Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. paints the town


Courtesy / 98.7 WFGR

Mary Dupuis, A&E Editor

With the fall season quickly approaching and winter hanging on its’ coattails, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. (DGRI) has their hands full. 

Busy with planning and holding events such as ArtPrize, Confluence, a Halloween event at City Built, and upcoming World of Winter festivities, there seems to be little room for anything else — except murals. 

Five of the six upcoming ribbon-cutting events DGRI will be holding this fall are dedicated to the unveiling of their “Women’s Way Initiative” murals organized by DGRI, the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council, the City of Grand Rapids, Lions & Rabbits and numerous community partners.

The original idea for this initiative came about in March of 2019 during DGRI’s public art project inspired by the book “Rad American Women A-Z” written by Kate Schatz. DGRI’s Director of Public Space Management, Kimberly Van Driel, was inspired by her time with Schatz to create an entirely new initiative. 

“She said something that stuck with me, and it was that she travels over the globe and it’s rare that you find anything named after a woman,” Van Driel said. “There is now a global trend of activating alleyways, so, we wanted to start naming streets after women and take the negative stereotype of women in alleyways and flip the script.”

Designed as part of a public space activation project to honor local women leaders throughout Grand Rapids’ history, the Women’s Way Initiative has since led to five original murals being painted by local artists in alleyways downtown, each being named after their respective mural.  

Ribbon cutting ceremonies will be taking place from 7-8 p.m. every Wednesday in Sept. beginning with Harriet Woods Hill Way, then the Angeline Kelsey “Naw Kay o say” Yob Way, the Maurilia Ortiz Blakely Way, Ethel Coe Way, and the Grand Rapids Chicks Way.

Van Driel said DGRI is also working on two new murals to be included in this initiative and will be announced in March. She hopes to continue adding at least one new mural each year. 

In addition, DGRI is working alongside Dwelling Place Grand Rapids, a housing company in support of neighborhood revitalization, on five murals focused on the history of Heartside.

Courtesy / GR Kids

“There are amazing installations being done right now, specifically focusing on the Heartside area and the history in it with the Black community,” Van Driel said. “The artists did lots of research and picked something with historical significance to the area.”

Stories told with the murals could center around Indigenous and Native American history, Black and brown history, queer history, and women’s history. 

According to the Dwelling Place website, their process includes, “working with a community steering committee, collaborating with a variety of artists, incorporating resident feedback into the selection or visioning process, and, finally, working with Caroline Cook founder of ‘Grand Rapids Walking Tours,’ to produce and capture tours of the murals and their histories.”

Four local artists and one regional artist were selected to participate in creating these murals, and Van Driel said they should all be completed within the month. 

The first mural to be unveiled, dedicated to Dr. Ella Sims, will have a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Sept. 4 from 11:00-12:00 p.m. 

Beginning in October there will be Heartside Mural Walking Tours. The first will be on Oct. 1 from 4:30-5:30 p.m. and the second on Oct. 10 from 2:00-3:00 p.m. Each tour will be a seven-block walk.

Other projects throughout Grand Rapids include the painting of smaller murals on social zone barricades themed around the surrounding businesses, murals being painted in Monroe North, and upcoming interactive educational murals and large installation murals. 

Van Driel said the murals are important for the character of the city and the people they attract. 

“It creates a sense of identity for downtown districts,” Van Driel said. “There are lots of conversations between residents in the buildings they’re on, people come downtown and visit to see them, and we have so many weddings, professional photography and even senior pictures.”

Van Driel said she loves that the murals not only help to activate public spaces but also honor the history of the city and those that came before. 

“It’s a part of our city that helps add vibrancy and the perception of safety and cleanliness and it’s all about making people feel welcome and have artwork to connect to relate with,” Van Driel said.