Artwork highlights a People’s History in Grand Rapids – Print #16: Remembering the 4,000 people displaced from building US 131 in Grand Rapids

Last semester, art students in Brett Colley’s GVSU class on printmaking, invited me to come talk about the Grand Rapids People’s History Project. The intent of the class was to have students investigate their own part of a People’s History of Grand Rapids and then make a print based upon an individual social movement or a particular moment in Grand Rapids history.

This print is by Devin Gordon, reflects the devastation brought about by the construction of US 131 through Grand Rapids. In an interview we conducted with local historian Fr. Dennis Morrow, we discovered that roughly 4,000 people were displaced because of the highway construction, mostly working class families and communities of color. 

State Highway Commission at the time, John Mackie said, “The new system will enable Grand Rapids to realize its full economic and industrial potential.” Mackie’s comment is instructive, since it makes clear that the intention of the highway through Grand Rapids was not about realizing human potential, but that of industry and capital. As with all modern capitalist projects, there are some who benefit tremendously, while others are left out or even punished in the process.

As Fr. Morrow stated in the interview we did with him, “Things like tearing down homes, cleaning things out, tearing down buildings, but they went about it with a zeal. It was not originally the plan of the Interstate system as I understood it, but many of the urban planners saw this as an opportunity to clean out some of the undesirable areas.”

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