In the classic works of Grand Rapids history, there is a strong portrayal of Native Americans as existing only in the past tense. They appear in discussions of pre-history, as subjects for religious conversion, business partners for trade, and relics of the past. By and large, Native Americans are rendered absent from the history of Grand Rapids following the Treaty of 1836, aside from occasional mentions. A quote from Z.Z. Lydens’ 1966 history of Grand Rapids is typical, referring to the time when “…the last Indian had disappeared or had faded into amalgamation.”cxlii It’s a process of invisibilizing that occurs to this day, despite the broadening of the historical discipline. Native Americans are seen as footnotes to a story of white people and their role on the land now occupied by Grand Rapids is ignored. Even when issues are raised about the lack of diversity in Grand Rapids, it is rare that indigenous people are considered.cxliii
The effects of colonialism exist to this day. Across the United States, indigenous populations – despite their existence against all odds – continue to be on the receiving end of often hostile government policies. While it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss all of the ways in which indigenous peoples are harmed by the settler government, as a general rule it is sufficient to say that indigenous people by and large are a highly vulnerable population due to the ongoing impacts of colonization. Nationwide about 28.4% of Native Americans live in poverty (almost twice the national rate) and unemployment is around 49%.cxliv There continue to be legal battles over treaty rights, politicians frequently try to get out of treaty obligationscxlv, and corporations (often with government collusion) seek natural resources on native lands. At the same time, despite efforts at perseverance, indigenous traditions continue to be seen by the dominant society as inferior.
The conquest of Grand Rapids is important, not just as a way of understanding history, but as a means of understanding the foundations of the city many of us call home. It was established on land that was stolen from an indigenous population. There was no fair payment, no equal exchange – it was theft. The settler culture of white Europeans tried to clear the land of its indigenous population and eliminate their culture. They did this out of a sense of entitlement and superiority, believing that their way of life and their race were superior. This pattern was repeated across the United States with uncountable atrocities being committed against the indigenous populations of this continent. As the lands were cleared of their original inhabitants, the settlers began the process of clearing what was once a vast and varied landscape and replanting it for farming and large scale agricultural and extraction based industries. The land no longer was seen as a basis for survival, but rather as a basis for profit.
As a settler nation that was formed on the basis of conquest, the colonial ideology runs deep. The United States, as much as one can speak about a monolithic entity, is profoundly influenced by this colonization. It may be cliché to talk of Frederick Jackson Turner and the influence of the frontier on the American psyche, but over a hundred years later, the mythology of progress and conquest is alive and well. On a worldwide scale, the United States continues to act in a way that asserts its culture, lifestyle, and government is the best. Over the years, the media portrayals of indigenous populations, from books to television shows, reinforce the ideology that indigenous people were inferior and had to be removed. Not only were lands stolen and lifeways outlawed, but indigenous cultures were also plundered. Indigenous names were stolen, placed on settler maps and even used to name everything from weapons systems to cars. Indigenous people are routinely mocked through the use of sporting team names, mascots who pretend to be native, and teams that are named after the atrocities of colonial war.
The will to dominate land and the belief that one way of living is superior manifests itself on a local level as well. When the city was formed, indigenous trails were co-opted for use by settlers. These streets included Butterworth, Monroe, Grandville, Kalamazoo, Lake Drive, Plainfield, Walker, and Stocking.cxlvi As the land was stolen, the development patterns made use of existing indigenous paths. Moreover, as colonialization stole the land, the mentality of colonialism profoundly impacts how we view the city. For example, the Grand River – once seen by the indigenous inhabitants as a source of life – is still seen by city boosters as a source of profit. It’s valued less as a natural phenomenon, but instead as a generator of economic activity. The government of today – like the industrialists of early Grand Rapids – still seek to shape the river for economic needs. Similarly, the colonial notion that populations can be dominated and deposed of their land has its parallels today. It’s no accident that the language of gentrification often invokes that of the frontier myth. The largely vulnerable populations who live in gentrifying neighborhoods are often seen as obstacles to be removed. While not wanting to create crude equivalencies, there is a colonial mentality that shapes how these discussions are framed. The idea that certain land uses and cultures are superior – especially when those destroy existing cultural institutions in gentrifying neighborhoods – is a colonial mentality.
Furthermore, the notion of “progress” which is used to justify everything from the malevolent (theft of land) to the benevolent (greater “inclusion” of minority populations) acts of government is a colonial idea. Progress assumes that history is on a steady march towards something better and that increased technology, new ways of living, and the present, are always better than the past. So to return to an earlier example, the use of the Grand River for steamboat transportation is better than the use of the river for food. A more contemporary example might be that the opening of a flashy new cafe is better than the hall that once served as an anchor for an immigrant community. The idea of progress assumes that there are no missteps and that everything new is automatically better. Moreover, it assumes that things cannot stay as they are, but that change is always good.
Colonialism had an undeniable impact on the city that is now known as Grand Rapids and it is built into its founding fabric. This legacy looms over the city – quite literally in the case of the massive mural celebrating the city’s founding in 1826. That mural celebrates the arrival of white settlers and their way of life. The two men featured on the mural – Louis Campau and Charles Belknap – embody the colonialist view of indigenous people. Campau orchestrated the theft of this region, supplying alcohol to the indigenous people, while Belknap participated in the plunder of indigenous burial mounds. The fact that they are celebrated and that indigenous people are excluded, is a perfect summary of how colonialism functions.
The foundations of this city – of every city on this land – are constructed by the ideals and realities of colonialism. It’s impossible to affect meaningful change without crashing against and being constrained by this structural legacy. Any liberatory change must shake the foundations of the city itself.
cxliii Paola Mendivil, “New Experience GR video misses mark in representing real neighborhood diversity,” The Rapidian, January 22, 2016, accessed January 23, 2016, http://www.therapidian.org/new-experience-grand-rapids-video-misses-mark-diversity-neighborhoods
cxliv Brian Bienkowski, “Pollution, Poverty and People of Color: A Michigan Tribe Battles a Global Corporation”, Scientific American, June 12, 2012, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/pollution-michigan-tribe-battle-global-corp/
cxlv “West Michigan Legislator wants to Renege on Obligations to Native Americans,” Media Mouse, June 3, 2008, https://mediamousearchive.wordpress.com/2008/06/03/west-michigan-legislator-wants/
The settlers who began moving to the region in the 1830s, like the fur traders before them, were not interested in developing sustainable lifeways. They sought raw materials to power an emerging capitalist economy. The land wasn’t viewed as something that they belonged to, rather it was seen as external, something that wasn’t a part of them. The indigenous view of the land and that of the European settlers was in direct conflict. Whereas the indigenous population sought to live in harmony with it, the European settlers viewed the land simply as raw material for economic success.
Z.Z. Lydens, a noted historian of Grand Rapids, captures this well when he writes (in admittedly questionable language):
“The pioneer’s boot was more brutal to the green of the ground than the Indian’s moccasin. Then came the hooves of the oxen and the horses and then the heavy-laden wheels of the carts and the wagons. More people came and more oxen and horses, and the charm was less.”xlvii
Whereas the river was an important source of life for the indigenous population, for the white settlers, it was a means of generating economic activity. Lydens wrote, “For the Indians it had meant fish and sustenance. For the white man the rapids came to mean power to grind the grain and saw the timber.”xlviii Even early accounts of the beauty of the land often were accompanied by statements of its economic potential. An 1837 newspaper article on Grand Rapids declared that the river is:
“…not important and beautiful alone for its clear, silver-like water winding its way through a romantic valley of some hundred miles, but for its width and depth, its susceptibility for steam navigation, and the immense hydraulic power afforded at this point.”xlix
Thus a land that once provided sustenance for an entire people, was reduced to its possibility of providing hydraulic power—the logic of colonization exemplified.
