Same House, Different Story

From Downtown to East Hills to the Westside, a sea change is well underway in almost every city neighborhood of Grand Rapids. New developments catering to “desirable” (that is, economically valuable) residents are cropping up like an invasive species, generating a great amount of uncritical hype. The process easily fits the definition of gentrification, but many are still struggling to identify the causes and consequences of gentrification locally.

One of the most striking case studies of our understanding of gentrification in Grand Rapids is the Morton House building, standing tall at Ionia Avenue and Monroe Center in the middle of downtown, and currently swathed in the colorful banners of Rockford Construction Company. Originally built as a luxury hotel almost a century ago, the building was acquired in 1971 by Saperstein Associates Corp., a property management company based near Detroit, which operated the Morton House as a multi-family Section 8-based housing project under a 40-year contract with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Projects like this can offer stable housing to people who have trouble finding and affording it elsewhere for a variety of intersecting reasons – mostly people who work low-wage jobs, are disabled, or who have struggled with mental health or addiction. Like most low-income (low-priority) housing projects, it fell into disrepair over the years, with reports of heating and other maintenance issues and bed bug infestations. When their HUD contract expired in 2011, Saperstein Associates Corp. said they felt the building had “completed its life-cycle as a multi-family, independent affordable housing” location, opted out of the Section 8 program, and put the building up for sale.

morton-hotel-historicBefore the building had even hit the market, the roughly 200 residents were given a three-month deadline to move out. A coalition of non-profits and social services helped coordinate the daunting relocation process: the Grand Rapids Housing Commission put on a housing fair and greatly expanded their Section 8 Program vouchers so that residents could qualify for Section 8 housing elsewhere, the Department of Human Services funded more than 128 security deposits with state emergency relief funds, and local non-profits like Servant’s Center and Dégagé Ministries helped many residents cover some moving costs. The Housing Commission’s 2011 annual report states the obvious, that “relocating the residents of Morton House posed significant challenges since many households faced extraordinary financial and logistical hurdles.”

Obviously, the previous low-income housing project was not a solution for the poverty that its residents experienced, merely a measure that helped keep a roof over their heads while they navigated it. And while many residents were understandably upset about being uprooted from their stable home of many years and suddenly forced into a cut-throat rental market, some were able to use the change as an opportunity to find homes that offered more space and fewer bed bugs. Still, those who would justify the displacement of poor downtown residents by pointing out the poor conditions in which they were living are missing the point entirely.

After the building was emptied of its previous residents, the property was bought by Rockford Development and RDV Corp., an investment and holdings company owned by the DeVos family. Then after the acquisition, the building sat empty for about three years. It was only last fall that extensive renovations began and that the new use for ‘the Morton’ was announced: an upscale, market-rate apartment building with retail space on the ground level. The buffer of time between the evictions and the unveiling of the new plan conveniently diffused any critical discussion of the changing use. Indeed, most people seem to have forgotten what the building once was – and some of the media celebration of the new development was able to assert that the project would create new housing in a previously vacant building.

The building was also chosen as the 2014 venue for SiTE:LAB, an arts organization that fills “underutilized” spaces with site-specific art installations. The installation opened as a part of ArtPrize, the (in)famous public art competition that turns downtown Grand Rapids into a spectacle for suburbanites and well-heeled out-of-towners, and Rockford Construction took advantage of the crowds by opening a model apartment for visitors to walk through on their way to or from the exhibitions. The event created a sense of excited potential for the space, while avoiding any deeper exploration of the forces that were shaping it. Most of SiTE:LAB’s promotion referred to the Morton building as abandoned without ever answering the question “abandoned by whom?”


The investments in renovating the building easily dwarf the amount of money that went into the resident relocation project in 2011. The $34 million renovation is being funded in part by a $4.3 million low-interest loan from the Michigan Strategic Fund and $2 million in tax incentives approved by Grand Rapids’ Downtown Development Authority.

According to mLive, “rental rates for the 60 one-bedroom units will begin at $1,300 a month and go up, depending on the view. The 30 two-bedroom units, each with two bathrooms, will begin at $1,600 a month, while 10 studio apartments will begin at $1,000 a month.” There will also be condominiums on the upper floors that will likely cost much more, and quite a bit of retail space on the ground level.

If the rental prices don’t make it obvious enough, the language and photos used to advertise the Morton – showcasing expensive modern coffee tables stacked with heavy art books and wine glasses ready to sip – make it clear that the building is intended for “sophisticated”, luxury-seeking residents. This shift in housing priorities is not a coincidence of market opportunity, but part of a calculated long-term plan that is turning downtown and near-downtown neighborhoods into playgrounds for those with money to spend.


City Economic Development Director Kara Wood has said that “the Morton project will ‘catalyze’ downtown development and help the city achieve its goal of doubling the number of downtown residents.” Kent Companies, the construction company contracted to re-do the building’s floors, boasts that “the Morton House is in prime position to draw residents back to the city’s urban core.” And Kurt Hassberger, the President of Rockford Construction, remarked to the media that “we want to create a place where our kids want to stay, and live and work” – a friendly sound bite that has a subtle callousness to it (whose kids? And why do they deserve a nice place to stay more than the people who were there first?)

The inner city is no longer for the impoverished, it’s for well-off professionals who want to be “at the center of it all.” While we’re all familiar with the problems that tend to plague inner-city areas with concentrated poverty, the shift does not actually address systemic causes of poverty – it merely displaces and disperses its effects.

