Over the early fall of 2021, seven murals created by seven local BIPOC artists came to life in Grand Rapids’ Southside neighborhood. The driving force behind them? The Diatribe Inc., a local non-profit organization whose leadership is intentionally BIPOC and LGBTQ+ and whose mission is to use performing arts to empower young people to share their stories, raise awareness of social issues, and create change within their communities.
The Diatribe aims to challenge “West Michigan nice” by holding space for some of the city's most underrepresented residents and by shedding light on historical and current racial disparities in the community. One of their goals is to find ways to showcase how vibrant Grand Rapids is while making it better for Black, Brown, and Queer folks. I’ve been a supporter of The Diatribe’s work for several years, but The 49507 Project is unlike anything I’ve seen in all of West Michigan because of its intentional, anti-racist theme.
Marcel "Fable" Price, Executive Director of The Diatribe, speaks during a mural unveiling for The 49507 Project.
Photo by Amahri Howland (Insta: @Phordprefect) for 49507 Project.
How the 49507 Project Started
The 49507 Project emerged at a time when racial tension in the city was at a peak in the summer of 2020. During this time, public art became a way to address this tension. These efforts were largely concentrated in downtown, an area already benefiting from investment and commerce. The members of The Diatribe wanted to rethink how public art might be used to center -- even liberate -- communities that are most strongly affected by racism, gentrification, and redlining.
The 49507 Project redefines public art and is transforming Grand Rapids’ Southside community (whose zip code is 49507, with parts of 03 and 06 zip codes) in a way that resists gentrification and uplifts the voices and experiences of the residents of this neighborhood. The project's focus and emphasis on the neighborhood's longtime residents shifts the narrative of what liberation and inclusion could look like in a public art project. For The Diatribe, a liberated arts project would listen to the community it serves and provide education, economic empowerment, and a sense of community pride.
Site Selection: Choosing the Southside Neighborhood
Grand Rapids’ Southside was selected as the location for this public art effort because this neighborhood has been underinvested in, but it has also been drastically mischaracterized by sensationalized narratives. Residents of the Southside face many barriers, including gentrification, which has caused the displacement of Black and Brown residents through predatory lending, increasing rent, and a lack of infrastructure and resources. Despite these barriers, residents of the 49507 display a level of strength and community pride that is often overlooked.
The 49507 Project is the result of rethinking how public art might be used to center -- even liberate -- marginalize communities.
Photo by Rich P Photography for 49507 Project. Mural: "Generational W(h)ealth” by Esan Sommersell
Gathering Input: Community Outreach & Listening Sessions
Starting with its core mission of using poetry to educate and activate young people, The Diatribe partnered with the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan to launch Writing to Right Wrongs, a nine-week spoken word program with the students at Ottawa Hills High School. Students learned about historical housing discrimination and how it is tied to the inequities their community faces today. They used what they learned to write poems about the idea of home and their neighborhoods. At the end of the program, The 49507 Mural artists came to the class for a listening session where students shared what they wanted to see in the art that was coming to their neighborhood.
The next step was a series of Community Listening Sessions. These sessions engaged those who live in the community and revealed that community members were primarily concerned with housing costs, lack of jobs and opportunity, crime, and racism. These sessions also revealed the desire for a healthy revitalized community that fosters entrepreneurship, business growth, local talent development, increased participation in local government by Black and Brown residents, and a thriving arts community. A majority of the listening session participants strongly resonated with the idea that: Our zip code shouldn’t dictate our health. We all should have the opportunity to live the healthiest life possible in the place we call home.
Artist E'lla Webber in front of her mural, "Enjoying the Roots of our Positive Struggle," which is located at 40 Acres Consulting at 703 Eastern Ave, SE.
Photo by Leda Theres for The 49507 Project. Artist: E'lla Webber.
Creating Connection: Artist & Location Selection
The 49507 Project elevates Black and Brown artists in the community and uses art as a way to reclaim space and showcase the identity of the Southside. Personally, I think the artists are some of the best in the city. They were selected by The Diatribe based on community recommendations. Each artist brings a distinct style and perspective to the mural they create. To me, the project and the diversity of the artists selected really show that the Southside is not a monolith, but it is a beautiful collage of culture, creativity, passion, and strength.
Each business owner who participated in The 49507 Project has a compelling story, and a majority of them are Black and Brown natives of the Southside community. They each play a major role in their community by providing support, inspiration, and a sense of family to everyone impacted by their work. To learn more about the artists, business owners, and the seven murals, check out The 49507 Mural Tour.
Taking the Tour: Gentrification’s Impact on the Southside
One of the most important elements of the 49507 Project is the intentionality put behind educating the community about our city’s history of Redlining. Each mural is accompanied by a plaque with a QR code that takes the viewer into a 3D color-coded map of the area. If the viewer is standing in a red area, they learn about how it was characterized as hazardous for investment by the US Government and why. They can then look around and see some of the lasting effects of continued disinvestment. If they are in a blue area, they can find out why and look around to see the differences in these areas. This component was created in partnership with CARNEVALE, a Grand Rapids based software company.
Check out the seven murals for yourself. I think the perfect way to experience the 49507 Project is to visit each site, pay attention to the surrounding areas, and to check out some of the local businesses while you’re there. Once you’ve gotten a taste of the 49507, ask yourself: How can I make an actionable difference to the communities often left behind, while centering their voices and intimately empathizing with their experiences? To learn more about this project, check out the video below, courtesy of The Diatribe:
- 6 min story
The 49507 Project is a liberated public arts project unlike anything that I’ve seen in West Michigan. The Diatribe, a Grand Rapids based nonprofit, partnered with local businesses and artists to raise awareness about redlining and disinvestment in the Southside neighborhoods, and they did so…