As discussed earlier, the indigenous population lived in this area for several hundred years without serious ecological problems, yet the European way of life destroyed the territory surprising quickly. After several hundred years of the fur trade, game began to disappear. Early accounts of Grand Rapids history speak to the pace at which the land was logged, the river polluted, and the biological diversity lessened. In their characteristic pursuit of profit and disregard for the natural world, the settlers quickly damaged the landscape. An Odawa (often referred to as the “Ottawa” in settler histories, see the first piece in this series for a brief discussion about names and terminology) historian writing in the late 1800s lamented the speed of this destruction:
“O my destiny! O my destiny! How sinks my heart, as I behold my inheritance all in ruins and desolation. Yes desolation, the land the Great Spirit has given us in which to live, to roam, to hunt, and build our council fires, is no more to behold. Where once so many brave Algonquins and the daughters of the forest danced with joy, danced with gratitude to the Great Spirit for their homes, they are no more seen. Our forests are gone, and our game is destroyed. Hills, groves and dales once clad in rich mantle of verdure are stripped.”l
To the historians who have written the history of Grand Rapids and to those who uncritically live this way, it is often seen as necessary to justify this change. Most often, the justification is one of progress. Reflecting the notion of superiority that is built into the logic of colonialism, the indigenous way of life is seen as inferior to that of the settlers. The colonial view must portray this as a natural triumph of a superior people over an inferior people. In this way, it reflects the racism and white supremacy that was and is essential to the colonization of the United States. Z.Z. Lydens writes in his The Story of Grand Rapids:
“To the beautiful rapids came the Indian who could so easily satisfy his hunger by walking into the stream to spear a sturgeon. To these rapids then naturally came the fur trader and missionary, followed by the white settlers.”li
Not content to merely portray conquest as something that comes “naturally”, Lydens goes a step further and states that “Grand Rapids is a city that had to be.”lii Even though he wrote more than a century after the white settlers dealt directly with the indigenous people, his writing still embodies the idea of colonial superiority. While predating the concept of “Manifest Destiny” that was used to justify the conquest of the western United States, Lydens’ justification embodies that ideology.
The Plundering of the Territory
The colonial mentality isn’t simply an ideology or worldview that “conflicts” with the indigenous worldview, it is one that seeks to dominate and depose existing groups it comes into contact with. The settlers who came to Grand Rapids – beginning with the fur traders, the missionaries, and the early settlers – were not interested in coexistence, they pursued a varied policy of dominance and conquest. Indigenous people were an obstacle to the colonial view, they were something that had to be removed. An early newspaper article described the area as the “choicest, dearest spot” to the Odawa, but explained that it rapidly became “the pride of the white man” as the territory was stolen.liii
By necessity, this entailed conflict. However, this is a story that has been whitewashed in most settler narratives. In the longer histories of Grand Rapids, indigenous people get a short mention. This usually involves a discussion of the mound builders, a bit about Odawa lifeways, and then a story of the treaty-making process. Even with new understandings of native history and strong movements both within and without the academy, native history is still something that is at best “tacked on”—an obligatory mention in what remains a colonial history.
One of the ways the indigenous populations of Grand Rapids are forgotten is the assertion by a classic work of Grand Rapids history that there was little conflict with the indigenous population. Z.Z. Lydens wrote that:
“The history of Grand Rapids does not have a backdrop of conflict with the Indians. There are no tales of raids and scalping and scourging of the settlement with flame.”liv
To some degree, the statement is so laughable as to not even be worth comment. After all, the opening page of Lydens’ book begins with the story of the Odawa gathering to hear Pontiac propose that the indigenous people living in the region unite to fight back against the white invasion.lv Pontiac—who helped to coordinate a war against the tide of settlers migrating into the Midwest—was present at 1761 in the Grand River region, speaking at an assembly of 3,000. He visited again in 1762 and 1763.lvi His visits are representative of what had been a long military resistance to colonization, often with the participation of indigenous people from the Grand Rapids area. Many Odawa participated in an attack on Detroit in 1704, with other groups doing so again in 1712.lvii The Anishinaabeg people had a long string of military successes from 1754 until the War of 1812, but they were unable to keep the white settlers from advancing into the territory.lviii These included not only autonomous efforts, but also coordinated efforts between numerous groups, such as the aforementioned alliance with Pontiac. In a similar way, Odawa people living in the Grand River valley joined Tecumseh’s movement to united indigenous communities in the Midwest against the United States, calling for military resistance and a return to traditional values. At least two prominent chiefs included in histories of Grand Rapids were involved in the military resistance, with Noahquageshik even witnessing Tecumseh’s death on the battlefield.lix
It’s also worth remembering that the entire process of colonization was one of “conflict.” The indigenous populations did not give up their lands willingly. It happened only after a long and multi-faceted process of removal. It was – and to some degree still is – a process of removing a population from the land. Colonization made use of several different weapons: the threat of military force, an assault on traditional lifeways, biological warfare, and treaty-making to attempt to remove indigenous people.
The noted Grand Rapids historian Albert Baxter referred to the native population as “primitive savages.”lx Like many white historians, Baxter had the task both of writing the native history as well as justifying the progress that had destroyed their traditional lifeways. Baxter took on this task wholeheartedly, claiming that the Native ways of life were essentially unsustainable because they required “a vast amount of land to support himself and his family.”lxi This is of course at odds with both the historical record and indigenous oral traditions. He further stated that the arrival of large numbers of white settlers actually helped the Native population, as they shared technology that improved agriculture, hunting, and medicine.lxii Baxter—who was writing in the 1880s and whose views were no doubt colored by the racism of the time—called to task “those sentimentalists who mourn because the red men have been driven from their homes, and despoiled of their lands” reminding readers that the white people took the land in accordance with “Indian law” that “might makes right.”lxiii
Still, even the most ardent apologists for white conquest could not ignore the fact that the Native society was generally one of material abundance and limited crime.lxiv And Baxter himself wrote that as a consequence of the white man’s actions, by 1849, the Odawa were “…from year to year growing worse in condition, as regarded poverty, disposition and general demoralization.”lxv
Writing in the 1880s, another historian gave a justification for the colonization:
“The cause is good when the intent is just. The savages found here, even within the memory of the pioneers, could never be brought within the fold of civilization. Their occupation of the entire Peninsula, at a time when the American cultivators of the soil required it for development, was an outrage on the advance- ment of that day, almost approaching that existing scandal which renders helpless the European agriculturist of the present time. The United States, acting on the strict principles of just govern- ment, determined that he who would cultivate the land should possess it. To carry out this laudable determination, the Indians were informed of the intention of Uncle Samuel, and of the magnificent basis on which that intention was formed. They, of course, like the European aristocracy, wished to hold the people’s domain, though their own special title to it was founded, not exactly on the rights of conquest, but rather on that of some dis-honorable coup de guerre which resulted in the total annihilation of the original occupiers. Their logic failed. The sons and grandsons of the Revolution could not see precisely where the claims of the red men were founded, and consequently were doubly determined to win for the people that which pertained to them by the laws of right. Lest republican justice should not be observed in every particular, and to prevent the shedding of human blood, the power of moral suasion was brought to bear, an equitable arrangement for the purchase of the lands proposed, and every effort made to deal honestly with the savages.”lxvi
The settlers who came to Grand Rapids also held hostile views of the indigenous population. Many took pains to claim that the government “deals kindly with them,” while at the same time, said that the indigenous population had to choose between “civilization” or death:
“The indian, as such, cannot much longer exist, He must be civilized or die. The earth was made to cultivate, and not for a hunting range. The Indians must cultivate the earth, or cease to exist. It is indeed hard, but moralize upon it as we may, the world will never acknowledge those who rove over a country as its owners, nor will it allow weak nomads to occupy lands capable of sustaining a dense population.”lxvii
By contrast, an Odawa historian writing from the perspective of Odawa people living in Northern Michigan recalled that in his youth in the early 1800s he “…never knew my people to want for anything to eat or to wear, as we always had plenty of wild meat and plenty of fish, corn, vegetables, and wild fruits.”lxviii
Efforts at Removal
Armed with the view that their way of life was superior, the United States took on a process of removing the indigenous population from the area of Grand Rapids. In 1821, the United States took command of a colonial enterprise that had begun several centuries earlier with the first contact with Europeans and the impact on the fur trade and European influence on indigenous lifeways.
By 1821, the presence of white settlers had rapidly changed the lifestyles of the Odawa. The fur trade increased the importance of hunting in indigenous communities. Many Odawa began focusing more on furs for trade than they otherwise would have. Traders brought with them alcohol, which had a detrimental effect on the Anishinaabeg people. Whiskey was a prominent trade good, with traders using it to exchange for furs, berries, and maple sugar.lxix The presence of alcohol increased with the white traders, and furs traded for alcohol meant the Odawa got less of the goods they needed.lxx As early as 1730, outside observers were noticing the devastation it was bringing to Odawa villages.lxxi Along with alcohol, Europeans brought communicable diseases. An Odawa historian recalled a small pox outbreak in the late 1700s, charging that it was acquired from the British.lxxii Other sources indicate that small pox was obtained from Europeans, both through infection and as a weapon of war.lxxiii In Grand Rapids, small pox broke out among the Odawa in 1835.lxxiv Both disease and alcohol placed considerable strain on the population.
