GR Forward Strikes Back

Recently, the final draft of the GR Forward plan was released. We wrote an extensive article critiquing many aspects of GR Forward back in August, but after a barrage of news articles touting the plan’s allegedly strong commitment to diversity and inclusion (The Rapidian and Mlive), it’s worth looking at again. Moreover, the plan is rapidly moving through various boards toward final approval. It recently passed unanimously before the Planning Commission on November 12, after being approved by the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) and the Monroe North Tax Increment Financing Authority the previous day.

Article on The Rapidian Announcing the GR Forward Final Draft
Article on The Rapidian Announcing the GR Forward Final Draft

To hear GR Forward tell it, the new draft is substantially changed: it is a significant response to criticism around the issues of diversity and inclusion. The basis of this claim is the new preamble titled “Towards an Equity-Driven Growth Model in Downtown Grand Rapids”. It’s full of seemingly bold, self-critical statements like:

“The robust public engagement process also revealed widespread concern regarding everyone’s ability to participate in Downtown’s historic and future prosperity. Put plainly, a broad swath of our community, including many from historically marginalized areas of the City, believe they’re not welcome or don’t belong in Downtown Grand Rapids.”

Based on news articles and GR Forward representatives, it seems like a major mea culpa. After a draft document that was embarrassingly bad on the topic of diversity, it’s now seemingly front-and-center. There’s calls for an African-American Heritage Museum in downtown, an African-American festival, diverse cultural events, and more. GR Forward wants more diverse city boards as well as a “regional equity framework” to address the ways inequality manifests itself across the region. There are calls for more minority-owned businesses and more minority workers in downtown. That’s all well and good, but they hardly seem adequate to the task at hand.

The United States was built on white supremacy and it is still a white supremacist society. “Diversity” is a terribly ill-suited approach to dealing with this legacy as it ultimately relies on the goodwill of employers, developers, city boards, etc, to decide if “diversity” is something worth having. It does not address the structural or material basis of racism and glaringly absent from the discussion is the fact that large portions of the “new” Grand Rapids rely on white supremacist divisions of labor: it is largely people of color who work in kitchens, do housekeeping, clean the streets, etc.

GR Forward Photos Replaced

Even taking GR Forward’s approach on their own terms, there is nothing making sure that they will actually achieve the goals they identify, they are just targets . It’s just lip service at a greater scale: a preamble accompanied by more visible photos of minority populations. It’s something to show critics who justifiably raise questions (see their summary of public comments received on the draft [presented to the Planning Commission], they point people to this section over and over). It still reads as though it’s tacked on, a scrambling attempt to deal with the perception that GR Forward isn’t really about inclusion or diversity. And it isn’t now nor was it ever, it’s only ever been about economics.

In that sense, little has changed in the draft. It still advocates for the core project of transforming downtown and making it a more attractive destination for tourists and those who currently live outside of its confines. The same mantras are repeated about the “need” for 10,000 households to gain further investment (and what the city can do to get to that point), the necessity of “restoring the river,” the proliferation of staged events, etc. There’s no need to repeat these criticisms, they were laid out in our previous article on GR Forward. Despite the changes, it is a plan that seeks to transform downtown into a playground for the rich, or those who like to play tourist for the weekend while visiting downtown for ArtPrize.

GR Forward's Vision for the Westside
GR Forward’s Vision for the Westside

Typical of GR Forward’s approach and vision is its discussion of the Westside. The plan advocates continued construction along and near the Bridge Street corridor, including the building of 4-and-5 story buildings along Bridge and Stocking. They would be a mix of housing and commercial developments. Bridge Street—despite being home to many existing homes and businesses—is presented as prime turf to be colonized by new investments. Already in the neighborhood new housing is being built, all of which features high rents (for example, Rockford Construction’s 600 Douglas and Fulton Place projects) inaccessible to those who traditionally lived in the neighborhood. None of the proposed projects for the neighborhood include affordable housing, and the tepid suggestions for incentives GR Forward suggests won’t do anything to change that. Similarly, most neighborhood business development has been “upscale” stores (the hip and misspelled Denym) and restaurants (Black Heron). These are in many ways typical of commercial development as a whole in gentrifying neighborhoods—it’s designed to meet the demands and interests of a new class of residents.

