Ambassadors for whom?

Like many major urban streets in the US, Division Avenue of Grand Rapids, Michigan has a varied history as a home to hotels, stores, restaurants, and other businesses. It was a vibrant neighborhood at numerous points in the city’s history. However, with the so­-called “race riots” in Grand Rapids of 1967, white flight, and urban renewal, Division Avenue became a different place. It was home to low-income residents, homeless populations, and abandoned and dilapidated buildings. In response to the general flight from this area, various social service agencies, ministries, and shelters opened along the street. The area was, and to some extent still is, one of the densest and poorest neighborhoods in Grand Rapids. South Division in particular was ignored in the 1990s as developments took place in other areas of downtown.

For years the street seemed resistant to gentrification. Numerous art spaces and music venues—from The Basement to The Reptile House—were home to vibrant alternative and underground scenes, yet Division remained a place where many feared to go. Despite the best efforts of various investors, city boosters, and city government—the street retained its image and patterns. In the mid­-2000s with the “Cool Cities” initiative and the Avenue for the Arts designation, The Grand Rapids Press even described the street as undergoing “fitful gentrification,” but the process remained slow.

This began to change in 2012 and 2013, when many new projects were undertaken. As interest in downtown living increased and developers began to make significant profits off market­-rate rentals, investors and city planners began to look at South Division anew. The Harris Building, once a home to the non-profit charity In The Image, was developed into an event space with an upscale (seriously, a bag of noodles costs $12) artisan pasta shop on the ground floor. The DAAC, an almost ten year old art and performance venue, lost its space due to rising rent. Along with this, a number of new boutique stores, restaurants, and housing developments opened, both on Division and in the surrounding blocks.

Local Epicurian on South Division
Local Epicurean on South Division

Still, South Division remained an area shaped by its legacy as a haven for low ­income and homeless populations. Many social service agencies remain located on the street and homeless people still slept in doorways and congregated along the streets. Various types of crime—theft, vandalism, drugs—took place on a regular basis. In 2012, many of these problems were identified as an obstacle to the economic development of South Division between Fulton and Wealthy. The Division Avenue Task Force specifically sought to “identify solutions” to panhandling, loitering, graffiti, and the so­-called “public nuisances” that take place on the street. It was clear that if South Division was to change, it would have to be “cleaned up.” Ultimately, this is a new form of colonization—where areas previously unsafe for capital must be tamed, pacified, and cleared of obstacles, just as the very land on which we now live was stolen from the Anishnabek people.

Ambassadors To Whom?

The solution the Division Avenue Task Force recommended was to implement national urban services company Block By Block’s Safety Ambassadors Program; not just on Division, but for all of Downtown. The “problems” on Division are a Downtown-wide phenomenon, especially as the boundaries of “Downtown” expand into working-class areas adjacent to it. The last ten years of urban development have been characterized as a reinvigoration of wealthier people’s interest in living in the city, often at the expense of the urban poor and working class who end up being crowded out by subsequent rising costs of living. This process has been an inversion of the suburbanization that characterized post-WWII development. This demographic shift has been fueling the process of gentrification in modern cities—including Grand Rapids. The Downtown Ambassadors, operating as both low-level security and customer service for downtown, aid in facilitating this gentrification.

The Downtown Ambassadors perform what are essentially low-conflict policing and sanitation efforts as well “customer service” in order to make a new, wealthier population in downtown feel welcome.

The Downtown Ambassadors are paid employees who patrol downtown in teal uniforms with pockets full of brochures, often while riding segways. They perform what are essentially low-conflict policing and sanitation efforts as well “customer service” in order to make a new, wealthier population in downtown feel welcome. The “customer service” role works for both current residents who only recently have felt safe venturing downtown and tourists wandering aimlessly during events such as ArtPrize and other festivals. For these types, the Ambassadors are available to give directions to the lost and provide umbrella escorts if it’s raining.