Who history remembers as the “founder” of Grand Rapids—Louis Campau—was a prominent trader in the territory that would eventually become Michigan. He traded a variety of goods with the indigenous population in exchange for furs. In 1819, he prominently distributed alcohol to Native Americans at a treaty negotiation after he felt slighted.lxxv In fact, alcohol had played a major part in the entire negotiation process.lxxvi Alcohol—specifically whiskey—was regularly employed by the government to gain native land cessions.lxxvii Campau was licensed to trade in Grand Rapids, with a provisions in his license specifically stating that he could not trade nor offer liquor to the indigenous population.lxxviii Nonetheless, Campau reportedly sold alcohol to the Native population.lxxix At times, government representatives spoke out against the trade in alcohol, but it was also a weapon in their arsenal and despite occasional words and policies to the contrary, alcohol was an effective means of subduing the native population.lxxx Even after the period of treaty-making ended, alcohol continued to be used by white traders to seize native wealth. Government annuity payments relating to treaty obligations were a target of traders, with an account from 1841 claiming that there were two traders to each Indian and two gallons of whiskey for each trader to distribute.lxxxi
Beginning in the 1820s, the United States began actively seeking title to Odawa lands. In 1821, Governor Lewis Cass and Solomon Sibley were commissioned to sign a treaty with the Ottawa, Chippewa, and Potawatomi to negotiate the cessation of lands in Western Michigan. The result was the Treaty of Chicago in 1821 which ceded lands south of the Grand River.lxxxii The treaty was signed despite the fact that most Odawa in the Grand River area refused to participate in the negotiations.lxxxiii As would be expected from a colonial power, the United States was willing to take the words of one Grand River Odawa leader – Kewaycooschum in settler histories – as representative of the whole group and allowed him to sell tribal lands.lxxxiv He was later murdered by other Odawa, allegedly for his complicity in the Treaty of 1821.lxxxv A similar fate is recorded in settler histories of a man named Wabasis who was exiled and later murdered for his role in negotiating treaties without the consent of his people.lxxxvi
In exchange for ceding their lands, the Odawa were supposed to received $1,000 annually forever in payment, and for a period of ten years, receive $1,500 annually to receive the services of a blacksmith, the purchase of cattle and farming implements, and education.lxxxvii One source reported that at the 1821 treaty negotiations, an indigenous representative allegedly objected to the ban on whiskey and declared that “we do not care for the land, nor the money, nor the goods: what we want is whisky; give us whisky.”lxxxviii Alcohol was in fact used by Cass to negotiate the treaty, with Cass dispensing whiskey at the start of negotiations and then cutting off the supply until the assembled representatives signed the treaty.lxxxix A total of 932 gallons was requested by Cass for the negotiations.xc It’s a clear example of how the United States used duplicity in its negotiations with the indigenous populations.
Reverend Isaac McCoy was given the task of providing the Grand River Ottawa with the promised farming and educational assistance. To facilitate this, he established a mission in the Grand River valley. His instructions came directly from Governor Lewis Cass, who had negotiated the 1821 treaty. McCoy’s job was essentially to subdue the Odawa and begin the process of “civilizing” them. He was to give them religious instruction, convince them of the “proper sentiments” towards the United States, encourage them to begin agriculture and the domestication of animals, and to encourage less nomadic lifestyles.xci
Many of the Odawa were hostile to the Treaty of 1821 and white visitors to the area reported that the Odawa were quite forthcoming with their critiques of the Treaty.xcii The Odawa reportedly reportedly burned the blacksmith shop to show their disgust with the Treaty.xciii According to sources, many viewed the sale of their lands in 1821 as illegal and were determined not to cede their land.xciv One Odawa leader, Black Skin, was quite vocal in his opposition to McCoy’s mission with settler accounts reporting that he made this clear repeatedly over a period of three years.xcv Hostilities were high enough that there was an attempt on McCoy’s life.xcvi His presence introduced considerable division and tension in Odawa life, while also paving the way for settlers who sold the indigenous population alcohol.xcvii He was able to establish the first school in 1826 on the west bank of the Grand River, beginning a long process of using education as another weapon to attack indigenous cultures.xcviii
Reverend Leonard Slater replaced McCoy in 1827 and greatly expanded the mission activities until the Baptists gave up their work following the Treaty of 1836. According to settler histories, he gained many converts among the Odawa and was praised for his zeal.xcix The Catholic missionary Frederic Baraga established a mission at the lower village on the west side of the Grand River. That mission lasted for around two years, before it was also abandoned once the Treaty of 1836 was signed. The mission lands were quickly seized and sold off by white settlers, with the Baptists receiving $12,000 for their portion of the so-called “Mission Reserve” lands and the Catholics $8,000.c
Both the Baptists and the Catholics played a key role in beginning the process of “civilizing” the Odawa and were critical components of the policy of dispossession. Issac McCoy endorsed the removal of Michigan’s native population to the West, arguing from allegedly “altruistic notions” according to one historian, that it was the only way Native people could survive.ci McCoy later worked to convince some Potawatomi to move to Kansas. In other cases, the church collaborated with the U.S. Army, and just across the border in Indiana, at least one settlement was burned to the ground by the military as a result of the Church’s collaboration.cii Such paternalistic attitudes were also reflected in the use of terminology to refer to the Odawa, with a writer in 1837 referring to them as “the forest child.”ciii
For his part, Baraga upheld the positions of the Catholic church and although he knew the Odawa language and later published books about it, he viewed the indigenous people as “savages”.civ He presided over the baptizing of Native converts in 1833.cv Education would continue to play a role in trying to ruin Odawa lifeways, with the later Mount Pleasant boarding school playing a similar role.cvi In the northern area of Michigan, a minister representing the government even went so far as to warn the Odawa that they faced a choice between either becoming Christian and “civilized” or being destroyed like the Native populations in the Eastern United States.cvii
The Treaty of 1836
In many histories of Grand Rapids, it is common to see 1836 as “the final blow” to the Odawa with limited discussion of indigenous people after that time.cviii While the Treaty of 1836 is an important point of reference, the indigenous population perseveres into the present. In the face of a colonial power that seeks to destroy indigenous peoples, survival is an amazing act of resistance and it should be recognized as such. That said, the Treaty of 1836 is a critical component of the story of how Grand Rapids was stolen by white settlers.
In 1834, representatives of President Andrew Jackson came to the Grand Rapids area to lay the ground work for what would become the Treaty of 1836. They met with prominent traders such as Rix Robinson, and Louis Campau, missionaries such as Leonard Slater, and various Odawa representatives.cix The discussion centered on the possibility of removal to lands west of the Mississippi, as removal was the official United States policy. That same year, a council was held in the Grand Rapids area between the Odawa of the Grand River valley and those in Northern Michigan. At the council, they agreed that they would not cede their lands and would resist removal.cx
In 1835, Henry Schoolcraft—a representative for the U.S. government—presented a draft treaty that included land cession with reservations and the temporary right to live on ceded land. In exchange, the Odawa would receive annuities and educational assistance.cxi Odawa representatives traveled to Washington DC in 1836 to negotiate a treaty. Most were very skeptical of the terms, with two leaders from the Grand River area—Muckatosha and Megiss Ininee—opening the negotiations by saying that they opposed all cession.cxii Eventually over the course of the negotiations, the Odawa position changed and they accepted the treaty.cxiii After returning to their territory and reporting on the negotiations, many Odawa were not pleased as the United States Senate had to approve the treaty and rumors of U.S. plans to remove them spread throughout native villages. When Schoolcraft came to present the Treaty as modified by the Senatecxiv, the provision for reservations had been limited to only five years rather than in perpetuity.cxv The majority of Odawa in attendance were opposed to the treaty.cxvi They eventually accepted the terms because of the prospect of annuities and the uncertainty of what would come if they tried to resist it.cxvii Still, only a strikingly small number of Odawa actually signed.cxviii
At least some Odawa felt compelled to sign the 1836 Treaty of Washington and believed they were misled about its contents.cxix If one takes the time to look, information is readily available indicating that settlers used a variety of nefarious tactics during treaty negotiations. At the first payment of annuities under the 1836 Treaty, white businessmen and government agents heavily appropriated goods for their friends and relatives according to at least one Odawa historian.cxx At these so-called “Annuity Days”, an assortment of settlers would be on hand to try to take the money. Among the most aggressive were those businessmen offering alcohol.cxxi In the early days of Grand Rapids, this was big business and federal money was aggressively pursued by white businessmen.cxxii
An account from a visitor to Grand Rapids in 1836 commented on the state of the Odawa:
“Every thing they now receive [Annuity payments], will then be bartered at the tipling shops for drink, and in another week, they will be stripped of their lands and the price of the … the overwhelming tide of emigration is fast gaining on them and and passing over their heads & the rigours of a few more winters upon constitutions shattered by alcohol will leave but few miserable survivors victims & a living reproach to the gross injustice, and revolting, mercenary, swindling treatment of the Genrl. Govrt.”cxxiii
Despite not being required to do so, some Odawa moved north in 1836, with settlers inheriting ready-made houses, farms, and even a saw mill.cxxiv
1836 to the Treaty of 1855
The specter of removal that hung over the negotiations in 1836 continued to loom large over the Odawa, who were determined not to leave their homeland. In 1838, Henry Schoolcraft tried to entice the Odawa to consider moving to Kansas. There was little interest in his offer to begin with, and the group of Odawa that he assembled to visit Kansas returned and were even more committed to resisting removal when they returned. The delegation reported that there were no sugar maples, that the fishing wasn’t good, and that the climate was dissimilar—in other words, removal to Kansas would make their traditional lifeways impossible.cxxv One of the tactics they employed to resist removal was petitioning the government, asking for small areas of land to live in their traditional ways. One such letter stated:
“The country we occupy from the severity of its climate is not well adapted to the advanced culture of the white men, whilst it is all-sufficient for our moderate wants and will afford us the means of livelihood.
