there is a certain amount of appeal to some of the ideas presented by the GR Forward plan. Given the current state of the river, who wouldn’t want more parks, semi-public spaces, and less flood walls? However, at its core the plan really isn’t about the “beauty” of the river or even the river itself. It’s about “activating the river” which is just a nice way of saying making money off of it. This is a familiar story, one that began with the colonization of the Grand River Valley by white Europeans. The settlement of Grand Rapids was based in part on the river and the ability to use the river to generate wealth and dominance. For the early part of the city’s history, this was based primarily on logging. By the late 1800s the trees of Michigan were felled, changing its landscape which now accommodates cities. Lumbering in those days was viewed as infinite, yet it only took 20 years to cut most of the state’s forests. Over the years this shifted to furniture production, but in either case the river was at the center as an economic force.


For many humans, the story of the river has long been about molding it and shaping it to suit our perceived needs. Whereas we once floated logs down the river to support an industrial economy, GR Forward is talking about sending kayaks down the river to support a post-industrial economy. As industrial production declines here in the U.S., leisure activities have become economically important to cities. Like the past lumbering relationship to the river, the one envisioned by GR Forward is predicated on the “needs” of the economy. The entire discussion of the river is filtered through an economic lens. Everything raised in the plan regarding the river relates to this question. It’s all about the river as a “game-changer” that can be a “catalyst for development”. So in other words, how they can shape the river to encourage developers to build more high-end buildings and invest along the river. Even the planned whitewater park (and white it very much will be!) is a way to attract well-to-do outdoor enthusiasts with money to spend in the city. GR Forward may talk about the emotional and physical connection one could have to the river, but our relationship with the river is always shaped by economic forces, and for most of us is no longer guided by spiritual or deeper, ecological understandings.

The GR Forward planners hope to “reestablish the emotional and physical connections between downtown and the river that Grand Rapids was built on.” A touching sentiment. Truly, people in urban environments are very disconnected from the land they live on. Having access to and spending time around natural elements can not only be calming and moving, it can help us feel connected to the larger world or stoke a deeper sense of our role within it. Encouraging an emotional connection to the river could be very powerful in this way. But the connection to the river “that Grand Rapids was built on” was not one of reverence or respect – it was exploitative. As previously discussed, most cities that are established alongside rivers grow there because the river is an access point for trade, which helps give birth to industry and commerce – powers that often conflict with human need and environmental balance quite profoundly. So do the GR Forward planners want to restore connections with the river for the good of the river, or for the good of the economy? In the long term, it can’t be both.


Activating and Commodifying the River

The draft plan talks about “activating” a number of sites – we should “activate” the river, “activate” river-adjacent parks, and “activate” downtown in general. The term seems strange at first, implying that these sites are currently inactive. The river, coursing and churning and teeming with fish and microbes, while certainly much different than it was before it was dammed and tamed by industrial power, seems perfectly active already; it is a living thing with a loud voice. People populate every park and green space near downtown, at least in the warmer months – fishing, playing games, socializing, resting. Parks are one of very few neutral spaces in the city where one can simply exist without spending money, so those without money to spend often pass time there, in addition to the usual joggers and workers on break. These places are active and alive already. The “activate” refrain begins to make more sense when you realize that the term is used by the PR-savvy city planners as a code word for “commodify.” All the activations proposed in the plan are simply ways to get more money flowing through those sites: food trucks in the parks, more shopping downtown, rented kayaks, and tourists bobbing in the river. They don’t just want to draw more people to these places, they want to draw people who have money to spend – at the cost of isolating and displacing those who do not.

So, “when you think of Downtown Grand Rapids and the Grand River, do you find yourself thinking about what’s there now, or do you imagine the potential of what could be?” The GR Forward plan offers a limited set of options for what could be. Does the vision of a quirky food truck parked outside a new boutique store make your heart stir? Does the sight of the presidential museum looming over the reconstructed burial mounds at Ah-Nab-Awen give you pause? When you think of the river swelling past its containments, do you imagine updated flood wall plans, or do you imagine the music of the current swirling past concrete?

