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Meet civic investor Rachel Lee: Investing in neighborhood vibrancy

Rachel Lee heads up the neighborhood association in one of Grand Rapids' most walkable neighborhoods. She's intent on keeping her neighbors engaged and involved, as they work together to create a vibrant urban environment.

/Eric Tank

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Rachel Lee, director of the East Hills Council of Neighbors, loved living in East Hills, even 15 years ago when she moved back from an internship in New York City, having fallen in love with the vibrancy of a busy city environment. But while there, she found herself having troubles with her landlord. Hearing about the Council and in need of assistance, she walked over to “the pink house” for the advice of then-director Kathryn Caliendo. The neighbors affectionately called her K.C.

“You know, we used to laugh that I walked in to ask K.C. a question and I’ve never left,” says Lee of her journey from a neighbor in need to a leader in the community.

Lee had already begun exploring neighborhood involvement while working at downtown restaurant San Chez Bistro, connecting them to neighborhood and business associations in Heartside and helping to develop a recycling program. It was there, says Lee, that she first learned of her passion to connect to community.

“It was intriguing to learn more about what made things happen in the neighborhood and what’s important and how you get people involved. So it just became a part of my values. I was attracted to that social responsibility for where I lived and and for where I worked,” says Lee of her first efforts in community building- both with San Chez as well as in volunteering in East Hills. “From that I went back to school at Grand Valley as a return student for public administration, so I could learn more. I was really just able to use this neighborhood for different school projects and visions, educating myself on a lot of practices for community economic development right here in my own neighborhood. It was just part of my life. East Hills has always just been a part of my life.”

Now leading the East Hills neighborhood, which is made up of three business districts, seven sub-neighborhoods and three historic districts, Lee says what keeps her focused and helps her make decisions is thinking about her two boys, Logan and Lyon.

“I’m raising them in what I consider a vibrant urban environment- and I want to make it the best urban environment for them. So when I look at projects, I think about how this is impacting future generations, and also how this is keeping people here,” she says. Of course, she says, many factors have to be considered if she is really going to be able to make that happen. “Aging in place is a huge thing. Diversity is a huge thing. Socio-economic diversity is a major thing. So those keep me inspired to do the work that I do.”

All of this work- and all of The Rapidian’s work, says Lee- is placemaking. Information-sharing is a big part of what she believes helps her local residents- and regularly sharing articles from The Rapidian, she says, makes her job that much easier.

“The Rapidian is an excellent resource for us to let people know what’s happening, at that hyperlocal level. It’s more about people that really care. They’re not just writing a story, they’re writing a story about people- and they really care about it,” she says. “It helps the greater public understand how placemaking is community-building. It really is. When you create places for people instead of just places for cars, it not only creates these third space gathering places, but it helps people, especially the people that are living there, take more pride in their community and be more excited about where they live or where they’re working.”

The people working in East Hills- the business owners as well as their staff- make Lee’s job easier, she says. 

“The great thing about East Hills is we have so many local businesses who are invested in this neighborhood. And at the end of the day, we’re all trying to have that safe, vibrant, fun neighborhood,” she says.

Much like The Rapidian, Lee doesn’t try to determine what her neighbors should care about. 

“It’s not important for me to decide what information is important for people to know. It’s important for me to share that information and let them decide what’s important to them. We try to use information sharing as a way to keep people activated and involved in what’s happening in East Hills,” she says. “Sharing information is huge. And if you like to write, write a story. The more information you share, it helps people take ownership of where they live. And helps them feel like they can have a voice at the table.”

And without everyone having a voice at the table, says Lee, her two boys won’t grow up to inherit that vibrant urban community she’s working so hard to help create. Whether it’s her own neighborhood of East Hills or the broader community of Grand Rapids, Lee knows that a complete community isn’t just an outline on a map.

“There’s a story behind that place. That matters. And people matter,” she says. “It’s about people.”

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