We desire … to die on the soil where we have always lived, and to leave it as an inheritance to our children.”cxxvi
A final treaty was negotiated between the Ottawa and the United States in 1855.cxxvii From the government’s perspective, the treaty was ostensibly for the United States to “equitably close its dealings” with the Ottawa and to integrate them into Michigan as citizens.cxxviii Unlike the previous treaty, there was no threat of removal as most land had already been ceded. Instead, the treaty sought to finalize the terms under which the Ottawa would be integrated into Michigan, settling longstanding disputes about the Ottawa people’s right to temporarily occupy land not yet settled by white people and the payment of annuities. The Treaty of 1855 included a provision for a specific reservation, a process was outlined to give Ottawa people land allotments, and educational and technical assistance funds were set up.cxxix The treaty also dissolved the tribal structure of the Ottawa, with the State of Michigan declaring that they could not be both Ottawa and Michigan citizens. Furthermore, it absolved the United States of all its former treaty obligations.
The Odawa of Grand Rapids were forced to move in 1855 when 1,300 people began the journey north. Most Odawa moved using canoes in a trip that took two years.cxxx Once at their new northern location, they continued to lose their land as many did not understand or were manipulated about how the new allotments and taxes worked.cxxxi The Odawa were not happy with the Treaty nor their status. Between the years of 1866 and 1869, many Odawa took part in councils involving members from all over the state who were upset with the way the Treaty of 1855 had played out. Specifically, there were criticisms regarding the loss of land claims and the failure of the government to pay annuities.cxxxii They desired to go to Washington DC to negotiate a new treaty, but the request was denied and eventually legislation was passed that in theory lessened some of the issues regarding land allotments.cxxxiii
The Odawa were misled by the 1855 Treaty and not told of its full contents, otherwise they wouldn’t have signed.cxxxiv This was especially true regarding the provision that absolved the United States of previous treaty obligations. In later years, many Odawa recalled that the chiefs were tricked.cxxxv Others said that their relatives were manipulated by “traders and missionaries with vested interests”.cxxxvi They were paid well below fair value for their land.cxxxvii
Older historical works speak of the Odawa as being “incapable of civilization” and speak of their desire to live in their traditional ways as being an example of “intractability”.cxxxviii A similar criticism is leveled at Odawa who sought to obtain reservations where they could live in their traditional ways. Instead of allowing for autonomy, the white settlers demanded that they become “civilized.” However, those who did pursue so-called “civilized” ways often found themselves in no better situation, losing their place in the native community and being unwanted by the Americans, even after attaining advanced education. One educated Potawatomi recalled that upon returning to his people, observed that:
“We were neither Indians nor white men. We were not wanted by either. Having no Indian virtues or accomplishments, we were useless in the woods; and the whites did not need us, for they were our superiors.”cxxxix
After the period of treaty-making, the process of colonization continued. Odawa remained the target of racism and were viewed as lesser people, as the major works of Grand Rapids history show. The burial mounds that dotted the landscape were destroyed without consideration. Charles Belknap recalled that “there was no regret over this leveling of the mounds”.cxl The contents were used by the settlers to fill in the low spots in the cities. Odawa children were sent to boarding schools where they were not allowed to practice their traditions or speak their language. The practicing of native religions was outlawed as official government policy. Their traditional land base was destroyed and carved up. Nations were “dissolved” or “terminated” at the behest of the government and treaty obligations went unfulfilled. Colonization is not defined to a specific time and place, but rather it is an active process that continues to harm indigenous people.
Despite these ongoing effects of colonization and conquest, we typically see it as a one-off event. An oft-cited quote from Campau summarized how he viewed the conquest of West Michigan:
“A few white men arrived, and there was a little trouble. A few more white men arrived, and there was more trouble. Then a lot came, and the Indians became bad, and times grew worse. Finally, the Indians were relieved of their possessions.”cxli
cvi Dobson, 55. For more on the boarding school experience, see Ward Churchill, Kill the Indian, Save the Man: The Genocidal Impact of American Indian Residential Schools, (San Francisco: City Lights, 2004).
“Colonization: The practice of invading other lands and territories for the purpose of settlement and/or resource exploitation. Colonization exists in four stages: reconnaissance, invasion, occupation, and assimilation. It is comprised of two primary aspects – physical and mental. Colonization also includes the physical occupation of land and the domination of indigenous peoples through military conflicts, genocide, and relocation. Religious, cultural, social, and economic assimilation follows.”i
“When the white man took every foot of my inheritance, he thought to him I should be the slave. Ah, never, never! I would sooner plunge the dagger into my beating heart, and follow the footsteps of my forefathers, than be slave to the white man.”ii – Andrew Blackbird
The United States is a country built on the theft of land from indigenous peoples.
It’s something that most of us ignore, but on a daily basis, everyday we walk on stolen land. At the time Christopher Columbus “discovered” the Western hemisphere, what now constitutes the United States was a land entirely inhabited by indigenous nations who had developed complex lifeways. Estimates place the native population at 70 to 100 million people in 1492.iii Across the hemisphere, people had developed diverse modes of living in general harmony with the land bases they inhabited. Indigenous people throughout the hemisphere were connected by networks of trails, trade routes, and exchange.iv
The story of what happened after Columbus arrived has been told in many different places. At the risk of collapsing numerous experiences into a single narrative, it was a process of genocide. In the 500 years since, Native populations have been subjected to an ongoing process of colonization, with their traditional lifeways destroyed, their lands stolen, and their people murdered. The history of what would become the United States is in many ways a history of this theft. The United States’ government (as well as European colonial powers such as Britain and France) acting aggressively to seize what wasn’t theirs. The land bears the scars of this conquest, bathed in the blood of massacres, biological warfare, and attempts to eradicate entire cultures. The maps we use—states carved up out of what were once vast largely borderless areas—reveal some of this history. Names of many states, cities, and counties contain references to the indigenous inhabitants, names stolen and often misspelled. Colonization was the clearing not only of the landscape under the guise of commodification, but also of entire populations.
There isn’t an area of the United States untouched by this legacy and those of us of European descent are the inheritors and benefactors of conquest. The policies of colonization varied from place to place and differed in intensity, but the process of attempting to dispose people of their land is never pleasant and everywhere it happened there are stories of horror.
In this way, what we now know as “Grand Rapids” is no different. It was built on native land, slowly stolen over a process of years. The founding and growth of the city was based on an ongoing attempt to destroy the indigenous people who inhabited the area. The white settlers who came here were colonizers and their behavior was part of the colonial project. Colonial conquest in Grand Rapids involved the use of alcohol as a weapon, treaty making, forced removal, and theft of land. As an ideology, colonization included the belief in the superiority of peoples of European descent, a hostility to indigenous cultures, and a belief in the domination of the natural world. Colonization is not something that ends at a specific time—for example the date of the last treaty with the Ottawa (or Odawa)v in 1855—but instead it is a set of ideas and a way of seeing the world that has ramifications in the present day.