On Displacement

In debates around gentrification, the issue of displacement is often brought up. It’s a core component of definitions of gentrification, with most agreeing that displacement is a consequence of gentrification. However, within the academic world, there is a lot of debate about what exactly “displacement” means and how it should be defined. It’s something that needs to be considered, as how we conceptualize displacement is essential to understanding gentrification.

First, it is important to understand that “the displaced” aren’t an abstraction. They are real people and they have lives that matter. Similarly, displacement is a real threat. Caitlin Cahill captured this well writing:

“The pressure of displacement is not an abstract threat but experienced in material ways: slips under the door offering a buy out in public housing, family members relocating temporarily never to return home, personal experiences of being harassed by landlords, doubling up of families in tiny apartments, and seeing friends displaced. Narratives of deceit, betrayal and loss characterize the ‘war stories’ of displacement, offering an inside perspective on the social costs of gentrification (Alicea 2001: Muniz 1998).” [1]

As it stands, the relationship between gentrification and displacement is complicated. Proponents of gentrification often cling to the idea that if there isn’t immediate and verifiable evidence of displacement, then there is not gentrification. For example, if a development is built on a vacant piece of land—perhaps including market-rate apartments and a ground-floor brewery—many won’t consider it gentrification because they argue that nobody was living on that piece of land, and nobody was forced out. The lack of evidence for direct and immediate displacement is often used as a way to silence critics and dismiss discussions about gentrification.

However, the focus on physical displacement is in many ways exceedingly narrow and ignores the complexity of how people are displaced due to gentrification. That said, people are certainly directly displaced by gentrification. This has occurred in Grand Rapids, witness the demolition of homes on the Westside, the sale of homes in the Belknap neighborhood, and the recent proposal to demolish a block of homes for apartments along Michigan Street. Physical displacement is a consequence of gentrification, and it happens regularly as buildings are bought and sold once developers and individual homeowners move into a working-class areas and start spending large amounts of cash to acquire land and buildings.

Rockford Construction Living @ 600 Douglas
Rockford Construction’s Living @ 600 Douglas. Studios rent for $1,000 per month.

Tracking Displacement

Measuring displacement is difficult. While one can count the number of houses demolished, developing more complex accounting methods is often difficult. For example, if the homes being demolished were owned by landlords—as is often the case in low-income neighborhoods—it’s easy to talk about “willing sellers” and to minimize the displacement as leases are quietly allowed to expire at the end of their term. In the case of neighborhood level change, academics have long discussed the difficulty of measuring displacement due to gentrification:

“…it is nearly impossible for independent researchers to design small, targeted studies of displacement effects in gentrifying neighborhoods: poor and working-class people displaced by gentrification have disappeared from precisely those places where researchers go to look for them. Accurate measurements of displacement are impossible with after-the-fact surveys conducted in the origins of displacement; instead, the researcher must find households in the destinations where people are forced to move. Since those displaced from a single gentrifying neighborhood may wind up in a wide variety of places – nearby poor neighborhoods, more distant low-cost suburbs, or even distant cities or regions – the only definitive way to measure gentrification-induced displacement is to track down individual households who have moved out of neighborhoods over time as gentrification proceeds, and to ask them detailed questions about their reasons for moving. This is extremely expensive and time-consuming.” [2]

Put simply, tracking displaced people is largely an impossibility because they are gone from the places where one would look for them. Those affected by gentrification tend to be poor, which makes tracking them all the more difficult. Surveys and studies that focus on “households” miss those who move in with friends and family, while the fact that many people frequently move in and out of neighborhoods for any number of different reasons further complicates the matter. [3]

Other academics studying gentrification have pointed out that there is often “a substantial time lag between when the subordinate class group gives way to more affluent users” [4]. Displacement isn’t always immediate, leading some researchers to argue that what is key is that it involves the construction of space and the creation of an environment hostile to existing residents. Kathe Newman and Elvin K. Wyly argued that we shouldn’t “… consider residential displacement as a litmus test for gentrification” and that we should consider “…the impact of the restructuring of urban space on the ability of low-income residents to move into neighbourhoods that once provided ample supplies of affordable living arrangements.” [5]

