The Why

This post is different than the usual fare; it is more personal, yet I hope it is still illuminating. In the past week I have been asked, in different terms but in the same spririt, at least five times: "Why?". When asked the same or similair question that often an answer is obligated [IMO]. Why does this site exist? Why the strangely committed interest in these - seemingly esoteric - topics?

Answering that question requires a bit of time travel. My family has been in Grand Rapids, MI and the surrounding region for four generations. I've been wandering around this county, and this city, for my entire life; now 50 years.

In the years of my youth the death of the city was a given. The droll and desperately uninspired line "Will the last person to leave Grand Rapids please remember to turn out the lights?" was a common refrain. Choosing as a career any of the industries which had built the Midwest was earnestly dissuaded by school councilors; all those "jobs are going boys and they ain't coming back" - My Hometwon, Bruce Springsteen. One business closed after another. Then Governor James Blanchard [1983 - 1991] visited the Mary Queen of Apostles Parish near where I grew up to explain to the locals how they were obsolete; but the state was building a highway so people would be able to find jobs - elsewhere. Soon the equipment arrived to tear up the old railroad. The nearby brinery, lumber yard, insulation factory, ... they were all gone by that point.

The year I graduated from high school (1991), a man named John Logie was elected mayor of Grand Rapids. At the time this was unnoticed by myself, at eighteen years old. His election would shape much of my life. Never let anyone tell you elections - particularly local elections - do not matter.

As mayor John Logie attempted to implement community policing - in the 1990s - talk about being ahead of the times. He focused on downtown revitalization. He pushed the then GRATA (Grand Rapids Area Transit Authority) to become the Rapid. The man was an engine of change. Under the anti-democratic city charter - by which the city of Grand Rapids has been hobbled since 1916 - the role of mayor is a paper-tiger. The mayor has little official authority. And John Logie did not care, he created authority, and he used it. Mayor Logie served for three terms [until 2003] and was succeeded as mayor by George Heartwell [2004 - 2016]. Mayor Heartwell continued in much the same direction as his predecessor

For so long the city had been ashamed of being a city. Every city in Michigan's greatest ambition was to devolve into a suburb. Under the leadership of Logie and Heartwell that changed. Grand Rapids finally remembered the truth: cities are easy things to love. People enjoy cities, or enough people that the people who don't ... ¯\_(ツ)_/¯; it is not as if there are not other places in America for those people to go [and pay their own way!].

The change came fast, and kept coming. To those who were not here and did not experience the fatalism that had infected the region it is difficult to explain in full. Also the dismal constellation of leaders who were content to let that future come to pass.

Fast forward to 2015, the year this website was created, and from "remember to turn off the lights", this is an incomplete survey of the developments either planned or underway:

  • The Rowe [~77 units]
  • The Morton [~100 units]
  • Studio Park, Arena Place [100 units],
  • Klingman Lofts [83 units, Affordable],
  • Warner Norcross & Judd
  • Gateway at Belknap [88 units]
  • Freyling Mendels [44 units]
  • 234 Market [260 units]
  • River Place [35 units]
  • Third Coast Orange [18 units]
  • Third Coast Purple [8 units]
  • The Kingsley [42 units]
  • Fulton Squart [47 units]
  • The BOB Venue tower [96 units]

2015 was the year I began to be more meticulous about taking notes and cataloging the news. So, I invite you to read this list of headlines from 2015. Take your time. Relative to the headlines you see in ~2023 what do you think? I'd love to year any feedback.

Mayor George Heartwell wants Grand Rapids in car-sharing business

3 lessons for downtown Grand Rapids from New York city's busiest urban park

DGRI to bring leading public space designer to Grand Rapids

Downtown movie complex plans grow to include housing and retail

15 mph on Bridge Street? Grand Rapids commissioners geeked about 'shared street'

Why a Detroit-Grand Rapids train just makes sense

Grand Rapids school leaders hopeful hemorrhaging of students has stopped

Safer walking routes for students is the goal of city, schools partnership

Two-way traffic change proposed in Heritage Hill to improve student safety

City identifies potential $1.5M funding source for Grand River dam removal

Commissioners squelch Creston parking study

3 changes needed to bring 10,000 households to downtown Grand Rapids

Metro Council endorses $30M Grand River restoration project

City moves from survival mode to investment mode

'Parking Pam' gets new nickname, more staff as Grand Rapids shifts transportation focus

2 travel lanes for bikes, 1 for cars planned on Grand Rapids street

Why public transit advocates are in Grand Rapids, hearing Mayor George Heartwell tout craft beer

Grand Rapids approves Michigan Street plan

Grand Rapids to Detroit passenger rail service meetings set

Where road diet is proposed on Alpine Avenue

City parking system wants to buy $2M in buses to help you park less

Apartment construction boomed in first half of 2015

Car share program coming

Parking panel approves pilot program for Ionia Avenue

City eyes housing strategy

What's inside tiny apartments proposed for downtown

Special lane designations would increase mass transit efficiency

City adopts GR Forward amendment

Perhaps you note the ambition and optimism in these headlines? The interest in change? None of these headlines about bus lanes, slow streets, housing strategies, road diets, new plans, or even intercity rail are from some random guy with a BLOG✋️; all these were headlines in the region's journals of record. This was a vast epistemic distance from the Grand Rapids, and the Michigan, of my youth where failure was casually accepted as inevitable.

The year 2015 saw the adoption of GR Forward, the Michigan Street Corridor Plan, and the Great Housing Strategies. We were rolling! All those nice things which citizens elsewhere in the world simply expect, it was possible we could have them too, they were right there, just out of reach. Possibility is intoxicating. It wasn't just me. In 2015 this site was a late comer, an also ran. There is a litany of headlines I could add from other small sites and various BLOGs [ all which have gone dark😞 ].

And, yeah, 2016 happened. Not only on the national level. After 2016 things rapidly decelerated. Vanishingly few of the things which were just out of reach got reached. Those plans all still exist, on shelves. Ambition was replaced by hand-wringing, mumbling, and posturing. The notion that someone could create authority, to drive the city towards goals, was forgotten. The old voices returned, whispering that our challenges are insurmountable.

We can reach again. And why not try? Nothing has changed in the world which invalidates any of the ideas represented by those headlines; quite the contrary. A looming Climate Crisis, a seemingly perpetual Housing Crisis, soaring economic inequality, a mental health Crisis, these things make manifesting all those ideas more urgent than ever. We shouldn't be where we are as a city or as a community; creating a future different than today - with less Crisis - requires doing different things. At the end, anyway, trying is more fun than the alternative; you do get to meet some of the coolest people. So I am going to keep beating this drum.

"Risk taking must distinguish our work. What was preposterous last week could be the norm next week."
- Mayor George Heartwell