Thursday, October 30, 2014

Will new public transport options in Grand Rapids further jolt the economy?

The new Vernon J. Ehlers Amtrak station opened on Monday, October 27, in Grand Rapids after a number of delays. Outgoing senator, Carl Levin, and Grand Rapids mayor, George Heartwell, were on hand with other officials to cut the ribbon.

Michigan’s 20th century economy was largely built on the success of the automobile, and the car companies, seeking to maintain economic power, encouraged government spending on highways over public transportation and, in some cases, worked actively to eliminate other competing modes of transportation like streetcars and electric trains. However, now, with the auto companies in decline, the price of oil significantly higher, and an upcoming younger demographic that is eschewing big purchases, small but vibrant cities are rethinking their options.

Most large and successful cities have well built public transportation structures incorporating buses, taxis, subways, bike lanes, and trains. Above a certain level of population density, it’s required because there is no room for more cars - either on the road or parked. Midwestern Americans have been dependent on cars so long, many of them can’t see the inherent advantages to a safe and well run system, but they are many.

Public transport minimizes traffic congestion by taking more cars and bodies off the streets. It also minimizes costs to users as subways and buses are more fuel efficient. Fewer cars mean fewer accidents, shorter commutes, and cleaner air. Access to reliable public transport bumps up property values as well. Cities with round-the-clock transportation options have round-the-clock service and entertainment available as well. A good transportation system will also help lure knowledge workers to a city, entice businesses, and attract more tourism dollars as well.
Frankly, at this point in time Millennials are financially struggling, and they are cutting their losses. Many of them would rather pay a large cell phone bill than even a small car payment, and that’s not factoring in the cost of the car itself, insurance, gas, repairs, replacement car parts, or parking. Many older people feel they have spent enough time on highways in cars and may not have the budget for these things either as a result of our post-Great Recession economy.

The new Vernon J. Ehlers station has been a bit controversial. It took a long time to build. For a small station, it was very expensive project - $6.1 million in assorted government monies. There have been concerns about the design and the construction. But this new facility is located right next to the new Rapid bus station now, and it will be easy for people all over the city to travel downtown and then to further cities or states. It will also be easy for tourists to arrive by train and get around Grand Rapids quickly. And for young travelers on small budgets they should be able to do this cheaply, leaving them plenty of money to spend in museums, venues, restaurants, and craft breweries.

If Grand Rapids utilizes, promotes, and incentivizes its new transportation options, it can only help the city to grow economically, socially, and creatively and attract others to that growth.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Doings and Deeds, a Grand Rapids history, part 1

As the demographic composition of Grand Rapids continues to change, it’s easy to imagine the current influx of immigrants from other countries and elsewhere in the United States and Michigan is something new and uniquely challenging for Grand Rapidians. In reality, the area’s history is full of these kinds of changes.

The earliest identified settlers of the area were the Hopewell Indians, known primarily for the complex engineering of their large burial mounds. Grand Rapids has one of the best preserved of these earthworks downtown, although what remains is only a small part of what the Hopewell built. It’s uncertain what happened to the Hopewell peoples. Some historians speculate that their collapse was due to a greater use of the bow and arrow on the North American continent Since they left no written records, we can only interpret their culture through the ceremonial items they left in their burial mounds, the most common of which are chipped points and blades, celts and adzes, as well as some ceramics and ceremonial ornaments and jewelry made of shells, silver, copper, and mica. Many of the products they crafted were made of materials found far from West Michigan, so clearly there were cross-continental trade routes in existence at the time.

The sixth century saw the decline of the Hopewell, and during the Late Woodland period, a number of other smaller cultures appear and disappear in the fossil record, and by the 16th century, when the French began exploring the area, they found a number of different tribes living along the shores of Lake Michigan, including the Ottawa, the Chippewa, the Menominee, the Sauk, the Fox, the Mascouten, the Miami, and the Potawatomi peoples. They lived separately, spoke different languages (some of them dialects of Algonquin), and had their own cultural as well as food growing or gathering practices which were dependent in large part on the local climate. The Potawatomi and the Ottawa periodically encamped together.

During this period trade flourished among the many groups. The Ottawa (Algonquin for "to buy or sell") were particularly involved in this inter-tribal trade. By the mid-17th century, the Iroquois Indians began expanding their territory into the Great Lakes region in an attempt to monopolize the lucrative fur trade the Europeans had introduced. The Iroquois were fierce fighters, armed with rifles, and their efforts resulted in either the death, forced integration, or the out migration of tribes who fled the violence resulting from the Beaver Wars.

Later the French resumed the fur trade, but conflicts with the Iroquois and the British, as well as an oversupply of furs, made it less lucrative over time. Eventually they abandoned their trading forts in the upper Great Lakes. In 1701 they allowed Antoine Laumet de Lamothe Cadillac to build a model trading post at what today is Detroit, and the French began encouraging the many tribes they had been trading with to do business with them in southeast Michigan instead. Combining these tribes together in one area had some less than peaceful results for the French. Eventually the British moved in on French territory and there were multiple players rivaling each other for dominance of the fur trade. The British treated the native tribes differently, however, and relations between the British and the various Indian tribes was never as friendly or cooperative, even during more peaceful periods.