The policing functions they perform were discussed by Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. (DGRI), which operates the Ambassadors, stating “The Safety Ambassadors are intended to complement and enhance the efforts of the Grand Rapids Police Department.” DGRI CEO Kris Larson also said the program “works hand-in-hand with the police department, serving as their eyes and ears.” This is confirmed in their annual report, which claims that the Ambassadors have reported “suspicious people” 1,861 times. At a recent “State of the Grand Rapids Police Department” speech, the GRPD stated that working with the Safety Ambassadors has been “very positive for policing.” The statement is an unequivocal testament to the policing role of the Ambassadors.

Policing Without Police

Police violence and cases of excessive brutality have become apparent to a wide range of people since the rebellions that broke out in response to the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. It is possible that this is the beginning of an evolution of policing, where the Downtown Ambassador program or something similar can widen and accomplish some of the roles of policing without the threat of police “overreaction” and brutality. If the present trend can be described as wealthier white people moving back to the cities and crowding out the poor then the Downtown Ambassadors will serve an important role in facilitating this transition.

Downtown Ambassadors Pamphlet

Though they are not legally permitted to use force or make arrests, the Ambassadors have a close relationship with the police. Manager of Operations for the Downtown Ambassadors Melvin Eledge says,

“Each of the Downtown Ambassadors is equipped with an iPhone and an internal app which allows them to build a report on each person of interest, creating a trail that helps the Ambassadors keep an eye on suspicious activity, hotspots and – just as importantly – to follow up with services people may have received to see if they need additional help.”

This surveillance function of the program allows the city and police to have more “eyes on the street” (an appropriation of Jane Jacobs’ language that replaces an authentic urban fabric with an artificially created one) while doing so under the guise of a form of social work. This gives the city a good image while also widening the scope of the GRPD’s ability to track and understand what’s going on at a street-level.

The visibility of homeless people directly contributes towards a city’s image and acts as a deterrent for wealthy people to become residents, especially if they are forced to interact with them face-to-face when being asked for money. As it is now, expecting the police to remove the homeless is a lot to ask in that it drains resources and initiates a process of brutality that would tarnish the city’s image. Urban police departments—while always guardians of property and power—cannot provide the level of “service” conducive to business development in a “troubled” area.

Grand Rapids Safety Ambassador Panhandling Report

The Ambassador program is a logical solution for the city government in that they will try to stop panhandling and keep doorways clear from people sleeping in them. The Ambassadors recognize this goal, with Eledge stating “One aspect of the Ambassador program is making sure downtown residents are not constantly being asked for money as they go to and from home and work.” MLive says about ‘Downtown Safety Ambassador of the Year” Veronica Aho “for panhandlers, Aho keeps them moving along if they bother pedestrians.” As a result the Ambassadors made “3,806 panhandling contacts” in their first year.

Of the seven Ambassadors, six of them rotate between different areas, while one is permanently situated in the Heartside district. Why the special treatment? This neighborhood, home to low-income housing, shelters and missions alongside boutiques and bars, is a place where the tension between business interests and human interests is especially visible—and requires special management to keep invisible. While the Downtown Ambassadors would describe this as unbiased “customer service” it is a policy function in that it manages—or gives the appearance of managing—a persistent social problem.

The city becomes a blank space on which commerce can happen—a predictable and safe environment.

In addition to “cleaning up” downtown by managing undesirable populations, the Downtown Ambassadors also physically clean up space. Unlike the police the Ambassadors have the ability to clean up graffiti when they see it, and they apparently did so in 1,462 instances during their first year. Graffiti arrived as a cultural phenomenon with the birth of hip-hop and its rising influence among urban youth during the 70s and 80s. It is an easy way for marginalized people to leave their mark on an otherwise hostile and alien world. As a blemish on an otherwise clean and orderly backdrop, it signals that the forces of order are not as invincible and omnipresent as they’d like to seem.

