As Grand Rapids revitalizes itself and more and more people move back downtown, we are seeing interest in renovating many of the more interesting old buildings of the city. This interest has provoked a number of different reactions, however, from pride and pleasure to fear and rage, depending on who is being asked.
For businessmen and construction company owners, gentrification is a blessing and a foregone conclusion. Buildings constructed one-hundred years ago – particularly those that have stood the test of time – were often better built and more architecturally interesting than ones built in more recent history. Replacing the broken glass and chipping paint, adding new fixtures and more efficient heating and cooling systems are small investments in a more vital downtown – something that benefits the city as a whole and its citizens.
For city residents and small businessmen, the influx of Millennials and Boomers from the suburbs means that streets once full of prostitutes, drug traffickers, taggers, and gang members will be safe to live in again and conduct commerce. They will also be cleaner, better kept, and more aesthetically appealing. Car and homeowner insurance rates will drop, and more public displays of dysfunctional behavior such as domestic violence and child neglect will abate.
From an environmental standpoint as well, city living is better for resource sharing. People who live and work within the city use fewer natural resources for transportation and living than do people in suburbs. It’s far more fuel efficient to heat an apartment block, especially one that’s recently been re-insulated, than to heat individual houses in the suburbs or residential areas of the city. Far fewer roads, sidewalks, data electrical, sewer, and gas lines must be maintained as well. Given our rapidly eroding infrastructure and the potential for more gas explosions and bridge collapses, this becomes a safety issue as well.
Culture and recreation are more available and accessible downtown as well. When ice skating, swing dancing, marathon running, and fine dining are available just out the door, down the block, or a short ride on public transit away, who wants to watch television? The people watching alone in a city is interesting, but there’s also the theater, the ballet, the symphony, hockey games, rock concerts, poetry readings, movies in the park, and protests. This is why people are coming back to cities.
But not everyone is happy about gentrification or sees the above positives as outweighing the negatives – primarily the increased rents and other living costs that accompany gentrification. People are also concerned about the local community and culture they have built and feel they that when gentrification happens, locals either get controlled by new laws and regulations, pushed out by higher costs, or are otherwise made to feel unwelcome and eventually leave.
As a result some of the neighborhoods experiencing a renaissance have also experienced a backlash of sometimes violent opposition to plans to further develop their areas. A group torched several townhouses under construction on Blodgett St. in 2011, and that same group also sent out a menacing letter to East Hills residents threatening muggings, burglaries, and kidnappings if “the old neighbors” were not allowed to continue on as they had been in their ownership of the neighborhood. Vandals have also broken windows and spray painted warnings.
Eventually the tension in the East Hills neighborhood dissipated, and, although no arrests were made the terrorism case, development in the area has continued.
While it’s easy to feel for neighbors or homeowners who are displaced by development downtown, it’s important to realize that cities are not static places. There is a definite ebb and flow to them. While some East Hills neighbors may not like the changes occurring there, just as many Westsiders aren’t thrilled about the demographic shifts that happened to their primarily Polish Catholic neighborhoods over the last forty years. This is true all over the city, in fact, as the only constant would appear to be Change.