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Sometimes, it’s Block by Block: A Thriving Community on Warren SE

Usually focused on urban change on a house-by-house level, Tyler Nickerson kicks it up a notch to feature the fruits of investment on a block level.
Warren Street looking south off of Cherry Street.

Warren Street looking south off of Cherry Street. /All photos by Tyler Nickerson

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About House by House

These stories are crossposted from my blog House By House, which provides hyperlocal, micro-coverage of grassroots actions and creative people that build better urban neighborhoods in Grand Rapids – house by house, block by block. GR is a blossoming community that is being recognized nationally for its efforts in revitalizing neighborhoods, supporting local businesses, embracing diversity, and reaching new levels of sustainability. I hope to capture that energy and convey it to others so that they may be inspired to do the same.

If you're fascinated with transforming Grand Rapids, keep tabs on my more regular postings and postulations on House by House.

Ryan and Lyon (named for Lucius Lyon, the first Michigander to serve in both Congressional houses) pose in front of their home.

Ryan and Lyon (named for Lucius Lyon, the first Michigander to serve in both Congressional houses) pose in front of their home.

215 Warren, the property that Elizabeth and Charlie bought and rehabbed

215 Warren, the property that Elizabeth and Charlie bought and rehabbed

Thriving blocks make an attractive neighborhood. Thus far, House by House has primarily covered, well... individual homes. We’re expanding that dialogue in this post by recognizing that while a house can change a block, a block can also change a house. Case in point: the 200 block of Warren SE in East Hills. This macro-organism is adding to the recent revitalization of East Hills and is a block full of unique characters who are invested in their community.

Ryan VanderMeer, Charlie and Elizabeth Ransford and Michael Tuffelmire are a few of these unique characters; all are residents of the 200 block of Warren SE and passionate about their neighborhood. Although they are just a few households on a block of more than 25 parcels, these individuals are investing in ways that have been transformative for the neighborhood.


The 200 Block of Warren SE

The story of the 200 block of Warren is like that of many other central city blocks. Homes were built in the Dutch worker fashion, and those living in them had modest means. Warren sits just outside the original boundaries of Grand Rapids and was part of the continued expansion of the early 1900s. During the period of disinvestment starting in the 1960s, Warren, like many other areas, suffered a significant disruption in its social fabric, increased blight and crime. Behind the D.A. Blodgett building (920 Cherry SE; now the Inner City Christian Federation) was an abandoned parking lot plagued with blighted properties. 

Michael, who used to hang out often at Hollister SE as he was growing up, remembers the overgrown bushes along the edge of the lot that provided the perfect area to dump dead bodies, as several were found in there. The blight seeped over to Warren as it too became littered with drug houses, slumlords, vacants, and absentee owners.

Today, Warren Street tells a much different story. Warren Street is blossoming. The once abandoned parking lot is now filled by the Fairmount Square condos, and I.C.C.F. has done a beautiful job renovating one of the biggest eyesores in Grand Rapids. During the big snow storm last February, this is the block that shoveled everyone's car out and cleared the street. Neighbors support one another with friendly cups of sugar, rides to the store and house sitting.

“Neighbors are free to walk from one porch to the other during the summer without fear that they will be unwelcome,” resident Ryan VanderMeer noted. Warren has transformed into a block of young professionals, families, community activists, and hipsters who draw a significant crowd on Sunday evenings for four-square games.

How did we go from dead bodies in the bushes to this eclectic community of residents?


Property Owner Extraordinaire

Ryan VanderMeer wears many hats. He is a new dad, community activist and spends most of his time as a property investor and manager. Ryan is a Grand Rapids-area native who co-founded Urban Pharm, a residential rental property management company. He bought his first property on the West Side but quickly realized that he wanted to live in a more walkable area. He knows this city well, particularly when it comes to real estate, and he chose to invest on Warren. He said it’s because of the walkable nature of the neighborhood (including to his office), historic nature of the street and the mature tree canopy. 

Ryan purchased a duplex on the street and quickly started renovations. Because he resides in his investment property, it is well maintained with responsible tenants. This model has been successful in other urban neighborhoods, including many in Grand Rapids. Ryan is even planning a fall block party in the carriage house on his property.

Ryan attributes the short length of the street as part of the success in its revitalization, observing that neighbors can easily get to know one another. He is hopeful that the block will continue to improve, especially as the remaining properties are bought by dedicated owners. Ryan also thinks that young families and kids play a vital role in the future of the block and the city.

“Many kids and babies will change some dynamics, and I hope the young families stick around so that the children can play with each other and parents/kids can work on the neighborhood schools to make them better."


215 Warren SE

The entry to a residential area off of a major corridor sets the tone for the entire block. For years, the primary entry for Warren set the tone of blight, criminal activity and disinvestment. Not a good image - until Charlie and Elizabeth Ransford purchased their home at 215 Warren - the first house on the right coming from Cherry. Elizabeth, originally from Grand Rapids, brought her husband Charlie back from Chicago to start their family. Charlie, who works from home for a Chicago-based nonprofit, and Elizabeth, a recent graduate with her Ph.D. in history, purchased the property without even previewing it first. Elizabeth and Charlie were attracted to the renewed energy of the neighborhood and its walkability. 

They have invested a lot of money and sweat equity into the property. It needed all new electrical infrastructure, plumbing, heating, roof, and other infrastructural tuneups. As much of the original character as possible was preserved and what was replaced met the historical elements of the property. The entire facade of the street has changed due to this improved entryway from a thriving business district. Charlie loves to sit on his porch and watch the suburbanites, drawn to Cherry Street restaurants, attempt to park their SUVs. The property was a duplex when Elizabeth and Charlie purchased it last year, and they decided to keep the unit on the top floor, which has worked out well for their cousin Michael Tuffelmire, who lives upstairs.


Organizing Rock Star and A Nominee of the YNPN-GR DoGooder Award

Michael Tuffelmire, a Grand Rapids native who grew up in Alger and Burton Heights, is happy to be back in the neighborhood where he spent many of his formative years. He hung out on Hollister SE as a kid and remembered the rumors he heard of Warren back in the early 1990s - very different from today.

Many know Mike as a community activist, organizing events such as Bike Stock, Rapid Revolution, and involved in community issues like Until Love is Equal and the Rapid Yes Campaign. Michael serves as the Treasurer for the East Hills Council of Neighbors, and his organizing expertise coupled with recent investments and interest in the block have been a catalyst for revitalization. He works off of the motto “Eyes on the Street” from Jane Jacobs, who wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a scripture of the urban planning community. He calls Warren the Haight-Ashbury of Grand Rapids.


No doubt the major investment in 215 Warren, coupled with an active neighbor base, have helped move others to reinvest in the street. A prime example: the house across from 215 Warren has been an eyesore for years but has recently undergone a face lift.

The 200 block of Warren is the epitome of what a good community block should entail: a diverse set of neighbors who know each other, residents who are invested in their neighborhood and a commitment to quality housing. These are the ingredients of a sustainable, thriving neighborhood.

Many thanks to Brittany Dernberger for her editing expertise.

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I thoughougly enjoyed reading this article. Great job. I wish there were more articles like it!