Photo from the GR Forward Plan
Photo from the GR Forward Plan

If what is happening on the Westside is being celebrated by GR Forward, it’s cause for concern as a whole. The transformation of the Westside has been the exact opposite of inclusive and diverse. The Fulton Place development—which is held up by GR Forward as an example of affordable student housing—rents for $800 per bedroom and involved the demolition of existing homes. If this is a template, we should be very concerned when the plan advocates for increased housing for students and young professionals on the Westside and south down Division Avenue. It’s worth noting that the plan advocates for a housing mix in downtown Grand Rapids that is 30% affordable, down from 35% at present. Furthermore, even this call is very limited as seen in the excited discussion about micro-lofts (apartments under 475 square feet) to address the issue of affordable housing. That might be fine for young singles or “empty-nesters”, but isn’t a solution for families who can’t afford high rents elsewhere in downtown.

On the question of public space, the final version of GR Forward continues to call for the total commercialization of downtown. Public space, culture, nature, parks, and people are all seen as “assets” which can be commodified and/or otherwise used to generate economic activity. There’s no real talk about non-commercial space. Instead, parks and the river would be “activated” with a series of facilitated activities designed to cater to tourists and those with money to spend in downtown. Downtown will become a giant amusement park with skate parks, festivals, whitewater rafting, swimming, ice skating, public art, and a host of other activities to take in before or after visiting the hot new restaurant or brew pub du jour. As is typical of GR Forward’s discussion, this assumes that spaces aren’t already used, whether it is a commercial street or a park. For example, homeless people often spend their days in the parks, yet a park such as Heartside Park is seen by GR Forward as needing to be “activated” because it doesn’t have the right type of activity.

Downtown Transformed into an Adventure Park
Downtown Transformed into an Adventure Park

This illuminates a major tension in the GR Forward plan between activities that are deemed “good” uses of space and those that aren’t. Drinking by low- and no- income people in Heartside Park is seen as an undesirable activity that needs to be “rooted out”, but drinking craft beer at Movies in the Park is seen as a model behavior. At the same time the plan speaks of creating a welcoming downtown, this tension manifests itself in repeated advocacy of improved lighting, the expansion of the Downtown Ambassadors program, illuminated storefronts, redesigned parks, etc, all of which are designed to police a certain type of street life and activity while inviting in a different set of activities. In the downtown envisioned by GR Forward it is fine to walk drunk from bar to bar while sampling the latest in foodie trends, but to inhabit the street while intoxicated because you have nowhere else to go, means that your presence will addressed in terms of how it relates to people’s “perceptions of safety.” The Downtown Ambassadors—identified as a success and something that should be expanded by GR Forward—probably will not be offering to refer tipsy distillery patrons to services to deal with their potential alcoholism, yet they will not hesitate to refer those whom they deem to be homeless and/or “at-risk”.

GR Forward builds on the reality that downtown Grand Rapids has changed dramatically over the past decade. Those who support both the GR Forward plan and the general trajectory of these changes see this in a positive light. The frequent announcements of new housing, new businesses, and other initiatives lend themselves to the idea that there is an unstoppable forward momentum. Intertwined with this idea is the notion that the city is becoming increasingly progressive and/or otherwise changing for the better. It coincides with the concept of infinite growth in capitalism, that there is always something to be exploited, always an asset to be maximized, and a profit to be made. It goes by different names: entrepreneurship, capitalism, colonialism, but it has always meant looking at the world through an economic lens where everything—from swimming in the river, to street musicians, and diversity—is a potential means to generate more economic activity.

Everyone and everything is a potential niche to market or market to. And as for those who don’t fit into this vision? At best they might be the subject of a token mention in a preamble, but their experience is quickly buried under the forward march of progress. To raise concerns, to register objections, or otherwise critique the existing trajectory is an anachronism when everything is moving forward and everything is progressive. It’s an ahistorical triumph where the past no longer matters and legacies of exploitation can be wished away. At the same time, the tide GR Forward represents washes across the landscape, leaving in its wake a city transformed into an adventure playground built on a landscape that has been thoroughly cleansed, sanitized, and monetized.

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?

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.