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Defining Division: Economic opportunities and residents' voice

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María Tenorio, resident of South Division

María Cervantes, advocate of Burton Heights

South Division

As one of the city's most traveled road—Division Avenue represents community and entrepreneurship opportunities for its residents and business owners. Here we interview several residents, advocates, and entrepreneurs on the kind of development they would like to see in their neighborhood.
For our second article in the Defining Division series, we will focus on what some of the resident leaders and advocates would want to see in their neighborhood. The physical boundaries we have defined for this series are from Wealthy Street to 28th Street, from Cass Avenue to the east and from Buchanan Avenue to the west. These boundaries compound the boundaries the Planning Department of the City of Grand Rapids has allocated for the South Division Development Area Specific Plan.

At any point during the day, one can expect the South Division corridor to be bustling with movement of the cars, and pedestrians walking to and from their homes, the bus station, and the various businesses along the avenue. Since its early beginnings when the corridor was known as the city’s most traveled roadway, Division Avenue has served as a transportation branch for those accessing the heart of the city of Grand Rapids.  

After the 1929 physical widening of South Division, commerce, retail, and residents continued to settle along the neighborhood surrounding the avenue; this included the southeast end near Buchanan Avenue, Burton Heights, and parts of Garfield Park. Today, this area is still known as a busy and lively corridor for vehicles and pedestrian alike.  

Because this is a highly trafficked area, with Latinx residents making up 50 percent of the demographics, Alfredo Tenorio and Maria Tenorio, originally from Mexico, decided to open their grocery store, Sin Fronteras along south Division. Sin Fronteras which in English means "without frontiers" is located on 2437 South Division near the Kroc Center and the railroad tracks. The family also lives along South Division, so it was equally important to have their work be physically near to home.

Alfredo and Maria Tenorio, owners of Sin Fronteras. Photo courtesy of El Periodico Informador USA. In the last five years since Sin Fronteras opened, Alfredo Tenorio has purchased the building where the store is located.

“Nuestro negocio ha sido muy exitoso ya que no hay mucha competencia de tiendas corporativas grandes,” says Tenorio.
{Our business has been very successful because there is little to no competition from corporate grocery stores near South Division]

Maria Tenorio welcomes every customer with a smile. When visiting Sin Fronteras expect to be greeted with Maria's kind smile and hospitality.
For the Tenorios who want to be able to stay in the neighborhood, a successful business is dependent on the welcoming physicality of the surrounding area. He shares that from what he has heard from outsiders, the area has a bad reputation.

“Para mi, eso podría ser solucionado por medio de mejor alumbramiento en la calle y una mejor seguridad,” shares Alfredo Tenorio.
[For me, this problem could easily be solved by having better lighting along the street and more security].

Historically, the South Division Corridor has been known for its retail and economy. In the early 1900s, the area was a prime location for business opportunity. At one point, the area along South Division Avenue and Hall Street was known as “Little Italy,” which was also where Giovanni and Frank Russo opened up the original location of their grocery store, Russo’s International Market. Today their grocery store has two locations one downtown and one on 29th Street.

Though the area’s commerce has changed over time, many businesses continue to populate the corridor. According to Reference USA, there are 236 registered businesses along the corridor, with about 17 percent of the businesses owned by people of color. In the neighborhood, manufacturing and industrial businesses make over 70 percent of all businesses, per U.S. Census Data obtained from the Johnson Center of Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University.

Outside of Sin Fronteras The Tenorio family has no plans of leaving the neighborhood; in fact they are planning to expand their grocery store.  

About half a block north from Sin Fronteras and the railroad tracks stands S & H Laundromat, a place frequented by residents in the neighborhood for their high quality customer service.
Inside of S&J Laundromat
Mary Garcia and Kevin Flores visit this Laundromat on regular basis because it is near their homes and it allows them to take a small break from work and family responsibilities while taking care of their laundry duties.

Garcia moved to the neighborhood in 2005; with entrepreneurship dreams of her own, she sees South Division as an area rich with opportunities.

