By Rachel Potter

Have you been following the Urban Renewal Project on Mlive? Garret Ellison has done an amazing job sifting through old photographs and records detailing the Grand Rapids that was and the vision leaders had in the mid-20th century for urban renewal.

In the 1950s American cities were in transition as increasing automobile use pulled families out to the suburbs and shoppers out to newly built modern malls. Grand Rapids was no exception. Industry was going up outside of downtown as well, and property values in the city began dropping. Lower rents attracted a collection of less valuable, more crime prone tenants. Historical buildings – factories, stores, restaurants, theaters, and government buildings – darkened by coal pollution, were viewed at best as relics and at worst as blight. City leaders decided something radical must be done to stop the downward spiral and to grow and beautify the city.

In order to accomplish the Central Core Urban Renewal Project, the City of Grand Rapids acquired blocks of buildings, more than 120 properties, through eminent domain and put the bulldozer to all of them. Michigan Street was essentially laid waste as was lower Monroe. If downtown Grand Rapids seems modern to you, it’s because it is: only a handful of the buildings standing then still remain. In their place were built a new city hall, the Kent County administration building, Calder Plaza, a downtown police station, the Old Kent Bank (now Fifth Third) building, the Union Bank (now Chase) building, Michigan Consolidated Gas Co. building, the Grand Rapids Press building, and the now extinct Hall of Justice, among others. The highways crisscrossing downtown, US-131 and I-196, went in during this same period, and swaths of housing were destroyed to make room.

For Grand Rapids who were born after the 1960s and are not historians or archive junkies, it’s a bit shocking to see how different the city looked and operated just a half century ago. It’s also a little strange to think of how different the childhoods of a Baby Boomer grandmother and her Gen Z granddaughter, both born and raised in the city, might feel. When was the last time anyone thought about purchasing groceries, shoes, signage, or hardware goods downtown? When last you walked your dog or frolfed through Riverside Park, did you realize you were recreating on the remains of Old Grand Rapids? That’s where all the rubble went.

Sifting through the photographic record, it’s clear that while some of the building were clearly run down, already repurposed, and probably only mediocre to begin with, quite a number of architectural gems were lost. Old City Hall looks like it was fabulously creepy, compared to the bland building that replaced it.

No one I’ve ever known has appreciated the mid-century ugliness of the old Grand Rapids Press building and will not be sorry to see it go, and the sea of concrete in Calder Square isn’t terribly inspiring or inviting. While the downtown area has developed a real vibrancy today, it’s hard to put down the cause of it to 1960s fab architecture. The city languished long after the debris was all carted off and the new structures were dedicated.

Older building techniques have often been superior to modern ones. Even if the ancient Roman builders or medieval German architects and masons didn’t have the scientific knowledge or simulating software we have today, they built gorgeous, seemingly impossible buildings, many of which still stand, despite centuries of regime changes, wars, revolutions, and natural disasters. It’s hard to imagine the Chase building will be around for another few hundred, frankly. It looks sturdy enough, but no one is going to chain themselves to a wrecking ball if future city officials decide it has to go. It doesn’t inspire loyalty.

What would the city be like if the highways hadn’t gone through, if neighborhoods hadn’t been cut in half and churches and other community buildings demolished? Would people have been in such a hurry to leave their ethnic enclaves? Would the St. Adalbert area still be Polish? How many urban Catholic schools would still exist? How many halls and neighborhood pubs? Grand Rapids hasn’t experienced much of the same blight Flint and Detroit have, but there’s a lot of well crafted housing that went rental and then…shady. Most people wouldn’t walk through parts of the city little children wandered about on their own in during the 1950s. My mother as a young girl took the bus all the way from Belknap Lookout to Ramona Park to ride the rides with her younger sister. That would be unthinkable today.

The area I live in, Riverside Gardens, emptied out of children in the 1980s, and Riverside Elementary is now closed. Families with kids are slowly filtering back in now, but it’s no longer the place where neighbors all know each other and kids are out playing until the streetlights come on. While that’s not the direct fault of those who wanted old Downtown gone, big changes have unintended consequences, including social atomization.

What others can you think of?