Social and Cultural Displacement

In academic discussions of displacement, there is a lot of debate around how gentrification displaces people culturally and/or socially. The idea of “social displacement” as a key aspect of gentrification was articulated by Michael Chernoff who described it as:

“…the replacement of one group by another, in some relatively bounded geographic area, in terms of prestige and power. This includes the ability to affect decisions and policies in the area, to set goals and priorities, and to be recognized by outsiders as the legitimate spokesmen for the area.” [6]

This works in many different ways:

For example, the loss of political control in an area can lead to demoralization, or a sense of one’s lifestyle being threatened. At some point, residents or businesses may feel compelled to leave the area; thus physical displacement may stem from social rather than economic pressure. Social displacement might be marked by a gradual withdrawal from neighborhood activities of the displaced. They drop out of local organizations or remove themselves from political activities. Thus, they complete their own displacement by relinquishing attachments to the associations which were formerly the bases of their power.” [7]

20th Century Dogs & Meats
The former 20th Century Dogs & Meats on Bridge Street.

“Cultural displacement” is another important aspect of the displacement debate. It concerns the effect that gentrification has on those who are able to stay in a gentrifying neighborhood. What does it mean to live in a neighborhood that is being transformed by outside forces?

“The neighborhood context is being taken over and changed beyond recognition. Displacement is experienced in this regard as a process of effacement at the neighborhood scale, where the signs personal and cultural heritages are erased. What does it mean when the salon where one’s mother had her hair done every two weeks closes down?

In short, gentrification is experienced as a loss of self, community and culture. The threat of erasing of ‘my grandmother’s house,’ ‘my history’, and ‘my neighborhood’ is accompanied by feelings of anxiety and anger. ‘I don’t belong here’: this anger expresses a sense of not feeling welcome in one’s own community.” [8]

This creates an environment where existing residents beyond those immediately displaced, feel an acute “pressure of displacement”:

“…displacement affects many more than those actually displaced at any given moment. When a family sees its neighborhood changing dramatically, when all their friends are leaving, when stores are going out of business and new stores for other clientele are taking their places (or none at all are replacing them), when changes in public facilities, transportation patterns, support services, are all clearly making the area less and less livable, then the pressure of displacement is already severe, and its actuality only a matter of time… We thus speak of the ‘pressure of displacement’ as affecting households beyond those actually currently displaced.” [9]

If we’re going to be honest, we must acknowledge that displacement due to gentrification and development has happened in Grand Rapids, it is happening, and it is going to happen in the future. There is no way around it. It’s more a question of what type of displacement—physical or cultural—is happening. And of course, the even more difficult question, what can be done about it?


1. Caitlin Cahill, “Negotiating Grit and Glamour: Young Women of Color and the Gentrification of the Lower East Side,” from >City & Society (2007), in Loretta Lees, Tom Slater and Elvin Wyly, eds., The Gentrification Reader, (London: Routledge, 2008), 305.
2. “Introduction to Part Four,” The Gentrification Reader, 319.
3. “Introduction to Part Four,” 318-319.
4. Tom Slater,“The Eviction of Critical Perspectives from Gentrification Research” from >International Journal of Urban and Regional Research (2006), in The Gentrification Reader, 578.
5. Kathe Newman and Elvin K. Wyly, “The Right to Stay Put, Revisited: Gentrification and Resistance to Displacement in New York City” from Urban Studies (2006), in The Gentrification Reader, 544.
6. Michael Chernoff, “Social Displacement in a Renovating Neighborhood’s Commercial District: Atlanta”, in Japonica Brown-Saracino, ed., The Gentrification Debates, (New York: Routledge, 2010), 295.
7. Ibid., 295.
8. Cahill, 307.
9. Peter Marcuse, “Abandonment, Gentrification, and Displacement: The Linkages in New York City” from Gentrification of the City (1986), in The Gentrification Reader, 335.