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Neighborhoods of GR: A West Side Q&A

Welcome to Neighborhoods of GR, an informal series for Grand Rapidians, its visitors, and those considering calling the river city home. Each article in the series will covering a particular GR neighborhood will be covered by a resident writer, and showcase the charm, the history, and diversity of our fair city.
Annette Vandenberg, Executive Director of West Grand Neighborhood Association.

The simple fact is, the growth and development of GR’s West Side shows no signs of stopping. Likewise, it’s no secret that this has caused a stir with the long-time residents of the community. Executive Director of the West Grand Neighborhood Organization, Annette Vandenberg is a champion for her neighborhood and she shines light on the hopeful synergy she sees between both new and old.
The simple fact is, the growth and development of GR’s West Side shows no signs of stopping. Likewise, it’s no secret that this has caused a stir with the long-time residents of the community. As executive Director of the West Grand Neighborhood Organization, Annette Vandenberg is no stranger to this conversation. Also as a champion for her neighborhood, she shines light on the hopeful synergy she sees between both new and old.

Rapid Growth: What makes the West Side unique?

Annette Vandenberg: There is a strong can-do spirit among the diverse neighbors, where heritage is celebrated and honored. This is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the area in regards to social-economic as well as race. Westsiders are always giving back to their community.

RG: How so?

AV: Many small business owners live and work in the community and they sponsor events. Residents give their time to help at various events and organize to help with back pack drives and Christmas sponsorships. Our community—in partnership with KaBOOM!, Amway, and Steepletown—recently built a new playground and gave more than 50 bikes away. Those families were able to register those bikes in case they get lost or stolen.

RG: What are some of your other favorite things to do on the West Side?

AV: It is wonderful to be part of a team that celebrates diversity and inclusion for all people. Our annual Westside Community Cleanup and National Night Out events get neighbors out and about in the community. Between just those two events, over 1,000 people regularly attend. Additionally, there are many wonderful places new and old to eat at while celebrating with family and friends the many accomplishments of our community. It’s great to see that there is still a neighborhood where people look out for one another.

Mitten Brewing Co. has become a staple for pizza and beer on the West Side

RG: When developers first began investing in the neighborhood, what was one of the primary concerns for the original stakeholders of the community?

AV: One of the biggest concerns was that longtime residents would be displaced; which is still a concern today. Many of our seniors are concerned that they will not be able to afford the increased taxes as property values go up and income remains stagnant.

RG: As an organization, how do you respond to these concerns?

AV: We are working with other organizations to find best practices to increase home ownership and help implement programs like GR Home Share. We are also working with local landlords on educating future tenants and asking that rent increases reflect increases in property improvements and taxes. So far, we have almost a dozen people who are working with us to get quality renters at rents that are affordable based on income.

A map shows the historic business district on Leonard densely populated with stores.

RG: What are some key things you think developers need to be more cognizant of when building on the West Side?

AV: All people who want to invest in the West Side need to understand the rich history of this community and the hurt that is still felt to do this day when the highway system came through and destroyed parts of this community.

This is an old, working class neighborhood. Immigrants came to this neighborhood and did their best. They manufactured furniture and other items in buildings that were walking distance to their homes. Children walked to school. Families walked to their religious centers. There was a farmer’s market and corner grocery stores. People here don’t throw things out; they fixed them or found a new home for the items.

RG: What do you think can be done to bring back some of the neighborhoods walkability?

AV: Increased support for small business owners who will then maintain their space, adding flowers and plants, trash receptacles, benches, places to dispose animal waste and cigarette butts, as well as lighting and more urban art.

RG: With that being said, what is most immediately on the ‘to-do’ list for the West Grand Neighborhood Organization?


AV: We are currently working on a new mural for the Leonard/Turner Gate way which is located on The Shade Shop–Ritzema Building. The Ritzema Building used to be a department store for the community. The mural was designed with the local artist, George Eberhardt. He reviewed the survey results that the organization collected earlier this year and the theme that rose to the top was a clear need to represent the diversity of the people. The new mural is currently underway and we hope it will be completed by the end of the month.

RG: How can the rest of Grand Rapids help assist with these efforts?

AV: They can got to our website to learn more about how to make donations and check on the progress. Or they can stop by our office at 415 Leonard St NW, Grand Rapids, MI. Our business hours are Monday - Friday 9-5 PM. Please call 616-451-0150 to ensure someone is there to meet you!
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