Pages from a Popular History of Grand Rapids


Editor's Note [New River Free Press, Grand Rapids, Feb. 1976]: One of the defenders of the Sixth Street Bridge at a recent City Commission meeting was John Hunting of the Dyer-Ives Foundation. We asked him to articulate his views on the subject for New River readers and he came up with the following piece.

By John Hunting

To survive, a community must foster a sense of place to which its citizens can relate successfully, and in which they can participate fully. Furthermore, to create such a sense of place there must be identifiable symbols through which all citizens can relate to each other and share their common experience. These symbols, which are often focal points, can be new, such as the Calder or the soon-to-be-formed Westside Bicentennial Park. But they also can consist of those significant structures of the past to which all generations--past, present, and future--can relate and inter-relate. It is these symbols that help give our place uniqueness, identity, and continuity.

Certainly, one of the most important of these symbols, for example, was the old Grand Rapids City Hall. Aesthetically desirable and architecturally irreplaceable, it is now a parking lot--a victim of twentieth century cultural barbarism.

However, there are others still left, although their existence is often threatened by what is called progress. They range from certain buildings and monuments in our downtown commercial area to whole districts such as Heritage Hill and the Indian Mounds area.

In my judgment, the Sixth Street Bridge is such a symbol--historically unique and artistically pleasurable. It is the last bridge of its type in the State; there are no more others like it. It is built of wrought iron--which is tougher than steel--and this is one reason it has lasted so long. Also, from a traffic usage standpoint it has not been as important as the other bridges--all of which have been replaced. Consequently, it  has somehow survived, while other bridges were improved to satisfy our automania neurosis.

Its architectural style and structural materials are of an earlier generation--all of which will be lost to succeeding generations if those of us who care do not act now, and act swiftly.

There are some other reasons for caring. For example, Sixth Street Bridge is reasonably human in its scale; (stand near the expressway bridges sometime if you want to understand what human scale means); it is the last bridge with wood planking (particularly significant in the City where wood played such an important part in its past); and if painted, it would be a charming contrast to the rather severe modern concrete bridges spanning other parts of the river.

There is more than just the bridge at stake, however. The federal government's policy (so far) is that it will only put up funds for a four-lane bridge. This means that in all probability, the 101-year-old Comstock Building--built by one of our earliest pioneers, C. C. Comstock--will have to be demolished. Although it appears to be somewhat rundown, this building--an outstanding example of Victorian Italianate commercial style--is in superb shape. It still has all of its fluted columns, and its decorative brackets under the roofline have successfully weathered the many seasons. This building has the architectural merit and the historic significance to be placed upon the National Register, and such action is now being taken.

Thus, not only will Grand Rapids lose an historic bridge, but a significant historic building as well, a questionable way to begin our bicentennial celebrations.

Furthermore, it is important to note the relationship of the bridge to its surroundings. On the west bank, just below the bridge, there is the Fish Ladder, which already is becoming a very popular attraction. The restoration of the bridge would only enhance the value of the Fish Ladder by presenting  viewers with something different and far more interesting than the proposed four-lane, concrete replacement. Also, on the east bank, just a few hundred feet from the bridge, is the old Turner House--so significant to our history that it has already been placed on the national Historic Register.

On the other side of the bridge, on the east bank, is the Comstock building and also the new City park where the Grand Trunk tracks used to run. The bridge forms the vital connection between the two sides. Without it, there are four important but unrelated elements in the area. With it, you have formed an historic and scenic area, pulled together by the unique bridge. The bridge becomes  synergistic in that it enhances what is already there; the whole becomes more important than its various parts.

So, you  may ask, what are the problems in saving and restoring it? The major problem is that the federal government will put up three-fourths of the cost a new four-lane bridge, but will not, thus far, put up a dime for restoration of an historically viable two-lane bridge.

The Kent County Council for Historic Preservation, however, has been working on this  problem, and there are indications that between the federal government, which gives the money, and the state, which then has to redistribute it--there may be a possibility of significantly modifying this attitude to include restoration as well as replacement. If this can be done, and if the costs of restoration are not too high, there is fighting chance of saving the bridge. The decision will then be up to the City Commission, and will have to be made by March 31 when the federal money will no longer be available.

Will they maintain this symbol which helps give our community a sense of place through its historical and aesthetic uniqueness, or will they let it go the way of our old City Hall? If enough citizens fail to show sufficient care, it will inevitably be the latter.

If any local citizens are interested in this particular historic preservation project or any other aspect of preserving our heritage, I suggest they contact Weldon Frankforter, president of the Kent County Council for Historical Preservation, who can be reached at the Public Museum.

The forces working against the Central City are powerful and numerous, and only if enough of its citizens care and put forth energy through that caring, will it ultimately become a humanized community with a sense of place.


(NOTE: Two books all people who are concerned about the survival of community should read are: Wolf VonEckardt's A Place to Live and Jane Jacobs' Death and Life of Great American Cities.)


A New River Free Press Reprint/Sept. '76

New River Free Press:

Your Friendly Guide To Urban Survival & Improvement

From 1973 to 1977 Grand Rapids' Independent Voice

This community newspaper was lovingly hand-crafted on an
IBM Selectric. All of its Bookman headlines were produced by
individually hand-pressing transfer lettering.

--Michael Chacko Daniels, Editor & Publisher

Reprinted as part of a new, continuing
Grand Rapids, Michigan,
Popular History Project

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Posted on Tuesday, June 28, 2005 at 05:48PM by Registered CommenterMichael Chacko Daniels | CommentsPost a Comment