Not only do these reasons make it natural for the city government to want to remove it, but a graffiti-free area is also more appealing to out-of-towners with money who find graffiti to be off-putting, unsafe, and a form of blight. In this way the Ambassadors are performing a quasi-policing function that also helps gentrify the city. The city becomes a blank space on which commerce can happen—a predictable and safe environment.

Downtown GR: City or Mall?

Customer: noun

  1. A person or organization that buys goods or services from a store or business.
  2. A person or thing of a specified kind that one has to deal with.

Recently spokespeople for the Downtown Ambassadors insist that they are not an auxiliary police force and urges people to view them as a type of ‘customer service’ that exists for pedestrians in the downtown area. As it turns out the city can have their cake and eat it too. Making white and/or middle and upper-class people feel safe downtown requires both sanitizing the existing space in addition to providing a mediated, tailored experience. Whether they’re giving out-of-towners directions or reporting a “suspicious person” to the police, the Downtown Ambassadors are performing essentially the same task of making Grand Rapids more appealing to wealthier white people. This was made clear when DGRI CEO Larson said, “Frankly, there’s a lot of youth that have begun to hang out. It’s not the patrons of the bars; it’s the other element that is coming down looking for trouble.” In other words, those who want to spend freely at the bars are fine—and the Downtown Ambassadors exist to serve them and those who profit from them. Stellafly Social Media interviews Kris Larson and states:

“Larson has about the same interest in parking lots as he did as a kid. Parking lot? Pffftttttt. That’s no fun. Let’s build cool stuff on ‘em, he says, places where you can go spend your allowance.”


This quote evokes imagery of the ideal person downtown meant to be like a child at a toy store, whose relationship with the area is one of awe and passive consumption. A kid doesn’t loiter in the toy store or do anything there except browse and spend money. This is not only telling of what downtown is meant to look like but also of who is meant to be there, those with expendable “allowance” who can buy a $12 bag of pasta. This is why in all their interviews with the media DGRI refers to the Downtown Ambassadors as “customer service.”

In an interview with Wood TV 8 Kris Larson says the point of the Ambassadors is “really to provide that unexpected level of customer service to differentiate the experience in the downtown.” Eledge tells the Grand Rapids Press, “Everything we do, we do through a hospitality lens. We don’t act like security officers. It’s all about customer service, meeting their needs.” He echoes this sentiment later with Rapid Growth Media, “We’re out there for hospitality and customer service, and we include a safety and observation function.” For those with money it’s friendly service, for those without it’s a fast-track to social service programs diagnosed by security guards who repeatedly say they “aren’t social workers” and “aren’t cops.”

A Safety Ambassador walks down Monroe Center.
A Safety Ambassador walks down Monroe Center.

Just like the greeters at Meijer, they are both a human face to the business and a subtle form of loss prevention. If the Ambassadors represent a phase of urban development that views people downtown as “customers,” then in this plan the downtown space itself is meant to be a fabricated playground for consumerism. Urban settings are seen as exotic by white middle-class suburbanites. The growth of artisan culture perfectly coincides with this concept. Local shops and restaurants with handmade ingredients contrast greatly with strip mall chain businesses, while bike lanes and sidewalks pair well with feel-good consumer politics and resonates with those tired of sitting in traffic while commuting to work. Localism is ultimately just consumerism branded with a hip aesthetic.

Grand Rapids is now allowing and encouraging the construction of parklets, parking spaces turned into extensions of the sidewalk meant for people to stop, to sit, and to rest while taking in the activities of the street. Seating in the center of the mall come to mind, where customers can relax before getting up and going back to shopping. Recent and proposed park renovations also exemplify this, with Monument Park being remade into an extension of 616 Lofts and Veterans Park—long a gathering place for low/no-income folks in downtown—slated to undergo a similar transformation. For the newcomers to downtown “exotic” is good, but too exotic can be scary or overwhelming, and that’s where the Ambassadors come in.

