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Principal of Shawmut Hills encourages neighbors to participate in Westside growth

The upper west side has only one park and it has not been updated since the mid 1950's.
Children playing at Shawmut Hills Elementary

Children playing at Shawmut Hills Elementary /Shawn Melton

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Children playing at Shawmut Hills Elementary

Children playing at Shawmut Hills Elementary /Shawn Melton

Children playing at Shawmut Hills Elementary

Children playing at Shawmut Hills Elementary /Shawn Melton

The economic, environmental, and cultural health of a community rests heavily on vibrant public spaces and successful public schools. They are essential components of public infrastructure that take on pressing social concerns such as childhood obesity, lack of safe recreational space, fear of our children "being left behind" and the need to do all this efficiently with use of significantly limited public resources. If you've driven around th core of our city, you have surely seen the exciting work of Friends of Grand Rapids Parks Public spaces have been renewed and refreshed through the mobilization of neighbors and local resources.

"Our neighborhood feels stronger now," says one mom whose son is learning to skate board at the newly renovated Straight Park. "It's more fun to live here."

The city has spoken; they have re-invested in parks circling the core of our city, and those neighborhoods are now sharing in the many benefits these spaces provide. It’s no surprise: for 15 years I have watched as the city of Grand Rapids has whirled itself into a new identity. Downtown went from dead after dark to a veritable buffet of exciting entertainment. New life seeped into it and has even crossed the river into the lower west side corridors that I call home. There has always been some kind of magic on the Westside of Grand Rapids- something about the strange mix of paczkis, bingo nights, taco trucks and bike trails- but as this place has received new life, many of our local establishments got a facelift. New spaces were created in the crevices. Parks were revitalized. The zoo has stayed and expanded. Kent Bike Trails have lengthened. The lower west side of Grand Rapids is a beautifully diverse, vibrant community.

But will that can that new life make its way further west and up “the hill?” No public park projects have been attempted there since the middle of the last century. Homes that have been single owner occupied since their construction are beginning to change hands, leading to a new kind of diversity to that area that includes age, race and socioeconomic level. Smaller porches, fewer sidewalks and larger home lots make connecting with fellow neighbors more of a challenge there than in most parts of our great city where homes are tightly packed. And let’s be honest: connections have already been hard for us in Grand Rapids across lines of race and economic status.

A glance at our city’s map would reveal a space just off Lake Michigan Drive in the center of the upper west side called “Shawmut Park.” It is the only public park for the entire area, but a few years ago the park’s pavilion and wading pool were removed, leaving a great amount of untapped green space and a small gravel parking lot.

Public space like Shawmut Park is just what we need on the upper west side. Parks are great equalizers. Parks play an important role in better understanding each other. Drawn together by children playing, pets walking, personal exercise or a simple need for fresh air, parks provide a common backdrop. The importance of that park in today’s fast paced, work oriented, yet somewhat sedentary society cannot be understated. The land lies ready for investment, ready for neighbors to gather together and dream big.

Public schools are essential entities for growing a vibrant community. They serve the neighborhood in the truest sense of the word, providing equitable opportunities for all children, regardless of social class, special needs, personal characteristics, religion, race or educational attainment. Public education, among many other benefits, provides the community successful methods for developing tolerance, understanding and the enjoyment of those different than ourselves. This goal is a noble one, a messy one and an essential one for the future of our community. The upper west side is home to Shawmut Hills School, built on a tradition of excellence that is ready for neighbors to gather together and dream big.

Grand Rapidians of the upper Westside, it’s easy to get involved with any of these positive change agents. Get involved with Grand Rapids’ Department of Parks and Recreation, Friends of Grand Rapids Parks or Shawmut Hills School. It’s time to improve the infrastructure of public parks and public schools where we live through the power of the people living there. Who might the key players be as change rolls further west? How might your organization, church, block or family make a positive difference?

It’s up to you and me. How truly great we can be!

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