But where is it being displaced to? The reporting on the relocation of the Morton House residents doesn’t quite answer this question, merely saying that all residents were relocated on schedule and calling that a success, but from broader housing trends we can infer that many residents probably had to move to areas further from the center of the city, where transportation and social services can be harder to access. And the moves were also likely to disrupt supportive social relationships that may have developed over years of living in the same place, further fueling the isolation and instability that characterize life in poverty.

While concentrated poverty – the concentration of low-income households in the same neighborhoods – is still highest in cities, it’s growing at the fastest rate in suburban areas. And of metro areas where the number of poor people living in “concentrated poverty” neighborhoods is increasing, Grand Rapids has scored one of the highest rates of increase since 2000. Since suburban communities were created for middle-class families and are ill-equipped to support low-income populations, there’s a good chance that entirely new islands of concentrated poverty are being created by this process.

As we’ve discussed before (and will discuss more in the future), long-time residents don’t necessarily need to be kicked out by developers of new property or business in order for the changes brought by development to displace them over the long term. But even when people are directly and immediately displaced, this fact is usually either ignored or quickly excused and the focus redirected towards the “positive” economic effects of the development.

This process is in no way unique to the Morton building or to Grand Rapids. It’s a small iteration of a grander process affecting all cities, and reflective of how our economy perpetuates the hierarchies that it was built on. You can hear echoes of the same story in this video concerning over 100 seniors who were evicted from the Griswold House, a low-income senior living facility in Detroit which was then redeveloped into luxury housing. The videographer makes a stirring remark in the video description: “It’s not enough to just notice one group of people prospering and another dying.” Just telling the story of the Griswold House or the Morton House is not enough to keep the same story from recurring over and over again – but in a city where stories like this are either utterly ignored or warped into publicity campaigns for developers, hopefully it’s a start.

Drawing Lines: Race & Gentrification

New phrases are invented every year to overshadow the word “gentrification.” A few decades ago it was just “revitalization” or “urban renewal,” while in recent times new terms have cropped up such as “inclusive growth,” “development without displacement,” and a new favorite of Grand Rapids: “place making.” Marketing and branding schemes don’t come from nowhere, they are meant to hide and shift public dialogue into a direction favorable to economic power. This is nothing new. The myth of a post-racial society has permeated the United States for decades, with code words such as “thug” and “welfare queen” concealing the racism at the foundation of this society. The word “gentrification” must be hidden because it characterizes the social, economic, and political orientation of development as inherently racist.

An economic process by any other name…

Grand Rapids has been ranked the 2nd worst out of 52 urban centers for economic opportunities for black people in the entire country according to a recent Forbes Magazine article. Nearly 45% of black residents in Grand Rapids live in poverty. Grand Rapids-Wyoming is the 26th most segregated metropolitan area between white and black people in the United States. Black people on average give the city a worse rating than white people. The GRPD regularly stop, photograph, and fingerprint black men who are not being charged with any crime and as a result the department is currently facing a lawsuit.

Meanwhile, the city is receiving accolades for its economic growth. Lonely Planet named Grand Rapids as the top US travel destination of 2014, the same year it was ranked 5th among U.S. cities benefiting most from economic recovery. In 2013, Grand Rapids won the “Beer City USA” award for its numerous microbreweries and bars. These awards cater primarily to white people – the culture of entrepreneurship so praised in Grand Rapids rarely celebrates black businesses. The cultural activities celebrated are also a celebration of white pseudo-culture – i.e. stuff white people like.

Marginalization in every sense of the word describes the process applied to many of Grand Rapids’s black residents. Not only are the majority of non-white people held back from economic opportunities, but for white people these problems and others are kept out of sight and out of mind. For a city the size of Grand Rapids, that means that these social inequalities affecting majority black areas are happening literally a block or two away from majority white areas, and yet remain largely unseen.

White Grand Rapids exhibits a combination of callous, oblivious, and indifferent attitudes towards the marginalization of the city’s black residents. Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. and the Grand Rapids Community Foundation sponsor a “Place Matters” feature on the local news website The Rapidian, which strives to make the city look more appealing to potential professional newcomers. Grand Rapids has been participating in a global trend where cities compete with each other to attract entrepreneurs and a certain class of new residents. This process crafts a regional identity into a kind of brand, and exploits peoples’ sense of belonging into a kind of brand loyalty. Seriously examining the racial and economic disparities in the city doesn’t make for flashy PR. A public relations group responded to the aforementioned Forbes Magazine article with a #BlackInGrandRapids campaign on Twitter as well as showcasing a video, both of which were meant to counter a narrative which brought bad press to Grand Rapids.

PR-01 PR-02


This move failed, as people quickly used the hashtag to post statistics and stories about the oppression and marginalization of black people in Grand Rapids.

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Gentrification unearths an ugly truth about race in Grand Rapids and the United States: that blackness is considered undesirable, dirty, and dangerous while whiteness is seen as pure and safe. It is a centuries old narrative whose parts are updated every generation – but it’s still largely true. White people refer to areas with mostly black people as “ghetto,” even if the residents are middle class. The Meijer on Kalamazoo and 28th is colloquially called the “ghetto Meijer.” Living south of Franklin is in “the hood.” While tolerant multicultural society urges white kindness to a black neighbor or co-worker, it does so under the implication that white people form the majority and hold the power. This is why “development without displacement” is a joke, and those who urge for it are either naive or have ulterior motives. On the flip side of this, some white people are aware of the sterility of whiteness, and subsequently desire to be around people of color, fetishizing areas with majority black and brown people as exotic and “authentic.” These white people tend to unknowingly be the vanguard of gentrification, making space where more white people feel comfortable inhabiting.