Eventually the tribes we associate with Michigan history settled the previously emptied out areas. These were the people of the Three Fires, the Ottawa, the Chippewa, and the Potawatomi, who called themselves the Anishinabek, or “the Original People.” The numerous wars with the Iroquois, the French, the British, as well as inter-tribal conflicts had eliminated many tribes from Michigan, so while Europeans visiting in 1600 and 1800 would have seen territory controlled by Indians, there had been a significant amount of shake up as to who controlled what and when. Then, as it has been since, West Michigan's population was in flux.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Developers hope to remake Creston Corridor

616 Development announced Wednesday plans to build a $6 million mixed-use project including apartments and retail space. Scheduled for demolition to make room for the additional market rate housing is The Break Room, a closed pool hall.

For Sun Title Agency which spent significant monies expanding and redeveloping their business real estate on Plainfield Avenue, this is good news. The area has considerable room for growth, and city planners as well as local residents have been pushing for improvements for some time. Sun Title’s owners plan an overhaul of another of their properties, the Creston Market. This grocery will also be expanded and plan to take advantage of Grand Rapids’s enthusiasm for local craft beers and other beverages to expand their offerings and bring in new clientele.

Two years ago, after an infrastructure assessment, this entire stretch of Plainfield was repaved and bio-retention islands were added to slow down traffic, address water run-off problems, and beautify the road. Unfortunately, while it looked better, the foot traffic did not emerge, and plenty of storefronts have remained empty. The crime rate for the streets surrounding that section of Plainfield remains stubbornly high compared to other areas of Creston, and many neighbors perceive it as less safe.

However, a year ago, the Grand Rapids Public Schools closed Creston High School and moved City High/Middle to the old Creston location. City High is currently ranked the 5th best high school in Michigan. The impact of this decision on the possibilities for future business development should not be understated. Studies have shown that most juvenile crime is committed immediately after school lets out. The three most common juvenile crimes are disorderly conduct, shoplifting, and assault. So the drop in crime in the northern neighborhoods of Grand Rapids in 2014, down 20 percent for property crimes and 23 percent for violent crimes, will be a motivating factor in the timing of this development.

Given these changes and the additional investment, the revitalization of the Creston area looks quite possible now.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Jamarion Lawhorn's parents are charged with child abuse

Last week Anita Lawhorn and her husband, Bernard Harrold, were charged with child abuse for their treatment of Anita's son, Jamarion Lawhorn, the 12-year-old responsible for the stabbing murder of Connor Verkerke in August. 

After Connor's murder, details of Jamarion's home life came to light including past CPS involvement in the family's life. Child neglect and abuse reports were substantiated against both Lawhorn and Harrold which, in 2013, led to his being placed with his father in New York.  This spring Jamarion returned to Michigan for what was intended to be a short visit with his mother, and he remained there until August when police took him into custody.

Now Lawhorn and Harrold have each been charged with one count of third and fourth-degree child abuse. Lawhorn's other children were removed from their care and are staying with relatives. They are allowed only supervised visits with the children until the court can evaluate their progress. Currently they are cooperating with authorities and getting counseling.

I'm going to go off the Reservation of Objectivity here and say that, as another Grand Rapids parent of a young boy, I think these people should be charged, imprisoned, sterilized, and never allowed near their children, or any children, again. CPS deemed their home entirely unsatisfactory. Utilities were off, the rent overdue, the beds lacked bedding, food in the house was scarce, and drug paraphernalia was present in the bathroom. Additionally, Jamarion had bruises all over his body he said his stepfather gave him, and he was being threatened daily with more beatings. Lawhorn and Harrold also neglected to get him the psychological help recommended for his "significant behavioral issues." 

While I believe in human self-determination, it hard to think that, given Jamarion's extreme youth, Connor's murder wasn't the fault of these two. This is not the first proven instance of abusive parenting either. Anita Lawhorn lost custody of two other children in 1996. 

I don't care what kind of "progress" these two are making, they should be arrested, thrown into jail, denied bail until their trial, then put away forever. It's too bad we don't have the death penalty in Michigan. They're horrible people and awful parents. They created a killer. No doubt their other children have been abused and neglected as well.  

Children should have the right to be cared for by capable, nurturing adults. Despite the impression given by ad campaigns, it's actually a long, tedious process to become a foster or adoptive parent in Michigan. It takes hours of training, and the bureaucracy goes through your life with a fine toothed comb. And then, when you actually have foster children in your home, your life is subject to endless regulation and check ups by the state and you're on the leash of the preferences of your foster children's biological parents and family (so that someday they can be reunited with their proven abusers). It's a bit shocking that the system prioritizes this - micromanaging foster parents - when children all over the city and state are living in filth and danger, uncared for and abused, and ample evidence has presented itself to authorities in any number of cases. 

While Jamarion is an outlier because of his age and his chosen method of killing, he is certainly not alone in his despair and rage. How can we sufficiently punish and shame this kind of abuse enough to send a message to others that this kind of abuse is not acceptable and will not be allowed to continue? It seems like with all of its blessings, West Michigan should have the kinds of resources to make real change in the lives of these kids and prevent more violence in the future. How can we do that?