Calvin alumni nurture strong, sustainable Eastown community

When Heather Van Dyke-Titus was a Calvin student, Wealthy Street “wasn’t even on [her] radar.”

She now owns some of its better-known businesses.

Heather (class of ’97) and her brothers, Jackson Van Dyke (’03) and Barry Van Dyke (’05), bought, renovated and own the properties that house Wealthy Street’s Brick Road Pizza, The Electric Cheetah and The Meanwhile.

The siblings make up Bear Manor Properties, a for-profit company that owns 16 commercial and residential Uptown buildings, including Harmony Brewing and an intentional living community. Bear Manor rents out all its properties, with the exception of Harmony, which the Van Dykes run themselves.

The siblings are all Calvin graduates. Jackson and Barry started Bear Manor in 2004, fixing up residential properties.

For them, the work is all about positively impacting Grand Rapids and creating a strong, sustainable community. They believe a neighborhood’s physical appearance is a crucial component.

“If a neighborhood looks kept up and cared for, then crime is less likely to occur,” Jackson explained. “I believe that people internalize their surroundings. If a neighborhood is beautiful, it positively affects mood and self-esteem. If it is garbage-filled and ugly, then the inverse is true.”

The Van Dykes originally planned to buy a building, renovate it and sell it, but the housing market thwarted that idea. So instead, they rent their restored buildings, taking pains to select only commercial renters who will benefit the neighborhood.

Brick Road Pizza marked the Van Dykes’ first venture into commercial properties. When they bought the building, it came with an empty next-door lot. With a mind to the local aesthetic, they later constructed the LEED certified Electric Cheetah on that location.

“If you look at it, the lines from the Brick Road building—they’re echoed in the lines of the Cheetah building, which are echoed in lines of The Meanwhile,” Heather said.

The siblings do their renovation work themselves. “We sub out things like the electrical, the plumbing,” Heather said. “But like the sheer grunt work of renovation … we do ourselves. The painting, the finishing, all of that.”

Their work often requires stripping a building down to its studs and rebuilding from there.

“When we started working on The Meanwhile, you would walk in the door and stop because there was no floor. We pulled the floor of that basement out in buckets—like chopped up in buckets—and hauled it out to a dumpster,” Heather said.

“Sometimes houses are divided up all crazy, into apartments and all kind of junk,” she explained, “so we would convert them back into single-family homes.”

Bear Manor has received multiple Grand Rapids Historic Preservation Awards for its renovations. In 2008, the company was recognized for its work in restoring 1041, 1047, 1051, and 1053 Wealthy Street.

These four houses now make up The Commonwealth, a largely autonomous intentional living community. Now in its third year, The Commonwealth consists of 12-15 students who meet monthly with Gail and Ken Heffner, their Calvin staff mentors.

“Our projects and passions lie in sustainability,” said Claire Phillippi, Commonwealth’s correspondent. “We also are invested in our wider neighborhood. We get out and learn about Eastown and share our passion with other Calvin students.”

“My role is to do the landlord stuff,” Heather said.

Bear Manor Properties is a part of a wave of Wealthy Street reinvestment that began in the early
2000s, along with businesses such as Art of the Table and Wealthy Street Bakery.
These new additions joined a handful of others that have operated on Wealthy Street for the last 40-50 years, such as Kregel Books, Lady Love Barber Shop and Ron’s Car Wash.

“They are like the bedrock of Wealthy Street,” Heather said.

But Wealthy Street was a very different place before that wave of reinvestment, while the Van Dykes were still studying at Calvin.

“Many of the buildings were empty with boarded up windows, and after dark the streets were not safe,” Barry said. “The corner of Wealthy and Fuller was a particularly dangerous spot. The Huntington Bank hadn’t moved in yet, and there was always a crowd of folks up to no good hanging around on that corner.”

The Van Dykes are excited about the area’s recent development.

“I think that Wealthy Street is an example of what a city can and should be,” Heather said. “It’s just diverse across the board. It’s got architectural diversity; there’s residential, there’s business; there’s old businesses, there’s new businesses; there’s racial and ethnic diversity in ownership of the businesses; there’s restaurants and retail. So that mix is what a city needs — that vibrancy.”