Striving for inclusion

Heartside is lagging behind as downtown booms.
Daniel Drent, left, and Alysha Lach-White are working to improve Heartside while not displacing current residents. Photo by Kelly Sweet

Downtown Grand Rapids has seen a resurgence over the past decade, but it’s not the first time the area has been bustling.

Before the development of suburbs and rerouted highways that killed movement downtown several decades ago, the area was full of activity with people able to live and work in the same place.

Heartside was in the center of that activity. Today, it’s lagging behind.

Downtown’s recent growth has included new housing, mostly in the city center, yet Heartside has remained home to thousands of people throughout the decades. With a common passion for the neighborhood’s uniqueness, many of those residents and other stakeholders are working to ensure Heartside isn’t forgotten amid the rest of downtown’s rejuvenation.

One of those residents is Daniel Drent. He moved to Heartside in 2012 to access services after becoming homeless.

Losing a banking job following the 2008 economic downturn and dealing with subsequent mental health issues, Drent moved back to his West Michigan hometown to be close to his family, he said.

He stayed at Mel Trotter Ministries’ shelter and used the daytime services at Dégagé Ministries. Pine Rest’s StreetReach helped him obtain disability. Through the help of a few nonprofits, he found temporary housing for a couple of years before landing permanent residence in an affordable housing apartment owned by Dwelling Place.

Since then, he has dedicated his time to improving the Heartside area, officially designated as one block east and west of Division Avenue, between W. Fulton Street and Wealthy Street SW.

Drent is involved with an advisory group for Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., the Heartside Downtown Neighborhood Association and Dégagé, and was co-chair of the fresh food access workgroup for the city’s recent Heartside Quality of Life study.

Among the group of stakeholders working to strengthen the community, Drent said he believes the key is to embrace Heartside for what it is — a place that’s home to people of diverse income brackets, including the homeless.

Alysha Lach-White, co-chair of the Heartside Downtown Neighborhood Association and owner of Little Space Studio, located in Heartside, agreed.

“We have developed intimate relationships, not just with people who are currently homeless, but with people who have transitioned out of homelessness. And they are often our most active and vibrant residents,” she said.

Lach-White is part of a new group led by Dwelling Place focusing on Heartside economic development.

A major focus of the group includes activating the multiple vacant commercial spaces along Division Avenue. The goal is to change the view of the area as an incubator space for new businesses, said Heather Ibrahim, director of community building and engagement for Dwelling Place, which owns the buildings containing many of the spaces — several of which are work-live spaces and more affordable than in other downtown areas.

Ibrahim said concentrating on startups will be a more accurate representation of what already has been happening. There have been several businesses that have grown until they had to move, she said.

“Sometimes that gets treated as a failure when we actually see it as a success,” Ibrahim said.

Drent and others want to make sure the set of businesses matches the character of the neighborhood and is welcoming
to everyone.

“We don’t want what happened to the West Side to happen to us where the local community kind of has felt pushed out,” Drent said.

Drent is hoping for such businesses as art studios, coffee shops, affordable restaurants or boutique clothing stores. He’s optimistic about the new GRNoir Wine & Jazz bar, at 35 S. Division Ave.

“Neighbors want to support local businesses, and every time a business opens up, neighbors get excited about it and they want to patronize it,” Lach-White said.

Drent said he hopes one of those places is a small, affordable grocery store. Heartside residents do not have an easily accessible place for basic groceries. What is available is typically highly processed or too expensive, he said. Taking a trip to the Bridge Street Market still requires walking several blocks — not a great solution for those with mobility issues, he said.

In planning for a stronger neighborhood, stakeholders are making sure to address the issue of safety. It’s a fact that the actions — loitering at Pekich Park, sleeping in the doorways of businesses, public drug and alcohol use — of a select few impact the overall perception of the area, Drent said.

He said he understands that not everyone is comfortable sleeping in shelters, but people should recognize that it’s not appropriate to sleep in the doorways. However, he said business owners should treat the homeless community with respect and attempt discussion rather than insult.

“You never know when that could be you. Life takes turns that we don’t expect,” Drent said. “The next time, it could be you that needs a doorway to sleep in.”

Drent said the community needs to take back some of these places that’ve been neglected by the city. For example, Dwelling Place has held meetings and events at Pekich Park, at Cherry Street and Division Avenue, and established a community information board.

“By doing that, it encourages others to become involved and to take claim, it being their space, also,” Drent said.

Lach-White said she believes activating the vacant spaces will drive away loitering naturally.

She is happy the city has moved forward with several recommendations to decrease the safety issues, including installing a public restroom and street lighting — something residents have been asking for since the 1980s.

Lucky’s Liquor Store was cooperating with the city to improve safety around its store. When its liquor license was revoked by the state following seven violations, crime plummeted almost immediately, though it has moved to other areas, Drent said.

Lach-White has experienced aggressive panhandling and catcalling, but she is sure to always be alert while in public, no matter what neighborhood, no matter what city.

Lach-White said she believes Heartside can thrive when key people claim a stake in the neighborhood, and that’s what she tries to do as owner of Little Space Studio. She’s happy to share with anyone what Heartside has to offer.

“I’m also very proud to be in the area. I think it’s one of the most beautiful areas in Grand Rapids,” she said.

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