Monday, August 29, 2011

SF to Division Ave.

No, I didn't go to San Francisco, never have been. I have however seen close to a dozen shows and films documenting the scene in the Mission District and "The Haight", or Haight Ashbury as it's properly called. These areas were "hippie" enclaves in the '60's and beyond, and evolved into having seedy, homeless populations permeating they're existance. Despite the fact that both have a growing underground, hipster gentrification scene, the seedy underbelly side has remained giving the districts a very unique, edgy and in some lights dangerous atache.

In 1996 the Van Andel Arena opened in Grand Rapids, Michigan's Heartside district. This entire area had been beaten down for several decades, was in complete disrepair, and while not quite to the "Bronx is burning" stage, was home to mainly the homeless and drug-addict population of downtown. In fact, the night before the first act at the arena, the Grand Rapids Police did a complete sweep of the area to "move" all of the "undesirable" (homeless) populations out of the area so the white suburban populace would not feel threatened. Yes, that's a little known fact of GR history for you.

A decade and a half later that very arena is still at the top of it's game, and is continually ranked the number one mid-sized entertainment venue in the country. What has happened in downtown Grand Rapids in the decade and a half since has been breathtaking. Rarely does an arena spark a total revival and rebirth, but in GR's case, it did. Downtown GR is now THE place to be and THE place to be seen in West Michigan. It's a beautiful mix of occupied classical buildings housing offices, apartments, condos, restaurants and bars, with glassy, modern new motel, office and condo buildings fill in the mix. Gentrification to the Nth degree. From September to April, college students flock downtown. In the summer, the mix is just as heavy and palpable. The growth and gentrification has stretched all bounds of downtown Grand Rapids, and that includes Division Avenue. Yes, THAT Division Avenue.

It's an unlikely mix in a conservative, right-wing portion of the Great Lakes. Homeless, down-on-their-luck, recovering drug and alcohol addicts, missions and shelters and clinics. In their midst the Catholic Diocese of Grand Rapids and Catholic Central High School, and of course Van Andel Arena and what it has spurned. New bars, clubs, restaurants and apartments mix with the old population on a daily basis. Suburbanites, college students, and the new (and growing) young urban residents mix with the underbelly that city leaders sought to hide so feverishly just a decade ago. Hipster vinyl record stores, tattoo parlors, a modern Goodwill store and even a bank branch. Division Avenue is a force within a region of total change. Completely repelling change, while begrudgingly welcoming it at the same time.

The second decade of the 21st century will tell if the changes continue and push out the seedy underbelly of West Michigan in favor of a more commercially lucrative venture. Until then, the balance that has been struck in the past couple years has a striking resemblance to something that only San Francisco could offer up. Is this our gray area? Is this where our line blurs from the predjices of old generations to the more adventurous ones of the new in West Michigan? Is this a temporary arrangement, set merely for a few years to one day be talked about in local hostory books? Or is this our worm hole. Our visible and invisible zone where the total have-nots and haves mingle side-by-side with predjudices aside? Do we momentarily tolerate each other enough to have this mixing in our midst? Is this a flash in GR's evolutionary pan, or is this our Haight Ashbury and Mission District? Time will tell.

The UICA (Urban Instituate for Contemporary Arts) just opened it's new location on the corner of Fulton and Division, and September is two days away. What does that mean? ArtPrize #3 is a month away. Is there a breaking point, or simply co-existance?

Let's pray for co-existance.


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