Uniting people and community: How art, culture, and collaboration promote growth on South Division

Though Division Avenue itself is only 7.4 miles long, the South Division area is home to 19,000 people and numerous businesses spanning from Wealthy Avenue south to 60th Street. Through a partnership between the cities of Grand Rapids, Wyoming, and Kentwood, as well as The Rapid, the citizen-driven Division United project was formed in December 2019. Its goal is to gather information from community members to determine how to improve access, connectability, and overall economic development within the area.


“The Division United initiative is inviting us to see and support the amazing things happening along Division Avenue,” says Guillermo Cisneros, executive director of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which is located on Division. “We are excited that the cities are coming together with The Rapid to listen to local voices and grow economic opportunity along Division.”

For local business owner Erick Picardo, of Picardo Art, the focus on continuous improvement in this area is important for several reasons.

“Latinos are taking the lead in small business around here and, of course, the contribution to the economy is something to consider,” he says.

“Division Avenue is well-known for having a lot of businesses owned by Latinos [who are] bringing...cultural elements from [their] Latino countries [to the area]. [This is] creating a colorful atmosphere, [which is] such an important point as a part of the diverse community here,” Picardo says.

As the owner of La Casa De La Cobija, located on South Division, and a member of the South Division Corridor Improvement Authority Board, these sentiments are echoed by Angelica Velazquez.

Angelica Velazquez

“I love my community,” says Velazquez, who embraces the local diversity with pride. “My greatest joy is witnessing the cultural diversity in our corridor because it’s an opportunity for us to share a little [bit] about our cultures and traditions,” she says.

In order to help encourage involvement and connection, Division United is hosting several free, family-friendly community events, such as the recent Everyone’s Corner International Market Day and Division Art and Cultural Market, as well as other upcoming events.

“I find it very important bringing forward events that unite the South Division corridor because it brings awareness to our community in regards to future developments,” says Velazquez.

Looking at the community residents, she enjoys the camaraderie these events foster. “We feel a little piece [of] home when we attend these events,” she says. “The ambiance is always pure joy and hope. The universal language of unity.”

Bridging the community divide through art

“We were invited by The Rapid to adopt the bus stop on Burton and Division, [which] is directly in front of our office,” says Cisneros. “Picardo is known as a community artist, and when we received the invitation, we knew he would help us transform the bus stop into something that reflected the spirit of Division Avenue.”
Local artist Adrian DeVries.
Picardo brings a unique perspective to the community and the present time. This year he celebrates 20 years in his career in the United States. He is also about to celebrate officially becoming a United States citizen. Despite canceling all of his events for the year due to COVID-19, he is still finding ways to stay involved and engaged. For him, art can serve as a connector.

After the invitation from Cisneros, Picardo was able to use the Everyone’s Corner event as an opportunity to create a new art piece at the corner of Burton and Division.

Erick Picardo's art installation.
"There is a disconnection between the art of the community and the community itself," Picardo says. "[This is] a humble idea to bridge that gap."

"[This] piece [is] a form of art accessible to people who usually would not go to art galleries and museums. [It's a] representational piece that can be seen from blocks away depicting stories of culture and strong figures within the diverse community," he says.

For Cisneros, the project serves as an inviting element for the community. “Art is important in welcoming others to community spaces,” he says. “Our culture is what identifies us as the Latinx community. In this project, art helped to highlight the vibrant community that exists along Division.”
Nick Monoyos, Planning Manager of Division United

Taking steps towards a more accessible community

There is optimism for what is to come through the Division United initiative, its outreach for community input, and community events. While the outcome is yet to be seen, the goal of the initiative is to use the community's insights to develop programs and policies that reflect local desires.

“We see the needs of...working on a good infrastructure plan, especially in urban areas like Division Avenue, Grandville, and surrounding areas,” Picardo says. He understands that this will be an on-going project and that there are various areas for improvement.


For him, these areas include housing, accessibility, assisting the homeless population, and the overall cost of living. “I believe that the city of Grand Rapids is taking serious steps towards [finding] solutions for the use of land and creating...spots [that will be] accessible to the public,” he says. “Housing is also a major issue for the citizens of the city. The cost of living is greater, but so are the opportunities.”

Velazquez also sees opportunities. “[T]his is the perfect time to create necessary improvements to our corridor, principally because these changes that are happening will create more opportunities for our businesses and residents that will not displace them in the end,” she says.

For her, continuing to create opportunities for all, without displacement, is crucial. “I have confidence in my community leaders [throughout] the city. [Confidence] that they will carry [out] all development plans with every community member in mind — equal and just,” she says.

As it relates to transportation and mobility, she feels public safety is of utmost importance. “Without a doubt, public safety should be our number one concern. We can [address] this by establishing speed reduction methods for vehicles that are consistently driving at high speeds,” Velazquez says.

Cisneros shares this hope for the future. As he looks forward, his hope is to see “a Division Avenue that is accessible to all, [with] the opportunity for business owners to have the power to invest in their communities.”

Photos by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.

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Voices for Transit is a nine-part series highlighting public transportation in Greater Grand Rapids by exploring the issues that diverse communities face, lifting up the voices of residents, employers, and stakeholders.

This series is underwritten by The Rapid and is editorially independent in our exploration of these themes.


About Leandra Nisbet: Leandra Nisbet, Owner of Stingray Advisory Group LLC and Co-Owner of Brightwork Marine LLC, has over 15 years of experience in leadership, sales & marketing, and graphic design. She helps businesses grow and assists with: strategic planning, marketing concept development/implementation, risk management, and financial organization. She is actively involved in the community, sitting on several Boards and committees, and has been recognized as one of the 40 Under 40 Business Leaders in Grand Rapids.

Contact Leandra Nisbet by email at [email protected]!

 
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