“I would like to open a coffee shop. A sort of community space for people to come and gather with each other, or for students to come work out of,” says Garcia.

She shares that right now there are many rundown buildings and houses, and the few street lights make the area look a bit depressed.

“If we focus on improving the outside of our buildings and the streets, the area can be more welcoming to its residents and any visitors,” states Garcia.

Flores, whose name we have changed to protect his identity, agrees with Garcia in that he sees great promise in the neighborhood and that is why he moved to this community from Honduras. and explains he moved to the area to be able to make something of himself.

The young professional came to the United States about five months ago and has been working full time and going to school to learn English. He wants to be able to eventually own his own barbershop, but feels that not having a legal work permit has become a barrier in opening up his own business.

“Many in this community are undocumented. It can be very scary to voice our opinions for what we want in our community when we don’t know how our information will be used,” shares Flores.

María Cervantes
Maria Cervantes is a Librarian at Buchanan Elementary School—a Grand Rapids Public Schools elementary in the neighborhood where many families send their children —shares that she works with many families who are in similar situation to that of Flores: undocumented and working non-stop to be able to make ends meet.

Cervantes has been in the neighborhood for more than thirty years, and describes her community is made up by “very good parents who want to be available to do whatever they need to for their children.” She immigrated to Chicago from San Luis Potosi, Mexico with her mother Dora Castro when she was 15 years old. A couple years after arriving to the United States, they both decided to come to Grand Rapids because they had friends in the area and they have been in the neighborhood ever since.

Out of all the other employees at Buchanan Elementary, Cervantes has been in this community the longest—that is how she has earned the title of “La Mera Mera” which is colloquial way of saying, “The Boss Lady,” and wants to see this community be successful.

“One step towards making the neighborhood more welcoming to its residents is already happening through the construction and expansion of our school,” says Cervantes.

Currently Buchanan Elementary School is undergoing construction, expansion, and improvements to the building to be able to accommodate more students and parking.

“Parking here is very hard. Parents have to park on the street, and these spots fill up because we don’t have enough parking on site,” explains Cervantes.

For Cervantes, a parking lot expansion to the school will help create more space on Buchanan Avenue for students and their families to feel more confident in crossing the street.

Buchanan Avenue
“The area has a lot of vehicle and foot traffic, and it sometimes is very dangerous for kids to cross back and forth from school. I would like to see better signage and stop signs to make sure that kids can safely cross the street without being in danger,” says Cervantes.

The local advocate wants outsiders to see the value she gets to experience daily from interacting with the children and families of Buchanan Elementary. “These families are amazing and they deserve to live in an area that is safe, looks nice and encourages community building and relationships,” says Cervantes.

She also proposes having more green space and outdoor communal areas in the neighborhood for the residents. Currently in the area there are three parks, Plaster Creek Family Park,  the Bike Park, and Garfield Park. To help provide a safe place where children and youth can go, Cervantes proposes an increase of after-school program options in the neighborhood (there is currently a long waiting list for LOOP, a GRPS after-school program for elementary and middle school students, at both neighborhood schools, Burton Elementary & Middle School and Buchanan Elementary).

Like Alfredo Tenorio, Cervantes feels proud to be a part of this neighborhood.

“We are a family here and we make you feel at home the moment you come through our doors. That is not just the spirit of the school but it is the spirit of this neighborhood,” - Maria Cervantes.

To get involved as an advisor in the Steering Committee for the South Division Area Specific Plan process or to find out more about the Community Ambassadors positions please contact Courtney Magaluk at cmagakaluk@grcity.us / 616-456-3585.

Defining South Division

This article is part of our Defining South Division Series, a monthly series over the next two years focusing on the community engagement and development process for the South Division Development Plan. We welcome your comments and feedback below.

To connect with Michelle Jokisch Polo (read more about Michelle here), editor of this series, follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Defining South Division is made possible by the City of Grand Rapids, a local government organization working to foster a city where everyone is welcomed.
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