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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Fighting to preserve a community, and a culture, as development takes off in Grand Rapids

courtesy of Jewellynne Richardson
Jewellynne Richardson, top right, runs the West Michigan Jewels of Africa in Grand Rapids, and hears from many of the city's residents struggling to find affordable housing.

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.

It’s called the West Michigan Jewels of Africa, part store, part natural hair salon, part music studio, part community gathering spot. A whole lot happens here.

“I invite the youth to come in and I teach them about the culture,” she says. “I teach them about the red, black, green and gold, I teach them about pan-Africanism. “

She teaches drumming and sells traditional African clothing alongside traditional western clothing,  t-shirts and hats.

Richardson has invited me here on a day this space is usually closed, but for this day will be a spot for conversation about one particular important issue in Grand Rapids right now, housing.  

“I don’t even know what you’re calling this,” she says to me. “But I call it the truth in housing Grand Rapids, because we need to spread the truth about what is going on in our housing situations here.” 

What is going on is that Grand Rapids is booming. Massive investments and new buildings are popping up all over town. That is pushing rents and home prices up in every neighborhood, which is pushing many of the city’s longtime residents out.

"I really wish that they would take into consideration that what they're developing is not suitable for the people here in our county," says Wendy Allen, who calls herself a concerned citizen.

“Who doesn’t want to see a better community?” asks Althea Lasha, echoing what many people from this side of town have said to me.

On the one hand, economic development can and has been good. But on the other hand, it is making life harder for lots of the city’s longtime residents.

“And I do know people who were pushed out, because the rent is too high,” Lasha says. “And the landlord would raise it every month, every month. And people had been there for years. I mean years. And they’re on a fixed income.”

“I really wish that they would take into consideration that what they’re developing is not suitable for the people here in our county,” says Wendy Allen, who calls herself a concerned citizen.

Allen points out, a lot of the new apartment developments shooting up in Grand Rapids are just one or two bedroom units, going for way more than what folks in town are used to paying. It’s still not astronomical compared to other cities,but for people who’ve been here, it’s a big leap.

As we talk, another person walks in.

“Here’s Robert S.,” says Richardson. “Hey Rob.”

Robert S. Womack, "Robert S." as everyone calls him, is well known in this neighborhood, on the south side of Grand Rapids. He’s president of a radio station WYGR 94.9 FM – the soul of the city. And he has just started a term serving on the Kent County Commission.

"You can't call it out as racism, 'cause it's classism," Womack says. "But this classism is enhancing all of the outcomes that racism was looking for."

He says one aspect that people still find hard to talk about downtown where he now works, is the way these economic forces have racial outcomes.

“You can’t call it out as racism, ‘cause it’s classism,” Womack says. “But this classism is enhancing all of the outcomes that racism was looking for." 

What Womack calls for, same as Richardson and a lot of people I’ve talked to in the black community in Grand Rapids, is for people in this neighborhood to come together to get the resources to invest in the neighborhood themselves.

Because Womack, for one, isn’t convinced the city can do anything to stop the developers from taking over. Even though he believes they’re trying.

“But I’m here to tell the truth,” Womack says. “Because I’m from this neighborhood. These are my sisters and brothers. These are my aunts that are going through this crisis. And I don’t want to lie to them, ‘There’s something that’s coming out from the city, the county, that’s going to fix all your problems.’ No. You’re in a housing war.”

Not a housing crisis, as some say. To Womack, it’s a war.

To him, the people with the means will buy up, and are buying up, everything they can as Grand Rapids grows. And the people who’ve been here, in this neighborhood that means the black community, will have to fight to hold on. 

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.
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