STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Grand Rapids is booming. Will everyone in the city have a chance to benefit?

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio

Grand Rapids is changing.

Michigan’s second-largest city is in the middle of a development boom. All around town, new buildings are going up, or old buildings are being renovated.

It’s a welcome sight for many who endured the long years of Michigan’s devastating recession.

But the new development in Grand Rapids has raised new questions about whether everyone in the city will benefit from the boom times. And, as is often the case, many of the questions revolve around racial equity.

This week and next, State of Opportunity will dive into those questions to see what’s happening, and what can be done about it.

Tracey Addison moved onto Logan Street in Grand Rapids when she was seven years old. I met here as she walked her little black dog Coco on a sunny day.

She had on a long coat and sunglasses while she pushed her walker through a neighborhood that’s starting to look a lot different from the one she moved into all those years ago.

"A lot of changes have progressed around the neighborhood," she told me "And I like the changes. I see that the old businesses that were on wealthy and around the area are improving, new businesses coming in ... "

Coffee shops, restaurants, an organic grocer, a salon. As we walk, a sweet smell of malt is carried down the street from one of the city’s many new breweries.

"Me and Coco used to walk on Wealthy all the time," she says. "When more Caucasian people started coming in, we kind of felt uncomfortable that they didn't want us around in their area. So we try to stick around over here."

 Addison says she’s happy to see Wealthy Street bouncing back. Even though she doesn’t go there anymore.

"Me and Coco used to walk on Wealthy all the time," she says. "When more Caucasian people started coming in, we kind of felt uncomfortable that they didn’t want us around in their area. So we try to stick around over here."

No one put up a sign to keep Tracey Addison out. No one told her to stop visiting the new businesses that sit only a block from the house where she’s lived most her life. But she says she felt out of place anyway. It’s just a feeling she says. She gets looks, she says.

One of the biggest changes on Wealthy in recent years is one that, maybe no one intended, but everyone has now noticed. In what was once a mostly black neighborhood with many black businesses, now nearly everyone you see is white.

And the development boom that led to changes on wealthy street isn’t over.

"There’s over 2,000 units of housing under development in Grand Rapids right now," says Jeremy DeRoo, co-executive director of LINC UP, a community development organization based in Grand Rapids’ Southeast side, a part of town that includes Tracy Addison’s house, Wealthy Street and many of the city’s black residents. "Grand Rapids is going through a significant real-estate investment boom right now. And it’s going to continue for a while, because the market conditions are right to allow that to happen."

Earlier this month, LINC got a hold of a proposal from another local developer looking at investing in the neighborhood. It’s the kind of proposal developers usually like to keep secret, at least until the property has been acquired. LINC UP posted the whole thing on the web, and hosted a community meeting to discuss it.

"If we're not fighting it with money ... then I don't think it's going to change. It's just going to be us yelling at a wall."

Dozens of people came out. Regal Raines was one of them. He told me, it’s not that he doesn’t want to see investment in his neighborhood. He just wants to make sure his neighbors aren’t pushed out - that they can actually benefit from the growth. The question is how to do it.

"Do you have any ideas on that?" I asked Raines.

"Money rules the land," he said. "So if we’re not fighting it with money … then I don’t think it’s going to change. It’s just going to be us yelling at a wall."

So, how does it change? How  do residents of an area without a lot of economic resources, specifically black folks in that area, build wealth and control the neighborhood’s future?

We’ll try to answer that question next week.

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.