The Vacancy is Too Damn Low!

As pointed out in our “Fulton Place & Development” article,

“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.”

This process is aided due to a large influx of new residents into the city. While gentrification is normally seen as a raising of rent, in this case that might not even be necessary. Grand Rapids has the lowest rental vacancy rate in the country at 1.6% compared to the national average of 7%. New residents pulled in by the allure of urban living likely benefit from race and class privileges over long-term residents, which might include clean arrest records, high credit ratings, stable incomes, and even white-sounding names. In securing loans, applying for housing, finding employment, and in almost every other dimension of public life they have the advantage.

The Wealthy Street Model

On most nights along Wealthy Street, there are large crowds of (white) people visiting a host of bars, breweries, and eateries which serve up the latest in foodie trends. From fish tacos and micro-brews to artisan vegan food and $12 macaroni and cheese, they can all be found. During the day, boutique stores, salons, and coffee shops are popular destinations. Visitors come from outside the neighborhood – it has become a destination spot among hip travelers and residents of other neighborhoods alike. Fancy cars line the streets, while expensive bikes take up space on the bike racks. It’s a mix of hipsters, affluent millenials, families, and more – the overwhelming majority of which tend to be white. Walk a few blocks north from the intersection of Wealthy Street and Diamond Avenue, and you are in an even more affluent area where restaurant options rival those found in bigger cities. The money and wealth radiates out from the area, creating a two-block stretch that might make one surprised that they are still in Grand Rapids. On the walk over, one may have noticed the homes, many of which are owner occupied and well-maintained, creating a desirable neighborhood popular with homeowners and renters alike – including the coveted young professionals. However, walking just a block south of Wealthy Street and Diamond Avenue evokes the feeling of being in a totally different world. The quality of homes drops dramatically, the presence of police increases, and numerous indicators of generational poverty and disinvestment are everywhere. And the racial composition of the neighborhood almost flips. While those visiting and owning businesses along or north of Wealthy Street tend to be white, those living south of Wealthy Street tend to be black. The dividing line of Wealthy Street couldn’t be clearer.


The Wealthy Street corridor has been heavily gentrified in recent years. Like many inner-city neighborhoods, there was significant disinvestment in the second half of the 20th century, which accelerated following the 1967 riots against police. In the intervening years, it was largely forgotten about by white residents. The standard picture painted by the neighborhood’s boosters is that prior to their efforts, it was overrun with drug dealers and gang members. While these components certainly existed, it’s worth considering the ways in which this story creates a racialized narrative. This is especially important in light of the fact that the developments along Wealthy Street are very one-sided, directed at – and benefiting – primarily white people. This kind of critical distinction is absent in most discussions of Wealthy Street. If you look at media coverage or listen to neighborhood boosters, you are far more likely to hear stories about the near super-hero like role individuals had in facing down drug dealers, the heroic efforts of homeowners renovating their homes against all odds, the importance of creating a historical district, and the opening of new businesses in helping to “turn” the neighborhood. Unfortunately, many of these protagonists are white and many of the investments come from outside the neighborhood. Black-owned businesses do still exist along Wealthy Street, but it is those that cater to the new class and race of customers that are celebrated in the media.

While there has been some debate over whether or not the neighborhood has undergone gentrification, it tends to be a charged conversation. In it, most popular myths of gentrification are invoked and there is little actual examination of what has changed on Wealthy Street. People will assert publicly that gentrification is not happening and argue that there is no displacement of existing residents. This of course is limited in that it assumes a narrow definition of displacement, focusing only on physical displacement rather than cultural. It’s a different form of displacement that is taking place when black residents may not feel welcome in an area built to cater primarily to white dispositions and cultures. On the topic of displacement, this is a common issue in gentrification studies as the process of measuring displaced residents is difficult as they are by definition gone from the areas where sociologists would go to interview them – thus making the displaced largely untraceable. Yet it’s doubtful that those who clamor of evidence of displacement actually care, as they are often the proponents of the gentrification. There has been relatively little study of Wealthy Street, leaving one to rely primarily on perceptions based on the proliferation of upscale establishments and the experience of walking through the neighborhood and noting what is going on. When it comes to actual studies, one from 2002 found that the area was undergoing a process of gentrification and that was before things really took off in the mid-2000s.


The wholesale transformation of the area is unmistakable. Even as some continue to celebrate it, others have been more critical, arguing that the benefits of the development have not moved south of Wealthy Street and have not been extended to non-white residents. In some cases, it’s mentioned in a very matter-of-fact way that gentrification did happen and that it clearly did not benefit residents. Even proponents of what happened on Wealthy Street have occasionally expressed regret, admitting that the neighborhood lacks middle-income housing. Often, the question of whether or not gentrification happened along Wealthy Street falls along racial and class lines, with those who benefit from gentrification being the staunchest and loudest in their opinions that it did not.

Wealthy Is Everywhere

Despite the negatives associated with the gentrification of Wealthy Street, many in the city – especially in the development community and its cheerleaders – see it as a sort of “model” of how “revitalization” can happen in Grand Rapids and what the desired end goal is. Bear Manor Properties – which at the time owned Electric Cheetah, Brick Road Pizza, and the Meanwhile Bar – asserted, “We feel like Wealthy Street is a model for the future of good development in the city.” In regard to recent developments on the Westside, developers have not been shy about invoking the image of Wealthy Street when discussing the neighborhood’s future. The owners of the forthcoming Harmony Hall – a second location for Harmony Brewing – have said that “…it reminds me a lot of working on Wealthy Street back in 2006 and 2007.” Others have said that the Westside will be “like Eastown” in 5-10 years. And it’s a theme that is consistently invoked in the media. Developers and their boosters – in the media and gentrifiers – speak of how Bridge Street is shaping up to be a “destination” neighborhood.


