New Burton Heights cultural arts center to be “an example of development without displacement”

If a poem were to capture the rise and fall of Grand Rapids’ Burton Heights, like many an epic verse, it would expound upon its past grandeur and eventual demise. However, a group of Grand Rapids poets and their allies are poised to write another stanza, a happier ending for a neighborhood that once was a shopping, dining and business destination for all of the city — and now is fighting for its economic life.

“This is a part of the city we call the forgotten first. A lot of people think it’s the Third Ward, but it is a part of the First Ward,” says Marcel Price, executive director of The Diatribe, a grassroots Grand Rapids youth-centered arts nonprofit. “Burton Heights doesn’t have the same investment as other business districts in the First Ward. We want to bring investment to the neighborhood while it is still rich with diversity so we can create an example of development without displacement.”
Marcel Price, executive director of The Diatribe

Despite difficulties and disappointments, grassroots Grand Rapids youth-centered arts nonprofit The Diatribe is moving forward with its plans of establishing The Emory Arts and Culture Center at 2440 Division South, just south of Burton Street. The Kent County Board of Commissioners nixed a request for giving the project ARPA funding even though it received higher eligibility ratings in sustainability, feasibility and impact than other projects that were approved. On the bright side, The Diatribe is mounting a capital campaign that has already raised a third of the $6 million dollars needed to complete the Center.

“We are planning on closing on the building and getting possession in May,” Price says. “We continue to find supporters and funders. We will see how many champions we can work with to make this a reality. It’s been a while since there has been real investment in this neighborhood.”

The Emory Arts and Culture Center will serve neighbors and local artists with affordable space where they can connect, create, bring community ideas to life and solve community issues from within. The main floor will be dedicated to youth programming, collaborative working space for artists and changemakers and affordable retail space for neighborhood businesses. The lower level will be a full-service venue hosting local artists, speakers and poets from across the country. Another event space is planned for the roof, which will be transformed into a green space.

“We believe that GR can be a place where we create ideas for the future,” Price says. “We don’t believe all of our local politicians, our county commissioners, think GR can be an inventive place. The community has the ideas to solve a lot of problems that exist. People are naïve. ‘You guys are just poets.’ Who better to re-imagine the world?”

Price also hopes that once local politicians, including Kent County’s commissioners, realize the positive change the project will bring to Burton Heights and Greater Grand Rapids, that they will “jump on board” to support the Center. To that end, Price encourages area residents to get out and vote in local elections.

“I want people to understand that what is happening to The Diatribe is significantly bigger than The Diatribe. It’s been happening this way for more than a century,” Price says. “The way to change is that we vote in the people making decisions — if we really want to change Grand Rapids and Kent County for the best.”

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor
Photos courtesy The Diatribe

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