The Indigenous Inhabitants
At the time of contact with Europeans, the area surrounding what would be Grand Rapids was inhabited by a large number of indigenous groups. The people living in what is now called Michigan—including the area now known as Grand Rapids—were inclined to identify with kinship groups and bands.vi Groups were centered in specific geographic areas and members of the groups had intimate knowledge of the land in their region.vii After this local and/or kinship identification, they would probably have identified as Anishinaabeg.viii The Anishinaabeg were the latest indigenous group to inhabit the area, coming to the general area around 1,000 years ago after migrating from the east coast of what would become Canada and the United States.ix Prior to the arrival of the Anishinaabeg, the area was home to other indigenous groups, at least some of whom had similar lifeways and are believed by anthropologists and historians to either have moved further west or melded into the Anishinaabeg groups. Even earlier than that, the Grand River valley was home to an indigenous group that is called the Hopewell by archaeologists. They are known for their large earthen burial mounds which dot the Midwest. According to various sources, the Anishinaabeg people at the time of European contact did not know who built the mounds, but respected them as prior inhabitants.
The Anishinaabeg lived in close harmony with the land, which they depended on for their survival. They had a comprehensive spiritual worldview which saw humans and the natural world as interconnected without the sense of separation that characterizes western thought.x They depended on a combination of agriculture, hunting, and fishing for survival, with their varied food sources helping to ensure their survival if one area was unsuccessful.xi They had complex understandings of the eco-systems and bio-regions they inhabited leading to – for example – hunting throughout the territory to avoid overkill and using nearly every part of the animal.xii Plants from the forest were essential sources of medicine.xiii For hundreds of years the forest provided indigenous groups with food, shelter, and clothing. People were grouped into semi-autonomous units with strong bonds of kinship connecting groups across the region.xiv On a day-to-day basis, the Anishinaabeg lived in semi-permanent villages of around 75-100 people, often made up of 10 to 20 different households.xv Villages were typically located along rivers and surrounded by small agricultural efforts.xvi Individual bands would move at different points during the year, often related to the seasons and shifts in activities, such as hunting in the winter and maple sugaring in the spring.
Anishinaabeg society was “decidedly egalitarian” according to many historians, with a strong concept of individual liberty. Small bands freely associated as needed and came together at various points of the year for celebrations.xvii The concept of leadership was fluid, with people – regardless of gender – gaining positions of influence based on respect and skill. The Anishinaabeg valued generosity, virtue, and humility in leaders.xviii That said, they still could only make suggestions, they could not compel people into doing something.xix There was a strong sense of group cohesion as the Anishinaabeg understood that their survival was dependent on being part of the group.xx They had also developed rich and varied cultural traditions characterized by ceremonies, spiritual beliefs, and oral traditions. Oral traditions provided a means of rooting the Anishinaabeg in their environment and passing on cultural values. The knowledge of centuries was passed down from generation to generation through everyday life. This included the skills, rituals, songs, dances, and lifeways.xxi These oral traditions situate the Anishinaabeg in this general region for hundreds of years before contact with white men.xxii
Of course, such a brief description will necessarily leave out nuance and obscure the complexity of Anishinaabeg lifeways. But it is important to understand that contrary to what colonialist histories purport, the lands in what would become Michigan were occupied by rich and vibrant communities. Unlike the modern civilization where proponents of the existing order speak of “sustainability” and an advanced technological and industrial economy, these were truly sustainable lifeways guided by the land of which they were a part.
First Contact and the Founding of “Grand Rapids”
Louis Campau, a fur trader, settled in the area that we now know as Grand Rapids in 1826. Following a survey of the east side of the Grand River in 1831, there was an influx of settlers beginning in 1833.xxiii These events began the migration of white settlers into the region, ending in the founding of Grand Rapids. Consequently, the city that would be come Grand Rapids was established in 1834 as the township of “Kent”. Its name was later changed to “Grand Rapids” in 1842 and was incorporated as a city in 1850.
However, Europeans had visited the area of Grand Rapids before Campau’s arrival. The Grand Rapids area Odawa Chief Noahquageshick (often referred to as “Noonday” by Europeans) recalled a trading cabin in Grand Rapids in 1806.xxiv Other Odawa accounts say that the first visit to what would be Grand Rapids occurred in 1748.xxv Still other works state that is likely an early missionary was among the Grand River groups in 1799.xxvi In the early part of the 19th century, a trading post was established two miles west of Lowell.xxvii The French, who established extensive trading networks in what would become Michigan, had missionaries in Michilimackinac in 1616 and claimed to have visited every native village in the state.xxviii This places the date of initial encounter significantly earlier. However, from the 1821 effort to establish a mission amongst the Odawa to 1833, the Grand Rapids area was essentially “Indian country” (to borrow a colonial phrase) with a small mission and a small number of traders.xxix
Contrary to the myths of colonial history, the settlers did not move into uninhabited land, rather, they moved into an area that was populated by a number of different indigenous groups. In what would become Grand Rapids, there were two villages on the west side of the Grand River. One was located near Bridge Street and the other close to where West Fulton intersects with Watson.xxx A bronze plaque marking the site of the southern village was placed at the intersection of Fulton and National in 1917.xxxi Despite the influx of settlers, the indigenous inhabitants remained a visible presence. In 1837, John Ball wrote of the Odawa population of the Grand River valley:
“…a cultivated field [near Indian Mill Creek] was planted with corn, which the women well hoed. The men fished and hunted. They lived all up and down the river, and through the country.”xxxii
The Catholic missionary Frederic Baraga reported a population of 900 natives in 1833.xxxiii In 1837, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (a U.S. government representative who studied indigenous cultures) estimated the Odawa population in the Grand Rapids area at 1,053xxxiv. These included the following villages in the region:
Rain’s Band? – 164
Fort Village G.R. – 156
Little Prairie G.R. – 53
Grand Rapids – 166?
Prairie Village G.R. – 47
Thornapple River G.R. – 106
Forks G.R. – 76
Flat River G.R. – 135
Maple River G.R. – 150
As a result of contact, the lifeways of the Anishinaabeg people in the region changed dramatically. Due to the pressures of European fur traders, hunting gained prominence in Anishinaabeg life.xxxv Social organization also began to change, with what was apparently a looser form of group identity, coalescing into something more specific.xxxvi At least in part, this was largely motivated by the Europeans inability to understand the autonomous nature of Anishinaabeg communities. Europeans – who had begun the process of forming large nation states – sought specific groups of indigenous peoples with whom they could trade and negotiate. For example, the development of an “Odawa” or “Ottawa” identity was at least partially influenced by European contact. Odawa oral traditions recall that the Odawa received their tribal name when European explorers asked the Natives “where are you going?” – and not knowing English – they replied with “doo-adow-weh” which means peddling or trading, thus their name to the Europeans became “Ottawa”.xxxvii Similar stories past down through the generations attribute the names of other Three Fires’ people in a similar manner. Along with this, the concept of a tribe or unified group emerged which united related groups into a larger entity. This was helpful for the Europeans and later the U.S. government who sought large blocs of people with whom to negotiate, but it was difficult for the Anishinaabeg people who were used to small groups making decisions on their own. Along with this, the European designation of Anishinaabeg people as “chiefs” or leaders was at odds with longstanding traditions of egalitarianism in Anishinaabeg life.xxxviii
The Land at the Time of Conquest
The land that would become Grand Rapids looked dramatically different than the landscape of today, or even that of a few decades after settlers came to the region.
A description compiled in 1934 from primary sources does a good job of depicting the lay of the land at the time of settlement by white people:
“The land east of the river was different from the land on the west side. There was a narrow border of low land next to the river bank on the west side. Back of this were high hills. On the east side, right where the business part of the city is today, was a mass of ground which the early settlers called Prospect Hill… some distance from the east bank of the river there was a sand hill.
