Heartside Insiders

Matthew Rothenberg and Nancy Tobin, owners of ArtRat Gallery. Photo by Alfield Reeves.

You may have noticed some changing façades on Division Aveneue South. I did some digging and found out we have Matthew Rothenberg, Co-owner of ArtRat and President of the Heartside Business Association, to thank for that, at least in part.

Here’s what he had to say:

Explain what Heartside is? What are the boundaries?

Heartside comprises the southern half of downtown Grand Rapids east of the Grand River. The boundaries are generally considered to be Lafayette Avenue to the east, Market Avenue to the west, Fulton Street to the north and Wealthy Street to the south.

What makes the Heartside district stand out as a unique area in the city?

First of all, it’s a great slice of history. It was a neighborhood of immigrants in the 19th century and a center of the light industry Grand Rapids is known for. And South Division was for many years the main shopping drag for working families in Grand Rapids.

All those uses have left behind some fantastic architecture and a lot of stories. Max’s South Seas Hideaway is in the Waldron Building, which used to be a hotel for Black guests when the city was segregated in the 1920s.

The storeroom at The Lantern Coffee Bar and Lounge has the same vault door that it did when it was the Grand Central Engineering Building. The August Connection vintage store is in the old barbershop of the Herkimer Hotel. I’m excited to see what’s in store for great buildings like the former Dodds Record Store (20 Division Ave. S) and the beautiful 19th century structure at 76 Division Ave. S!

Second, Heartside’s the most diverse and arts-oriented stretch of downtown, both in terms of residents and businesses. The neighborhood’s been host to pioneering LGBTQ clubs, art galleries — and now a whole new generation of vintage stores. And the rents mean people at different income levels can live and interact here.

What made you and Nancy decide on Heartside as a location for ArtRat?

The rent here was very attractive — especially after living in San Francisco and New York! And Dwelling Place (our landlord) has made it incredibly affordable. Nancy started using the space in 2018 as her painting studio, and we decided to renovate it and open it to the public in time for ArtPrize 2021. Now we’re looking for creative new ways to use it as her work space as well as a resource for the community.

I’ve noticed you send out newsletters about what’s going on in your hyper-local community. Can you talk a bit about or name the other members of the community that are putting effort into making it a great place?

I’m proud to be president of the Heartside Business Association and lucky to have some amazing HBA colleagues, like Josie Garcia from Cocoon Art Space, who helped open downtown Phoenix to art walks and Shatawn Brigham, co-owner of GRNoir, the first and only Black-owned wine and jazz bar in Grand Rapids. Another great new arrival is Pochis Colombian Cafe, which owner Paola Carlson is turning into a center of activity for Hispanic visitors and locals.

The folks at Dwelling Place have kept downtown rents affordable for a whole lot of residents, and the Heartside Downtown Neighborhood Association keeps them connected. Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. has been an amazing resource for the Heartside business community — we couldn’t accomplish the stuff we do without them!

Explain your position as the neighborhood ambassador of Heartside?

My background is in journalism, and my day job is as a marketing consultant, helping brands tell interesting stories that engage prospective customers. When I work with those clients, we measure success by each additional page visitors open or each action they take to purchase.

When I advocate for our neighborhood brick-and-mortar businesses, I look to tell stories that will attract visitors to check out one more Heartside business on a shopping trip or spend an additional hour enjoying our restaurants and entertainment venues.

What are some misconceptions about Heartside or what would you like people to know about Heartside?

One, that Heartside is just South Division. Our neighborhood includes the Canopy by Hilton and the Downtown Market; music venues like The Pyramid Scheme; popular eateries along Fulton like San Chez, One Stop Coney, PaLatte and MeXo, and Jefferson Ave. destinations like Brooklyn Bagel Bodega and The 12th House. Heartside includes a lot to see and do!

Two, that gentrification is the best or only way to energize business in a neighborhood. If you drive south and east a couple of miles from downtown, you’ll find many, many working-class families running amazing retail and hospitality businesses that showcase their skills and cultures. Making it affordable for them to open here would bring amazing new energy to Heartside. It would also show a lot of Grand Rapidians that downtown is a place for them and people who look like them.

A healthy downtown brings different kinds of folks together to share cultures and create something bigger than themselves. Some people will always be uncomfortable with urban spaces, and that’s OK … There are many more people who are waiting to be included!

Why’s it called Heartside?

My understanding is that “Heartside” originally designated its role as a downtown railroad hub. (Union Station was located on Ionia Avenue until it was demolished in 1958.) Local historian Caroline Cook tells me “Heartside” also reflects the charitable organizations that have served lower-income residents here since the 1960s.

Anything else you’d like to share with our readers about yourself, Nancy and/or the Art Gallery?

Nancy’s got an incredible body of work here at the gallery that we’re eager to share with the community. Please contact us for a private showing! And join our mailing list to learn more about the great events happening here. We value Grand Rapids, and we want to contribute to its future.



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