Local Westside residents pour some love into their community

The triple D black bra is not the most unusual thing a grass-roots Westside neighborhood organization found during their annual community clean up. That designation might go to the 1962 newspaper piece found this year. Then again, the Australian coin they found was fairly unusual, too, but the heroin, used needles and crack pipe and discovered are definitely the most dangerous finds so far.

One of the organizers of the Westside community clean up, Erica Curry Van Ee, says, “You get a good sense of the people inhabiting a space when you pick up that space.”

If that’s true, it’s clear the Westside hosts a very diverse community. It also has a rich history. The first Native American Mission and one of Grand Rapids’ first high schools were located where the Union Square Condos now sit.

Nearby on 3rd Street, the Native American Community Services painted a wall mural, which, unfortunately, has now been defaced -- a painful reminder to Curry Van Ee that there is much work yet to do on the Westside. 
Curry Van Ee and her husband, Brian Van Ee, started the first Westside community clean up shortly after they began dating in January 2008. Both community-minded residents at the Union Square Condos, they decided to “pour some love” into their neighborhood and asked others in their building to join them.

The first clean up day happened in April 2008 after a few months of planning. As Curry Van Ee says, “That was our courtship.”

The annual community clean up has taken place each year since then, with the exception of 2010. The Van Ees got married that year and “were a little overwhelmed with the wedding planning to do anything else,” admits Curry Van Ee.
Committee members for the 4th annual Westside community clean up include Curry Van Ee, Kristi Klomp, Mark Therrien, Todd Duncan and Michael Lundie.

This year’s clean up was on May 19 and 52 people showed up to help. Many of the participants are residents of the Union Square Condos, or the nearby Riverhouse and Boardwalk Condos, but other neighbors, local businesses, community organizations and churches get involved too. The event coincides with LiveWest, an annual campaign by WelcomeWest to promote Westside businesses.  

City of Grand Rapids trash bags and vests are provided to those who help, along with tools, gloves and refreshments. Volunteers are encouraged to download the City’s 311 mobile application so they can report graffiti, potholes and other items in need of repair while out in the neighborhood.

After a morning of picking up trash, sweeping sidewalks, pulling weeds and working in the area’s rain gardens, the clean up crew is rewarded with a lunch and “fun swag” donated by area businesses. This year, the Union Square Condos sponsored the lunch at the nearby Broadway Bar where local community leaders and organizations had the chance to engage with the Westside residents.

Curry Van Ee knows the spring clean up is not enough to change the neighborhood, but “it only takes a spark.” She believes the most effective community movements “honor the legacy of the past by understanding the history and supporting the assets of the neighborhood.”  

“For the Westside to emerge as a vital and vibrant place to live, work and play, it will take a shared vision, an open invitation and a sustained commitment to engaging, creating and investing,” she says. “The community clean up is just one way to support the Westside.”

Next year’s Westside community clean up will occur around Earth Day on either April 20 or 27. Curry Van Ee encourages anyone with ideas or an interest to be involved to contact her.

If you’d like to “pour some love” into the Westside community, here are some ideas:

- Email Erica Curry Van Ee if you’d like to get involved or have ideas for the annual clean up. She is currently looking for people who know how to maintain rooftop rain gardens or repair defaced murals. 

- Check out Westside neighborhood organizations such as the West Grand Neighborhood Organization (WGNO) or WelcomeWest.  

- Like Union Square Condos on Facebook.

Source: Erica Curry Van Ee

Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Photos provided by Erica Curry Van Ee.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.