“…we must provide space – institutional space, political space, social space, and conceptual space – for the emergence of new relationships and a new way of being that exists beyond isolation and separation.” – John Powell, Racing to Justice
One of the buzzwords into which I’ve run repeatedly over the last 10 years is “placemaking.” It is a concept that refers to the development of spaces in ways that are friendly to pedestrians, small in scale (i.e. walkable), and which promote interaction among neighbors, thereby increasing social capital (i.e. the benefits that come from “who you know”). At its best, placemaking seeks to design neighborhoods which are playful, accessible, and interesting. At its worst, placemaking has become the latest in a long line of development trends appealing to the consumer interests of upwardly mobile whites. Either way, “placemaking” highlights the notion that people make places. What we must also recognize is that places, in turn, shape people.
Hope Reformed Church began in 1942. It was a time of stress and trauma as the United States was coming out of a Great Depression and entering into World War II. Gas rationing was part of life. So, a number of families gathered together to make a place of worship closer to home. By 1949, they were ready to make a permanent place on the corner of Burton and Kalamazoo; a marshy plot of land filled in with sand became the foundation of the new church building. Families and children would flock to this place to pray for peace and find support for their faith.
The church was built in the far-northeast corner of the Alger Heights neighborhood. Today, Alger Heights is very much a part of the urban scene. Tree-lined streets meet in a business district with its own trendy restaurant, café, pizzeria, hardware, and grocery stores. Soon it will have its own brewery, too. But in 1942, Alger Heights was a suburb. Many of the families who made Hope their place of worship made Alger Heights their place of residence. This neighborhood was sold to white families recovering from the war as an attractive place of “inexpensive lots, quick availability, and ready financing.”1 What was portrayed as a sound real estate investment and God’s blessing was also an action of white flight; when blacks moved into the central city, those black families would not be allowed to make Alger Heights a place of their own.
Alger Heights is located in SE Grand Rapids. Today, it is within a city that consistently lands at the top of lists such as “best places to raise a family.” We are “Beer City, U.S.A.” and a model of downtown redevelopment. ArtPrize has made Grand Rapids hip again. It is playful, accessible, and interesting. However, it also demonstrates one of the worst neighborhoods to live if you are a person of color. Inequality is extreme. Housing is out of reach. Entrepreneurship is under-resourced. Grand Rapids is truly “a city within a city.”
The city of Grand Rapids was first united in 1838, and it grew up along the Grand River. Industry was a central part of its growth. Gypsum mines, lumber, furniture, and the auto industry fed the economy as the place was developed into a city. Where many saw ingenuity and vision and the blood, sweat, and tears of hard work, this placemaking was also the result of the earliest forms of gentrification. Europeans moved in, while the Native Americans were pushed out.
Of course, the land around the river was a place even before it became a city. Indigenous groups like the Hopewell and Anishinaabeg were placemaking in their own way.2 Then, Europeans brought disease, alcohol, and guns to this place. Federal treaties claimed indigenous lands with little compensation or recourse to resist. The presence of these human beings is recognizable in the names of schools, neighborhoods, and streets, but no longer in flesh and blood. The placemaking that resulted in the city of Grand Rapids came at the expense of human life, family, and the traditions of those who weren’t white.
It was Andy Crouch, in his book Culture-Making, who illustrated the cultural concept of cultivation. It is the idea that if God has given us a field, then we are given the opportunity to cultivate it into a garden, an orchard, or a crop. “The whole earth is mine,” said the Lord to his people. They would go forth to cultivate a nation out of the land that God was giving them, but they were being called to do so according to God’s commands. They would represent God to the world as faithful stewards of God’s blessings.
What entices me about the concept of placemaking (and the Slow Church Movement3 or the New Parish Movement4) is that the focus is on a smaller scale, on neighbor and neighborhood. It fits well within Jesus’ call to be his witnesses according to his command to “love your neighbor.” Unfortunately, as far as I know, these movements are also geared toward predominantly white, upwardly mobile consumers like myself. Despite good intentions, these movements reflect a history of white supremacy to make and re-make places according to white desires with ignorance toward people of color.
Making places is a privilege that requires power and resources. The history of places like Grand Rapids tells a sad story of concentrating that privilege into the hands of a race of people who have continued to pursue profit at the expense of people. As an upwardly mobile, white homeowner, I like craft beer, gourmet burgers, and safe streets for my children. There are people who don’t look like me and aren’t mobile like me who would also like playful, accessible, interesting places for themselves and their children as well. What does it mean for me to love my neighbor in this place and at this time? What places should we make?
In the next two weeks, Hope Reformed Church will no longer exist on the corner of Burton and Kalamazoo. Over the 75 years of its existence, families have moved further away from the city. The community around the church has continued to become more diverse and is much younger than the congregation. Over the last 10 years, we have tried to provide space for “the emergence of new relationships and a new way of being.” Unfortunately, the separation and isolation that is part of Grand Rapids proved too much to overcome as the congregation was unable (or unwilling) to form new relationships. Perhaps the real problem was that it was we (white people of privilege, power, and supremacy) who were trying to provide the space.
The love of neighbor defined by Jesus is one that “does nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regards others as better than yourselves, not looking to your own interests, but each of you to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4). How would the corner of Burton and Kalamazoo, the neighborhood of Alger Heights, the city of Grand Rapids, be different if everyone had a voice? What kind of place could we make together?