An observant pedestrian on South Division will notice telltale signs of change in the Heartside neighborhood: a back-to-work recovery center’s new marketing strategy shouts “OFF THE STREET, ON A PAYROLL” while soft music escapes a mid-century themed art gallery. Hyper-involved residents pick up trash, smoke cigarettes, and communicate with one another through a blend of sign language, singing, shouting, and silence along South Division. One of the most notable signals of change lies in the center of this neighborhood, where a recently-painted crosswalk opens into a beautiful urban park. This controversial space, known as Pekich Park, is sometimes filled with boisterous conversation and crowded activity. The daily use of the park begs a question about the strange contrast between infrastructure and usage—how can this beautiful space be better used to improve quality of life for the community that surrounds it?
This fall, residents, city officials, and other community members are engaging in listening sessions sponsored by the City of Grand Rapids. The two-hour meetings are an instrumental step in the process of developing sustainable change. Over 100 neighbors have participated, voicing their concerns about the quality of life in the Heartside Neighborhood. Latesha Lipscomb is the Heartside Community Engagement Project Manager for the City of Grand Rapids Planning Department. She is also a longtime Heartside resident and small business owner on the South Division corridor. Lipscomb has been the primary facilitator of the eleven public listening sessions that have occurred thus far.
“We wanted to provide a platform where people can talk about the challenges that the neighborhood faces,” she explains. As a City representative, Lipscomb wants to know how the City can better serve the community. She is also wary of the controversy surrounding Pekich Park, and has heard residents voice their concerns: “they feel like it is a space that hasn’t been activated.”
Suzanne Schulz, Head of City of Grand Rapids Planning Department, elaborates on the importance of ideas coming from residents, rather than just the city: “If the city comes up with an idea and imposes it on the community, it is more likely to fail. The activation of the park should be centered on community voices.”
Recently the City hosted a listening session dedicated specifically to Pekich Park. At this meeting, creative ideas about how to improve the infrastructure of the park bounced around amongst the residents, innovators, professionals, businesses, nonprofits, and city officials who were in attendance.
Most residents agree that the park is beautiful, and they want to change the culture of the park to improve the image and safety of their neighborhood. Heather Ibrahim, Director of Neighborhood Revitalization at Dwelling Place, gives some insight into the creation of the park. “The original vision was focused on realignment of the street, and the idea for a park was a result of the realignment,” she says. “The park was created with the same goals as any public park…It was meant as a place for people to relax and to gather in the community.”
For community members that want to see change, it appears that engaging in community meetings and events must be part of the answer. “We encourage residents to attend listening sessions, but also to attend Neighborhood Association Meetings” Both Ibrahim and Lipscomb agree that listening sessions are a big step towards the type of change residents want to see. “The perspectives that residents have shared are important because they are going to be the ones who shape the outcome” says Lipscomb, reiterating the importance of resident engagement.
Heartside is home to a diverse mix of people: families, artists, veterans, residents who were recently homeless and young professionals occupy the apartments above the well-maintained storefronts of the neighborhood. This diversity is one of the strengths of the Heartside community, and despite the differences among the inhabitants, there is a shared goal of improving quality of life for all who reside and visit Heartside.
There will be three additional listening sessions in November. To participate email firstname.lastname@example.org or to suggest ideas about how the city can improve park infrastructure to benefit neighbors. Lipscomb reinforces how important it is to have diverse engagement. “Having a diversity in voice is going to be the factor that makes us stronger.”
The Avenue for the Arts program supports these, and other local businesses, residents and nonprofits on South Division with business classes, a monthly workshop series, community engagement conversations, vending opportunities, and much more. The Avenue for the Arts [Space] is available to rent for educational programming, showcases local art, and hosts additional events such as Open Studio Nights. Sign up for the AFTA newsletter, like our Facebook page, and keep an eye on our Events Calendar for more awesome ways to engage with the thriving arts community here in Grand Rapids.
Because the Avenue is powered by volunteers, guest writers create our Rapidian content. Special thanks to Brian Molhoek for his contribution of this piece. Brian is an intern for the Learning Lab at the Avenue, Community Coordinator, musician, backcountry pack-mule and Hope College misfit.