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Building place, one person at a time

Building place doesn't need to start with a dollar.
Wealthy business district

Wealthy business district /Eric Tank

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"In fact, some of the most interesting places are gritty - they’re city streets with small shops all cobbled together, or cozy neighborhoods with small apartments and high density."

-Jessa Dutton

East Fulton business district

East Fulton business district /Eric Tank

East Hills business district

East Hills business district /Eric Tank

Writen by Jessa Dutton

So, what makes a place? Are cities, towns and neighborhoods vibrant and enticing because of bottom-line dollar investment? The more money pumped into a community, the more successful it will become, right? While that can be true if the money is used in a productive manner and the community is engaged, there is something else that is intangible that creates a thriving and inviting atmosphere.

Money doesn’t make a place. Think about some of the most interesting, vibrant places in the States or overseas. They may not be the places that had the most dollars invested. In fact, some of the most interesting places are gritty - they’re city streets with small shops all cobbled together, or cozy neighborhoods with small apartments and high density. But they create a sense of place that just cannot be replicated no matter how much money is available.

Now, think of the opposite. Places that have vast amounts of funding at their fingertips. Using only money to try and recreate a sense of place feels disjointed and downright fake. Disneyland is a great example of money not being able to create real “place.” Of course, this is a destination and vacation spot and is not meant to be a livable community, but it is an interesting case study in hyper-realism nonetheless. It is an example of money being able to use the defined concepts of placemaking to build a physical space, but it has no relationship to any reality, or community, whatsoever.

If money doesn’t make a place, then what does?

Take Uptown Grand Rapids for example. Uptown is a collaborative effort between four neighborhood business districts (East Fulton, East Hills, Eastown and Wealthy Street) and five neighborhood associations (Baxter, East Hills, Eastown, Fulton Heights, and Midtown). Only in the last year has Uptown had substantial enough funding to invest in marketing and branding, streetscape improvements and events. However, Uptown has been making a name for itself for over 10 years and people are wanting to live here, work here, open a shop or a restaurant here. Its premier event, Holiday Shop Hop, just celebrated its tenth year in December of 2013. In years past, flowers had been planted, mulch had been laid and businesses were coming into the district faster than many could keep track of. This was all happening before Uptown had a formal structure as a development district, much less any sustainable funding.

There were a lot of factors that aided in the revitalization of Uptown. Both the City and the State assisted in ways they could. Foundations and private companies invested, but those one-time investments could only go so far. What made Uptown succeed was the people. Residents, business owners and developers all rallied around an idea, a vision of a vibrant neighborhood. And these people worked tirelessly to see this vision become a reality. Well over 100 individuals gave up their evenings, their Saturday mornings and their own profits to see Uptown become what it is today. And even now, more than 40 business owners and other interested stakeholders volunteer their time and energy and get together every single month to continue to build upon those visions of a vibrant Uptown neighborhood.

Place is made only when people engage with each other and their neighbors. It only happens when one business owner connects with the business owner across the street and they realize they can do more together than by themselves. Then slowly that community grows and more connections are made. And when that network, that fabric of community, is already built in, it’s easy to recruit others into the fold. Those are the places that create vibrancy, and a sense of belonging, whether you visit for one day, or live there for 50 years. It’s the people who are creating that PLACE.

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