The trees growing in the valley and on the hills were of many kinds. On the hills were black and white oak. Along the river bank and about the swamp holes were many willows. Large elms grew along the river banks and on the low grounds where the railroads now run. The four islands in the river were also covered with elms. The big gravel hill on the west side was covered with hickory trees. Here also were forests of sycamores whose white trunks and branches gave beauty to the country. Northwest of what is now Grand Rapids were many pines and also a cedar swamp. Along the hills on either side of the river grew many soft and silver-leaf maples. There were a few walnut and plum trees, and plenty of grapevines. In the swampy lands grew huckleberries and cranberries, and in the woods grew bushes of red and black raspberries.”xxxix
The land was in an isolated location in the middle of a vast wilderness. In 1821 when the Baptist missionary Issac McCoy came to the Grand River to establish a mission, only “well-worn” native trails led to the city, cutting through the vast forest.xl An 1833 account of settlers coming to the Grand River described the settlement as being very small and “all about were woods.”xli
Early accounts of Grand Rapids speak to the beauty of the land, much of which was lost as settlement proceeded. The historian Albert Baxter wrote that “The site was one of great natural beauty, charming for its great variety of features in landscape.”xlii Z.Z. Lydens, another prominent historian of Grand Rapids wrote:
“The scene from the top of the hill … was rapturous. The wooded slopes and the rippling river, bejeweled with emerald isles, and the high rise to the west that foreshortened the sunset, were a majestic array to gladden the heart of the beholder.”xliii
An 1837 account of the town gave a vivid description:
“To ascend these bluffs, you take a gradual rise to the height of a hundred feet, when the horizon only limits the extent of vision. The scenery to an admirer of beautiful landscape is truly picturesque and romantic. Back, east of the town, is seen a wide-spread plain of burr-oak, at one easy to cultivate, and inviting to the agriculturist. Turning westward, especially at the setting of the sun, you behold the most enchanting prospect — the din of the ville below — the broad sheet of water murmuring over the Rapids — the sunbeams dancing upon its swift-gliding ripples — the glassy river at last losing itself in its distant meanderings — present a scenery that awakens the most lively emotions. But the opposite shore, upon which you behold a rich, fertile plain, still claims no small amount of admiration.”xliv
John Ball wrote that outside of Grand Rapids:
“All was a grand and noble forest, with its tall pine, its sugar tree and beech, and the sturdy oak scattered over what are called the “openings.” These opening lands extended along generally on both sides of the river to a greater or less distance back, through Kent and Ionia counties, up the Flat River to Greenville, and along the east side of the Thornapple.”xlv
These brief views, while focusing primarily on the beauty and geography of the land, give a sense of what once was. From the descriptions of abundant forests and rivers, it is easy to see how the land was able to sustain the indigenous population for centuries. Another excerpt from Albert Baxter’s 1891 history focuses on how the forest sustained people and how quickly the white settlers destroyed those sources of life:
“In the early days game of many kinds, and fish, were abundant; but of the native meats, except fish, the near-by supply is exhausted. Fish are yet taken from the river and adjacent waters in considerable quantities; but the bear, the deer and the wild geese, ducks and turkeys, partridges and quails, are no longer the ready victims of the huntsman for the morning meal.
By the pioneers, wolves, bears and wildcats were often encountered, and even so late as 1856 wild bears were sometimes seen perambulating the streets of the city.
Deer and bears had a “runway” crossing the river at the still water just above the rapids. But their day is long since passed. And even the song birds whose music once enlivened the woods, and the wild honeybees that stored sweetness in the trees, and the wild berries, and many varieties of beautiful flowers of the forest and the openings, have dwindled away – almost gone, abashed, from the presence of the white man.
And the grand, natural parks and groves and thickets, of maple, and elm, and oak, and hickory, and black walnut, and linden, and pine – these have been cut away – utterly destroyed – except such occasional small patches as are needed for farm and family uses.”xlvi
i Unsettling Minnesota, Unsettling Ourselves: Reflections and Resources for Deconstructing Colonial Mentality, (2009), https://unsettlingminnesota.files.wordpress.com/2009/11/um_sourcebook_jan10_revision.pdf 42.
ii Andrew J. Blackbird, History of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians of Michigan, (Ypsilanti: Ypsilantian Job Printing House, 1887), 102.
iii Gord Hill, 500 Years of Indigenous Resistance, (Oakland: PM Press, 2009), 7.
iv Roxanne Dunbar-Oritz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014), 27-30.
v In this piece, we generally use the word “Odawa” when referring to the Anishnaabeg people often referred to as “Ottawa” in colonial histories. We prioritize the usage of “Odawa”–a word that is likely derived from the Anishnaabe term for “trading” or “trader”. This word was likely corrupted by the French as “Ottawa” and used as a name for the Anishnaabeg people they encountered. We generally use the “Ottawa” spelling when referring to official treaties.
vi Charles E. Cleland, Rites of Conquest: The History and Culture of Michigan’s Native Americans, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992), 39.
Recently, amidst the increasingly clichéd announcements of upscale housing, breweries, coffee shops, and yoga studios coming to the rapidly gentrifying Westside, something different was unveiled. Many of the larger news outlets in the city (WOOD TV, WZZM 13, Mlive, and MiBiz) all reported that Rockford Construction – who is playing a major role in the gentrification of the Westside – was building an “affordable housing” project.
To read the news articles, one would get the sense that this project was an act of benevolent charity. The reporting focused on how Rockford Construction was responding to the westside community’s wishes. Mlive quoted CEO Mike Van Gessel, “We know that for us as a neighborhood, more affordable and quality housing is a need and an important part of healthy growth.” The affordable housing project, combined with the recent announcement that Rockford is hoping to build a grocery store on Bridge Street, gives the impression of a developer who “cares” about the neighborhood. The articles also play up the idea that Rockford Construction is looking for feedback from the community, in the sense that “we are all in this together.”
It makes a great story, but the reality is of course much more complex. Beyond the headlines and celebratory articles, the application Rockford Construction filed with the Planning Commission gives much more detail.
In order to build the development, Rockford Construction requested a zoning change for the area bounded by Stocking Ave NW, Bridge Street NW, Seward Ave NW, and 1st Street NW. The change would allow a building of five stories in height, as opposed to the current four-story limit. Technical details aside, the “affordable housing” component is just one small part of a much larger project. There would be a second building along Bridge Street constructed that would include four stories of housing atop a grocery store, none of which would be affordable.
The requests – while one is for “final” approval and the other for “conceptual” approval – were presented together in a single package. If funding from the State of Michigan falls through for the affordable housing, Rockford Construction will still build the housing – it just won’t be affordable. While they state that their “preference is for affordable housing units” in the first of the three buildings, affordable housing it gets scant mention and ultimately there is nothing holding them to that. Most of their application focuses on how they will be eliminating blight and increasing density and economic vibrancy.
Furthermore, the building containing the affordable units would be a “mixed income” building. This means that while the majority of the units would be “affordable” by state standards, others would be rented at “market-rate”. Most of the units would also be studios and one-bedroom units, making it a less feasible option for families, who are facing some of the worst housing insecurity. Instead, it would likely appeal to single people and couples – an acceptable demographic for the type of gentrification happening in the area. While the notion of “mixed income” is a mantra of New Urbanism and is taken as gospel, in this case, it means that there will be simply less total affordable units.
Academics studying urban development and gentrification have consistently questioned the idea that mixed income housing is a benefit to low-income and working-class residents. In the anthology, Mixed Communities: Gentrification by Stealth?, the various contributors discuss how despite New Urbanist fantasies, mixed-income neighborhoods don’t encourage mixing as people largely don’t interact outside of their class. Instead, they discuss how “mixed income” housing is often used as a way to “test the waters” for gentrification and introduce a new class of residents into traditionally low-income areas while avoiding criticism. It is almost always a one way move of wealthier residents into working-class areas – nobody speaks of creating “mixed income” housing in middle-class neighborhoods. In the worst cases, it can be motivated by a classist assumption that somehow by living in proximity, upper class residents will model good behavior to poorer residents or that the wealth will somehow “trickle down”.
The Missing Context
Also missing from the news reporting is the fact that Rockford Construction is a major player in the gentrification of the Westside. Its projects – Fulton Place, 600 Douglas, and its partnership with 616 Lofts on Alabama – are bringing in a new class of residents, with “market-rate” rents that are synonymous with the rising unaffordability of Grand Rapids. For example, rental rates for a one bedroom apartments built by Rockford Construction in the area are $1,325 at Fulton Place and $1,150 at 616 Lofts on Alabama. Sixty units of affordable housing is an incredibly small portion of the housing they are building on the Westside.
With Rockford Construction buying up properties, boarding up houses, and developing plans over the past several years, the gentrification of the Westside has been a deliberate process. This is typical behavior for any developer.
Rockford Construction has been drafting plans, particularly in the neighborhood north of Bridge Street and south of I-196, Of course, people still live in some of these homes, but those are mere obstacles to address – likely through demolition and the declaration that the homes are “obsolete”. Nobody would say that the residents are obsolete, but they will be made so as the area is transformed into an upper class haven. Proponents will no doubt say it isn’t an example of gentrification because it doesn’t follow some set formula they’ve decided must be present, but the neighborhood will be rebuilt in the image of the upper class. Perhaps a French word used instead of gentrification – embourgeiosment – does a better job of capturing what is planned for the Westside. It will be the creation of a place where bourgeois dispositions will be dominant, as opposed to its traditionally working-class character.
