Decay and Renewal

What’s old can be new again. Time to scrape off the decay and regear and repurpose.

This week I’ve had plenty of time to think. Think about what I’m doing and want to do. Think about where I’m at and how I got here. Think about the new chapters that are yet to be written in my life. Think about those around me and what’s going on in their minds.

I had a meeting with the head of a company based just off Chicago Drive and, when the meeting was done, I took Chicago into downtown. The thoroughfare that is Chicago Drive was once a main route in and out of Grand Rapids, before they built I-196 tracing the same route. It was a highway of industry. Today, I saw lots of decay.  Padnos, one of the businesses on Chicago, thrives on the scraps of decay, converting “things” back into their raw materials, to be used again in new “things.”  The buildings I passed by had seen better days, but are still put to good use by businesses providing valuable and necessary services. Not fancy, but honest and hardworking. 

On the radio, listening to WYCE, I heard a soulful rendition of the hymn “Amazing Grace” sung to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun,” the ballad popularized by The Animals in the ’60s. The bluesy rendition made me think of renewal from multiple perspectives. From a faith-based perspective. From an artistic perspective, bringing new meaning to two different songs by combining the lyrics of one with the tune of the other. All while driving through streets in various stages of renewal … some refurbishing and repurposing old buildings, others tearing down and starting over.

I took a right on Wealthy Street and made my way to The Sparrows (aka, my “office” away from home), a coffee shop in an old building with plenty of character. Along the way to Sparrows, I thought about “Wealthy” Street and what a grand thing it must have been to say “I live on Wealthy Street” in years gone by. 

A hundred years ago, Wealthy was the route taken by a street car system, bringing GR’s well-heeled populace out to Ramona Park on Reed’s Lake in East Grand Rapids. Closer to downtown, Wealthy was an artery through beautiful homes built for the owners and executives of furniture companies, banks, and other important businesses in West Michigan’s regional center.

A little further down Wealthy, at a midpoint between GR and EGR, immigrant dutch built their homes. The area immediately surrounding The Sparrows, where I’m sitting right now, was where the smaller homes were built for workers in the greenhouses. As the dutch became more established, they built their middle class neighborhoods in the many blocks south and north of Wealthy, and they built their CRC and RCA churches and the created Calvin College.  The brick streets that had been common in their homeland became a quaint feature of their new home. 

Inevitably, the decay came. It always does. As their homes and business fronts and brick streets aged, many that lived on these streets headed for (literally) greener pastures on the edges of Grand Rapids. In many cases, their churches followed them a few years later. Calvin left too, having outgrown its hemmed-in campus on Franklin Street.  It found the space it needed to expand on Knollcrest Farms.

In more recent years, this area was better known as the stomping grounds for The Wealthy Street Boys, a gang known for drugs and killings. When I was in college, I lived a few blocks from Wealthy, and the Boys threw a brick through the back window of a roommate’s car. The neighbor told me they must have thought it was his because he was a member of the rival Gangster Disciples.

I lived there because I was a college student and it was cheap. Others lived there because they were poor, and it was cheap. People just abandoned certain neighborhoods where crime was too rampant, with those remaining behind the ones who had no other options.

Efforts are being made to restore the vitality of these old neighborhoods. The Wealthy Theater renovation and the launch of new stores and restaurants have helped revive interest in restoring neighborhoods, similar to how the Van Andel Arena spurred redevelopment efforts south of what was considered the “safe” parts of downtown a decade ago.  Many of the houses are quite sound and, restored, very beautiful. As the “disposable” mentality shifts to one that places great value on recycling and reuse, these neighborhoods, too, will rebound.

What’s old can become new again.

And that’s something I need to remember for me. And maybe you need to remember that for you too. The shell of you grows older and the need for what you do (or did) might lessen. Or maybe others with different value systems just move on, seeking some greener pasture and leaving you behind.  You can be renewed and start over.  That is what I’m in the process of doing, and I hope to help others do the same.