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G-Sync: Gentrification's Step-Brother is Equitable Planning

Things are changing at State and Prospect.

In the world of city development, there is no other word feared as much as "gentrification." It is the race card of urban development.

I, too, will admit it is an easy card to play. While played fairly most times, some use it to shut down dialogue prematurely.

When I began my initial steps down the tiny State Street, I took a quick survey.

What I recalled immediately as I looked around is that Heritage Hill is truly the birthplace of the modern preservation movement that sparked a revival in so many neighborhoods. It came at a time when many of these homes were slated to be demolished to make way for strip malls and concrete box housing.  

Yet even with all the preservation, there was always this one street in Heritage Hill that presented a problem.

To be fair, part of State Street’s challenge is that it does not look like the rest of the historic neighborhood. It is made up of a hodgepodge of building styles. For too long, no clear vision has been able to take hold. Until now.

The Salon, a progressive urbanist meet-up held each month in a variety of spaces, will debut a new community partnership project this weekend: re//STATE. This new way of imagining a street has been shepherded through Williams & Works and Friendly Corp (organizers of The Salon series). re//STATE is made possible through a host of partners, neighborhood businesses, and neighbors. 

Cleverly titled and using forward slash keystrokes to reflect the diagonal street, re//STATE will be the first time in decades that any concrete vision of this space will have been successfully presented -- and in a totally different fashion than people are accustomed to seeing.

Historically, we've seen cities like New York and Chicago take the well-worn path of a developer marrying a property to a potential investor/business within a district about to take off. But re//STATE's leadership needed a path sure to keep any talk of gentrification off the table.

"We had hoped to do something like this a year ago when Wealthy Theatre premiered the documentary film Urbanized after Williams & Works' Urban Planner Lynee Busta Wells presented the idea to us," says Friendly Corp's Josh Leffingwell.

Wells and Leffingwell envisioned the Wealthy Street location outside the theatre being transformed during the course of the film's 90 minutes. "As we got closer to making this a reality, we decided that this street had already experienced a huge shift over the last two decades and decided to look at other neighborhoods. Good thing, because it rained the night of the film."

Soon, the team began looking around the city -- including at other urban places like Creston and the West Side neighborhood -- before settling on State Street.

State Street immediately presented some obvious challenges, such as its odd assortment of spaces.

"It's also located in an area with a reputation for bark and bite when it comes to projects," says Leffingwell, alluding to the Heritage Hill Neighborhood Association.

These fears would prove unfounded to Leffingwell and his co-planners as the re//STATE project garnered full support of the Neighborhood Association. In short, Heritage Hill was primed and ready for a Better Block project like re//STATE.

The focus then moved to getting local stakeholders from three key areas of the street: the neighbors, the business owners, and the people who frequent this street.

re//STATE set out to conduct good, old-fashioned community information gathering to create a truly community-focused occurrence, allowing for a living charrette to happen within a visionary two-day event. The group hopes to avoid mistakes that some cities have made as they raced to gentrify a block or a city. With the timing of this event being the same weekend as the annual Heritage Hill Tour, it is sure to be a big attraction.

Better Block serves to enable cities around the U.S. to rethink space with a nod to economic development, but also considers ways to reduce carbon emissions through multi-modal transportation.

To this point, re//STATE will not only be restriping State Street's long-faded street lines as a model for other parts of the city, but there will also be partnerships with area transit groups. The Rapid will be demonstrating the ease of their service, and biking organizations will be present.

Food trucks will also appear at the event. They will be arranged on the street in a deliberate fashion to demonstrate the infill of new and potential businesses that could be developed here. There is even a nod to our European roots with a biergarten. Wooden kiosks constructed by community members will provide an access point to the market for those small businesses not quite ready to make the leap to a full retail storefront. There is also a full docket of entertainment, from movies at the site of the former Grand Rapids Public Museum (now SiTE:LAB), to street performances in the park that anchors this district's East corridor.

There will even be educational opportunities provided by re//STATE's fudiciary, West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC), who will showcase ways in which we all can be better stewards of the natural resources that flow through our urbanscape.

And lest you think this was a rosy experience for the team, think again.

With every project, you have some folks, who, for whatever reason, cannot visualize the change before them. These aforementioned businesses or their spaces will be woefully absent come Saturday. Hopefully, they will be able to see the possibilities that have, quite frankly, been a critical part of our city's regeneration for decades now.

Such efforts were born on the backs of other visionaries of our urban landscape: the local artists who have hosted space-changing events, from Free Radical Galleries, to ActiveSite, to SiTE:LAB. All of these programs are fine examples of how the possibility of vision became the change in our region. They charged into neighborhoods others had long forgotten or deserted, but their mark over time is still just as vital today as we evolve.

This could be the outcome of re//STATE, according to Leffingwell. "We truly hope people will bring their imagination to this project over the course of these two days. Our concept was to present the city with a vision of not only what State Street could be, but what other parts of the city could do as well."

If there's one thing I know from watching innovation and design happen in our region, it is that this is just the first stop. There are many more potential sites in our city waiting for such vision and care to step up.  

Projects that do the hard work of spending time to get to know the people of the neighborhood they are about to enter will be rewarded most often with the type of loyalty anyone would desire in a relationship. And with a little care, nurturing, and understanding of the diverse nature of city ecosystems, it could become a lifelong adventure for all of us.

Neighborhoods that keep in mind the three areas of who lives there, conducts business there, and who passes through -- as re//STATE has done in their core research -- will see real, equitable benefits from their project. But those who just see an opportunity to exploit might be left empty-handed when a neighborhood's trend is at an end. When the crowds have departed, you are left with your neighborhood. And being good neighbors has to be the goal above all.

re//STATE is a two-day event, May 18-19. More info on the project can be discovered here.

The Future Needs All of Us.

Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor

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