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Neighborhoods of GR: East Hills celebrates activism while tackling gentrification

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.z

In the charming, walkable, tree-lined streets of East Hills, one might think the hip restaurants or chic boutiques are the neighborhood's draw—but there is much more humming beneath the surface.
When asked what she loves about East Hills, Delight Lester doesn’t hesitate: “The people.” In the charming, walkable, tree-lined streets of East Hills, one might think the hip restaurants or chic boutiques are the neighborhood's draw—but there is much more humming beneath the surface.

A history of activism

From Fulton St. to Wealthy St., and Union St. to Fuller Ave., East Hills consists of seven smaller neighborhoods, three business districts, and three historic districts. Like many neighborhoods in Grand Rapids, East Hills faced disinvestment in the 1970s and ‘80s. As businesses and white, middle-class residents relocated to the suburbs, a committed group of East Hills residents sank their roots deeper.

At that time, “what you saw were residents from all backgrounds wrapping their arms around the neighborhood, asking ‘what can we do to help our community?’” says Brandy Arnold, outgoing board chair of the East Hills Council of Neighbors. It was the efforts of long-term residents advocating for the neighborhood that birthed the East Hills Council of Neighbors in 1981.

Brandy ArnoldIn part to address crime and absentee landlords, and to preserve the character and integrity of the neighborhood’s architecture, the East Hills Council of Neighbors pushed to designate parts of East Hills as historic districts. At the same time, they turned their attention to economic revitalization.

It is worth noting that often implied in revitalization narratives is that before current development, the community was a bleak wasteland of blight and crime. In contrary, according to local business owners, there were businesses present—but businesses owned by people of color who faced barriers to succeed.

Within this context—throughout the 1980s, 90s, and early 2000s—community organizers, such as Dotti Clune and Carol Moore, continued to propel the neighborhood forward. In 2004, Marie Catrib, a native of Lebanon, opened the doors of Marie Catrib’s on the corner of Cherry St. and Lake Dr.—catalyzing development in the heart of East Hills.

The Wealthy Theatre. It’s not uncommon to hear the recent history of East Hills recounted according to when certain establishments like Marie’s opened. The restoration of the historic Wealthy Theatre in the mid-2000s was another defining moment. For Arnold, “I fell in love with the neighborhood because I fell in love with the revitalization of the Wealthy Theatre. At that time, the theatre was a microcosm of what was going on in the neighborhood as a whole.”

A small town in the city

The work of community organizers and the East Hills Council of Neighbors paid off. As East Hills evolved through the mid-2000s, it became a desirable place for people to do business. Development has continued in recent years, fostering the growth of vibrant local economies that many Grand Rapids residents enjoy today.

The business community in East Hills is unique, though, in its interconnectedness and commitment to the neighborhood’s well being. With incredible walkability and a small-town feel, the neighbors and businesses enjoy reciprocal relationships of kindness and mutuality.

“As residents, we want to see the businesses thrive and vice versa,” says Rachel Lee. Originally from Grand Rapids, Lee settled in East Hills in 1999 and has been an active community member ever since.

Christopher Roe goes through inventory in his bookstore Books and Mortar. Chris Roe and Jonathan Shotwell, owners Books & Mortar, share this experience. Though their progressive, independent bookstore has only been open since the fall of 2016, “people treat it like they’ve been going there for years. The neighborhood has really held us… we can’t fathom being anywhere else.” Located on the stretch of Cherry St. between Diamond Ave. and Hollister Ave., Roe reports, “it’s a very small-retail friendly street. The neighbors want to see the businesses thrive and there are a lot of veteran businesses who have supported us.” Additionally, due to their quick success, Roe and Shotwell have recently opened a second location in the Westside neighborhood of Grand Rapids.

Community support for Congress Elementary

One way East Hills’ business owners serve the community is by supporting Congress Elementary School. Congress is home to preschool through 5th-grade students in the Grand Rapids Public School district. Like East Hills as a whole, Congress suffered disinvestment for many years. Because of Congress’ perceived poor quality, families would often leave East Hills once their children reached school age. If they stayed, many would opt for a private school opposed to sending their children to Congress.

Congress ElementaryIn response, the East Hills Council of Neighbors launched East Hills Loves Congress, “a grassroots effort to sustain and support a successful neighborhood school in the center of the East Hills community.” Today, “Congress is a bright spot for Grand Rapids Public Schools,” beams Lee, who serves on the Parent Teacher Community Council. “I can’t imagine sending my kids, Lyon and Logan, anywhere else.” But to make this a reality, it took years of partnership between the East Hills Council of Neighbors, GRPS, East Hills residents, and local businesses.

