In the documentary Public Speaking
, Fran Lebowitz says, "When a place is too expensive, only people with lots of money can live there. That's the problem. You can like people with lots of money for certain reasons, (or) hate them for certain reasons. But you cannot say it is more interesting, (because) it is not."
Maybe it is the wisdom of getting older and having more memories to access, but I squarely agree with her.
If I have learned anything, it is that cities are unique ecosystems with an equally diverse set of species. Cities, not unlike a Jackson Pollock painting, reveal a pattern of many paths among the chaotic layered strokes. The diversity of a city is thrilling -- like a complex painting's hidden revelations -- but not always apparent at first glance.
Judging by the stats recently provided by the City of Grand Rapids and developer-focused websites, Grand Rapids is taking new steps in development that appear ensure we remain interesting long into the future.
Yet, how I arrived at this unintended conclusion was totally by accident.
As I was preparing to visit the new Downtown Market to deliver a print to a vendor, I noticed Twitter was abuzz with talk about the new farmers market. The discussion intrigued me because of the topic, but I will admit the banter made me laugh, too. Comedy has the ability to take a diffuse a tense situation, as it helps us process said information through the lens of humor and wit.
Once at the market, I made small talk with the security officer posted to look over the venue. I asked things like, "Has it been busy?" and "How late are they open today?" Then, I dropped my last question.
"I'm just curious, why are you here?" I asked the officer.
"We're supposed to be here to make sure there is no panhandling and to direct traffic and keep things moving," says the officer.
Now, I am sure any of us would agree that a business has the right to make sure one does not encroach upon their leased space. The question that is problematic to me is, why do we need to have a person in uniform doing this?
If we need someone to direct traffic and keep the panhandlers away, then there are other ways to accomplish this without the uniform. If he was to keep people out of the construction site (as implied on Twitter), then why was I allowed to roam around without being stopped? (I rolled video to test my theory.)
I quickly realized this officer was more than likely there to make people feel safe. Fair enough, except as I look at the location and at the new construction going up all around it, many of these projects are slated to be income assistant properties, or, for lack of other terms, low-income or mixed-income housing.
Panhandling is a part of every city and as residents of the city, we learn with time to deal with it on a case by case basis.
I left the Downtown Market and moved on to the next stop: the Better Block re//STATE project in Heritage Hill.
As I wandered about the street taking in the pop-up shops, environmental demonstrations, food trucks, and the beer garden, I was thoroughly entertained each step of the way by the conversations I had with the people I encountered.
Near the end, this bliss came to a crashing halt.
"You know this complex is up for section 8 renewal," said a man making conversation on the street. "It would be great to get those people out of there…."
I felt my stomach tighten up.
I was tossing and turning inside as I struggled to find the words to reply. In the end, I excused myself after a curt question, "Well, where should they go?"
This is the crux of my struggle this week. There are 502 new units scheduled to be built downtown in 2013 (so far), and of these, 365 are being built for low-income housing. What does that say about our city's vision of low-income or income-restricted properties?
For the landlord, this is actually a good thing. When rent is subsidized by the government, it means the check is always on time.
With rent skyrocketing as high as $1,800 for a 2-bedroom in some of the new places downtown, how can one expect some who have made downtown a part of their lives to continue to do so?
To the man on the street, I would have loved to say, "Just wait until you see what is coming." In reality, the rent levels of properties are changing the way we look at each other. My hope is that they will produce even more dialogue in the months ahead.
When I asked Tami VandenBerg, executive director of Well House and a public housing specialist for more than 15 years, if this was a good thing for the city, she replied, "Rent has been going up here, but since wages have not kept pace, subsidies for living is how we keep people off the streets and in a stable environment."
Fair enough, since these programs that came as a result of our 'War on Poverty' years in the 1960s might have served one class of people in the past, but as the entire nation continues to learn how to navigate a jobless recovery, the people who are involved in these programs are starting to look more and more diverse in every way.
While it may be hard to argue we have a housing crisis in Kent County as 10,000 homes sit empty, these are typically in areas where demand is low. In many parts of the city, it is boom time and houses are being snatched up at record speeds -- often in less than a few hours after being listed, according to a friend who just purchased a house downtown.
So while we watch the brick and mortar landscape change, it might do all of us some good to recognize a new trend that I think is due for a comeback: Love your neighbor. We all need help from time to time.
When we post security guards to keep those deemed as undesirable out of the very neighborhoods that we have moved into, then we are in danger of creating a sanitized version of a city.
If we call for moving "those people out," then we will become Disney-like. And who wants to live in an amusement park? That would be boring.
"I have been all over the world and I can tell you that the best neighborhoods that I have visited in my life have always been the ones with all kinds of people a part of them," says VandenBerg.
When you love your city, you have to be open to more than just self-love. You have to be open to "the other." In this case, that's the people that make up the city. It is what makes cities great, complex, and artfully rich in diversity.
The Future Needs All of Us.
Click here for 4 great placemaking events.
Editor's note: Well House, a program in our city that was profiled in Rapid Growth earlier this year, was just awarded $257,000 from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation to support their mission of providing access to housing, healthy food, and community engagement to the homeless people of Grand Rapids. It is truly a remarkable gift and will ensure their new urban farming project, launching this summer, gets off to a great start. Congrats, Well House. You sow love in our community via your actions. - Tommy