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Pickle-making as placemaking

Placemaking is work. It takes a group effort and motivation to improve the quality of this space around us. But placemaking can also be easy, and as enjoyable as making pickles.

/Leana Tank

Underwriting support from:

/Eric Tank

[Editor's note] This week, The Rapidian welcomes Eric Tank to our team as our new Place Matters Content Coordinator. We're excited to have him join us, and thought you should have a chance to get to know him and his thoughts on placemaking.


One definition of placemaking is, simply, the use of public space to enhance the quality of life for its citizens. I don’t approach placemaking as an academic. Far from it, I approach this ethos as a conscientious citizen who engages daily with his community.

As the new Place Matters Content Coordinator, I will be responsible for finding, organizing and sharing information about local placemaking efforts and opportunities to you the reader. Communication is a vehicle to community building. Through my experiences and my own ideals of what it means to be part of a community, I plan to foster a dialogue about placemaking and why it matters in Grand Rapids.

I hail from the 45th parallel but I have called this city my home for over 10 years now. I’ve witnessed immense growth within the last five years, especially my neighborhood of East Hills. My wife and I talk about it all the time. We are constantly amazed by the positive changes happening all around us. Literally 360 degrees around our home is everything we need within walking distance.

Take pickle season for example. From mid July up until October, vendors will have pickles available. I walk down to the Fulton Street Farmers Market, practically in my backyard. I meet and wave to folks along the way as we cross paths. I join the waves of people funneling into the market, looking for small to medium sized cukes with lots of warts, dark green and solid. I need a clove of garlic too, so I shuffle my way towards the north end to the garlic man’s booth. Not only are Belarusian and Spanish varieties delectable, he’s just an all around friendly farmer.

Then I head on over to Joy Pryor’s house, my neighbor with the green thumb. She’s got dill, fresh out of the garden. Pryor is always working on her garden, its parameters in the front and along the side of her house visible, extending to the back yard through a twig weaved gate. It’s green and lush and available. Pryor is that kind of person who genuinely enjoys sharing with her community.

Next I need pickling spices, but just enough for two half gallon jars. I can walk to Global Infusion, just a few blocks from my home and have all the spices to choose from that I’ll need. And I can buy in bulk, and by that I mean a fraction of an ounce for a handful of change. The owners of Global are friendly faces, and that makes all the difference. This is my neighborhood go-to for chai, chocolate, spice and gifts. You know, the essentials.

At this point my Mercy hand-crafted canvas bag is exploding with flavor. Dill is wildly protruding, its stalks reaching in all directions, flowers bobbing in rhythm with my stride. I need a couple of grape leaves because no one likes a mushy pickle. I’m on my way over to my pal Rick Beerhorst’s house. Well, more like urban homestead just around the corner and a few houses down.

I can usually count on the Beerhorst family to borrow things like tools or, in this case, grape leaves.

There is something more fundamental I am going after than pickle ingredients. I can go to Kingma’s and buy a jar of fantastically lacto fermented Polish style dills any day of the week. But pickle season is an opportunity for me to engage my neighborhood. It’s yet another season to build relationships with the folks I share this space with. This is my home. My wife, daughter and I live, work and play here.

Shouldn’t it be like this in every neighborhood? Maybe not everybody wants that. That’s okay too. Because placemaking is citizen centered. It has to be, first and foremost.

Last weekend I was hosting my cousins from Cannes, France. I invited them to visit Grand Rapids with the intention of showing them what a great city it is.

Did I mention that they’re coming from Cannes? The French Riviera folks. I’ve been there. It's amazing. What can a mid-size, Midwestern town have to offer my Francophile relatives?

The answer, I believe, is a lot. Grand Rapids represents a growing number of mid-size American cities that are embracing placemaking philosophies, experimenting and succeeding. There typically tends to be a large and active creative class involved.

But placemaking is more than this vanguard of artists and risk takers. It includes everyone who lives in the community. Everyone, period: as long as they are willing to participate.

I’m not going to get particularly sentimental about all this “community” talk. I’m not talking utopia and I would beware anyone who does. We would be on dangerous ground to get caught up in how “cool” it all is. I’m talking reality. For those of you who don’t realize it, there are real possibilities all around us. Leave the house. Walk down the block and look around. There’s a mountain of work to be done.

So placemaking is work. It takes a group effort and motivation to improve the quality of this space around us. It takes commitment, time and money. Don’t get hung up on the money. The money will come if even needed, when the passion is right.

This is not some sort of a rallying call to action. I don’t like bull horns or preachers. I do, however, get excited to be a part of it. I believe in building relationships.

We’re all in this together. At least for a short time. We have to interact. We have to share. We teach our children to share. What if we thought of placemaking as place sharing?  

I invite you to tell me your thoughts and ideas regarding placemaking. I’m interested. I’m curious.  

So if you’re in the neighborhood come by and visit with me sometime. We’ll sit on the porch and talk, get to know one another. And do so over a homemade dill pickle. Or if that’s not your thing, bring some chocolate.

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My grapes are alllllmost ready, and I am so excited to eat them. Maybe I'll harvest some leaves and make pickles too.