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G-Sync: Are we really living downtown?


G-Sync's Tommy Allen asks, "Are we really living downtown?" You might be surprised at his observations -- and at the benefits contained within just a few blocks.
It's Econ. 101: supply and demand play out every day in cities all over the country. As people look at where they should live, some ask if it is possible to live and get everything one needs downtown Grand Rapids. My quick answer is, what neighborhood truly has it all?
 
I think we advance our downtown culture when we are armed with the knowledge of where we can do better; come to terms with what should be accepted (for now); and put our energy into areas where we can truly excel. I came to those conclusions at the end of nearly two weeks of living in the heart of the city as part of a social experiment.
 
Before I share a few observations, a disclaimer: for the sake of time, I'm not going to examine the amount of money one might need to earn or the varied costs associated with renting versus owning in downtown. That's an important discussion, to be sure, but this is all about living and listening.
 
Sidewalk Talk
 
The sidewalk, where most people who live downtown begin their daily journey, is a good barometer of any city's happiness index. Our ability to rise or fall rests on the condition of our sidewalk experience. 
 
Just days away from the 2015 State of the City address where Mayor Heartwell will announce that 2015 is the Year of Art + Access, I wholeheartedly applaud the many downtown landowners who mobilized quickly in the hours immediately after our big snowstorm last week.
 
Yet as I returned to revisit many of the problem sites five days after the storm, I discovered we still have sidewalk and intersection ramps downtown that force people with mobility issues into the streets. At one intersection, a makeshift icy path wide enough for just one person to navigate remained as the only way to cross the street. Left unaddressed over time, these rough passages become a rock-hard ice mountain almost too dangerous to traverse.
 
As we prepare to welcome visitors to our city at an ever-growing rate, we need to take this accessibility issue seriously and make sure these pathways are cleared for others' journey.
 
Learning to live without Trader Joe's
 
If you have lived here long enough, then you've no doubt been a part of at least one conversation about Trader Joe's. 
 
Yes, I, too, once hoped that the famed grocer would pick us. But I have developed what can best be described as an evolved sense of self-respect based on pride of place. In short, if Trader Joe's doesn't want to come here, then don't. We have more and more options, from new farmers' markets to the successful sale and transfer of my neighborhood grocer, Kingma's.
 
And just as more and more are saying, "Trader Who?" a new food-focused topic has emerged: "We really need a downtown grocer."
 
When I reply that we already have plenty of good (not great) options, I'm met with either outright hostility as folks spout off that the Downtown Market is "too expensive for me" or talk about how the Grand Central Market has "too few items."
 
"Well, I would counter that speed, access, and quality do cost," I reply. "But have you considered Duthler's Family Foods on Bridge Street?" 
 
After a long pause that typically indicates that my downtown friends are trying to think of the least offensive answer, they finally add, "Yeah, but … it doesn't have what I want."
 
The reality is that my friends are spot-on as they share why they don't go here, but are also wrong for the very same reasons. They have not yet accepted that stores are what we make of them. For a store to care, we have to care about them. When we do, it helps to be seen as a customer from the inside instead of expecting the grocer to be a mind reader, too.
 
The reality is that while I was living downtown I did shop here. Not only did I find a few of the items that I was already purchasing at my local grocer, but the ease of access to these items meant I could check these things off my to do list and get back to enjoying my life downtown. (Unless of course, you like driving all over getting groceries.) I also enjoyed the rich diversity on the shelves as well as the clientele who shop there.
 
This is how we get the urban grocery store we truly deserve: by showing up and being neighborly, and by saying to the owner how much we enjoy supporting it before asking "Now, do you think you can get me…. ?" (Plus Duthler's delivers.)
 
 
A (friendly, diverse) walking city is the best city
 
One thing remains very clear: walking in a city -- any city -- is still one of the best ways to experience urban living.
 
Choosing foot power or the pedal, I found I could navigate quickly through my day, often stopping for the pleasurable (but time-consuming) pour-over coffee or, on the occasions I needed to be the urbanist-on-the-go, grab a traditional cup quickly at Biggby.
 
Checking off my list of appointments, I would often stop to look at the art (legal and illegal) contained on the walls of our city's buildings. I'd marvel at the details of those old world touches, from spots where craftsmanship ruled the design of elevator doors to the switch plates I plugged my laptop into for a quick energy boost. I even played a game of find the city logo, which we have embossed everywhere from manhole covers to our city's street signs, as I walked to the downtown library.
 
I was shocked at how few people said hello on my walks. Sure, it was cold out and no one was feeling especially great about that. I did notice a few smile at me a bit sheepishly only to discover later that I had put my hat on inside out in my race to get to an appointment.
 
Later I spoke to a woman who, with her son, had recently moved downtown after a lifetime in Heritage Hill, and she shared that she loves her new place near Mel Trotter.
 
"I talk to those guys more than the tenants in my building," she said with a hearty laugh. "Whenever I take my dog out, they always call out, 'Good morning Heather Locklear.' But I have no doubt they will be pushed out of the neighborhood soon enough."
 
And this is where most of us get frustrated with many of the changes happening in the city. We often forget that we are all at different places in our journey around the sun. Those who have lived long enough know that things change quickly in some people's lives and that compassion should never be in short supply.
 
We need to understand that the diversity of a city is what gives us character -- and a city of good character is one that makes room for this diversity to flourish. We expand upon it by talking with one another, and it is my hope that sharing my experience will inspire others to come live in our city. It is not perfect, but it is a place where perfecting it is welcome. 
 
Together, I know we can become a truly compassionate city. Until we do, I will continue to take it all in stride -- hopefully on a sidewalk cleared of obstructions.
 
The Future Needs All of Us.
 
Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor
 
Want to be a part of something really cool? Get down(town) this weekend with G-Sync Events: Let's Do This! (and we have been saying this longer than Home Depot, so don't think we sold out …just yet.)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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