Converting a City From Its Evil Ways

John Ihlder in World To-Day December 1 1908

Converting a City From Its Evil Ways

John Ihlder in World To-Day December 1 1908

Converting a City From Its Evil Ways

John Ihlder in World To-Day

EVERY history has its obscure beginnings, and that of the new civic spirit in Grand Rapids is no exception. Four years ago there was some public spirit in the people of the city, but it was blind and uninformed. And being blind and uninformed, it believed that all that ailed the city was politics. Therefore it sought to purge politics. By good luck a nonpartizan mayor was elected, and under him the administrative boards were reformed. Public works are now under the supervision of a highly paid professional who has brought about economies equal to several times his salary. Even more important, the board of education now consists of nine members elected at large instead of twenty-four elected by wards. Under the old board the schools were considered less important than patronage, quarrels and scandal. Under the new board the schools are becoming a source of pride to the city.

All these changes aroused the interest of the board of trade. For Grand Rapids had even then a board of trade, though its chief reason for existence appeared to be that every self-respecting city had one. Two or three committees, like that of the wholesalers, did some effective work in furthering the interests of their members, •but the board of trade as a board of trade was a subject for jest. People asked each other wonderingly for what purpose it existed. The only answer seemed to be: to give a picnic down Grand River every summer and a dinner every winter.

Four years ago the board of trade had a municipal affairs committee. But it was merely a paper committee. Its members did nothing, not because there was nothing to do, but because they had neither the interest nor the information. The political reforms aroused their interest, however, and they took a part in securing the charter changes. Then they began to look about for something else which deserved attention and found the smoke, the bill-board and the vacant-lot nuisances. Against

these they began a crusade which has made considerable progress. This encouraged them so much that a year ago last January they detailed a sub-committee to consider the wisdom of working for a civic centre and a city plan.

This, at the time, seemed to many persons absurdly ambitious. Were not the present public buildings, with the exception of the post office, good for years to come? And as for city planning, there might have been some sense in it if it had been undertaken at the time the fur traders first settled at the rapids of the Grand, but now the city is completed ( !)

Yet the sub-committee took itself and its work seriously. It produced a report which showed so clearly the costly errors that had recently been made and those that were then being made—as in the location of the new post office—all because of lack of forethought, that the municipal affairs committee adopted it unanimously and passed it up to the directors. It was finally laid on the table, however, on the ground that a city plan in order to be effective must be authorized by the city government. So a petition was sent to the common council, and after a special committee of the aldermen had spent all summer considering the matter, they were persuaded to recommend the appointment of a commission of nine citizens. This commission considered the subject all last winter, going over the city thoroughly and preparing a number of tentative plans. But at the end it too decided that expert advice was necessary even in the preparation of such a tentative plan as it proposed. Expert advice costs money, however, and the aldermen who had requested the appointment of the commission had done so, not because they believed in the value of its work—they were “practical” men—but in order to quiet the petitioners. They and the new mayor treated the whole matter as a joke.

Then the municipal affairs committee came to the commission’s aid. A citv olan

proposal with nothing to commend it except its merits might expect little consideration from officials whose thoughts are “practical,” but such a proposal backed by public opinion might fare differently. For such backing would give it “practical” meaning. So the committee began to seek means of getting this backing, and then came the thought of the civic revival which would break down the wall of popular indifference. After this, the city plan became simply a symbol ; the great purpose was to arouse in the people an interest in all that concerned their city.

The men who proposed the revival had few illusions; converts to their ranks had been won too painfully. But they had reasons for faith. For years one of the local newspapers had been offering prizes for the best-kept lawns in the city and had thus aroused considerable interest of a kind that redounded to the public benefit. During the past year or two it had added prizes for the most attractive group of lawns, and in that way a little communit)'' spirit had been awakened. During the same time the managers of several of the larger factories had cleared away the rubbish heaps which decorated their premises and substituted grass and trees and vines. But, after all, this was only a development of the old pride in individual possession. Now it was proposed to arouse a pride in what all owned in common.

A systematic campaign was begun. The newspaper which conducted the lawn contests had been aiding the city plan commission for months by publishing news stories and editorials describing what other cities are doing in the way of city planning. It and its contemporaries now gave generously of their space to the plans for the civic revival. But the municipal affairs committee was not satisfied. Tt printed thousands of circulars which it distributed among the school children. It sent letters to every organization in the city, clubs, societies, neighborhood associations, asking them to express formally their approval. Tt put placards in the shop windows and in the street cars. There might be indifference among the mass of the people but the committee was determined, if the thing were possible, to overcome that indifference.

Anything of a political nature, of

course, the great majority could understand and take an interest in. Politics is not only a recognized part of life, but it promises salaried offices. This new movement, however, this demand that one show his patriotism not only on election day, but every day, by thinking and working for community betterment, was not so easily understood. The formal responses from the clubs and societies were reassuringly cordial. But those whose business it is to watch the moods of the people, the professional politicians, manifested no change of heart as revival week drew near.

