The year was 2001. A new weekly publication hit the streets of Lansing that promised to be “a newspaper for the rest of us.” Driven by the mantra that “objectivity is bullshit,” the publisher of this subversive new venture, veteran journalist Berl Schwartz, was on a mission to seek the truth, to illuminate the heart and soul of a community, but with a decidedly progressive bent that unapologetically eschewed the staid conventions of the corporate press.
Two decades hence, this vicennial edition of City Pulse provides a retrospective on the events that shaped our city and its people through the lens of the major stories we’ve covered in these pages. Heeding George Santanaya’s ageless aphorism that those who fail to understand history are doomed to repeat it, we pause to reflect on Lansing’s recent past and to look forward: What’s in store for our fair city over the next two decades?
Twenty years ago, Lansing was wrapping up an era of progress with Mayor David Hollister at the helm. His focus on downtown development — acknowledging that a vibrant core business district is the economic engine of any successful city — became a hallmark of his legacy, thanks to the construction of a minor league baseball stadium and the demolition of the Michigan Avenue “sin strip” that made the entrance to Lansing’s downtown look and feel dilapidated and dangerous. Hollister also emphasized regional cooperation toward a greater collective good, marked especially by his collaborative work to keep and expand General Motors’ presence in the region. His leadership and vision laid the foundation for what would follow over the next two decades.
Some of the seeds Hollister planted took root and blossomed under the hard-charging tutelage of Mayor Virg Bernero. Cooley Law School’s meteoric growth gave new life to Washington Square. Streetscape enhancements and the construction of BWL’s new power plant sparked a major resurgence in REO Town. Old Town continued to grow and thrive, thanks to gritty risk takers like Robert Busby and Rick Preuss. Pat Gillespie, Lansing’s homegrown development dynamo, made massive investments in and around downtown, bringing new residents, new businesses and new energy to the center of the city. Sparrow Health System and McLaren embarked on major expansions. And the redevelopment of the Ottawa Power Station on the banks of the Grand River gave the city new hope that big dilemmas could be turned into even bigger opportunities.
Hollister’s focus on regionalism hasn’t fared as well. Notwithstanding the ebbs and flows that one might expect over time, a discouraging theme has emerged: the almost complete lack of interest in any meaningful form of regional cooperation by Lansing’s suburban neighbors, who seem quite content to live on the periphery of a challenged urban environment and casually disclaim any responsibility to be part of the solution.
There have been exceptions, of course — mostly the mutually beneficial tax-sharing agreements between the city and neighboring townships to support the growth of GM, Jackson National Life and the airport — but we’re talking about the Big Ideas: a truly regional vision for what Greater Lansing can become; the possibilities for regional governance capable of implementing that vision; the prospects for regional taxation that could finance big-ticket items like a performing arts center; all of which can turn a disjointed collection of independent communities into a nationally relevant metropolis in the mold of Indianapolis, Kansas City, or Louisville. And none of which have ever been seriously on the table in Lansing.
It’s up to today’s civic leaders, and those who follow, to deconstruct the pervasive power of parochialism, to be brave enough and bold enough to step forward and spark the conversations that could lead to real change. We see very little of the visionary leadership that drove significant progress in Lansing under Mayor Hollister and, like it or not, Mayor Bernero. We’re certainly not getting it from our current mayor, but neither have our elected officials at any level of government made a meaningful effort to articulate what real regionalism could look like, the transformational impact it could have on all of us, and the pathways that could make it a reality. The status quo remains a powerful force, indeed.
Outside the downtown sphere, we’ve seen impactful progress in uplifting neighborhoods and the people who live there, thanks to the relentless work of bonafide community builders like the east side’s Joan Nelson, south Lansing’s Kathie Dunbar and the Northwest Initiative’s Peggy Vaughn-Payne. Despite their herculean efforts to improve the city’s quality of life, one family at a time and one block at a time, the underlying dynamic in Lansing remains a tale of two cities: One that looks more like Moores River Drive and another that looks more like Baker Street; one populated by folks who make a comfortable living that affords them a middle-class lifestyle, the other by people who struggle on the margins of poverty, barely scraping by on subsistence wages in substandard rental housing. Lansing is no different than most older cities in this regard, and simple fixes aren’t in the cards because poverty, racial inequity and the lack of economic opportunity are complex issues that require systemic solutions.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the ongoing struggles of the Lansing School District, where student achievement still ranks in the bottom half of districts statewide. Graduation rates have improved from just 54% to nearly 70% over the past five years — a sure sign of progress — but persistent poverty limits the potential of urban school districts across the nation, which in turn limits the prospects for a successful city. Lansing is no exception. Equalized funding between urban and suburban schools will make a difference, as will the district’s new free pre-K program. But student achievement is driven as much or more by the support students receive at home than in the classroom. Erasing the structural inequities that perpetuate generational poverty is the key to putting today’s young people — and the city itself — on the path to future success.
Lest we dwell too much on the negatives, one of the bright spots over the past 20 years is Lansing’s surging arts and culture scene, surely a major factor in attracting and retaining the young talent that will drive Lansing forward in the decades to come. Another is the city’s remarkable parks and recreational assets, where natural wonders like Scott Woods and Hunter’s Ridge are readily accessible for walking and biking. So, too, is the coming of age of a new generation of activists demanding fair and equal treatment of Lansing’s LGBTQ+ community and insisting on real progress to close the equity gap that still leaves people of color at a comparative disadvantage.
It bears repeating that Lansing will only reach its full potential when we figure out how to lift up every family so we can all share in the prosperity that many of us take for granted. We will truly thrive when we create economic and educational systems capable of eradicating the disparities that lurk beneath nearly all of our most vexing challenges.
Once upon a time not so long ago, Lansing was a blue collar town where GM and state government were the beginning and the end of our identity. Today, we’re ever more diverse, ever more sophisticated, and blessed with an increasingly optimistic sense of our potential as a community. In the city’s modern era, the transformation began with Dave Hollister’s vision for a “world class city” and continued with Virg Bernero’s insistence that we could make just about anything happen through sheer force of will.
Now, a growing community of grassroots leaders, activists and entrepreneurs are providing the purpose and passion that will power our ongoing evolution. They understand that if we can just replicate our small-scale wins across the cityscape, remember the lessons of our recent history, and hold a shared vision for the future, we can create the community we all know Lansing can be. We don’t have billionaires to finance our dreams, like Grand Rapids or Kalamazoo, but we have grit and determination and boatloads of creativity. Where can we be 20 years from now? Anywhere we want to be.