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G-Sync: The people (still) are the city

A great city is always a work in progress. Rapid Growth's Publisher and Lifestyle Editor Tommy Allen was reminded of this fact on a recent trip to Grand Rapids’ City Hall.
A great city is always a work in progress. I was reminded of this fact on a recent trip to Grand Rapids’ City Hall, where, after a meeting with the Diversity and Inclusion Office, I decided to stop in at the executive level to see how things might have shifted since Rosalynn Bliss was sworn in as mayor of our city. 

Not much had changed in this space, where beautiful wood panels give way to open doorways that reveal the beauty of the city just outside the floor-to-ceiling windows. 

I did make two discoveries that gave me reason to pause.

One, there is a hidden coffee closet that, in the more than 24 years of visiting City Hall, I never knew existed until now. And, two, a work of art that I sold many years ago to a first-time commissioner now hung next to the mayor’s office door.

The art piece is not as regal, or even as collectable, as are the many prints from Alexander Calder that adorn this wing of City Hall. 

But I believe it is the message contained within this purple-toned photographic print that helps elevate it to new meaning as I get older.  

Before anyone can pass into the mayor’s chambers, a quiet reminder contained within the artwork comes into view, “The People Are the City.”
This photo actually is not from Grand Rapids but from California’s Palm Springs City Hall building who have not just adopted this phrase as their city’s motto but have mounted it outside the building that all people must pass under before entering their City Council’s chamber. 

Palm Springs is not only a dream destination because of its warm climate, endless recreational activities, and modern architecture, but this community discovered many years ago that, in order to survive in this once desert place peppered now with tropical plants and the deepest of green grass, they would need a motto that reminded them of their commonality when it came to their governance. 

Palm Springs, much like Grand Rapids — another city with diversity and architecturally-rich neighborhoods —  is a metropolis with many great neighborhoods rooted in a history of citizen/residents who choose to make a difference.

And while we have plenty of things that make us each unique, including that we have been organizing neighborhoods for decades all over our city, Palm Springs only just identified and organized its 40 distinct neighborhoods in 2005. (Grand Rapids celebrates 32 organized neighborhoods but have many unknown or unrecognized districts.) 

So what does art have to do with Grand Rapids’ future city? 

Plenty, in that art has always been a part of our modern urban renewal that began in 1969 with the installation of the Alexander Calder’s La Grande Vitesse — a public art work funded by the National Endowment for the Arts’ Art in Public Places program. 

Just as art often presents a foreign point of view, giving us a chance to listen and learn, our city’s neighborhoods are equally distinct in its voice and needs.

When we become active listeners to our citizens, who are the city, we begin to see the foundation of any cities’ success. 

For unless we listen, we will not have healthy neighborhoods. One cannot read a magazine or newspaper without seeing the pitfalls of those cities who do not listen and then engage in healthy dialogue on the ever-growing diverse set of topics making their way to the surface more and more, even in Grand Rapids. 

Topics that once were seen as other cities’ problems have begun to spill over into our region, and Rapid Growth is listening more than ever before.

And while the list many of us may compose is long and includes topics ranging from retention of talent to neighborhood displacement to racial and societal inequities, the discussions we are beginning to engage in earnest here are making even the most jaded believe that maybe we can get it right this time.

For while we may never solve every affliction of this world, or even of our community, if we can move the needle forward even a few inches away from doomsday, then maybe that is the best we can do with what we have. My friend and artist Alynn Guerra reminded me of this recently when we were talking about how having a baby influenced her world view.

“After my daughter was born, I determined that I cannot disengage from the nightmares of the future anymore,” says Guerra in a recent phone conversation. “If I could not at least imagine alternatives, I wouldn’t be able to get up every day.”

“The People Are the City” is a good mantra, just like so many other ones that are meant to inspire. And I do hope this editorial does not mean I have entered my Hallmark Card years, where every inspiring bumper sticker ends up on my car’s tail like a blissed out festival goer. 

I do not think I am mellowing with age, but, maybe, I am seeing things more clearly. This is comes with living — a softening not of your resolve but a narrowing of our vision of what matters. How fast time flies from my 20s: My list of things I could do has been reduced with the realities of time to, “what do you really want to accomplish with the time we have left?”

Political correctness threatens so much of our progress, just as becoming cynical strangles the soul. We as citizens of this city, regardless of when you have arrived, need to pause more to reflect during a time of rapid growth to take inventory of what we have attempted to do (or failed to do) in the pursuit of the common good. 

The city of Grand Rapids has never experienced the level of growth we are witnessing today. But the next steps, as outlined through the headlines in other cities, give us warning of what could happen if we do nothing with this time given us.

For now the most important work to be conducted in our city is to live it, to be a part of it, and, should our paths cross, determine to create the space and time necessary to listen.

On Friday, Mar. 11 Strong Neighborhoods, Strong City Summit returns to the Grand Rapids Public Schools’ University campus (1400 Fuller Ave. NE), offering us another opportunity to join others who desire to not just understand who we are but how we can better serve one another. 

As an attendee of the first neighborhood summit last year, I can attest that this time spent with others working to make the city a better place will leave you inspired and also hopeful. The headlines of the news is filled with lots to hate or shake our head at these days, but the capacity to change our course is still within our reach here. 

We all enjoy being in a vibrant city, but the real test of our leadership will be: can we do the work necessary (and not just talk) about the place where neighborhoods are strong and our diverse voices are all lifted up? That is a portrait I would like to capture somehow through art …and maybe hang in City Hall in the near future. 

If you would like to know more about the Strong Neighborhoods, Strong City Summit, visit their site.   

The Future (still) Needs All of Us. 

Tommy Allen
Publisher and Lifestyle Editor

Looking to experience the city in a unique way? Visit G-Sync Events: Let’s Do This!
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