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Feb 3, 2003

The Good City

An innovative collaboration between students in an English 101 class at Calvin College and residents of the Burton Heights community in Grand Rapids will be celebrated in February, March and April at the college's art gallery.

"The Good City: Burton Heights in Image and Word" or "La Buena Ciudad: Burton Heights en Imagen y Palabra" brings together both images and text, in Spanish and English, to paint a picture of Burton Heights, one of the city's most interesting neighborhoods and site for a major HUD-sponsored Calvin community partnership.

The exhibit will run February 24 to March 14 and March 24 to April 8 with an opening reception scheduled for February 27 from 7-9 p.m.

Calvin professor Debra Rienstra (above) led the English 101 class, an introductory offering that is required for all Calvin students. She saw the writing project as a way to enliven and enrich a course students often dread taking.

"The standard English 101 paper," she says, "is an academic exercise read only by the instructor and perhaps a few fellow students. This project, on the other hand, asked students to do writing with an immediate, real-world use and a potentially large audience."

Calvin senior photography major Melissa Keeley of Midland Park, N.J., took the exhibit's 27 photographs.

Keeley photographed residents in their homes. "The setting of their home," she says, "is integral because it creates an intimacy between the viewer and the subject." She notes, however, that sometimes there is an awkwardness in the images and that this awkwardness can create a distance between the viewer and the subject. "This distance," she says, "does give the viewer a sense of how those depicted have frequently been seen as outsiders."

The project was an inspiring one for Keeley.

"I met so many great people," she says, "and really experienced the beauty of the community in Burton Heights."

Rienstra's students feel the same way. Prior to their interviews they read up on cities, studying everything from the New Urbanism movement to Scripture for insight on what makes a city great. And then they went to Burton Heights to talk to residents about, says Rienstra, "their lives, jobs, families, hopes, dreams, fears, insecurities and what they envisioned to be important in the good city."

Says Rienstra: "The people challenged our abstract ideals with concrete, living examples."

The texts that Rienstra's students drew from the interviews are telling.

  • "People in greater Grand Rapids ignore it (Burton Heights)."
  • "Good people, diversity and neighborhood associations are three positive qualities about my neighborhood."
  • "Nosotros, como todos, queremos llegar a ser mejores personas, progresar en la sociedad, y educarnos mejor."
  • "I had heard of the American dream and I discovered it here in Grand Rapids."

The barrier-free Center Art Gallery, located on the lower level of the Spoelhof College Center, is open Monday through Thursday from 9 am to 9 pm, Friday from 9 am to 5 pm, and Saturday from 12 pm to 4 pm. There is no admission charge.

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Contact Phil de Haan
616-957-6475 (v)
616-957-7069 (f)