Heartside event seeks unity amid changing neighborhood

Aug 19, 2016

Credit Hilary Farrell

A Thursday picnic promoting unity drew hundreds for music, food and fellowship at Heartside Park in Grand Rapids.

Sue Gilbert with the Heartside Neighborhood Collaboration Project helped get everything off the ground.

"[The goal of the event was to] get people together to recognize each other, to talk to each other, to treat each other with respect," she says.

Heartside is certainly going through changes.

The neighborhood borders the higher-income Heritage Hill and an upwardly-mobile, development-heavy downtown core. And some of that development has moved into Heartside proper, including 20 Fulton East – an multi-story mixed-use building planning half affordable, half market-rate living with first-floor retail. 

A large banner at the property reads, 'Make Heartside, Grand Rapids, Great Again'.

Some residents say the neighborhood is great as it is.

"There’s been a lot of changes. I just don’t think they’re doing enough for the impoverished, the low-income people."

That’s Darwin Parish. He moved to the area in 2010.

"All these apartments they’re building, they’re talking about $800-900 a month," Parish says. "Progress is good, but you can’t forget some of your lower-income people that live down here."

Dennis VanKampen is CEO of Mel Trotter Ministries - one of several local agencies providing picnic support.

"One event cannot change a city. Right? But what one event can do is – one event can start a relationship or a dialogue that didn’t happen before that," he says.

"And I think that’s the key. Because this is an extremely diverse city. And Grand Rapids cannot be a 'cool city' if we’re not a city that truly embraces our diversity."

VanKampen says events like Thursday's picnic are part of that goal.

"What I've learned being in the Heartside community is, you can't pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you don't have boots, or if your straps are broken," he says. "So as a community,  we have to come around and say: everything isn't on equal ground.

"So how do we make this truly a community where everyone is welcome, everyone is valued and everyone does get an opportunity?"