It’s similar to what Rockford Construction is doing on the southeast side, where a leaked planning document back in March showed detailed plans being considered for a large portion of the southeast side. Most strikingly, it spoke of “carrying excitement and activity from the Wealthy Street corridor” down Eastern Avenue and states that Rockford Construction should begin to “purchase parcels under various entity names”. Not surprisingly, many people were upset about the plans and sometimes contentious meetings were held. The charge that Rockford Construction was doing this without neighborhood consultation was frequently made and criticisms of the one-sided nature of development along Wealthy were also raised.
In this context of gentrification and outrage, it’s worth considering why the “affordable housing” angle took the lead on this story. It helps to deflect criticism of Rockford Construction’s overall actions on the Westside and gives a positive impression after the uproar over their plans on the southeast side. Few people will oppose affordable housing and a grocery store, while at the same time, Rockford Construction develops the rest of the block in a manner consistent with all of its other projects. It has the feel of a deliberate PR move, an escalation in an ongoing effort to silence criticism through the process of making donations to neighborhood entities and the hiring of a “Community Engagement Director”.
What Development Wants, Development Gets
This project – aside from the difference of using affordable housing as a hook to gain approval for a larger project of gentrification – played out similarly to how all developments do. As we explained in the article “Participation, Engagement, and other Illusions”, the City of Grand Rapids and developers don’t seek meaningful engagement, instead they consistently do the absolute minimum. This is as true with this project, as it is with any other. The final approval for the project happened at a 1:40pm meeting on Thursday July 14, which few people will likely attend. For proof of engagement with “the community”, Rockford Construction’s application to the Planning Commission includes a sign-in sheet from a board meeting on June 20, 2016 with the West Grand Neighborhood Organization. Of the sixteen people on the sign-in sheet, seven were board members, three were GRPD officers, and two were from Rockford Construction. Clearly, there was not much engagement and there is no summary of what was said. From a report on GRIID.ORG, a supplemental meeting on July 7th was perhaps even worse, with minimal information about the project presented and little opportunity for engagement while representatives from the City talked at the audience about development in general. In any case, it doesn’t even matter as the core of the plans were already made and nothing was likely to change, despite Rockford Construction’s declared desire in the media to listen to community feedback.
Of course, the reality is that everyday developers are making plans to radically restructure the neighborhoods of Grand Rapids and that they care for little beyond profit and their image. From the southeast side to the Westside, developers and the city have committed themselves to a project of gentrification. Heart-wrenching stories of rising rents, displacement, housing insecurity, and poverty abound, while at the same time, the city, the media, and the developers enthusiastically cheer with each demolition of a so-called “obsolete” building.
Development in the context of capitalism always will involve land-grabs, displacement, back room deals, and secret plans – it’s how it works. Developers can also readily incorporate simple demands for “affordable housing” or neighborhood services into their rhetoric, perhaps even building the occasional affordable housing project as a means of silencing criticism. Rather than having our imaginations limited by zoning acronyms, arcane legal codes, micro-units, City task-forces, non-profit lingo, and misguided notions of “pragmatism”, we need to start asking how we can build a new paradigm – one where we can truly thrive and where we aren’t pacified by the false hope that at some point developers and city leaders will voluntarily start building a “just” city. The history of Grand Rapids from colonization to present day segregation and racialized policing shows that it simply isn’t going to happen unless we challenge ourselves to develop new strategies of resistance and forms of living.
When speaking of development or gentrification in Grand Rapids, a constant refrain heard from city leaders, developers, and even many opponents is the need for more “community involvement” or “community engagement.” Development is presented as if it is a dialog or a process in which we are all on equal footing, rather than something done by those with considerable capital and political power. The appeals for participation are repeated over and over: the city and developers allegedly want to hear from the “community”, while always looking for more ways to get people involved.
However, what is actually being encouraged is a very specific and narrow form of “involvement” that centers around the process of attending city meetings, meetings with developers, and other such similar events. It’s presented as a type of civic duty akin to voting – if you don’t do it, you don’t have a right to complain. A sort of hyper-local version of “America, Love It or Leave It.” Often when these conversations happen, they involve a considerable amount of blame being placed on those who are critical. The assumption is always that they have chosen “not to be involved” and that because they allegedly aren’t participating their voices aren’t being heard, and therefore, their concerns aren’t being addressed. It’s a charge that has been leveled at us repeatedly over the past year: that if we participated in the allegedly “important meetings” that are happening, “our voice would be heard”. Of course, as we have written before – we have attended these meetings, eaten the free pizza, rolled our eyes with our neighbors, and engaged in the various activities dreamed up by consultants who are paid to gather “input” (see for example, GR Forward) – but it’s an issue that is much bigger than us. The people affected by these projects are by and large absent from the decision-making process. While the City and developers tend to blame residents – with the most recent example being City of Grand Rapids Planning Department Director Suzanne Schulz stating that neighbors need to get more involved and be more clear in their articulation of “what they want” at a recent lecture on gentrification at Grand Valley State University – the onus shouldn’t be placed on residents, rather, the problem lies with the City and how they define participation.
The Planning Commission
In terms of gentrification and development, one of the most important decision-making bodies in Grand Rapids is the Planning Commission. It’s a nine member body tasked with “preparing and adopting a plan for the physical development of the city.” In practice, this means reviewing new building projects, changes to zoning ordinances, etc. It’s the governmental body that approves, denies, or amends projects. The nine members are supposed to “represent different professions and occupations and provide a wide range of citizen interests in land development issues.” In practice, many of the members are connected to real estate and/or other development interests. They are appointed by the Mayor of Grand Rapids for three year terms, with a maximum of three terms or nine years.
If a major project – such as a market-rate housing development – is proposed in a neighborhood, it is the Planning Commission that hears resident concerns. They will schedule a “public hearing” – a block of time at their regularly scheduled meeting – where they will take comment from the public on the proposal. When a hearing is scheduled, residents and property owners living within 300 feet of a proposed development will receive notice by postcard of the hearing, while a printed notice is published in The Grand Rapids Press 15 days prior. Comment can also be submitted via letter.
Beyond this, developers are encouraged to schedule a “neighborhood meeting” about a project before presenting their request before the Planning Commission. According to Grand Rapids’ Zoning Ordinance, the meeting is designed to do the following:
“The purpose of a neighborhood meeting is to educate occupants and owners of nearby properties about the proposed development application, receive comments and address concerns about the development proposal; and resolve conflicts and outstanding issues, where possible. The meeting is intended to result in an application that is responsive to neighborhood concerns and to expedite and lessen the expense of the review process by avoiding needless delays, appeals, remands or denials.”
The ordinance further specifies that the meeting shall be held in a “neutral location after 5 p.m. on a weekday.” Developers are also expected to circulate a sign-in sheet and provide the information to the Planning Commission at a later date.
Democracy in Action
In the idealized world of citizen democracy, then, we should all be expected to exercise our rights as citizens to participate in the democratic process by attending these meetings. However, there are many barriers that keep even the most interested from participating. Among these is the rhetoric of “citizenship” – it ignores that some of the most vulnerable – and occasionally most affected – are not “citizens”. They might be the workers who pay cash for rent, who lack the ability to challenge slumlord landlords in court, or who will wash the dishes at the hip new restaurants. This is merely one of many ways in which the process is one of exclusion, not inclusion.
If one wants to attend a Planning Commission meeting, they happen on the second Thursday of each month at 1:00pm at the City’s Development Center, located at 1120 Monroe Avenue NW. As needed, additional meetings are scheduled on the second Thursday. Meetings vary in length, but they generally last for several hours. For example, the March 10, 2016 meeting adjourned at 4:20pm. This means that if the topic you came to speak about is late in the agenda and you are one of those who have steady 9-to-5 employment in the current precarious economy, you will likely have to take off an entire afternoon from work or find childcare if you are parent. Additionally, to understand exactly what is being discussed, you will generally want to read through the “Agenda Packet” which is often well over 100 pages long, full of charts, applications, graphics, and other such things written in inaccessible language. Clearly, this is not a process that screams that participation is valued.
