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Development and coexistence: Businesses and ministries on rapidly changing S. Division work it out

Marge Palmerlee and Rev. Andy DeBraber.

How can new businesses and longtime ministries working with low-income and homeless residents together promote a healthier Heartside?
Heartside is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in downtown Grand Rapids. With a mix of venues for entertainment, restaurants, bars, art galleries, retail shops, educational institutions, coffee shops, and nonprofits, Heartside expands as it diversifies. At the heart of the neighborhood is perhaps Heartside's most rapidly evolving corridor, South Division Avenue.

South Division historically houses some of the most influential ministries in downtown Grand Rapids, serving the low-income and homeless populations of Heartside and beyond. Meanwhile, retail, restaurants and art galleries continue to move south and lay claim to newly developed and vacant spaces. As business owners and their patrons bump up against and coexist with lower income residents and the homeless, what problems arise? Will new development push out — or gentrify — those in this historically diverse neighborhood that welcomes the homeless? How can these two groups work together to promote a healthy coexistence as South Division continues to grow?

Marge Palmerlee, executive director of Dégagé."We embrace the development," says Executive Director of Dégagé Ministries Marge Palmerlee. After almost three decades on staff at this ministry that provides daily meals, an overnight shelter for women, hygiene services, medical care, and various other resources, Palmerlee has seen an influx of businesses to the corridor.

Welcoming these businesses — such as Rockwell Republic and Propaganda Doughnuts — as they come, Palmerlee notes that the goal for the area is "development with diversity." In other words, she aims for a diverse population that remains despite financial growth in the neighborhood.

"Change is to be embraced," says Palmerlee. However, she notes that "gentrification takes many forms." Though the low-income population may continue to reside on and near South Division, they may no longer feel comfortable as the population shifts. "That's inevitable when you have that type of growth in an area," she adds.

One element that Palmerlee believes solidifies the current population's residence is the large number of low-income housing units (old and new) in Heartside. "I'd rather work on affordable housing," says Palmerlee, who believes this is the key to ending the cycle of poverty and improving the neighborhood as a whole.

Rev. Andy DeBraber, executive director of Heartside Ministry.Housing is also a touchpoint for Rev. Andy DeBraber, executive director of Heartside Ministry, a more than 30-year-old nonprofit at 54 Division S. that offers services such as support groups, art studios and educational programs, among others. Because so many low-income housing units occupy the area (and are designated as such for 15 years), he knows that the low-income population will have a place to stay, and thus continue to congregate on South Division, for a while.

However, he wonders, "are people who live here going to become prisoners in their own buildings?" In other words, though low-income residents may have somewhere to sleep, the quickly shifting culture may force them to stay indoors. Working at Heartside, DeBraber has heard his fair share of stories of his patrons being refused service at local businesses. "I'd like to see that bias go away," he says.

One solution to removing that bias, says DeBraber, would be to improve the public urination issue with more public restrooms. Though many don't consider this problem, the homeless population often find themselves out of luck when searching for a restroom after business hours. Offering their assistance, Heartside Ministry installed a public port-a-John in their parking lot. However, this installation clashed with a few local businesses, who complained to the city. Heartside was then fined, and have been forced to remove the restroom.

Despite examples such as these, DeBraber maintains his optimism. "Our goal is to figure out how to get along," he says. He hopes that that Heartside can become the "most integrated, urban neighborhood in the U.S."

Herman Baker, store manager of Vertigo Music, agrees. "I've always felt we should work with people in the community, exist with them, respect them," he says. After 16 years at his location at 129 Division S., Baker continues to welcome members and friends of the homeless population in his store. With a goal of "getting along, coexisting," Baker maintains a welcoming attitude toward the resident population, and he himself relates to the prospect of getting pushed out.

"I'm at risk to being potentially gentrified out of this area," he says. "For us, it was always about reasonable rent and fair rent," but as new and bigger business moves into the corridor, rent prices will likely continue to rise. "That's a real reality," says Baker.

Owner of Woosah Outfitters Erica Lang also cited low rent as a reason for moving to South Division, in addition to the area's dedication to the arts scene. Lang was also drawn to the diversity of the corridor. "I love the history of this area and watching it defy the odds, often pushing people past their comfort zones and realizing it’s actually not threatening or scary over here," she says.

Though she was at first unfamiliar with the culture of the corridor, Lang quickly felt at home. "When I started to view the people for who they are and not what I had been perceiving them to be, they became far less threatening," she says. "They have been here longer than I have and many of the businesses on the block. I don't think it's fair for us to just push them out, but there does need to be a balance between the businesses and the locals." Though Lang has yet to form any formal ties with local ministries, she hopes to purchase Dégagé's meal cards to hand out in her store to those that need them.

Creative and Marketing Director of boldSOCKS Ryan Roff was also drawn to the arts of the neighborhood. "South Division provides an opportunity to be a part of an authentic, artistic community that is proud of the craftsmanship and design of its products," he says.

Having only been opened a few months, the staff at boldSOCKS already feel at home on at 17 Division Ave S. "Some of the most cheerful and honest people I know are residents of South Division," says Roff. "They may ask for things from time to time, but they also show a great amount of respect for me and my business.

Playing a more direct role with the neighborhood's ministries, Pastor Jay Schrimpf of Bethlehem Church founded the Heartside Neighborhood Collaboration Project (HNCP) six years ago. Serving as "a collaboration among social service providers," Schrimpf and company assist the neighborhood agencies in reducing duplication and services and increasing capacity. Working with the resident population and these nonprofits for many years now, Schrimpf has seen many businesses come and go, and notes that many just don't understand Division's culture. "It isn't a neighborhood that just looks like a gritty neighborhood. It is a gritty neighborhood," he says.

Noting that understanding and communication is key, Schrimpf welcomes new businesses that want to work with the residential population and ministries. Schrimpf also aims to direct his efforts toward ministry/business collaboration in the future, though he is not sure what form it will take. "We are not anti-business. We are pro-healthy neighborhood. Everyone should be treated well," he says.

As the South Division corridor continues to grow and diversify, a variety of populations, including residents and business owners, learn how to live and work together. Though concrete solutions to bridge the gap between residents, businesses and ministries are not yet known, South Division inhabitants are working toward better communication and transparency. "I think respect is what it comes down to; respect allows us to coexist," says Lang.

Photography by Adam Bird
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