Saved by the VanBelkum: How passionate neighbors saved a community institution
By Gabe Savercool
Creston has a rich history of neighbors fighting together to create and preserve key community resources.This tradition dates back to 1906, when the Creston Citizens’ Association, a group of local businesspeople and civic leaders, was formed with a key goal in mind: “advancing the educational interests of our ward and city.” In 1962, part of that goal was realized when a public library branch moved into the Old Kent Bank building (the red brick building at Quimby and Plainfield, soon to be home of Mad Grub).
But fewer than thirty years later, in 1991, the Grand Rapids Library Commission approved a master plan that included closing the Creston branch. Struggling with funds, the Library Commission decided that the Creston branch was not having enough impact to justify its cost.
Creston residents disagreed and spearheaded an effort to save the branch. The Creston Neighborhood Association and Friends of the Creston Library worked together and successfully preserved the branch.
Five years later, the Creston library branch was threatened again. The Grand Rapids Library Commission wanted to build a single library to serve the entire north side of Grand Rapids. After a series of meetings with local officials and community members, the Library Commission decided to move the Creston branch north to better serve the community. The current Creston library was deemed too small, with no avenues of expansion. Building a new branch in Creston was also difficult given the lack of parking availability in the business district, lack of walkability, and lack of suitable structures available, according to the Commission.
Local community members Lynn Pier-Fitzgerald, Sister Roberta Hefferan, Jeanne Thomas, and Shirley Balk brought this news to the CNA, who proceeded to pass a CNA library resolution demanding a new library between Sweet and Leonard Streets. During this time, the Library Commission was interested in passing a city library millage. This meant that both Creston and the Library Commission each had things the other wanted: Creston neighbors wanted a library within Creston boundaries and the Library Commission needed votes for the millage.
In 1997, the Library Commission agreed to a “renovated or new facility along Plainfield Avenue between Quimby and Sweet Streets” in return for votes for a library millage. But this too brought a challenge: where would the new library be housed? Two years after the agreement was settled, no building was deemed suitable for a new location, so Creston library staff began to advocate for an expansion of the agreed-to boundaries. Upon learning this news, committee members Teresa Knapp and Jeanne Thomas organized local Crestonites to scout potential locations and to write letters to the Library Commission and City Officials.
On June 29, 1999, the Creston branch library finally found its perfect home when Nick Van Belkum, a Creston High Graduate, donated the building that had housed his business for over 17 years. The building was three times the square footage of the previous location and within the agreed-upon geographic boundaries. In fewer than two years, city architects worked alongside Creston community members to design and renovate the building, creating the new Van Belkum branch.
The Van Belkum branch still operates today. The library offers many services to the Creston community, including a summer reading program for children, internet access, a quiet place to study and read, and free access to hundreds of thousands of books and movies. The Van Belkum branch is open from 10AM to 6PM on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and 2PM to 8PM on Wednesday.