The near Westside in Grand Rapids is currently undergoing a process of intensive gentrification. Several new apartment projects are either in the process of being built or have been proposed, all of which introduce “market-rate” rents dramatically higher than the costs traditionally associated with the area. Additionally, restaurants, breweries, and boutique clothing stores have either opened or opening soon. Again, they introduce price points that have not traditionally been seen in the neighborhood. It’s a perfect example of gentrification defined as “the production of space for progressively more affluent users” (Hackworth, 2002).
At the forefront of these efforts are two new projects designated as “gateways” to the Westside: The Fulton Place development at Lexington and Fulton and the “New Holland” project on the corner of Bridge and Front. In both cases, the developments will introduce a mix of new housing, residents, and businesses into their respective neighborhoods, many of whom will have lifestyles and income levels dramatically different than those who have lived in the predominately working-class area.
In advance of the May 5 groundbreaking for the Fulton Place development, there has been a lot of media coverage of the project. It’s been interesting—although not at all surprising—to note how the coverage has repeated the myths of gentrification, or “re-development” in Grand Rapids. With the exception of one story on WZZM 13 that placed the development in the context of rising rents on the Westside, the rest of the news coverage largely portrayed the project as a positive for the neighborhood and the city (see WOOD TV, Grand Rapids Press, and the Grand Rapids Business Journal).
One of the major myths of gentrification in Grand Rapids is that there is no displacement, it’s a mantra that’s repeated over and over: development is happening on vacant land, so there can’t be gentrification. This of course ignores the fact that gentrification scholars have long recognized that “displacement” doesn’t exclusively mean physical displacement and that displacement can happen over time as the culture and composition of the neighborhood changes. Gentrification is a concept that captures the ways in which most “redevelopment” projects involve a shift from one class to the other, regardless of whether or not they involve direct displacement or are built on vacant land. Jason Hackworth (2002) captures this well writing:
“…in light of several decades of research and debate that shows that the concept is usefully applied to non-residential urban change and that there is frequently a substantial time lag between when the subordinate class group gives way to more affluent users. That is, the displacement or replacement is often neither direct nor immediate, but the process remains ‘gentrification’ because the space is being transformed for more affluent users.”
Going along with the myth that construction on vacant land can’t be gentrification is the claim that gentrification in Grand Rapids simply doesn’t involve displacement. An example of this claim is found in a recent Grand Rapids Magazine article (“Big Shift: The Booming Demand for Downtown Housing”, March 2015) when they report that Grand Rapids’ city planner Suzanne Schulz told the magazine that “The city isn’t removing single-family housing; new construction on multi-family housing is happening where it doesn’t exist now.”
The Fulton Place development shows that this is not the case. Aside from the transformation that introducing so-called “market-rate” housing to the neighborhood will have, the development is demolishing four homes on Lexington Avenue SW and replacing them with townhomes. This fact was apparently lost on the media, with none of the stories reporting on this. It was either ignored outright, or in the case of WZZM 13, the station claimed that the development “…isn’t eliminating any housing on the Westside” and allowing Rockford Construction a platform to declare that they are “developing on primarily vacant buildings or vacant land.”
“Bradley Heartwell, Rockford Development Group, related that when they bought the subject houses one of them was owner occupied and he was happy to sell his house and has closed on another. Two of the homes were illegally occupied by renters, which they didn’t realize until after they closed on the property. The building closest to Fulton had four tenants and a number of them were looking for other housing and Rockford was able to assist them with finding other housing. All of the houses are currently vacant and in bad repair.”
This is a classic example of gentrification. The existing owners sell the homes for substantially more than what they are worth (the homes sold for between $155,000 and $250,000 according to property sale records), existing residents are displaced (in two cases, even being associated with illegality), and the houses are declared obsolete as they are not consistent with the “new opportunities for housing” are being built on the Westside. Instead, they are demolished and will be replaced by townhomes aimed at a decidedly more upscale renter. We can be quite sure that the displaced residents will not be given the opportunity to live in the new townhomes at the prices they were previously paying.
While news stories characterized the housing as being “for students,” it’s market-rate housing project that according Rockford Construction’s comments at the Planning Commission meeting, “isn’t designed as a traditional student housing project; it is designed as market rate housing.” They were clear about it their application to the Planning Commission and at the meeting to discuss the project, they compared it the 600 Douglas project on Seward, which they thought would attract students but instead has mainly attracted the coveted “young professional” demographic. Rents there range from around $1,000 for a studio to $2,100 for a two-bedroom unit.
Fulton Place exposes the myths of redevelopment in Grand Rapids. It highlights that far from being the benevolent force that it’s often portrayed as, it comes with real consequences: displacement, demolition of existing homes, and the transformation of space for more affluent users. As Neil Smith, the noted gentrification scholar once wrote:
“The language of regeneration sugarcoats gentrification. Precisely because the language of gentrification tells the truth about the class shift involved in ‘regeneration’ of the city, it has become a dirty word to developers, politicians, and financiers…”
It is a word that we must begin to use, as it captures the class transformation that is happening on the Westside and in other neighborhoods of Grand Rapids.
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.
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.
“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.
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?
A person or organization that buys goods or services from a store or business.
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.”
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.
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.
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:
“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
“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
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).
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)
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”…
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.