Photo by Luis Fernandez
For the second year in a row, businesses that call the ZIP code 49507 home are featuring murals by Black, brown and LGBTQ+ artists to tell the stories of the people who live and work in this community.
It’s The Diatribe’s 49507 Project, and it’s making a mark on more than just brick and mortar.
“In 2020, when all of the riots started to happen in Grand Rapids, Fable, the executive director of The Diatribe, wanted to create something that would really communicate who we really are as Black and brown people, just seeing how the media was and continues to portray a certain image or a certain story of who we are and what we look like,” said Candy Isabel, project manager of the 49507 Project. “He came up with the idea of having Black and brown businesses tell the story of who we really are and what our neighborhoods mean to us.”
The project is community driven, featuring a unique opportunity for neighbors and stakeholders to share in a dialogue about what it should be. Youth who participated
in The Diatribe’s Writing to Right Wrongs program worked with The Diatribe team, artists and community members to facilitate these conversations.
“The most important part of this project is that it’s a community-based project,” Isabel said. “The main part of that is community voice and making sure that our community is centered in the project. A lot of times in Grand Rapids when there are different developments taking place, community voice is not put at the forefront, especially Black and brown voices,” she said. “We wanted to make sure to center that and starting out with our youth voices and then hosting a number of listening sessions where we made sure that everyone had the opportunity to say how they feel about their neighborhood and what they wanted this art to look like.”
The neighborhoods represented in the project were chosen intentionally. As part of the 49507 Project, youth in the community learned about discrimination, gentrification, and redlining and how the neighborhoods in this part of Grand Rapids have been affected.
“These are the neighborhoods that the city of Grand Rapids has sort of turned their back on and have not invested in,” Isabel said. “These also are the neighborhoods where people that are from outside look and say, ‘This is not a neighborhood that I want to live in; this is not a neighborhood that I want to walk in,’ and we chose these neighborhoods to say, ‘Hey, we live here, and we actually love living here; we actually are community here. We are family oriented. Your perception is wrong.’”
The 49507 Project not only takes care to lift up the voices of the community, but it also ensures business owners get the support they need, and the artists are treated equitably and compensated for their work.
“The community really appreciated how we ran the project, as well as the artists and the business owners that we have worked with,” Isabel said. “Grand Rapids is big on art and when you say that that’s not the case for Black and brown artists in Grand Rapids, the artists and the business owners just really appreciated how well-structured the project has been and how well-run it has been. The artists are being paid what they should be paid,” she said. “The partner businesses are also getting PR (public relations) time. We’re making sure that we’re putting the voice of the community first and then making sure that the artists and the business owners are well supported and that people in the community can see who they are.”
The project features mostly local artists, with a few from across the state. Mila Lynn is one of those artists, and she’s thrilled to be part of it.
“There are a couple of things I think make me feel really good as an artist,” Lynn said. “When I was talking to Marcel (Price, aka Fable) and Candy in the meeting initially, they were telling me that they usually do Grand Rapids artists and then choose maybe a couple of people from out of town. I just felt like, ‘Wow, what an honor to be invited to do something like this.’ I want people to see this project unfolding and understand as minorities or as members of the LGBTQ community, they can be empowered to make a difference. I just hope that people are inspired to do big things.”
The Diatribe partnered with businesses from each business district in 49507 to be represented for this project. Mary Malone owns Burton Village BBQ on the corner of Eastern Avenue and Burton Street, and she’s excited about what this project can do for the community.
“I decided to be a part of the 49507 Project after being contacted by Marcel Price, the executive director of The Diatribe and 49507 Project,” Malone said. “I think it made a perfect fit, as they were an organization looking to reclaim our neighborhoods and push traffic to our districts using artwork, and at the same time, I was a new business owner trying to develop small businesses in the same area, without allowing gentrification to set in. This is so important to me, because
it is evident that many areas have become gentrified in this city and being able to help brown and Black businesses start and grow in an area that we can shop, eat and enjoy one another’s company is just that big of a deal to me. The message will be grand — ‘Welcome to our community.’”
Alynn Guerra is a local artist who lived in the neighborhood for several years. She decided to incorporate the color codes used for redlining into her mural at Cisneros Tire Service to make a statement about the city’s past.
“In the 1930s, the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation created this map that color coded areas for lending people money for houses,” Guerra said. “Red is the no-no – 49507 is almost all red and some yellow. I use red, yellow, blue, and green. If you can imagine
green like East Grand Rapids and all the suburbs and then blue is anything that is close to it and the undesirables are red and yellow,” she continued. “This was an official document, but even more shocking is that it hasn’t really changed, 90 years later. You can see that
it’s systemic; it’s no coincidence that these neighborhoods have been underserviced.”
The Diatribe will further celebrate 49507 neighborhoods by compiling the community conversations and details about the project.
“As part of the listening sessions we have, we work with a data group, Petersen Research Consultants, and they take all of the information that we gathered and put it together,” Isabel said. “We’re going to release a booklet about the project with all the locations and the artists and the business owners. It also gives back the data on what people are seeing in the neighborhood, how we feel about the neighborhood and what we feel the city should be doing about our neighborhood.”
For Isabel, this project is an opportunity to shine a light on a community that is meaningful to her and so many others, and she is proud to showcase what it has to offer.
“I’m most excited about seeing the art, of course, but then also seeing other people, other community members be inspired and realizing that we have control of the narrative, not the media, and we have the power and we do have the ability to change the narrative of how people perceive us and how people perceive our neighborhood,” she said. “This project depicts the beauty, the joy, the vibrance, and the brilliance that already exists in our neighborhood.