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Gentrification or revitalization: Which is it?

The Westside cherishes its rich heritage, whether Hispanic, Polish, Dutch, African-American, Lithuanian or German. Beyond the business corridors, breweries, market rate apartments and luxury condos opening, do we see the repercussions that "revitalization" is having on our neighbors?
A recently renovated four bedroom single family home on Park Street NW sold to an investor now asking $2000 a month

A recently renovated four bedroom single family home on Park Street NW sold to an investor now asking $2000 a month /Andrew Sisson

Underwriting support from:
Douglas Park improvements sign

Douglas Park improvements sign /Andrew Sisson

“Let’s be clear what we are seeing on the Westside is revitalization, not gentrification."

This is how I was corrected by a fellow participant in a roundtable to inform the City of Grand Rapid’s Residential Market Analysis in 2014, in reference to my observations regarding the change in Grand Rapids' lower Westside neighborhood. At the time I was too naive to the word's usage and its ability to polarize a group of people; however, I was confident in the rise in rental housing prices and shift in economic, racial and age demographics taking place in the neighborhood where I live and work. I still remember leaving that meeting and immediately looking up the definition, only to confirm its proper usage. Nearly three years later, I’ve come to realize that there will always be people who cannot be convinced that gentrification is happening in their city, let alone their neighborhood. That to them it’s revitalization, and it’s exciting.

I recently read an article, Dealing with Neighborhood Change, published by the Brookings Institute, which explored how long-time neighbors can have grossly different views on neighborhood change. The article defines gentrification as "the process by which higher income households displace lower income residents of a neighborhood, changing the essential character and flavour of that neighborhood.” In reading this and many other articles, it’s become more clear that there isn’t a consensus on the difference between gentrification and revitalization. I couldn’t find a definition of “neighborhood revitalization” that didn't include some degree of the displacement of long-term residents.

This led me to ask the questions: Do we see our neighbors? Do we see their struggles? I mean, beyond the occasional "hello," or frustrations over an unkempt yard or noisy party, do we see each other as humans enough to realize that what may benefit us may harm our neighbors? Do we see that two words with such opposite connotations and lived experiences can be so interchangeably used? Beyond the business corridors, the countless new breweries, market rate apartments and luxury condos opening on the Grand Rapids’ Westside, do we see the repercussions that "revitalization" is having on our neighbors?

Is it still revitalization when my neighbor, a single mom, is given an eviction notice and paid $600 to leave her apartment in a week so that her landlord “can renovate in time for the college rental season?” Is it still revitalization when the family in my church who have faithfully rented from the same landlord for 25 years, more recently on a fixed income, is given 30 days notice to find a new house in the hardest rental market in the country, again so that the house can be renovated and rented at a higher rate? Is it revitalization, when homeowner-occupied homes and family-occupied rentals are being turned into rental units that cater to white, middle-upper class college students and young professionals who only stay for a year or two?

These are the stories and faces I’m met with on a daily basis on the Westside. Maybe you welcome the change and that there seems to be a new vibrancy in the neighborhood you haven’t seen in years. I am by no means suggesting that it’s wrong to welcome the revitalization of our neighborhood or be excited over your rising home value and the new look and feel of the businesses and parks. But how much longer can we keep calling it revitalization while denying the displacement of hard-working families and individuals trying their hardest to stay near family or keep their kids in a school where there’s a promised scholarship for university and trade school. How much longer can we turn a blind eye to only one type of housing being constructed in our neighborhood? How much longer can we complain about the lack of affordable family housing options but not be willing to support them in “our backyard?"

Whether we realize it or not, our neighborhood has historically been 40 percent comprised of working class families living at or below the poverty level and the culture of the Westside that we all love lies with many of those families and individuals. If they are pushed out, we don’t just lose the people that make the Westside the most diverse neighborhood in the city, but we lose much of our culture and heritage. That’s no longer just revitalization, that’s gentrification.

My fear is that the gentrifying of the Westside neighborhood or for that matter, the many other neighborhoods that have gone before or are feeling the same pressures around Grand Rapids, is not just replacing the poor residents, but losing the culture of our communities. That impacts everyone. The Westside is known for its rich history, its pride and shared experience. There is a resilience in our community’s blood that no matter how many times we’re referred to as “gritty,” our spirits aren’t broken. We cherish our heritage whether Hispanic, Polish, Dutch, African-American, Lithuanian or German.

We love the Polish halls, we wear pajamas no matter the time of day, we are nostalgic of icons like the Watch Tower, Lannings and Red Lion. We come together when our neighbors are in hurting. We reminisce of jumping the fence at Lincoln Park’s above ground pool and laying flat while the cops stroll by. We look out for each other, watch each other's kids, fix each other’s cars, and we love our neighbors. But have we forgotten to empathize with and advocate on behalf of each other? Gentrification doesn’t have to polarize us, it can bring us together. We just have to be willing to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves.

In full disclosure, I am a white 20-something male from Forest Hills Northern who moved into the Westside while in graduate school. I’m one of the people advocating for nicer parks, neighborhood beautification, and business corridor improvements, but I realized something a few years ago. It was right after I was first called “a Westsider” by someone else. Being a Westsider has less to do with where you were born or what ethnicity you are, it’s about who your community is and where you call home. It’s about who you care for and what you are willing to sacrifice to save. It’s not about stopping the change, it’s about being a part of the change and making sure that in the future of our neighborhood, we can all thrive.

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