In the way that criticism of the gentrification of Wealthy Street is shot down with the assertion that before it was overrun with drug dealers and gang members, gentrifers on the Westside speak of the need to eliminate “low use” and an undesirable “culture” (in reference to a lingerie/video store and an adult theater) that existed along Bridge Street. Without defending the previous businesses, it should be obvious that it does not have to be an either/or scenario, as if the choice must be between abandoned buildings and gentrification. Along with the rhetoric, the constellation of restaurants and developments planned for on the Westside point towards a future like Wealthy Street with upscale clothing stores, restaurants, and breweries planned for the neighborhood. Along with these, a number of housing developments have been proposed for the area which introduce rental rates far outside the norm for the area. Ultimately, the original cultures will be replaced – witness the number of restaurants planning to serve Polish and Mexican fusion cuisine – as an insulting homage to those who have been (or will soon be) displaced. Meanwhile, people living in the adjacent neighborhoods will be increasingly unwelcome and their opinions will be deemed less and less relevant. Invoking Wealthy Street as a model may be accurate in terms of conceptualizing what Bridge Street will look like and who it will cater to, with the new build gentrification, it may be an even more totalizing transformation.

The “Wealthy Street Model” of gentrification is moving beyond Bridge Street. New projects in other areas of the town are repeating a similar pattern. One developer commits to an area, only to have a number of other projects follow in their footsteps. This is happening in the Creston neighborhood, where Derek Coppess of 616 Development says that “you’re going to see a whole different neighborhood.” While 616 Development is building new developments, they are also promising the same kind of total transformation that happened on Wealthy Street. He even goes so far as to describe the neighborhood – home to many people and businesses already – as being made of “great bones” in “… need [of] an infusion of market-rate people who are here 24-7.” News reporters couldn’t be happier, barely able to contain themselves at the prospect of yet another brewery opening. As a new class of people is introduced to the neighborhood, a feeling of dislocation and exclusion is inevitable and a variety of direct and indirect pressures will begin to bear down on those living on the edges of the gentrifying blocks.


The opening of Hall Street Bakery on the corner of Fuller and Hall should be considered as another iteration of the “Wealthy Street Model” of gentrification. Hall Street Bakery—operated by the same owners of the Wealthy Street Bakery—consciously identifies with and celebrates the role that Wealthy Street Bakery had in the gentrification of Wealthy Street. David LaGrand, one of the owners of the two businesses, said in an interview with MLive, “The bakery really helped kick off some development on Wealthy Street years ago and we’re hoping this will stimulate some investments in the (new) neighborhood.” He has also said that “The neighborhood in Hall and Fuller looks a lot like what Wealthy Street looked like when we (first) invested there.” It’s worth noting that while he celebrates the “revival” of Wealthy Street, LaGrand does not believe gentrification actually happens in Grand Rapids. With the Hall Street Bakery opening, one can’t help but wonder if the same demographic shift – both in terms of race and class – that occurred along Wealthy Street will happen around the Hall Street Bakery. After all, gentrification scholars such as Neil Smith have long recognized the importance of “outpost” businesses in the process of gentrification that test the waters for future development.

“Best Side” for long?

The near Westside of the city just across the river was noted as one of Grand Rapid’s “most integrated” areas according to a MLive article citing US Census data. The population has historically been composed of working class black, white, and latin@ people. Of course, that is not to say that the area is racially harmonious, but just to note that at the present time, it is relatively diverse – especially by Grand Rapids standards. It’s no secret that urban planners as well as construction and real estate firms are in the process of gentrifying Bridge Street and the Westside in general, all with city commission approval. As expected, the microbreweries, boutique clothing stores, and market-rate housing are clearly not meant for long-term residents. West Grand Neighborhood per capita income is an average of $14,880.26 a year, John Ball Park Neighborhood’s is at $20,415.62. In contrast, a pair of pants at Bridge Street clothing store Denym costs $100-200. Rent at the 600 Douglas project is market-rate, which ends up being $975-2,100 a month.

At the same time, landlords are buying up newly vacant family homes near Lake Michigan Drive, many of which have recently been foreclosed on, and are renting them to GVSU students, a demographic that is 84% white. A house, for which a family may once have paid a mortgage of less than $1000 a month, is rented to four students at $400 each. In addition to becoming less affordable, the neighborhood changes in character. The party lifestyles of privileged youth directly clash with neighboring families or older residents. Even if not priced out, long-term residents might just get sick of hearing that same Jay-Z song ritually blasted at 2 AM every night.

Whether it’s predatory landlords renting to boisterous students or capitalists and city planners trying to attract more capital along Bridge Street, the limited gains of racial co-existence made on the Westside will likely be gone in the near future. But why should officials in Grand Rapids care? They already rank 51 out of 52 cities in economic opportunities for black people. They can hardly go any lower, and city officials have made it quite clear that gentrification is the official policy, regardless of its consequences.

“No Neutrals There”

In 1931, the United Mine Workers of Harlan, Kentucky battled an openly violent conflict against the mine’s owners. Florence Reece, whose husband was one of the miners, wrote the song “Which Side Are You On?” to implore that there can be “no neutrals” amidst such conflict. The mine owners and the structural forces behind gentrification share the ability to create and change the world around those that inhabit it. To take a passive or neutral stance in either situation is ultimately to side with the oppressor.