The loss of kinship and community that exists in modern times is apparent in the fact that the Ambassadors exist at all. They are specialists in giving directions and offering warm welcomes, customs that in any other time would be done between strangers walking past each other on the street. The wealthier people new to downtown are afraid to interact with more disadvantaged long-term residents, while the latter have little interest in them. The Ambassadors are the friendly face that, for good reason, the new wealthier downtowners will not see on the current residents.

A Welcome Banner for the Rich

Going to the mall or shopping at a chain store creates strange feelings. Everything is ordered and designed in painstaking ways for the consumer to consume. The greeter welcoming people in makes the experience feel even more sterile and unnatural. The Downtown Ambassadors represent a vision for the city that wishes to treat its subjects in a similar way. We are meant to be customers of the mall that is downtown.

For now the city must grudgingly manage those who are unable or unwilling to be its customers. Criminalization of homelessness and arresting panhandlers and loiterers would bring bad press to the city. Instead little steps are taken: the fencing off of underpasses where homeless people slept near the new Downtown Market is one, a Downtown Ambassador shooing away a panhandler is another.

They may claim now that they are not an auxiliary police force but their management of panhandlers, their treatment of graffiti, and their close relationship with the GRPD says otherwise. Like the police, the operations they perform are for the benefit of business–in this case the downtown business owners, housing developers–and ultimately to pave the way for the next phase of capitalism.

Exclusion by Design

In the urban centers of modern cities, space is intentionally designed. While it might seem haphazard, most things are ordered and structured in a very particular way to facilitate commerce and the circulation of goods and capital throughout the city. Similarly, anything that disrupts—or could potentially disrupt—this flow is an obstacle that must be removed. In the harsh reality of capitalism, these “obstacles” are often people.

People who are not generating wealth, those who are taking space for non-commercial purposes, and those
who in some other way prevent (or might prevent) the conduction of business are obstacles that must be removed. Among the most discussed obstacles are graffiti artists, skaters, youth, and homeless people. Homeless people especially are the target of practices that seek to design them out of urban spaces, as well legal policies that often criminalize their very existence.

There’s a long history of using architectural design to eliminate “undesirable” uses in urban spaces. It goes by different names and has slightly different emphases depending on the exact form it takes: “hostile architecture,” “disciplinary architecture,” “defensive architecture,” or “crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED)” No matter what term is used, it describes a set of practices where urban space is designed in a way to prohibit certain behaviors. The structuring and ordering of space is used to eliminate the need for certain forms of policing: if the behavior is not possible in the first place, policing it becomes unnecessary.

While perhaps not as visible as the “anti-homeless spikes” in London last year that generated considerable criticism, Grand Rapids features a number of examples of “hostile architecture,” the most notable of which is the fence used to prevent homeless people from sleeping under the Wealthy Street overpass near the Downtown Market. In many ways, it’s a perfect example of how architecture is used to signal who is valued in society.

Here are some other examples found around downtown:

Downtown Market Cage
Fencing preventing people from sleeping under the overpass near the Downtown Market.
Fencing over steam vent.
Benches in Heartside Park
Benches in Heartside Park
Surveillance Cameras
Surveillance cameras at new development.
A chain across the entryway of a S. Division business can’t prevent entry as well as a fence, but sends a subtle message to people seeking shelter that they aren’t the kind of company the business would like to have.

