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Community Re-investment Vocab Primer

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The Meanwhile Bar before re-investment

The Meanwhile Bar before re-investment

Sandmann's before re-investment

Sandmann's before re-investment

Art of the Table before re-investment

Art of the Table before re-investment

 Grand Rapids has gained the attention of many urbanists, locally and nationally in the past decade based upon its successful community re-investment strategies. Grand Rapids has been doing many things right but people consistently get the language wrong with the two biggest offenders being the use of "Gentrification" and "Urban Renewal."

Gentrification - this is an oft used term that is greatly misunderstood and misplaced. Gentrification is a process where a historically unvalued piece of real estate is occupied by lower income people and then becomes attractive to a wealthier population. Once newly attractive the property values rise which makes the area unaffordable for for the original lower income population leading to their displacement. Often time people use the term gentrification to describe what has been happening in Grand Rapids neighborhoods, which is erroneous. Historically most of the center city neighborhoods have been mixed income with pockets of wealthier areas and pockets of poorer areas. During a brief time in the 70s and 80s many neighborhoods fell into decline and blight due to dis-investment. This dis-investment led to increases in poverty, absentee ownership, crime, vacancies, and deteriating infrastructure. Resident led neighborhood organizations formed in Grand Rapids during the early 80s to fight these problems. Over the past 30 years these organizations have successfully reduced crime, reduced blight, maintained diversity, and began to reverse the effects that the previous massive dis-investment initiatied. Once again we are seeing healthy neighborhoods that provide resources and opportunities for a economically diverse community to be sustained.

Urban Renewal - this is a positive sounding phrase that has had dissaterous effects on Grand Rapids. Urban Renewal is often misunderstood to mean the same thing as Re-investment or Re-development. Urban Renewal is a historic movement over the past few hundred years by which "old" ares of cities are torn down to build new developments. Urban Renewal in Grand Rapids consisted of promoting demolition over preservation and caused the city the loss of much of our architectural, and by default cultural, history. Urban Renewal efforts also led to the writing and implementing of auto based zoning codes for the city of Grand Rapids. These codes were written based on suburban land use patterns and required large set backs and excessive parking. Urban Renewal can be felt all over the city where traditional business district street front buildings have been torn down to build chain store pharmacies and fast food restaurants. The City of Grand Rapids recently adopted new zoning codes that follow the tenants of New Urbanism, which oddly is all based on old urbanist neighborhoods, which we had before Urban Renewal. The upside of Urban Renewal is that it got many people activated and organized to save our history and our neighborhoods including the formation of Heritage Hill. Without the preservation movement Heritage Hill would have been bull-dozed to make way for high density apartment blocks.


Disclosure: The author has previously worked for Wealthy Main Street, an economic development project through Dwelling Place of Grand Rapids, and for the East Hills Council of Neighbors.

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Excellent dissection of the terminology:)  Also - I love the photos on the right.  My how things have changed!