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Grand Rapids

A house for sale in Grand Rapids
Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Don Norman settles into his chair, and pulls his blanket up to his chest. On the TV, Dick Van Dyke is about to solve a murder.

The room is warm, shades drawn. It’s a good old house. A bit of plaster is coming off the ceiling in the corner, but the house is neat. Every shelf is filled with pictures of family.

Don’s been here 40 years, he says. Ever since he and his wife got pushed out of their last home, when the hospital near them started an expansion and bulldozed their old block.

courtesy of Jewellynne Richardson

Our State of Opportunity team has been looking all year at the connection between neighborhoods and opportunity for children and families. We've been hearing a lot of concerns in the neighborhoods of Grand Rapids about how new development is making life harder for long time residents. 

Down Eastern Avenue in Grand Rapids, just before the railroad tracks, there’s a little building. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but inside Jewellynne Richardson has built a rich world of culture.

“I consider myself to be the one-stop culture shop,” she says.

Dustin Dwyer

Finding a home in Grand Rapids is becoming more difficult, especially for renters with low incomes. According to Zillow.com, the average cost of a rental unit in Grand Rapids rose almost 8 percent last year. That was the 11th highest increase in the country, among the 200 largest cities. Even for those who can afford to rent, finding a place isn’t easy.

three women and one man with microphone
April Van Buren / Michigan Radio

That's the question we explored at our latest State of Opportunity live event. 

We had a full house at the Cook Library Center in Grand Rapids on Thursday for "Stories From the Shadows." The evening included personal stories from undocumented immigrants living in Grand Rapids as well as a panel discussion about the most pressing issues facing that community.  

State of Opportunity reporter Dustin Dwyer moderated the conversation with our three panelists: 

Terry Johnston/Wikimedia Commons

A recent research brief from the Brookings Institution takes a look at the startling rise of concentrated poverty in America over the past decade or so. 

The brief finds that the number of neighborhoods in the U.S. where at least 40% of residents are considered poor has risen by more than 70% since 2000. That is to say, poverty has become more concentrated in certain areas. That's significant because the Brookings researchers say people living in areas of concentrated poverty face a "double burden" – their own poverty, and the poverty of those around them:

The challenges of poor neighborhoods – including worse health outcomes, higher crime rates, failing schools, and fewer job opportunities – make it that much harder for individuals and families to escape poverty and often perpetuate and entrench poverty across generations. These factors affect not only the residents and communities touched by concentrated disadvantage, but also the regions they inhabit and the ability of those metro areas to grow in inclusive and sustainable ways.

The problem of concentrated poverty has been spreading to places you might not expect: the suburbs. Brookings finds that the number of neighborhoods with at least 40% of people living in poverty has grown by 150% in the suburbs since 2000. That's about triple the rate of growth in urban areas during the same time. 

And there's one metropolitan area in Michigan where the rise of suburban poverty stands out: Grand Rapids. 

Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio

 The big test is coming. 

"I don’t even want to take it, says Musa, a third grader at Congress Elementary in Grand Rapids. "I'm not a big fan of tests."

Musa carries himself like an adult: hands casually in his pockets, shoulders back.  He stands on the edge of a cracked asphalt basketball court.

It’s picture day at Congress, and Musa has on a red t-shirt with black sleeves. He says it’s for special occasions, only.  

On the shirt, the words, “Destined for greatness," are laid out across Musa's chest.

"Did you pick it?" I ask him about the shirt.

"Yeah," he says.

"Why did you like what it says?" I ask.

"Because I didn’t want it to be something bad," he said. "So I put ‘Destined for Greatness,’ so people think I’m good, not bad."