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Uptown, four business districts just minutes east of Downtown Grand Rapids is an area with a unique mix of diverse businesses, cultural venues, and great people. It has a rich history dating back to the mid 1800’s when the area was used as farmland. In the 1870’s, this area began to be developed for commercial and residential purposes. Commercial development began to take off in 1876, when streetcar lines were installed on Wealthy and Cherry streets. The introduction of the street car encouraged more growth to the area, causing it to become a desirable place to own a business and to live. Business expansion was seen along the major corridors of Wealthy, Cherry, and East Fulton streets, and Lake Drive from downtown Grand Rapids to the resort area of Reeds Lake, in what is now East Grand Rapids. The area was home to many businesses, such as Freyling and Mendel’s Nursery, Huizenga Hardware Store, Metcalf Funeral Home, Ebleling Black Smith Shop, and many other meat markets, hardware, dry goods, grocery and drugstores.
During the early 1900’s the area grew into a high-spirited, lively district where residents, stagecoach travelers and streetcar visitors enjoyed performances at the Pastime Vaudette (now the Wealthy Theatre) built in 1911 or Half Way House on Cherry St. By 1926, M21 was a major travel route running through what is now known as Uptown along East Fulton Street, connecting travelers from Holland to Port Huron. As this travel route grew in use, the northern end of Uptown grew in popularity, with emerging businesses such as Van’s Pastry Shoppe, which is a neighborhood favorite to this day. This popular middle class area began to show signs of decline in the 1970’s, with businesses closing or relocating to more popular suburban areas. Many large houses were converted into multiple apartments and crime began to increase. As many as 25% of homes were vacant by the 1990’s, almost all storefronts were vacant and gang crime was so rampant that many people completely avoided the area. In this environment, local stakeholders mobilized in the early 1990’s, strengthening business and neighborhood associations. An organization called South East Economic Development (SEED) was then formed to save Wealthy Theatre (old Pastime Vaudette) and encourage historic preservation along the commercial corridors. The area struggled, but began to re-emerge as a cool area for artists, students and activist throughout the1990’s. Various commercial buildings and historic homes began to be purchased and renovated, with new businesses and residents locating to the area. The reopening of Wealthy Theatre in 1998 as a cultural arts center heralded the transformation of the entire area.
In the early 2000’s, community stakeholders began to work even closer together, forming the Uptown Advisory Council to work on projects as a comprehensive area. Since 2003 the leaders in Uptown have been very organized, working cohesively on marketing, advertising, special events, wayfinding signage, public infrastructure improvements and more. In 2004, Uptown was selected as one of the first Michigan Cool Cities: Neighborhoods in Progress.
In 2009, the City officially designated Uptown as the first Corridor Improvement District within City limits. This allows Uptown to capture tax dollars that are invested within its boundaries and use them for specific public projects.
In 2013, resulting from a petition and district-wide vote, the City created the first Business Improvement District in Uptown. This gives Uptown property owners the ability to assess themselves and invest those dollars back into the district by way of marketing and branding, enhanced streetscape design and maintenance, and economic development incentives.