On October 6, 2014 a group of activists disrupted the St. Louis Opera, standing up from their seats and singing an altered version of “Which Side Are You On?” called “A Requiem for Mike Brown.” The last year of revolts over police killings has shattered the mask of a post-racial society for all who are willing to look. Gone are the days when one could sincerely pose the question in mixed company of whether racism still exists in this country. In this time of gentrifying displacement, cold-blooded murder of black people by a white supremacist, and ongoing revolt against the violence of the police, more so every day the question shifts from whether racism exists to a choice: “which side am I on?”

Defining Gentrification

The term “gentrification” was first coined in 1964 by sociologist Ruth Glass to describe changes happening in London:

“One by one, many of the working class quarters have been invaded by the middle class – upper and lower … Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the working class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.”

Since that time, “gentrification” has been a constantly evolving term, with the sociologists, geographers, and other academics debating how to define the term, how to quantify the effects of gentrification, who causes it, and analyzing what it all means.

Unfortunately, while there has been a vibrant academic literature that has explored the concept of gentrification, popular definitions of the term tend to be rather simplistic and often fail to build on research that has been done over the last fifty years. For example, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “gentrification” as:

“the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents”

In popular discourse, gentrification is reduced to a process in which a specific formula (direct displacement by new residents) must be enacted for something to be gentrification. A comment on an article published by The Grand Rapids Press is typical of much of the popular discourse around gentrification:

“This is ABSOLUTELY NOT gentrification – it is a building build ON AN EMPTY LOT. You need to consult the definition of gentrification – which involved displacement of an established population – there is no population in empty lots and abandoned buildings.”

While one would certainly not want to take the comments on as being representative of much of anything (and it’s worth noting that “new build gentrification” is real), it does show the ways in which popular myths about gentrification continue to exist.

By contrast, some far more nuanced definitions of gentrification include the following.

“Gentrification – the transformation of a working-class or vacant area of the central city into middle-class residential or commercial use.” 1

And another:

“…an economic and social process whereby private capital (real estate firms, developers) and individual homeowners and renters reinvest in fiscally neglected neighborhoods through housing rehabilitation, loft conversions, and the construction of new housing stock. Unlike urban renewal, gentrification is a gradual process, occurring one building or block at a time, slowly reconfiguring the neighborhood landscape of consumption and residence by displacing poor and working-class residents unable to afford to live in ‘revitalized’ neighborhoods with rising rents, property taxes, and new businesses catering to upscale clientèle.” 2

Lastly, gentrification takes place in a variety of different places and in different ways. Kate Shaw describes gentrification as:

“…a generalised middle-class restructuring of place, encompassing the entire transformation from low-status neighbourhoods to upper-middle-class playgrounds. Gentrifiers’ residences are no longer just renovated houses but newly built townhouses and high- rise apartments. Their workplaces are as likely to be new downtown or docklands office developments as warehouse studios. Gentrification extends to retail and commercial precincts, and can be seen in rural and coastal townships as well as cities … Designer shops, art galleries, bars and restaurants form the background to a landscape of people in semi-public space (tables on the footpath they must pay to occupy) watching the passing parade and sipping chardonnay from a boutique winery, beer from a microbrewery, coffee from organic beans grown in the developing country du jour.” 3


Gentrification is a term that encompasses a wide-rage of changes. The gentrification scholar Neil Smith wrote that:

“The crucial point about gentrification is that it involves not only a social change but also, at the neighborhood scale, a physical change in the housing stock and an economic change in the land and housing markets. It is this combination of social, physical, and economic change that distinguishes gentrification as an identifiable process…” 4

Building on this concept of gentrification as a multifaceted process that involves a number of different but related phenomena, other researchers have argued that gentrification involves much more than just physical displacement. Among these are the cultural and economic shifts that happen in a neighborhood as the characteristics of the neighborhood change. Jason Hackworth captured this well, defining gentrification as “the production of space for progressively more affluent users.” Others have written that:

“We do not consider residential displacement as a litmus test for gentrification. Neighbourhoods, especially those with considerable disinvestment and de facto forms of housing abandonment, could experience waves of gentrification for decades without extensive displacement. When we consider the negative impacts of gentrification, we can think not only of residents who are immediately displaced by gentrification processes but also of the impact of the restructuring of urban space on the ability of low-income residents to move into neighbourhoods that once provided ample supplies of affordable living arrangements.” 5

It is also worth considering that gentrification isn’t just—although it certainly can be—a localized phenomenon. While Saturday Night Live recently captured the proliferation of boutiques, breweries, and bars that often reflect the tastes of many gentrifiers (who, scholars agree tend to be educated, mobile, white, and ideologically motivated6) it’s important to situate gentrification within a context of changes happening within capitalism. Neil Smith understood this well writing in the 1980s:

“… gentrification is integrally linked to the redevelopment of urban waterfronts for recreational and other functions, the decline of remaining inner-city manufacturing facilities, the rise of hotel and convention complexes and central-city office developments, as well as the emergence of modern ‘trendy’ retail and restaurant districts. Underlying all of these changes in the urban landscape are specific economic, social and political forces that are responsible for a major reshaping of advanced capitalist societies: there is a restructured industrial base, a shift to service employment and a consequent transformation of the working class, and indeed of the class structure in general; and there are shifts in state intervention and political ideology aimed at the privatization of consumption and service provision. Gentrification is a visible spatial component of this social transformation.” 7

While there has been debate over the exact meaning of the term, an area where there has is less debate is on its effects. Most research shows that gentrification is detrimental for the existing residents in an area that is being gentrified. One review of 114 studies on gentrification found that:

“… the majority of research evidence on gentrification points to its detrimental effects … [R]esearch which has sought to understand its impacts has predominantly found problems and social costs. This suggests a displacement and moving around of social problems rather than a net gain either through local taxes, improved physical environment or a reduction in the demand for sprawling urban development. (Atkinson, 2002: 20-1)” 8

In the same paper, Slater asserts that “qualitative evidence establishes beyond dispute that gentrification initiates a disruption of community and a crisis of affordable housing for working-class people.”

