Older Suburbs

This summer I’ve started photographing business districts in Grand Rapids neighborhoods such as Creston (Plainfield NE) and Alger Heights (Alger SE). This weekend I was on 28th Street SE, driving towards Kalamazoo Avenue, and I thought I’d drive by the older area west of Kalamazoo and then go south on Division Avenue. The businesses here, or rather their buildings, date to the postwar decades. The buildings are smaller and often a little or more than a little beat up–unless they have been renovated significantly or been demolished and replaced.

I need to think a little more about how to photograph them. They look, or feel, like they need something different from what I’ve been doing with business districts in villages, small towns, and urban neighborhoods that date to the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. I’ve been using a saturated look for these that is my adaptation of a mix of Polaroid and postcard looks. And I’ve been doing a “portrait” approach to most of them, with some images of reflections in windows thrown in. By portrait, I mean straight-on, relatively balanced images. The businesses on places like Division Ave. and 28th St. are defined by front facing parking lots and multi-lane streets. The aesthetic of the buildings is different as are the signs.

These postwar, aging commercial areas in aging suburbs from the 1950s and 1960s need a different look. These suburbs once were a place where blue collar laborers could step up from renting to owning a small home, often leaving a poor neighborhood behind. Today they often are where poor immigrants end up or where poor people get pushed when their neighborhood closer to the city center gets regentrified.

Unit in a 28th Street SE building a bit west of Kalamazoo Avenue.

For the images of the closed junk jewelry store and auto repair shop below (and in the cover image of this post) I’ve used the same look I’ve been using for village, small town, and urban neighborhood business districts.

One of the things I’ve tried to do with that look, in my own mind, is convey something of the hope and persistence I see in these places, despite sometimes precarious economic circumstances. The hope is faded or fading in recently closed or struggling businesses, present in new ones or flourishing ones. I’ve also tried to convey the aging beauty in these buildings, whether they still look historic or have been renovated with a more modern look.

I’m still working on what mood I feel for places like the aging parts of 28th St. and Division Ave. I think I feel the same mood, but the look is different. I struggle more to see any aging beauty, tending instead to notice aging functionality and a hint of tawdry. I need to learn to see the hopes of business owners, and pride, and the people they serve. We’ll see how it goes.

For this week, it’s a few images of the jewelry store and auto shop. I might drive by every few months to see if the buildings are being renovated by new businesses. I hope they are. With the Wepman’s store I wonder what the earlier businesses in the building were. Wepman’s itself, promising to be better than a pawn shop, looking to buy broken and scrap jewelry, seems like second-chance or last chance. A store for people looking to persist and survive.

There are more images to come over the summer, from neighborhood business districts in Grand Rapids (see the posts from the past two weeks) and from older commercial districts on streets like Division and 28th in suburban areas.

Stay cool out there.

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