Inhabitants fight for future of Heartside

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The Heartside neighborhood is home to a diverse mix, ranging from small businesses to live/work residents to the homeless population. Photo by Justin Dawes

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 living and working in the same place.

Heartside, officially designated as one block east and west of Division Avenue between West Fulton Street and Wealthy Street SW, was in the center of that activity. Now, it’s lagging behind.

The recent explosion of growth has included much new housing downtown, 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, business owners and community leaders are working to ensure Heartside isn’t forgotten amid the rest of downtown’s rejuvenation.

Daniel Drent is among the group of stakeholders working to strengthen the community. He moved to Heartside in 2012 to access services after becoming homeless. Through the help of a few nonprofits, he found temporary housing for a couple years before landing permanent residence in an affordable housing apartment owned by Dwelling Place. 

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, agrees.

“We have developed intimate relationships, not just with people who are currently homeless, but with people who have transitioned out of homeless. And they are often our most active and vibrant residents,” Lach-White 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 and give the greater homeless community a bad name, Drent said.

Drent 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.”

Businessowners tend to agree that perhaps there was a time when safety was an issue, but that’s probably not quite the case anymore; more so, it’s the lingering perception of “unsafety.”

While the number of violent crimes certainly have decreased over time, most unwanted activity now is related to drug problems and mental health issues that affect the most vulnerable populations, confirmed GRPD Sgt. John Wittkowski. Businessowners and their customers see that looking out the window or walking inside.

Most days, groups of people can be seen gathering in the doorways of vacant storefronts, blocking signs that read “Imagine Your Business Here.”

“How do you stop that? If it's not in that doorway, it's another doorway on another block,” said Herm Baker, whose store Vertigo Music has been in Heartside for nearly 20 years.

“There's a lot of drug addiction and a lot of mental illness, and I don't know if they're being addressed correctly.”

Bill Wiegandt and Steve Myers, co-owners of The Ruse Escape Rooms, opened the business in Heartside in 2017, neither of them having any idea what to expect from the neighborhood, except that it’s a prime location that has brought plenty of business. They quickly got involved in community groups, and Wiegandt understood a factor contributing to stigma in Heartside: the ability for vulnerable people to easily access inexpensive alcohol.

“For us, that was pretty obvious that that was a major contributor to the issues most of the block was experiencing,” Wiegandt said.

As an outsider, he said it seemed he was less willing to tolerate the problem and instead took action, preparing a petition calling the Lucky’s liquor store a “detriment to the community” and easily gaining support from many area residents, businesses and organizations.

Not long after, Lucky’s liquor license was suspended. In January 2019, the license was revoked by the state following seven violations in less than one year, including selling to minors and visibly intoxicated people. The business remains open, selling other typical corner store food products.

Wiegandt said it was never his intention to shut down the business; rather, to make sure everyone was following the rules to ensure the neighborhood can improve.

A woman who said she is the Lucky’s owner declined an interview from behind the store’s windowed counter.

The building owner also could not be reached, but he had been cooperating with suggestions from the city on how to better its environment, such as removing window coverings, closing earlier and stopping the sale of single alcoholic beverages, according to Latesha Lipscomb, a Heartside resident who led a quality of life study completed last year for the city of Grand Rapids.

None of it helped as much as the license revocation, though. That corner had accounted for 12% of the city’s robbery crimes, Lipscomb said. Once the license was revoked, the number of incidents dropped “immediately,” she said.

While the license revocation reduced the issue for Heartside, Lucky’s former customers have taken their business elsewhere — namely stores on Franklin and Division, Bridge and Stocking, and Michigan and Fuller.

“Until you deal with that underlying issue of substance abuse and lack of resources, you're not going to solve the problem,” Wittkowski said.

Through the quality of life study, Lipscomb said she heard from several former Heartside businessowners who suffered from “battle fatigue” that led them to move away.

Gemini Handmade is among several businesses that started there. It has since moved onto Cherry Street in the East Hills neighborhood, which the owners said is a better fit for the business. While the owners said they are grateful for the low-cost Heartside space that allowed them to incubate the business, they declined to expound on their experiences in the area.

At the same time, other businesses have moved in.

There’s nearly always a wait for anyone who wants a haircut at Avenue Barber Shop. There’s also the Happy Cat Café, the Light Gallery + Studio and more.

Lach-White recently finished the build-out for her business, Little Space Studio, and is happy to share with anyone what Heartside has to offer, believing Heartside can thrive when key people claim a stake in the neighborhood.

“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.

Vertigo’s Baker said he’s seen several optimistic groups come and go in his time. While he supports everything that’s happening and is happy to help when asked, he said he hopes it won’t be more of the same.

“For the long-term health of this neighborhood, I hope it really works,” Baker said.

Including the revoked liquor license, there are several differences playing out already that could keep his hope alive.

Degage Ministries is working on a $6 million expansion project that will relocate its main service door from Division to Sheldon Avenue, turning the Division-facing space into a retail storefront for Pauls’ Moms’ Cookies, the nonprofit’s cookie-baking and sales venture.

The city this month is beginning a beautification project on Division between Wealthy and Cherry that will add new street lighting — something residents have been asking for since the 1980s — as well as a water main, streetscaping, public seating, transit shelters and wider sidewalks.

The nonprofit Dwelling Place is leading a portion of the Heartside effort through its newly formed economic development group.

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.

At a recent tour of its vacant properties initially meant for a startup support organization such as Start Garden, Ibrahim said they were surprised to meet several small business owners directly.

Drent said he is hoping for such businesses as art studios, coffee shops, affordable restaurants or boutique clothing stores. He’s optimistic about the coming 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. The 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.

Drent said the convenience store could perhaps fill the role of the area’s needed grocery store, but the building owner’s involvement with the community groups apparently was temporary. Lucky’s since has replaced its sign with one that reads “Downtown Convenience Store.”

Leaders 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 said the community needs to take back some of these places that have 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 info 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 that activating the street and vacant spaces will drive away loitering naturally. While she has experienced aggressive panhandling and catcalling, she said she is sure to always be alert while in public, no matter what neighborhood, no matter what city.

“There are certain things that come with the territory when you're in a highly populated downtown environment,” Wiegandt said. “I think the good definitely outweighs the bad.”

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