Downtown Lansing

Lenawee Street, Lansing

Circumstances dropped me in downtown Lansing Tuesday morning with an hour to waste. I used the opportunity to take a few pictures, one or two of which I rather liked. In the process I was wandering around and thinking about another time I’d wandered downtown Lansing.

I moved to the Lansing area in October of 1977; I’d accepted a State job and needed a cheap place to live until I understood my new budget. So I took a bus from Kalamazoo, picked up a copy of the paper, and walked around downtown looking at inexpensive rooms. Most of ’em were dumps. I settled on one down by the river on Lenawee Street; I’ll talk about that a bit further down the page.

What I remember about that day, besides the sorry rooms, was downtown Lansing. It was hard not to notice that Washington Mall, which was (is) the central business district (but mostly no longer a mall), had far too many empty storefronts. I noted the still-in-business Knapps department store and the Gladmer theater, and stared at the historical paintings gallery in Ma Bell’s windows. I noticed a few downtown restaurants (including Jim’s Tiffany Place, which was obviously beyond my means), Marshall Music, and Pirelli’s barber shop. I could live here, I thought.

The Capitol building (and its Mutual Building annex) were familiar territory; I’d visited each several times while working political campaigns. The pretty churches around the Capitol complex I’d noticed before. On the other hand, the state governmental complex buildings “behind” the Capitol were suddenly more interesting to me; these relatively new Large Office Buildings were evidence of the then-recent expansion of state government, which had comfortably worked mainly out of the Capitol and Cass buildings for several decades. (My new job was in another, sprawling, State office complex off the edge of the metropolitan area.)

These buildings, and the extensive (unpaved mud) parking lots which served them, had clearly knocked out an entire neighborhood. I wondered a bit about that, as we’d come to understand that “urban renewal” has victims.

North of the Capitol was mostly inexpensive housing, and was where I mostly looked at rooms. None really appealed to me. Directly south of the complex, it was more interesting; a mix of old houses, some converted to (mostly law) offices, and larger buildings, most of which housed organizational headquarters which doubled as lobbying operations. I’d not, to that point, given much thought to lobbying as a physical presence; it was a bit of a surprise to discover that some lobbying firms justified such edifices. Naive, I suppose; these buildings were a reminder that not everyone approaches politics as a public obligation.

So how’s the downtown changed? Washington Avenue’s a street again, and the central business district recovered; the shops mostly cater to government workers’ lunch breaks. Jim’s is long gone, but I managed to eat there once or twice, and enjoyed. The government complex has added three large buildings, two of which are Works of Art. My job regularly required me to attend downtown meetings, so I grew pretty familiar with one of the (now) older Large Office Buildings and a couple other places. The parking’s been paved. And there are more lobbying firms with buildings south of the complex. It’s a better place, on the whole, but on the whole it’s really much the same.

I ended up living in the house pictured at the top of this page for five months. The place is east of the central business district, a block or so from the State Journal‘s newsroom. It wasn’t a bad place, but everyone was pretty poor and the police tended to keep the neighborhood under surveillance. The Grand River’s just a block away, and I’d wander along the waterfront park when I needed to get out of the house. Downtown’s a couple blocks the other direction, and bad as that was I could easily find a meal or a bookstore, which met my needs.

I lived in that upstairs porch, which was pretty cold but reasonably comfortable when the other tenants were civil. There were, I think, five upstairs rooms and a shared kitchen; I had perhaps ten roomies over the course of the five months. Only two tenants stand out in my memory: A probably-gay night-shift accountant who doubled as a taxi driver, and a mid-teens girl who was essentially a runaway but seemed to be coping fairly well. I hope things worked out for her.

The immediate neighborhood’s changed completely. This house is the only structure remaining on either side of the block; gone are maybe a half-dozen houses and The Lansing Center for the Arts. Why this building survives is a mystery. It was a Bed & Breakfast for a time, and those owners fixed it up nicely, but it’s since reverted to its 1977 condition. Cooley Law School and Davenport University have both expanded into the neighborhood, which is more gain than loss for the city’s downtown.

One last, soap opera, memory. One morning I was wakened by one of the neighbors, who was waving a shotgun outside our front door and raving at my landlord, whom he accused of sleeping with his wife (well, he used some other words, which you can probably guess). The cops came, and calmed things down. Turned out the neighbor was right; within a few days the wife had moved into our house. A couple weeks later my landlord and his girl abandoned the place to his wife, who’d been living elsewhere and was a bit mystified by these developments. I found myself an apartment, paid off my rent, and moved away.

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