Despite fifty years of research, popular debates around gentrification tend to focus on an incredibly narrow definition where direct and documented physical displacement must have immediately occurred. We see this all the time in Grand Rapids, where developers, the city government, cheerleaders for gentrification, and others claim that the changes happening in the city are not gentrification because an overly specific conception of the idea is not happening. By focusing on such a narrow definition, it has hidden the gentrification that is happening on a much wider – and increasingly generalized – scale throughout the city.



1. Lees, Slater and Wyly, “Introduction,” in Loretta Lees, Tom Slater and Elvin Wyly, eds., The Gentrification Reader, (London: Routledge, 2008), xv.
2. Japonica Brown-Saracino, “What is Gentrification?,” in Japonica Brown-Saracino, ed., The Gentrification Debates, (New York: Routledge, 2010), 12-13.
3. Kate Shaw, “Gentrification: What It Is, Why It Is, and What Can Be Done about It,” Geography Compass, v2, #5, Sept. 2008.
4. Neil Smith, “Commentary: Gentrification and the Rent Gap,” from Annals of the Association of American Geographers (1987) in Lees, et al., The Gentrification Reader, 100.
5. Kathe Newman and Elvin K. Wyly, “The Right to Stay Put, Revisited: Gentrification and Resistance to Displacement in New York City” from Urban Studies (2006), in Lees, et al., The Gentrification Reader, 544.
6. Japonica Brown-Saracino, “Who are Gentrifiers and why do they Engage in Gentrification?”, in Brown-Saracino, The Gentrification Debates, 186.
7. Neil Smith and Peter Williams, “Alternatives to Orthodoxy: Invitation to a Debate” from Gentrification of the City (1986), in Lees, et al., The Gentrification Reader, 10.
8. Tom Slater, “The Eviction of Critical Perspectives from Gentrification Research” from International Journal of Urban and Regional Research (2006), in Lees, et al., The Gentrification Reader, 584-585.

Capitalism and the Mystique of the Local

Localism has become a buzz word in Grand Rapids. It’s everywhere—from the signs outside of “farm-to-table” restaurants to the pages of tourism brochures advertising “Beer City USA.” It’s a term that has an ambiguous meaning, which is one of its strengths and weaknesses. The veil of “localism” encompasses many different economic activities, from farmer’s markets and coffee shops to design companies and even small manufacturing enterprises. For its advocates, it’s held up as an undeniable “good.” For those who aren’t convinced, a fairly well-known study is often quoted as proof of its “goodness”.

This sense of goodness is central to much of the local hype. On a prominent website advocating for locally-centered economies, this appeal to equality is made rather explicit: “…we’re all better off, when we’re all better off.” It’s a clear progressive gloss on what is essentially just a new trend within capitalism.

The ambiguous feel-good concept of localism is used to cover up not just real economic disparities, but to deflect against any criticism. A new development cannot be criticized because it’s a locally-operated green building run by a non-profit, a restaurant serving locally-grown food isn’t perpetuating gentrification because it’s not a corporate chain, and a handmade-goods boutique store isn’t gentrifying a neighborhood because its owners see it as somehow “making a difference”. Localism is about putting a friendly face on capitalism and hiding the inequalities within it. Similarly, localism also brings a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) ethic or culture into the market economy.

The following sets out to explore some of the concepts of localism and provide some preliminary thoughts on how it functions in Grand Rapids. This is not meant to be an exhaustive critique and there are no doubt many points that may have been missed. As should be obvious, we’re also not making an argument against localism in favor of some kind of globalized economy, either. There’s nothing wrong with buying local kale per se, as long as it isn’t done under the guise of it being an act of liberation. We’re making space to challenge the sacred concept of localism, which is often immune from criticism.


I. Declaw-It-Together

DIY (“Do It Yourself”), having its origins in punk subcultures, carries on the tradition of creating or repairing things with limited resources and means. Dumpster diving, bike repair, vegetable gardening, and sewing are some examples of DIY activities. There is an emphasis on collective learning outside and in opposition to hierarchies of expertise, with skills shared horizontally throughout the DIY community and an emphasis on active participation. Though the projects may have specific intentions and goals, the means of making and repairing is not only logical to many, but within this subcultural context, is an outright rejection of consumer culture and profit. Contrast DIY in this context with the ever-growing maker-culture and we see a DIY aesthetic (ie. Upcycled, hand-dyed, etc…) dressed up and sold to anyone with the desire to buy it. Even within the DIY subculture, some have heralded a shift towards a “DIT” (“Do It Together”) attitude. In most cases, the DIT approach is more professionalized and less rebellious. As part of this DIY as been commodified and reduced to an aesthetic that coincides and exists within the market rather than in opposition to it. The appearance of organic and handmade items appeals to a particular type of consumer, one which is growing at a rapid pace. Purchasing a “DIY product” gives one the ability to “participate” without actually having to physically do so, with DIY thereby becoming one of any number of purchasable identities that exist in the capitalist market.