Assuming that you can get the time off from work, find childcare, or have several hours on a Thursday with nothing better to do, the meeting itself is not a very welcoming atmosphere. It’s kind of like walking into a party where you don’t know anyone and everyone else is already friends. There are various city officials, occasionally cops, the Planning Commissioners, and developers all hobnobbing and slapping each other on the back and shaking hands. If you are lucky, there might be a few other people you know – especially true if something is a particularly contentious issue – but for the most part, it’s a lonely affair. Most of the people are in suits or other professional attire. There are sometimes contractors in attendance, but for the most part, this is a professional crowd and professional norms dictate expected behavior. Those who are on the Commission, attend the meetings, and speak tend to be professionals (developers, architects, investors, etc). The majority of those in attendance have college degrees, often from graduate or professional programs. There are typically very few working-class or low income people in attendance, even though many of things being discussed will inevitably affect them. We shouldn’t blame them for their absence, but rather should ask what it is about the process that excludes them. If you walk into the room, complete with snacks and drinks for the Commissioners, it’s hard to miss why people might feel excluded – the professionalism and concomitant whiteness is unavoidable.
If you decide to speak at the meeting (which again supposes you were one of the few living within 300 feet of a project and/or that still read The Grand Rapids Press’ print edition to find out about the meeting), it’s essential to understand that what happens at a Planning Commission meeting isn’t a simple conversation, but rather it’s a convoluted process that happens through the use of highly specialized and professionalized language. Prepare to hear a lot of acronyms (TN-LDR, TN-TCC, SD-IT, ASP, etc, etc), specialized terms (density, setbacks, special land use, etc), and processes. There will typically be a lot of discussion about building heights, building materials, parking spaces, signs, etc. For the uninitiated, it’s hard to make sense of it all and nobody is there to make it accessible or understandable. It is a process that works best for those in power – the City, the developers – if there isn’t much participation.
Comment is sought primarily in relation to very specific points, i.e. should a development of 5 stories be allowed in a TN-LDR zone despite a limit to buildings of 3.5 stories (a hypothetical example). While you can get up and theoretically say whatever you want, the Planning Commission tends to value the points that relate most specifically to City Code or Zoning regulations, which few are conversant in. For example, a debate might center around whether or not a particular project is “consistent with the Area Specific Plan (ASP)” which of course assumes both a familiarity with the ASP, a knowledge of what those are, and how to interpret them. Not surprisingly, there often isn’t public comment. To cite the March 10, 2016 meeting again, there was only one public comment on one agenda item. Commissioners will often argue against issues raised in public comment, saying that despite the concern, it’s unfounded – again, it’s not something that makes you particularly empowered. Even in situations where there is comment and residents come out in opposition to a particular project, it isn’t uncommon for Planning Commissioners to vote unanimously in favor of a project.
The neighborhood meetings that are encouraged by the Planning Commission – albeit specifically not required (after all, Section 5.12.04 says that “Failure to hold a neighborhood meeting shall not stop or delay the review process; however, such an omission may result in the tabling of a request.”) – tend to follow a similar pattern where the same power dynamics and imbalances come into play. Meetings aren’t advertised well as there is no specific process outlined by the city for how developers should do that. Consequently, meetings are usually sparsely attended, with a representative from a particular development company often presenting to a neighborhood association about “what is coming”. These aren’t really conversations – the project is typically already decided – and the whole affair seems more like an exercise in checking off boxes rather than a dialog based on respect. Often, there’s food – as if a developer throwing down some cash for some food from a local restaurant is going to win over the “hearts and minds” of the people. What inevitably happens is that there is some type of push back from neighbors and that the developer – one of only a few in the room in a suit – talks down to residents and asserts the clichéd mantra that “change is inevitable”. Even when opposition is quite strong, the “sign-in sheet” – circulated by developers to show that they “consulted with the neighborhood” – will be presented to the Planning Commission as proof of their “community engagement”. Often the sheet will simply be thrown in the Planning Commission’s “AgendaPacket,” with little comment about the contents of the meeting. Simply because the developer presented the plans, this is counted as community engagement—regardless of reaction to it.
ASP, CID, BID, DDA, and the ABCs of Exclusion
Other venues for participation touted by the City are equally disempowering. A favorite of Planning Director Suzanne Schulz is the Area Specific Plan (ASP), an often multi-year planning process that functions as a localized master plan for a specific area of the city. Just as the City of Grand Rapids as a whole has a master plan, an Area Specific Plan attempts to outline and facilitate development of a smaller area. However, there are the usual problems associated with the City’s planning process in that they tend to be dominated by developers and business interests. For example, the Westside ASP Steering Committee features many of the same politicians and developers responsible for the gentrification of the Westside. The same is true of the Belknap ASP. It’s a lengthy and involved process which demands considerable work on behalf of those convening them. While they may give some guidance to developers – there’s a convincing case to be made that they aren’t particularly helpful in addressing resident concerns. In the case of the “U to the Zoo” ASP covering West Fulton and Seward streets on the Westside, the ASP has been approached as an obstacle by developers – something that is meant to be stretched and interpreted, rather than a specific rule. In this case, projects such as an apartment project on the corner of Lake Michigan Drive and Seward or the construction of Rylee’s Ace Hardware on West Fulton were both approved despite being contrary to the ASP for the area. Even after engaging in a multi-year process that the City touts as a way to be responsive to resident input, by ignoring it they send the message that resident input isn’t valued.
Engaging with the City Commission – another common venue for resident public comment – is also a relatively meaningless gesture. While meetings are held in the evenings on every other Tuesday at 7:00pm and are even geographically dispersed to encourage more participation, it isn’t clear that participation is any more valued. The meetings tend to follow similar dynamics to what has been outlined above, albeit with a more friendly face. The Commissioners give off a more understanding and accessible air and they are at least electable and not appointed. However, much of the work is done behind the scenes or at meetings that are significantly less accessible – for example the 9:30am “Committee of the Whole” meetings – where anybody who follows the City Commission will tell you “the real work” gets done. It gives the 7:00pm meetings a sense of performance, where most decisions have already been made. In some ways, they are characterized by theatrics with occasional contentious debates about neighborhood developments, policing, or as a site of protest.
In the large bureaucracy of the City there are other boards and entities which have considerable influence over the City and that claim to be open to input, but really aren’t. A prime example is the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) which essentially guides the development of downtown Grand Rapids. It’s tasked with the mission of eliminating “…property deterioration, to increase property tax valuation where possible in the City’s business district, to eliminate the causes of deterioration, and to promote economic growth” – in other words – it’s a major facilitator of the gentrification of Grand Rapids’ downtown core. It meets at 8:00am on the second Wednesday of each month – and all previous discussion about barriers to participation stand. There’s a host of related committees (Alliance for Livability, Alliance for Vibrancy, DGRI Board of Advisors, etc) and figuring out where to bring a specific concern is difficult. While theoretically open to the public, it’s rare that anyone participates in these meetings besides their members. The same can be said of Corridor Improvement Districts (CID) and Business Improvement Districts (BID), which both use a variety of financing and tax capture avenues to facilitate improvements in public infrastructure. Most often, these are things like planters, bike racks, public art, etc. They tend to be the kind of thing that can “improve” a neighborhood’s physical appearance, but at the same time, can be used as means of facilitating gentrification. For example, they may try to “brand” a neighborhood as a new hip destination, as has been done on the Westside. On a CID, there is a spot for one resident to serve and while public comment is allowed, there rarely is any given.
Looking Deeper, Broadening Understanding
Participation shouldn’t be restricted to participating in formal structures outlined by the government. As discussed above, these are most often structured in a way that does more to exclude participation than invite it. Whether they are meetings scheduled during the weekday, hearings held as a rubber stamp, or conversations dominated by large power imbalances, it’s clear that what passes as “community engagement” often has significant barriers to participation. It’s characterized by a professionalized and educated discourse – which in a society characterized by countless divisions of which those by race and class are some of the prominent – tends towards a discourse which is very middle-class and white, thereby excluding large portions of the population.
This isn’t a call for more accessible meetings, as if the problems could be solved if we changed the words we used, calculated the accurate formula for a “truly diverse board”, or scheduled meetings in the evenings, but rather for a deeper understanding of engagement and participation. In the case of gentrification, we need to understand that participation is going to mean a lot of different things to different people, some of which may be outside of the traditional structures of civic engagement. It could mean small informal gatherings with neighbors, conversations amongst religious congregations, blog posts attempting to understand what is happening, conversations among friends, study groups, alternative media, art, or public discussions. As more people lose their homes, are pushed out, or are displaced by rising rents, it may mean other forms of political action. In Grand Rapids, the City has been clearly engaged in a policy of gentrification for the past several years, and we should consequently expect that many people won’t see the value in participating in processes that have facilitated gentrification, especially when these processes exclude so many.
Rather than chastising people, we should be making alliances, forming plans, and figuring out ways to stop the gentrification of Grand Rapids.