Downtown Exclusion

Media Mouse—a blog covering left-wing campaign issues as they related to Grand Rapids—takes recent developments in downtown Grand Rapids to task for their favouring of wealthy residents of the City. They fear that changes in the demographics of the downtown area may potentially lead to draconian measures such as the criminalising of homelessness, as well as the usual forced movement of poorer people which so often follows in the wake of gentrification.

In many ways, I share the writers’ fears and have been rather disturbed to hear of the tax breaks being granted to downtown developments such as the new Marriott Hotel and those purchasing many of the new condominiums. But the analysis offered by Media Mouse fails to provide a holistic analysis of issues facing the downtown area, and could leave readers unfamiliar with the area with the wrongful impression that the conversion of the old YMCA into expensive condos is simply the destruction of a community centre, rather than a response to the fact that the YMCA has recently moved to another downtown location.

Like many North American cities over the past few decades Grand Rapids has seen significant numbers of its wealthier residents move progressively further away from city centre, leading to a considerably increased reliance on cars, lower tax revenues for investment in education and other services, and the continuing blight of urban sprawl. The vacancy has left downtown spaces open to developments such as the proposed nude bar which Media Mouse has led campaigns against, and is a key source of environmental degradation.

The increasing spread of North American cities makes it considerably harder to grow vibrant economies with opportunities for a wide range of people. By leading people to move further from their places of work and making it harder to provide effective public transport, it increases reliance on expensive private transport; by encouraging development of “single use” areas it leads to a build up in “out of town” shopping arrangements which favours large corporations with the deep pockets needed to build superstores and little interest in investing locally. The only viable solution to those issues is to encourage regeneration and “inward development” back into the denser urban areas that have been deserted.

That transition is going to be painful for a lot of people, and we definitely need to do more than simply appeal to a sense that the benefits of development may “trickle down” to the poor communities that currently occupy inner cities. But incentives will be needed to draw people used to the space and perceived safety of the suburbs (I, like many others, believe dense urban environments to be as safe or safer than suburbs, but there is still a perception that suburbs are safer) back into the city, and those incentives will need to be targetted at those who have the means to live where they wish.

It is vital that those who are interested in urban renewal for reasons of equity and environmental protection speak up with constructive criticism of plans where they aren’t appropriately inclusive. But where there is such potential for significant improvements, it would be a shame to merely focus on the negative.

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  1. Thanks a lot, James, for this analysis of the development in downtown Grand Rapids. It’s always a pleasure to read thoughtful and fair commentary such as yours. As for the criminalizing of homelessness, I don’t think we’ll see that happen in Grand Rapids anytime soon, at least not as long as George Heartwell is mayor. Besides, what would we do with all of the missions and shelters in the Heartside area?

  2. Criminalization of the homeless is alive and well in GR. It isn’t technically illegal, and it tends to be quite racist at this point, but it is there. I know scores of homeless people who are arrested and sentenced to months on end in jail based on minor charges such as panhandling, loitering and trespassing under circumstance which would leave me happily at home that night if I did them. For instance, there is a person who gets arrested over
    and over merely for going to the Amway Grand lobby. He does not destroy property or harm anyone and never has, but they call the police on him each time he enters the building. His only real threat is to the desired color scheme in the Amway, if you take my meaning. The fact that rich people can use my hard earned money to jail the defenseless and poor makes me furious. Behavior that I am expected to tolerate from the wealthy, such as loitering, lands the homeless in jail for repeated and ridiculously long sentences. I wish *I* could have obnoxious wealthy people arrested for asking me questions I didn’t want to answer or trying to use the public restroom. I can’t do it to them, and they shouldn’t do it to the homeless and mentally ill in our community. It’s time for tolerance to be enforced. Oh, and since the homeless are charged for room and board at the jail, one arrest on a trivial charge can leave a person owing thousands of dollars in fines which can’t get off parole or qualify for assisted housing until they pay off. So this trivial jailing prevents the homeless from getting housing by giving them criminal records and ruining their credit ratings. Does that sound like a plan for ending homelessness?

  3. Thanks Karl and Mary.

    Mary – I suspect one of the key problems there is that increasingly we have handed over what might once have been “public space” into private hands. Certainly the GRPD could change their policies about how they handle reports of “nuisance visitors” in privately owned spaces like the hotels, but beyond that the city doesn’t have many options as to where they intervene in that directly, and it’s a very tricky legislative path to tread.

    What would be encouraging would be more emphasis on prividing public spaces which are viable options not only in the middle of summer days, but also during the winter and available throughout the night.

    The loss of public space is another of the key problems with increasing sprawl, as most natural congregating points become shopping malls which are all privately held. Hopefully we can reclaim some of that as people move back into the cities?