GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Meet Latesha Lipscomb for the first time and it’s easy to see why so many people in Grand Rapids’ Heartside neighborhood have rallied behind her.
She is direct, energetic and passionate about the downtown neighborhood. After all, she has lived there since 2011.
“Heartside quality of life, this study has become my baby,” Lipscomb said. “This job was perfect for me because I was someone who could relate to people because I live a very similar experience. And so, I have a personal interest in creating a shared story and a singular vision for the Heartside neighborhood and ensuring that it is the best it could possibly be.”
Lipscomb was pouring her heart out, of all things, on stage at the Failure Lab when someone from the Grand Rapids caught her story.
She was a small business owner, a mother, a dedicated Grand Rapidian, but she just couldn’t seem to land a job. The city was in the works of commissioning a Quality of Life Study for the Heartside neighborhood — they wanted to see how those who lived or worked through the area could be improved. Lipscomb seemed like the person for the job.
“This job for me has been divine alignment,” Lipscomb says with a smile.
She was hired on June 12, 2017 and went to work quickly, spreading the word to the community members of the necessity of their engagement.
Last year, they held listening sessions where more than 200 people came to voice or hear an opinion on what needs to be addressed. Months later, they conducted a knowledge exchange and 186 people came back.
“They were still interested. They were still engaged and somehow they felt my energy. They returned back and became more enthusiastic about this process,” Lipscomb said.
They are now in phase three of their four-phase process, Work Groups. Seven groups broken up between 64 volunteers; city leaders, Heartside residents and business owners.
“I am a firm believer that changing Heartside is an all hands-on deck process. It’s going to take all of us. I’m constantly inviting people to the table because once the recommendations are released, we’re going to need agencies, we’re going to need service providers, we’re going to need residents, we’re going to need landlords and property owners to be a part of the process,” Lipscomb said. “It’s very important that we always make sure we’re inviting people to the table.”
After the nearly 400 people showed up to the listening sessions and knowledge exchanges, Lipscomb helped facilitate seven workgroups — broken up among the 64 people who were interested in volunteering their time twice a month over the three summer months.
Each of the seven groups are focused on meeting certain concerns that were raised over the two meetings. On top of that list, one thing that gathered the most discussion and input: public restrooms.
“They have to be convenient and you have to get people to use them,” Courtney Magulak said. “Location is a big issue and really changing the perception that public urination is something that’s not acceptable.”
Magulak is one of the team leaders on the public restrooms workgroup, she is also part of the city’s planning commission.
“Having the workgroup, we have so many different perspectives and people working on it from different points of view. I think we are coming up with a plan so far that is multi-faceted enough that we will kind of find that right in and make some positive progress,” Magulak said.
She said with the restrooms there are so many different angles to think about other than the facility, design, build and maintenance.
“The building it is maybe the easiest part,” Magulak said. “We heard really interesting things in the listening session from fathers who have children that don’t have a place to change their child. We really want to make sure it’s somewhere everyone feels they can use.”
Like many of the other work groups, Magulak said they are focused on the short term and immediate impacts, but also the long-term solutions to make sure the recommended changes are implementable for a long period of time.
There is also the group looking into affordable housing options, employment and educational opportunities. Another is focusing on networks for addiction and mental health services.
Each group meets in the afternoon hours twice a month to figure out some instant impact solutions and long-range remedies that would help transform the Heartside neighborhood.
Transforming the neighborhood starts with the vacant buildings and crowded sidewalks — Jenn Schaub knows that.
“We are talking a lot about what it means to make spaces that are welcoming for all people,” Schaub said, she’s a leader in the Areas of Improvement workgroup. “We’re looking at both program ideas but also how to communicate about respect to our neighbors and cultivating a culture of respect within our neighborhood.”
Schaub also is the neighborhood specialist at Dwelling Place. She works one-on-one with several people from this area daily.
In fact, she says, it was a letter from those residents she worked with two years ago that prompted this study in the first place. They requested more foot patrols from law enforcement, better lighting in certain areas and a wider range of bicycle amenities. The city manager received the request and ultimately the Quality of Life Study was issued. The city commission recently approved the first round of new light Schaub says.
“I think that the Heartside neighborhood has many residents who are very passionate about living downtown,” Schaub said. “They come from a variety of different backgrounds but a lot of their concerns are very similar and so I wasn’t surprised at how many people were excited to be involved. I was really relieved to see the city play an active role in really engaging those residents’ voices.”
The key concerns for improvement for people and businesses in the area were near Pekich Park and Lucky’s Liquor, both on South Division on the corners of Cherry Street and Weston respectively.
“We have people gathering on the sidewalks in a public space, maybe we have some activities that are making people uncomfortable. We’re trying to figure out how to make those spaces open and accessible for everyone who lives in and works in our neighborhood,” Schaub said.
She added that it’s important to recognize that some living in Heartside are displaced and using public areas temporarily is very important for all residents. Schaub and her work group are just over half way through their process and are continually bouncing ideas and suggestions off each other to figure out a solution for both short term and long term.
“Whether it be potentially a program, whether it be part key partnerships or just communications projects to make sure we get the word out to residents about some of the things we’re trying to shift,” Schaub said.
The final two groups of concerns raised by the nearly 400 residents, business owners and city leaders through two separate discussions are access to fresh food at an affordable price; meats, vegetables and fruits.
Also creating a neighborhood association in Heartside. That’s something that the Heartside Quality of Life study coordinator says she is committed to being an active part of long after the study and recommendations are over.
“If my title ends or my position ends, I’m still very much engaged in the neighborhood itself and still very much in love with the people that live here,” Lipscomb said.
The seven groups plan to share their recommendations with the city in September with a final recommendation report due in October. Then it’s in the city’s hands to figure out how to or if to implementing any of the suggestions.
“Nothing outweighs the other. The other thing to keep in mind is that they all influence each other in one way or another. There is a certain overlap when we’re talking about the quality of life,” Lipscomb said about this study that has now become her baby. “We plan to leave no stone left unturned in terms of finding positive solutions.”