II. Adventures in Gentrifying

The “local” hype has an undeniable tie to gentrification. This is especially true in Grand Rapids, but is largely a universal phenomenon. What we celebrate as great examples of “local” businesses are usually of a particular type. We’re not talking about the BBQ place on the southeast side, the auto mechanic that your family swears by on Plainfield, or the family-owned hardware store on the westside. Instead, it’s the farm-to-table pizza place, the wine bar, the brewery, the gastro pub, the pour-over coffee shop, the artisan pasta store, ad nauseam (nausea is more like it!). These businesses share a common clientèle: people who tend to have more money and who want to experience “the adventure” of the urban environment. As such, they are willing to spend more money on things other folks buy for significantly less (for example, artisan ramen noodles). They understand that consumption brings status. There is a built-in class association.

Similarly, localism can serve as a smokescreen to distract people from what is actually happening. Because “local” is invoked as an ethical system, it is assumed nothing is wrong. The “local” business is somehow immune from the charge of gentrification because it showcases “local” products—nevermind that many of these celebrated businesses are located in areas that are (or have undergone) significant gentrification. In other cases, to borrow the concepts of gentrification scholar Neil Smith, these businesses serve as initial “outposts” on the untamed “urban frontier”—the colonial language is no accident—and serve as the testing ground before they are transformed into bourgeois enclaves. The Downtown Market on the far southern edge of downtown Grand Rapids comes immediately to mind, but numerous other examples exist along Wealthy Street or Bridge Street.



III. Carbon Copy Creatives

Triangles/geometric shapes, pastels, shades of white, black/white, vintage, simple, gold jewelery, white typography (helvetica/times new roman/handwritten fonts), outlandish (fake) glasses, mustaches, beards, bangs, minimal design, pictures of brunch, leggings, simplistic tattoos, thin, white people, woodgrain anything, twine, tweed, culturally appropriative patterns, chalkboard signs, pour-over coffee, artisan doughnuts, small business, arrows, general store, butcher shops, lavender flavor, goatmilk soap, tacos, food truck, microgreens, artisan ramen, craft beverages, brewed things, small succulent plants, air plants, paint-dipped anything, antlers… and the list goes on. High-quality & hand-crafted small unimportant things like salt and pepper shakers are markers of wealth (or debt). Peddlers of these images and things, either socially or commercially, often parrot attitudes and phrases of “making a difference” in this world of mass-produced goods. Sure they can’t compete with sweatshop labor or multinational corporations, but they’re not aiming to anyway. The fact is, these niche economies market to pretty much only each other and those from a distance who are willing to pay. The maker and the consumer are interchangeable, often trading places behind the cash register (Apple device) in this consumer “scene”. And scene is what it is. Stealing the rag-tag DIY aesthetic hoping to resemble something genuine and gritty, while mimicking what wasn’t theirs to begin with (unless one has completely sold out), these folks have got it down to a handwritten T. So much so, that we’re convinced they’ve bought the proverbial ethically-caught salmon themselves – hook, line, and sinker.

IV. Guilt-Free Consumption

Your local, ethical economy is a fantasy, because your local, ethical economy only exists for a certain subset of people. It’s the same economy that runs on dirty factories, sweatshops, and chain stores, it’s just that you’ve cordoned yourself into the block of the marketplace that’s curated to appeal to your ethics and aesthetics.

The dish you just ordered is made of plants grown organically just a few miles away, but there’s still someone cleaning your shitstains out of the bathroom, someone emptying the dumpster in the alley behind the restaurant, and someone cleaning the curb out front so you can feel safe parking your bike there.

The coffee they’re serving comes in a locally designed package from a local company, though now that you think about it, you’re not sure where the nearest coffee bean farm is. Apparently a farmer in Nicaragua got a fair trade for it. But someone else loaded it onto a ship, someone else pumped the ship full of fuel, someone else piloted the ship across an ocean, someone else unloaded it onto a truck, someone else roasted it, and now someone else is smiling courteously while they pour it for you. Did they get a fair trade or a fair wage too? What’s fair, even?

The scarf you’re wearing was made by the hands of someone you know by name – maybe you even know the name of the sheep who gave its wool for it! The laptop the maker needs to maintain their website and the smartphone you’re using to scroll through their Instagram were made by hands too, in a way – someone’s hands helped assemble them in the factory, and before that, someone’s hands – likely a child’s hands – sifted through a poisonous mine to find the rare minerals needed to make the screen light up with the image of the beautiful, guilt-free scarf.

The maker buys and sells, the shopper buys and sells, the product changes hands and magically assumes value. Same dance, similar choreography, better vibes. In this dance, nothing ethical can exist without the assistance of something you’d shiver at.



V. The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker

Localism is oriented around the production and acquisition of high-end goods and services. In fact, it has to be. In a globalized economy, it is the only way that a local business can compete. The artisan noodle shop isn’t going to be able to produce enough noodles to compete with Barilla, instead it must distinguish itself by offering items of an (allegedly) exceptional quality. The same is true of the leather shop selling a fantasy of the cobbler-based shoe production of 150 years ago. Even when the quality isn’t superior, the status one obtains is unmistakable.