Removing or altering street furniture. Dismantling park benches and the like, or installing spikes and other devices to discourage sitting or lying on flat, raised surfaces, can make places less attractive for idle transients. But this will affect the street homeless and the legitimate user of public space equally, as each will be denied a place to sit and rest. Better approaches involve encouraging property owners to modify surfaces in fairly benign ways or construct them so they do not promote long-term sitting. Examples include central armrests on benches, slanted surfaces at the bases of walls, prickly vegetation in planter boxes, and narrow or pointed treatments on tops of fences and ledges. However, some observers of public spaces argue that the way to lessen the impact of loitering homeless people is to construct even more desirable sitting environments to attract more legitimate users, thus decreasing the ratio of homeless to legitimate users.” – Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Benches at Monument Park
Benches in Monument Park designed to prevent people from laying down.
Benches at Downtown Market
Benches outside of the Downtown Market in Grand Rapids.
Benches at Rapid bus stop
Bench at Rapid bus stop.
Rapid Silver Line Stop with Benches and Surveillance
Benches and surveillance cameras function as deterrents at a Rapid Silver Line stop.
Grand Rapids Beer Fest @ Heartside Park
Grand Rapids Beer Fest closes Heartside Park. Drinking is welcome as long as you aren’t homeless.
This sign appears throughout downtown Grand Rapids.
This sign appears throughout downtown Grand Rapids, creating a welcoming feel wherever it is encountered.


Multiple "No" Signs in Heartside
Multiple “No” Signs in Heartside.
Multiple signs in an alley in Heartside warn against loitering.
Multiple signs in an alley in Heartside warn against loitering.
"No Loitering" Signs at YMCA
“No Loitering” Signs at YMCA

“Poverty exists as a parallel, but separate, reality. City planners work very hard to keep it outside our field of vision. It is too miserable, too dispiriting, too painful to look at someone defecating in a park or sleeping in a doorway and think of him as “someone’s son”. It is easier to see him and ask only the unfathomably self-centred question: “How does his homelessness affect me?” So we cooperate with urban design and work very hard at not seeing, because we do not want to see. We tacitly agree to this apartheid.” – Alex Andreou


What Is Market Rate?

If one takes a look at the many apartment developments happening in Grand Rapids, they all share a common descriptor: “market rate.” It’s a term heard at City Commission and Planning Commission meetings, in the news, and in advertising materials. It’s used over and over, yet is rarely defined. It invokes the image and mythology of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”—that an all-powerful and all-knowing market sets prices for goods and services that is somehow “fair” based on “objective” economic conditions.

In reality, market rate has no element of fairness. It simply means that landlords are charging the maximum amount of rent that is bearable by the market, i.e. the most they can get away with. It is distinguished from other forms of housing, such as government subsidized or low-income housing (these days, often euphemistically called “workforce” housing).

The Morton Leasing Office - Grand Rapids, Michigan

Market rate is a term that is used to obscure what the apartments generally are: apartments rented for the maximum amount that the landlords can get for them. Rather than give specific numbers, developers tend to use the term “market rate” as it hides the fact that these are generally very expensive rents. Especially in areas in Grand Rapids that are facing the prospect of gentrification, such as the near Westside or portions of downtown, simply asserting “market rate” hides the fact that rents are largely unaffordable for residents that have historically lived in the area. Reporters for the local news media dutifully repeat the “market rate” mantra, it is somewhat rare that they report the actual rents. Moreover, developers often expand on the market rate dodge by responding with a “per square foot” calculation rather than a total dollar amount when asked about rents at their proposed developments.

In reality, the “market rate” designation in new construction generally means that rents will be significantly higher than average rates for Grand Rapids, with market-rate apartments in “in-demand” areas going for significantly more than the average rental rate of $761 for all types of housing in Grand Rapids. The average rental rate is around $1,600 to $1,800, a rate that is roughly equivalent to the mortgage payment on a $300,000 home according to the pro-development Rapid Growth Media (by comparison, the average value of a home in the city is $103,600). Rental rates are growing at almost double the national rate with few vacancies. They are being rented to primarily young, unmarried professionals and so-called “empty-nesters.” The current “apartment boom” is primarily market-rate apartments and the related “amenities” being built—restaurants, cafés, stores, etc—target that population exclusively.


A Sample of Market Rate Rentals in Grand Rapids

In order to get a handle on what exactly “market rate” means, it’s worth considering a sampling of rental rates of these apartments. Looking at the numbers shows that they are very expensive apartments. Especially when compared to historical rents in the areas where many of these developments are being built.

