Group grapples with downtown’s ‘white’ image
CIG, which brings diverse entertainment to town, is seeing some positive changes.
Grand Rapids resident Darius Quinn often hears the question from friends: “Why are you still there?”
Most of his close friends and roommates have migrated from Grand Rapids to bigger cities such as Detroit in search of an urban community that is friendlier to people of color. In recent years, however, Quinn said his friends have begun to filter back into town and are realizing there’s a reason he’s stayed in Grand Rapids.
Through his work as chair of the Community Inclusion Group, a committee of the Grand Rapids-Kent County Convention and Arena Authority, Quinn can see his actions are making a difference.
“If you go to a larger city, the culture has been defined over hundreds of years. I can’t go to Detroit and change that culture — that’s Motown, baby,” Quinn said. “Here, though, through the work I do with the county, the CAA and other boards, we can define what Grand Rapids looks like.
“It’s a hell of an opportunity to shape what a culture looks like.”
Helping ensure downtown Grand Rapids is welcoming to people of all colors and walks of life is key to Quinn’s full-time job as Kent County human resources manager. With a number of indicators showing West Michigan will need to attract a good amount of employable talent in the coming years, Quinn said it’s important those future workers are from diverse backgrounds.
For that to happen, Grand Rapids needs to be a place where people who aren’t white are comfortable spending their free time. The Community Inclusion Group is making a major effort in that direction and has begun to crank up the diversity of entertainment offerings at Van Andel Arena and DeVos Performance Hall.
Most recently, for example, CIG facilitated the pop-up show by African-American comedian Dave Chappelle.
Quinn said when Van Andel Arena opened in 1996, Grand Rapids had a diverse population, but there was no inclusion, and while there were some shows downtown that would appeal to a diverse population, it was hard to get promoters to participate.
He said, historically, the African-American and Hispanic communities stayed in their neighborhoods and didn’t engage much in downtown life.
“Everyone wanted their own sandbox,” he said. “It was not a warm and welcoming place 16 years ago.”
Just a few years ago, Quinn said a visit in Los Angeles with one of the country’s largest concert promoters resulted in a white executive telling the Grand Rapids group their city was “too white.”
With the lack of diverse offerings and a downtown perceived as unfriendly, Quinn said he saw many friends move away.
“There’s that third place. You go to work and home, but you need that third place you can go. There’s only so much work and couch you can do. If you’re not comfortable, you pack up and leave,” Quinn said.
Quinn said that perception is changing, however, through the collaborative efforts of groups such as the CAA, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., Experience Grand Rapids and Grand Action. He also credits former Kent County chairman and current CAA chair Steve Heacock with being both a personal influence and a transformational leader.
He said businesses such as Amway Hotel Corp. that provide pre- and post-show special offers are helping people of color experience a more diverse downtown.
“When I looked out at the Kevin Hart crowd (at a May 2015 comedy performance), it really brought satisfaction to myself to see people busting a gut and smiling and not having to go to Detroit or Chicago for entertainment,” he said.
Quinn said it’s not just about providing more diverse options, however. A buy-in from residents is also necessary. He said when events are brought in for specific demographics, ethnic groups need to get behind the shows and show up; otherwise, the result is a major dent in CIG’s mission and bottom line.
“Folks need to understand that it is their Grand Rapids, regardless of their color. It is their downtown,” Quinn said. “There will always be problems — someone getting turned off by bad customer service one time. That happens to everyone, everywhere.
“It’s been a struggle, but it’s worth it because of the fruits of our labor. If we do it well, we can set up a really good community for all walks of life.”