Enter the niche market, which localism is built around. After decades of mass production and consumption, diversified consumer options are necessary to keep people consuming. We buy products to construct our identities and difference. Local businesses cater to this. “Sustainable,” “local,” and “natural” are just selling points necessary for distinguishing a product in a globalized world. Local businesses pride themselves on exceptional customer service, but that’s just another way they mirror the actions of their larger counterparts in capitalism. Customer service is at best a way for a business to distinguish itself in the capitalist marketplace, at worst, it’s a means of commodifying everything. Local businesses are experts at selling an aesthetic and their workers themselves often become commodified: the surly tattooed waiter or the coffee shop worker conforming to stereotypical norms of hipster “beauty” are necessary in constructing the mystique of the local. A worker’s labor is no longer the only thing sold, it is now their identity which often imparts a certain type of cachet onto a business. At the same time, the new localist businesses sell aspects of social life—attention, hospitality, empathy, assistance, and interaction—that were once a part of everyday life. After artificially constructing a new urban landscape, capitalists must in turn sell us an artificially functioning community to hide the structural and implicit violence on which it is ultimately built.

VI. Commodifying Life

Price tags don’t just live in store windows, they rain down into every aspect of our lives. We’re all walking around with dollar signs in our eyes, because that’s how we’ve been taught to see. We’re taught we can buy wellness from the pharmacy, status from the car dealership, security from the loan office, that our very bodies are property or objects with varying levels of worth depending on what color they are and which parts they came with. But none of this is new.

It’s not novel that a local/handmade/artisan item would get a price tag, because the same item would have had a price tag had it been mass-produced, and the labor it took to make would have been compensated had it been performed in a factory. What’s novel is that the very act of making has been commodified. How strange that an act as basic and intimate as lovingly making something by hand is an increasingly legitimate and celebrated avenue for profit. How strange that when let down by bosses, customers and products, we turn ourselves into bosses, our friends into customers, and our skills into products.

VII. That Which Does Not Kill It…

By its integration into the economy, DIY has become part of “the problem.” Endless wars, environmental disasters, police murders, and mass starvation in addition to widespread anxiety, depression, stress, and existential crisis are all products of a world shaped by capitalism. But capitalism isn’t just a vague abstraction hovering above us, it is the daily actions of everybody who is subject to its touch. By working, shopping, putting money in the bank, and through thousands of subtle “normal” acts we are contributing to the growth of capital. There is no escape, but there are attempts at subversion. DIY was once seen as the latter, being a way to undermine corporate profits by choosing instead to produce ones’ own means to live. Now that it lacks this ethic it is no more or less responsible for the horrors of daily life produced by capitalism than the average corporation or small business. Just like every other person entangled in capitalism’s web, they both share responsibility for and are victims of the system’s horrors in one way or another. Like any other monetary transaction, when money is spent at one of these establishments it ends up tangled up in the recesses of finance and investment, fueling bank loans and growing business investments. Meanwhile, the economy grows and colonizes more aspects of life. It’s not that participation in the economy sustains the economy, but rather that the participation IS the economy itself.


VIII. Clocking Out is so Passé

Localism in the form of handmade artisan goods is a result of the entrepreneurial turn of DIY, which decayed in the last decade from counter-culture to commodity. Significant in this sequence of events is the Great Recession beginning in 2008, which plunged millions into unemployment and millions more into jobs working far less than they needed to get by. With this surplus of desperate people came the rise of Etsy, a marketplace for buyers and sellers of handmade and antique items, as well as a number of similar websites that provide platforms for the self-employed to sell their goods and services. This development has the potential to relieve the economy of systemic risk it creates through precarious employment and its own inevitable recessions. Where the formal employer-employee economy fails, the Etsy phenomenon can succeed. As is often the case with capitalism, the stability it secures comes at the cost of its participants. The Fordist Compromise of the post-WWII period saw white workers (although not exclusively) give up an offensive posture in the class war in return for middle-class consumer lifestyles. This included lifelong full-time employment with pensions, health insurance, and other benefits. Beginning in the 1970s the economy began a transition from a manufacturing to a service economy, and as the manufacturing jobs were shipped to the global south the benefits they secured largely disappeared. The hypothetical new DIY sector, like the service sector, does not provide health insurance nor guaranteed hours. For these individuals work and life are becoming inseparable, but rather than becoming a form of play this work continues to discipline the people performing it. They are their own bosses, and not in a good way. Unlike the service industry, the “DIY sector” requires its subjects discipline themselves in accordance to the demands of the market. They identify with their jobs as outgrowths of themselves, an identifier that was optimistically thought to be mostly shrugged off since the end of Fordism. Going on strike, stealing from work, slacking off, sabotage, and absenteeism are unfathomable to the artisan worker/capitalist as such activity would be hurting nobody but themselves. Thus subversion and revolt in this “sector” seem impossible at this point in time, at least from the tactics that workers have been using for the last couple hundred years.

IX. The Banality of Local

Localism has become a redundancy at this point: which restaurants aren’t trying to serve local food? In many ways, it’s just another trend in production. Everyone can fit in, you just need to hype up the area in which you live or where your products are from. Because as much as some folks might try to deny it, we all come from somewhere. Even a multinational company like McDonalds can get in on the local buzz, with a multi-million dollar advertising campaign touting its commitment to Michigan eggs.

There are no ethics built into localism, no guarantee that the product being consumed is somehow better because it is local. After all, napalm is locally produced somewhere.

Fulton Place & Displacement

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.”

However, the development involved the purchase of four homes on Lexington Avenue (21, 29, 33, and 39 Lexington Avenue SW) all of which were occupied and were demolished (see video on Youtube). According to minutes from the Planning Commission’s January 8, 2015, meeting:

“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.

Older homes demolished...
Older homes demolished…
…and replaced with “Townhouses” aimed at a new class of occupant.

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.