The data reflects Lee’s sentiment. Over the years, Congress has increased “from the 14th percentile to 70th percentile in statewide ranking. Congress is in the top 5 percent of schools statewide that outperformed predicted achievement or similar schools.” But to make this a reality, it took years of partnership between the East Hills Council of Neighbors, GRPS, East Hills residents, local businesses, and other stakeholders.

Several East Hills businesses have strong relationships with Congress. For example, Marie Catrib’s, Furniture City Creamery, Brewery Vivant, and Clothing Matters have volunteered, or donated items or a percentage of sales to Congress. Books & Mortar partners with Congress in a variety of ways, too. From read-a-thons to donating books, supporting Congress adds a level of depth and meaning to their work.

Looming challenges

East Hills’ development has alleviated certain challenges while also creating new ones. As new properties are developed and demand increases for existing spaces, affordability is top of mind of residents and business owners alike. Delight Lester, the Founder and Executive Director of Arts in Motion—a non-profit that serves individuals with disabilities—voices her concern: “If East Hills continues to be the hip place that it is, some long-term residents will have difficulty keeping up.”

Delight Lester teaching dance at Arts In Motion.As a mother in East Hills, Lee echoes Lester, “When rent prices go up, we lose families. It impacts our schools.”

It’s not uncommon for single-family houses to sell in 24 hours, with sellers prioritizing those who can buy in cash. Arnold notes, “People purchasing homes are often investors from out of town…but are they invested in our neighborhood?” On a personal level, she shares, “I’m committed to staying here because I love it, but renting an apartment in the neighborhood is a struggle…let alone purchasing a home.”

Books & Mortar’s present location on Cherry St. became available because the previous tenant couldn’t afford the rent increase. “Some rent prices in the area doubled. It’s more expensive than downtown,” Shotwell claims. As a small non-profit, Lester fears that “10-15 years down the road, nonprofits like us will be pushed out.” Regardless of income level, she believes all people deserve to benefit from the much-needed services nonprofits provide.

One result of the accelerating unaffordability is a decrease in racial and economic diversity. The racial demographic of East Hills varies greatly by neighborhood, but ranges from 56-100 percent white, zero to 50 percent Hispanic or Latino, and zero to 26 percent black.

Entrepreneur James Price has witnessed these demographic changes firsthand. He opened Lady Love Barber Shop on Wealthy St. in 1972 and has seen the neighborhood “completely change” since then.

Today, Price remarks, “the majority of businesses are white-owned, and I don’t see a lot of black people working in those businesses. There used to be more black employees in this area.” Price believes East Hills’ economic development is ultimately for the best, though he desires greater racial diversity amongst the neighborhood’s businesses.

While Arnold loves East Hills, she expresses similar concern about the racial and economic power relations in the neighborhood. “The part that’s hard for me is the shift in who owns the businesses. There were a number of black-owned businesses that weren’t able to keep their doors open. A lot of black people in this community lack access to social and financial capital.” She continues, “I love my neighborhood, but where are the people that look like me?”

Soul kitchen Forty Acres will be opening soon. For engaged community members like Arnold, Lester, Lee, Shotwell, and Roe, this tension between development and gentrification is on the forefront of their minds.

As business owners, Shotwell and Roe say, “our aim is to make a meaningful difference in our community.” This driving focus shapes everything they do at Books & Mortar—from their carefully curated selection of books (covering topics such as racism, inclusion, progressive spirituality, and human sexuality) to hosting meaningful community events (like one the night after the 2016 presidential election). In this way, Shotwell and Roe view Books & Mortar as an opportunity to quietly advocate, while still taking a stand.

Despite the present challenges, “I think the right conversations are happening,” says Roe. “People are talking about gentrification… leaders at all levels are aware of the things that need to be discussed. I have very positive feelings about the future of East Hills.”

Looking ahead

Addressing issues like affordability and gentrification is an increasing focus for the East Hills Council of Neighbors. “Typically, we work with developers on historic preservation, but we’re talking with them more about what their rent prices are and what businesses they’re going to bring in,” says Arnold.

Gift wrapping at Books and Mortar. They are also placing more of a focus on grassroots organizing. “One of the biggest things we’re talking about now is how to mobilize city residents and make them feel empowered," says Arnold. She believes one key to avoiding gentrification is uplifting residents and amplifying their voices.

With a history of local activism, a caring community of neighbors and business owners, and a people-first attitude, East Hills has the potential to maintain its diversity, take ownership for the gentrification that has occurred, and avoid future harm. With continued awareness and intentionality, East Hills hopes to tackle the challenges that come with rapid development and create a community in which all belong.

Ellie Hutchison is a freelance writer and non-profit communications strategist based in Grand Rapids, MI. Reach her at elliehutch@gmail.com or on Twitter at @EllieHutchison.

Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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