Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Watching Downtown bloom

My first idea for naming this blog post was, "Watching Downtown Come Back to Life," but that's not really correct, since it never really died, per se.  When I was in high school in the late 1980s, the Monroe Mall area, as well as most of S. Division, was pretty derelict and desolate, though.  Not Soviet derelict, but no one went there for fun, and you weren't tempted to stroll down S. Division unless you were on a mission to find drugs or illicit sex.  When Herpolsheimers closed in 1987, there was a misguided attempt to make it into a mall, but that soon failed.  Downtown was not the place to be.  Many, if not most Grand Rapidians were resigned to seeing their city turn into another waning Rust Belt casualty.  Having lived for awhile in Detroit, it's almost miraculous to see it bloom again today and to watch people stroll about, eat things, and be genuinely excited to be there and witness what is happening.

Who would have thought that cool Art Moderne building Junior Achievement abandoned would get a makeover and a chance to shine again?  It sat there empty so long, still beautiful, still interesting under layers of grime and broken glass block.  And there is TowerPinkster today, occupying it with pride.

Devos Place turns ten this month.  Having a safe location was no doubt as asset for the owners, but there wasn't nearly as much to see and do downtown a decade ago.  Van Andel was there, the Gerald R. Ford Museum was there, but ArtPrize wasn't even dreamed of, the brewery culture hadn't taken off, and the Grand Rapids Art Museum was still over on Division in the Federal Building that was purchased and renovated by Kendell College of Art and Design.  It was rededicated in June of this year and looks fantastic.

Turn and look the other way down Division, and it's all new as well.  Van Andel Institute, Betty DeVos Children's Hospital, and a completely re-terraced Hillside park have banished any rundown feel on the right side.  Michigan St. has been transformed as well.  What was a local scene of gas stations, houses, and stores, is now a wall of glass containing a series of state-of-the-art medical buildings.  It's hard to remember what the old Butterworth Hospital looked like or that Calvary Undenominational Church once took up nearly a whole block on Michigan.

Travel the S-Curve and you'll see cranes looming over the city and buildings being wrapped like Christmas presents.  The new Grand Valley Seidman Center has taken the place of an old warehouse, but that whole Pew Campus is brand new, not to mention the shiny YMCA building.  Follow the S-Curve and the Custer building salutes you, and the renovated Founders Brewing Company peeks out over her shoulder. Drive a little way further and you can peek into the greenhouses of the new Downtown Market.

It's almost like a brand new city!  What are your memories of the Grand Rapids that used to be?