Downtown Grand Rapids

Faculty member shows students in multi-year local history project the ripple effects of urban renewal

Like mid-20th century highway projects in many cities, the construction of I-196 through Grand Rapids produced reverberations in the ensuing decades for residents as well as the city’s development.

Matthew Daley, associate professor of history, has asked his students to peel back the resulting local history layer by layer, class by class, year by year.

The result is “Remaking the City: Grand Rapids, Michigan 1948-1976,” a continual class project in which Daley is working with students to uncover and understand the urban renewal efforts of that era. Daley wanted to set up a long-running effort where each subsequent group of students finds something new and adds a different element — sometimes taking the project in a different direction.

Matthew Daley
Matthew Daley, associate professor of history, is working with students to understand the effect of urban renewal and how it shaped Grand Rapids.
Image Credit: Valerie Hendrickson

Daley said students are helping with content for a website that is slated to migrate to the website for the Grand Rapids Historical Commission, Daley is a commission board member.

As a public historian with a deep archivist background who has extensively studied the impact of infrastructure on communities, Daley has not only enjoyed digging into this West Michigan history but also guiding his students to do the same.

“I wanted students to get their hands dirty, to have a project where they could see the scale,” Daley said. “I wanted them to work like a professional historian and go out there and see what is there.”

While logistical challenges such as distance or language barriers can impede historical study, Daley said these students have the opportunity to mine a trove of information. And it all starts with the construction of I-196.

Daley said highway projects in general had a profound impact on urban neighborhoods, displacing residents and often disproportionately affecting those with lower socioeconomic status or who were marginalized.

I-196, then and now

I-196 under construction
This image faces north from roughly Ah-Nab-Awen Park when the I-196 overpass supports were being built, Daley said. He noted the photo also shows the riverfront before parks and other modern amenities.
Seymour Beiboer Collection at the Grand Rapids Public Museum
The view in 2020 of I-196 as it crosses the Grand River just east of the U.S. 131 interchange.
Valerie Hendrickson

While photos and content of archives are crucial for this work, Daley also encourages his students to simply observe and then reconceptualize. The freeway’s wall, several stories high, in the middle of a Grand Rapids West Side neighborhood. Ah-Nab-Awen Park in the heart of downtown, once an industrial area. Prime pieces of downtown land that were dirt parking lots. The river, now embraced, wasn’t always, he said.

“This is the thing they were not expecting, a window into the familiar and yet the unfamiliar,” Daley said.

The city students now see reflects a relatively recent shift in American attitudes toward cities, Daley said.

I-196 under construction
I-196 under construction
These photos show the early days of the construction of I-196 through Grand Rapids.
Seymour Beiboer Collection at the Grand Rapids Public Museum
I-196 under construction

Rebecca Smith-Hoffman, a fellow historical commission board member, said the work Daley is doing with his students can help illuminate not only the freeway’s impact on people’s homes and lives but also on downtown, which experienced significant periods of struggle as suburbs thrived.

“Our hope is to not only get out the history of what happened, but also what it means when a small group of people make all the decisions for everyone else,” Smith-Hoffman said. “If people can learn from that I think it will be very helpful.”

Daley sees many more threads of urban renewal to explore with his students, noting decades of “almost unrelenting change” and a scale of transformation that he said is easy to take for granted.

“I don’t see this project ending any time soon,” he said.