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Neighborhoods of GR: Southside, my side

Welcome to Neighborhoods of GR, an informal series for Grand Rapidians, its visitors, and those considering calling the river city home. Each article in the series will covering a particular GR neighborhood will be covered by a resident writer, and showcase the charm, the history, and diversity of our fair city.

Some people call it Southtown, but to longtime residents, it has always been and will always be the Southside. The 49507 zip code is expansive and for the most part is bordered by Franklin Street on the north, 28th Street on the south, U.S. 131 on the west and Kalamazoo Avenue on the east. The Southside is home to Burton Heights, Madison Square, Alger Heights, Boston Square, Oakdale and Ottawa Hills Neighborhoods.
Growing up in Burton Heights meant that we walked to the corner bodega or mercado for our food, we avoided the more central part of the Southside, and would only be allowed to walk to the park or into Alger Heights, because it was “safer.” This often meant that school friends would avoid the question of coming over. Living so far from school meant being bussed in, as well as becoming accustomed to long commutes to and from school every day.

Some people call it Southtown, but to longtime residents, it has always been and will always be the Southside. The 49507 zip code is expansive and for the most part is bordered by Franklin Street on the north, 28th Street on the south, U.S. 131 on the west, and Kalamazoo Avenue on the east. The Southside is home to Burton Heights, Madison Square, Alger Heights, Boston Square, Oakdale, and Ottawa Hills Neighborhoods.

The bus stop and Quick Stop on the corner of Burton and Division.

The neighborhoods of the Southside have historically been home to a large section of the city’s African American and Latinx populations. Due in most part to redlining practices (the practice of denying services, either directly or through selectively raising prices, to residents of certain areas based on the racial or ethnic composition of those areas) the Southside area—also known as the Garfield Park Neighborhood—is comprised of two starkly different neighborhoods, namely Burton Heights and Alger Heights.

Burton Heights is dotted with homeowners, but is mainly defined by the numerous rental properties. Alger Heights is defined by the prominence of home ownership and is peppered with far fewer rental properties. These two neighborhoods are only separated by Burton Street and Garfield Park. Usually, these divisions are larger and set farther apart where white flight creates predominantly white suburbs and leaves behind Black and Latinx inner city neighborhoods. 

The distance from downtown and its adjacent neighborhoods meant that the rest of the city could have been in another state and I would not have been the wiser. The distance created by industrial zones and blighted properties worsened and in a unique way, increased the distance from downtown without adding a single mile.

The distance was made through neglect and was felt in the isolated culture budding in the shadow of the city’s Southside.

And empty and unused cinema on Division just north of Burton.

A hotbed of vibrancy and culture, I grew up in perhaps the best part of the city where paleteros walk their carts throughout the neighborhood selling cold and sweet paletas during the hot summer months. The same neighborhood that, when spring’s crisp mornings begin to heat up ever so slightly, the smell of grilling meat fills every block. The sound of corner talk and jazz playing in a distant house are all sounds that fill the air when you live on the Southside.

What my neighborhood granted me was more important than streets of historic architecture: we were the centerpiece of the neighborhood. My southside upbringing has given me perspective, an invaluable point of view of how cities form and function culturally. I’ve taken this with me everywhere I’ve been, from up and down the East Coast to the Andes, and I am so thankful to have received it. 

Burton and Jefferson.

The words of James Baldwin come to mind when I think of what the Southside has seen and been through over the decades “I have been, as the song says, 'buked and scorned and I know that I always will be. But, my God, in that darkness, which was the lot of my ancestors and my own state, what a mighty fire burned!”

As Grand Rapids continues to grow, the Southside has become the next area on the development chopping block. Some groups like Amplify GR have stated that they have come to help the residents of the Southside, but experience and history inform the resident’s feelings and instincts to newcomers and assistance, making them ever skeptical of any change.

The growth of the Southside and old business districts like Burton Heights must always include the prominence of Black and Latinx ownership and culture if we are to believe that any real equitable progress has been made.

In some ways, the Southside is the last bastion for people of color in this city, and we must protect it. Our city would be incomplete without the current residents of the Southside, and current development trends would potentially displace Southside residents.

We must continue to spread the word of the happenings on the ground, because it is truly an amazing time to be alive in Grand Rapids. I speak my father’s words from my mother’s tongue. I speak from neglect, from hunger, from rage, and from a life that this city has given and taken from. I am so proud of my beloved Southside and the resiliency we all have within ourselves to rise. Through it alI I welcome the tide… I remain Southside.

Ken Miguel-Cipriano is Rapid Growth’s Innovation and Jobs Editor. To reach Ken, you can email ken.miguel.cipriano@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
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