Market rate apartments in downtown:

  • 616 Lofts on Ionia – 1-2 Bedroom: $1,000 to $1,450 (source)
  • 616 Lofts at the Kendall – Studios: $800; 1 Bedroom: $1,000; 2 Bedroom: $1,450 (source)
  • 616 Lofts on Monroe – Studios: $800-$900; 1 Bedroom: $1,100-$1,250; 2 Bedroom: $1,450-$1,800 (source)
  • 616 Lofts on Prospect – Studio: $750; 2 Bedroom: $1,800 (source)
  • 38 Commerce – 1 Bedroom: $1,145 to $1,720; Luxury Penthouses: $2,000 to $2,700 (source)
  • The Gallery Apartments – Studio: $950; 1 Bedroom: $1,200 to $1,300; 2 Bedroom: $1,700 to $1,900; 3 Bedroom: $2,250 to $2,500 (source)
  • 26 Cherry – (Minimum Income requirement: 1 Bedroom: $40,000 per year; 2 Bedroom: $56,000 per year)
  • 205 South Division – 2 Bedroom: $1,350; 1 Bedroom Penthouse: $1,290 to $1,300 (Minimum Income requirement: 1 Bedroom: $40,000 per year; 2 Bedroom: $56,000 per year)
  • 240 Ionia – (Minimum Income requirement: 1 Bedroom: $40,000 per year; 2 Bedroom: $56,000 per year)
  • The Morton – Studio: $1,000; 1 Bedroom: $1,300; 2 Bedroom: $1,600 (source)

Market rate apartments outside of downtown:

  • 616 Lofts on Michigan – 1 Bedroom: $1,050 to $1,300; 2 Bedroom: $1,450 to $1,700.
  • 600 Douglas – Studio: $1,000; 1 Bedroom: $975 to $1,250; 2 Bedroom: $1,595 to $2,100 (source).
  • 1055 E Fulton – 2 Bedroom: $1,200.
  • Lake Michigan and Seward – Studio: $800; 2 Bedroom: $1,800 (source)
  • The Gateway at Clancy – Studio: $700; 1 Bedroom: $800; 2 Bedroom: $1,100 (source)
  • Eastown Flats – Studio: $800; 1 Bedroom: $1,000; 2 Bedroom: $1,450; 3 Bedroom: $1,800.
  • 345 State Street – 2 Bedroom: $1,770 to $1,830; (Minimum Income requirement: 1 Bedroom: $40,000 per year; 2 Bedroom: $56,000 per year)

By and large, development in downtown Grand Rapids and areas close to the center of the city are “market rate” apartments. A study from 2014 found that of 800 apartments under construction or in the planning stages, 535 would be market rate.

So when they say “Market Rate”…

New Holland Brewing on Bridge Street - Grand Rapids, Michigan

So when a developer announces their plans to build a new “market rate” development, say for example on the near Westside or in the Creston neighborhood, we should know what they mean: expensive apartments unattainable to the majority of existing residents, with rental rates far above the average rates of both rentals and mortgages in Grand Rapids.

Who can afford these rents? Often only those with high disposable incomes or lifetimes of savings. In many neighborhoods, this means an entirely different demographic than the one that traditionally lived in the area. It can—or will in the case of proposed developments—mean the wholesale change of an area, as single-family homes are replaced by rentals for the college-age children of the upper middle class, the conversion of warehouses into homes for young professionals, and high-end apartments for the retired professionals looking to move into downtown to experience the “vibrancy” of urban living after a life spent in the suburbs.

The development of “market rate” apartments is accompanied by the development of new amenities targeted at the class of people who can afford these higher rents, so you start to see the development of pour-over coffee shops, hyper-local restaurants, artisan bakeries, boutiques, and other such businesses. In short, we see the wholesale transformation of entire streets and neighborhoods. What caters to this new demographic comes to be seen as “normal” and everything that was there before is an obstacle.

In other words, when we hear “market rate,” we should be very, very suspicious.