Friday, December 24, 2010

The Politics of Planning in Grand Rapids: 1949-1959

Dorothy Judd

As 2010 draws to a close, I am pleased to announce the completion of a project that I began back in 2007. This month the Michigan Historical Review published my article which covered the intersection of politics and urban planning in Grand Rapids, Michigan between 1949 and 1959. The thought about researching this era began when I started digging around in the Bentley Historical Library while at the University of Michigan for another class project back in late 2006. One of the archivists noted that I was from Grand Rapids and asked if I had ever looked at the Judd Papers. I mentioned that I had not, and she led me to the twelve boxes of materials that Ms. Judd had left behind to the University of Michigan upon her death in 1989. These twelve boxes led me across the state of Michigan in search of other sources, whether in Grand Rapids, Lansing, or Detroit. I met a number of people, mostly notably Keith Honey, who were willing to talk about their part in the era and helpfully shared their stories. There was a great amount of material in dusty corners of the State Library and in the Grand Rapids archives that had never been examined previously, and this information illuminating.

Ms. Judd, who is pictured above and also on the cover of the Michigan Historical Review this year, was a remarkable woman. She was especially remarkable for leading the formation of a political coalition in Grand Rapids which ended one political machine that had lasted since 1916, transformed the city over a ten year period, and continues to impact Grand Rapids and Kent County politics in the present day.

The coalition that Ms. Judd led was in name non-partisan, but was at its heart a progressive Republican movement that propelled a west Michigan brand of Republicanism seen in politicians such as Gerald Ford, Paul Henry, and to some extent, Vern Ehlers. The end of the Ehlers era this year in some ways returns Kent County Republicans a pre-1949 ideology. The Republican who was bested by Judd in 1949 was Grand Rapids Mayor George Welsh, heeded a political ideology very similar to Justin Amash: minimal governmental spending, the labeling of any governmental role in the economy as unhealthy, and that the best thing for the United States was an unfettered role for private enterprise. In contrast to Welsh, Judd, her close ally Paul Goebel (also a close friend of Gerald Ford), the role of the state was essential to creating a better vision of Grand Rapids that improved the downtown, redeveloped neighborhoods, and connecting the metropolitan region. While Judd and Goebel succeed with many of these challenges, they significantly failed to improve residential neighborhoods or win support among the growing suburbs of Wyoming and Paris Township.

Of course, you could learn about this in greater detail if you read the article. There are plenty of good maps, and if you want political data from Kent County between 1930 and 1960, just let me know (I have truckloads). I consider this article to be the second of my three pieces of Grand Rapids; the first, which was published in 2005, covered the Civil War era in Grand Rapids and other Michigan communities. The third article, for which I will begin researching on next year, will examine the political evolution of Kent and Washtenaw Counties into two distinct political communities between 1964 and 2010. Stay tuned.

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