Not seven days before the revival began the mayor told the secretary of the city plan commission that the aldermen would laugh at its request for money. The budget was by far the largest in the city’s history and besides there were important matters to be discussed on the night it was to be passed, matters of street lights, street signs and the granting of two saloon licenses. In the discussion of the last named the mayor himself proposed to take an epoch-making part. Evidently then no one would have time or patience for frills and fancies.

Revival week began discouragingly. On Monday and Tuesday the rain poured down. The church in which the meetings were held, because it had the largest available auditorium in the city, was not half filled. But those who heard Professor Zueblin once came again, and others came with them. The effect was cumulative. The afternoon lectures on “The New Civic Spirit” and its manifestations in “The Training of the Citizen,” “The Making of the City,” “The Administration of the City” and “The Life of' the Citizen” stimulated thought and discussion on subjects unfamiliar because taken for granted as dealing with matters long settled. The evening lectures, illustrated with lantern slides, told the story of city planning in America, beginning with the play cities of the great exhibitions at Chicago and Buffalo and St. Louis, and then taking up the serious work of Washington, San Francisco, Harrisburg and the other towns which have dared to dream dreams of a glorified future. In all these there was constant reference to Grand Rapids, its problems, its opportunities, its mistakes,

and its proposed city plan. The lessons were driven home.

On Friday of revival week, the Friday before the Monday on which the budget was to be passed, the secretary of the city plan commission visited the mayor to make sure that no hitch would prevent the presentation of the request for money. Again the mayor assured him that the aldermen would laugh at the idea of granting any money for a city plan. That evening the church was packed with people and hundreds were turned away.

On Saturday afternoon the regular meeting was omitted and in its place was held a conference attended by eighty of the more prominent business men and city officials. The general interest shown by the increasing attendance at the lectures had value, but the committee wished to get a definite expression from leading men, so that this general interest might not be dissipated but crystallized into tangible form. In order to do this the city plan was made the subject of discussion. First, the secretary gave a brief sketch of the commission’s work and its desire. Then a dozen men asked questions designed to bring out the value and the probable cost of a city plan, and at the end Professor Zueblin answered these questions. When he had finished, one of the members of the commission asked those present to signify whether or not they favored its request. The vote was practically unanimous, and the great majority further showed their good will by signing petitions addressed to the council.

These petitions and the influence exerted by some of the leading citizens on individual aldermen caused the mavor to become doubtful about the possibility of the appropriationbeing granted. On Saturday evening and on Sunday, petition cards were distributed at the revival meetings and many hundreds of signatures were secured. On Monday the ways and means committee of the common council added the appropriation to the budget with the recommendation that it be passed. That evening the members of the commission and several other men who were deeply interested in its work attended the council meeting, to continue the fight if necessary. But the fight was over. One of the commissioners did speak, but no one answered him. Instead, several of the

aldermen in discussing other subjects, street lights and signs, referred to the city plan appropriation as something already granted.

But this success, as said before, was only the symbol of the greater victory. That greater victory lay in arousing the people to a constructive interest in their city, in opening their minds to the fact that Grand Rapids is their common heritage, through the development of which in loyal co-operation, life for each and all will be made more worth the living. Clean politics, an efficient government, instead of covering all the field of a citizen’s duty, are now recognized as covering but a fraction of it. Added to the task of being a good citizen on election day is that of being a good neighbor every day.

This new idea revival week drove home. The work of the municipal affairs committee and of an evening paper in substituting beauty spots for eyesores made obvious one way in which the idea could be applied. The richest citizens of Grand Rapids had seldom felt, or having felt had resisted, the impulse which leads the richest men of some other cities to give liberally to the community. Until the municipal affairs committee began its work Grand Rapids had received only three notable gifts : one. a large park given many years ago by a pioneer ; the others, a beautiful library building and a down town park given by a former resident. Martin A. Ryerson, whose home is now in Chicago.

But during the past year several gifts have been added, chief among them three large playgrounds, each containing several acres, and a children’s home, which, when completed, will be one of the monumental buildings of the city. This generous spirit was stimulated by the revival. During the three weeks since its close, the management of one of the largest furniture factories has bought a fine grove of trees near its plant to use as a park for its employes and the people of the neighborhood : the proprietor of another factory has given to the city twelve acres of land for a riverside park, and the business men. through a committee of two hundred, have appointed a smaller committee of twentyone representing manufacturing, commercial, labor and social organizations to secure plans for a building which shall contain not only the large auditorium whose

lack the city now feels keenly, but smaller halls and rooms which will make it the non-official centre of the city’s life.

Nor has this been all. The doctrine of co-operation was preached with such effect by Professor Zueblin that, since he left, the first step has been taken in forming neighborhood associations to secure and maintain neighborhood parks and playgrounds. Down in the business section the new spirit is manifested in a desire to do away with the old projecting electric signs which disfigure the streets, and to substitute a system that will not only give light

but will add to the dignity of the city. Along the river front the new spirit is shown in a renewed determination to utilize the million-dollar flood walls, whose erection was begun by the non-partizan mayor, for something besides flood protection. The opportunity is there for quays and parkways. The river front, now the greatest blemish of the town, can be made its greatest beauty. And the people are coming to realize it, for they have come to recognize that in Grand Rapids they have a common property of which they can increase the beauty and the value a hundredfold if they will but take thought, and work together.