When all was said and done, it only took about half the day on Sept. 14 for volunteers to tear down the chain-link fence that loomed six feet tall around the two-acre lot at 1250 Sigsbee St SE — a surprisingly quick job for a project that was, by most accounts, surprisingly tough to tackle.
“For the community, it was something that people had been wanting to have removed for a while because, for that part of the neighborhood, Sigsbee is the go-to park,” Marisa Sandahl, who this past fall was at the tail end of her tenure as Eastown Community Association
’s executive director, says of the fence that was keeping residents from accessing otherwise useable parkland.
Former home to Sigsbee Elementary School, the corner lot fenced both the old educational site and its surrounding playground and green space. Once the building was no longer being used as Sigsbee Elementary, the space was officially reclassified as a “school park” and renamed Southeast Academic
in partnership with the Grand Rapids Public School District, leaving it open for wider use as a public green space.
“It’s a green space that was fenced off,” says Sandahl, adding that the fencing made it difficult to tell that the space was open to the larger community, which kept the space from living up to it’s full potential as a significant public green space and gathering space for the whole community
For years, residents rallied alongside the ECA to have the fence removed, and whether due to a breakdown in communication, changes in organizational leadership, or just opposing ideas of what the space would ultimately be redeveloped for, the project was repeatedly tabled.
Finally, Sandahl found her window of opportunity this past September, when she worked with a volunteer coordinator from United Way to bring in additional volunteers who had the manpower and heavy machinery necessary for unearthing the fence from its cemented pillars, leveraging the organization’s annual Day of Action to rally residents one last time.
“It’s really thanks to their advocacy, as well as their tenacity, [that got] it done. They lined up the volunteers, and we were able to give the green light,” says GRPS Executive Director of Communications and External Affairs John Helmholdt, whose district is operating with a renewed focus on reconnecting local schools with their surrounding neighborhoods thanks to new leadership under superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal
“The old GRPS way was one where it was always head down, say no to everything; and I hate to say it, but that’s how we were,” Helmholdt says. “We were not community-facing in our decision making and not sensitive to needs of neighbors, so that has been a dramatic and very positive shift — one you can really see and begin to feel throughout the city.”
And for Sandahl and other Eastown community members, having public green spaces that are readily accessible — the kind that have the appearance of welcomeness and act as a nurturing gathering spaces for all neighbors — is one of the most important needs for the area.
“It’s a really big thing that sometimes feels small, or sometimes you don’t notice it when you’re missing it, but a lot of things within communities are like that,” Sandahl says. “They don’t feel like huge things, but when they are done, it makes a difference to the whole community. “
Written by Anya Zentmeyer, Development News Editor
Images courtesy of Eastown Community Association