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Neighborhoods of GR: The quiet buzz of Fulton Heights

Garden Committee member Norma Jansma helps keep the Hillcrest Garden alive and well.

It might be mostly residential, but don't call it sleepy. The neighborhood of Fulton Heights, tucked neatly on the edges of Eastown, Midtown, and Michigan Oaks, has a charm that is quietly buzzing beneath the surface.
It might be mostly residential, but don't call it sleepy. The neighborhood of Fulton Heights, tucked neatly on the edges of Eastown, Midtown, and Michigan Oaks, has a charm that is quietly buzzing beneath the surface. And just because it's focused more on helping neighbors shovel their sidewalks than it is about business and housing development doesn't mean these community members aren't passionate about their places and spaces.

Fulton Heights, like many other neighborhoods in GR, is changing. What used to be a majority white, older population is now slowly becoming home to younger, more diverse residents and families as the city (and the world, for that matter) as a whole prefers urban dwelling to suburban living. And with the Fulton Street Farmers Market, Schnitz Deli, and Hillcrest Garden at their fingertips, Fulton Heights residents have plenty to celebrate.

So what do so many Fulton Heights residents love about the neighborhood? "It's extremely convenient," says Sam Warber, President of the Fulton Heights Neighborhood Association. Warber, a history professor at Grand Valley State University who moved to the neighborhood in 2009, says, "Both my husband and I just fell in love with Fulton Heights right away." Just a few minutes from downtown, the East Beltline, and the highway, not to mention the local businesses and the Farmers Market, the area certainly has an urban vibe.

However, "you still have that neighborhood feel," adds Warber. "You are still in an actual neighborhood where it's relatively safe, people are out walking their dogs, children playing, things like that."

It's quiet, it's homey, and it's home to a five-acre community garden smack dab in the middle of houses, the neighborhood park, and an elementary school. Ok, it's a little Norman Rockwell-esque, but there you have it.

"The fact that we have one of the larges community gardens, that's a big notch on our belt," says Warber.

The Hillcrest Community Garden

Hillcrest Community Garden
, on Lyon Street between Lowell and Arthur Avenues, is home to gardeners, expert and amateur alike, who appreciate the tilled soil under their fingernails and fresh tomatoes, lettuce, or collard greens guided by their own hands. This passion for produce is so strong that it spurred the creation of the neighborhood association itself, according to Hillcrest Garden caretaker Norma Jansma.

Formerly owned by Grand Rapids Public Schools even after Hillcrest Elementary School (now Living Stones Academy) sat empty, the city sought to sell the land almost three decades ago. Fulton Heights residents, seeing the potential in five acres of undeveloped land in the middle of their neighborhood, formed a nonprofit in order to purchase the plot from the city.

"The whole purpose of having a neighborhood association there was to purchase that piece of property," says Jansma, noting that before that time Fulton Heights was a loose connection of neighbors without any formal organization.

Norma JansmaWorking with the city to establish and irrigation system, the original organizers of Hillcrest finalized the sale in 1995 and quickly established a thriving organic garden that welcomed residents of the neighborhood, as well as any other urbanite who sought a fertile plot for planting.

Unlike the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model, in which subscribers pay into the garden and assume all of the risks—as well as the rewards—of all of the produce, each gardener rents only their own plot yearly. Over the past 40 or so years, this model has been popular for Hillcrest, which still hosts a few of the original gardeners, as well new families seeking to experiment with their own produce for the first time.

With 100 plots on three different tilled sections on five acres, the produce—and their caretakers—are a diverse bunch. "It's interesting…and that makes the mix of people too," says Jansma, mentioning notable individuals like a Kentwood resident who has cultivated the same plot for 30 years. "She's quite an intense gardener," says Jansma.

In a neighborhood with such a small geographical footprint, Hillcrest is huge, and stands out in the minds of residents as a cornerstone of Fulton Heights culture. Here, community, and getting your hands dirty for the pure fun of it, is key.

"What stands out about Fulton Heights isn't necessarily the key businesses, but that it's a nice neighborhood to live," says Warber. The epitome of urban living with a suburban feel, Fulton Heights doesn't have many businesses within its borders, unlike its sister neighborhoods, Midtown and Eastown. However, the businesses that do line its edges are passionate about Fulton Heights, and many have staked their claim for decades.

Brian DeVries

One such favorite is Schnitz Deli and Bakery, owned by Brian DeVries. Purchasing the then 800 square foot lunch spot 21 years ago, DeVries says, "I liked the location….it was near enough to downtown." What he didn't expect was a bustling lunch operation that sprawled across E. Fulton, eventually connecting with Common Ground Coffee House and accommodating a bakery at the corner of Arthur Street.

Another surprise: business has grown 400 percent over the past 20 years, but, according to DeVries, the clientele hasn't changed. A mix of business professionals, residents, and students, Schnitz famous sandwiches remain a favorite even as the neighborhood changes over time.

"The Neighborhood has improved by a ton," says DeVries, who remembers rental homes selling for $20,000 two decades ago that are now selling for upwards of $200,000. Despite the many changes and skyrocketing real estate costs, DeVries maintains and consistent and passionate presence at his deli. "The most important thing is being here when the place is open and tending to the needs of people and employees," he says.

Dan Brooks

"Schnitz is a really big part [of the neighborhood," says Aquinas College Professor of English Dan Brooks, Ph.D. Himself a Fulton Heights resident of 20 years after transplanting from Brooklyn with his wife and fellow AQ English professor Rebecca Coogan Ph.D., Brooks has seen the slow, steady change of the neighborhood while remaining true to its quiet, community feel.

"I would characterize the neighborhood now as friendly but people kind of keep to themselves—especially in the cold weather," Brooks says. But with neighbors often stepping out to help each other, frequently after characteristic snow drifts, the friendliness of Fulton Heights is palpable.

Hillcrest dog park.

No better place can you witness the camaraderie of these urban/suburbanites that at the Hillcrest Dog Park nestled within Fuller Park. "Fulton Heights, they're a real dog loving community," says Brooks, who notes that even before the designated dog park canine companions would flock to the spot.

And community, of course, can be found just across the street at Aquinas College, which forms a mini neighborhood within itself. A longtime presence in both Eastown and Fulton Heights, Aquinas populates both neighborhoods with its professors, students, and staff. And though residents sometimes complain about impractical parking situations with hundreds of college students at their doorsteps, most would say that the college is a positive presence.

Aquinas College"At board level and community leader level, the relationship between Fulton Heights is very very good," says Warber. "Aquinas has done some wonderful things" in a an effort to improve students' interactions with community members, she adds.

Though one of the smaller neighborhoods in the city, Fulton Heights has not faltered in popularity. Centrally located, safe, and home to friendly neighbors, gardeners, and fans of an honest sandwich and a strong cup of coffee, this neighborhood is a comfortable place to rent or own a home. And let's not forget its proximity to Fulton Street Farmers Market, which is technically part of Midtown.

"We would like to claim the farmers market for our neighborhood," jokes Brooks, who can be found strolling the stalls of the market most Saturday mornings, along with Fulton Heights residents—and about half of Grand Rapids.

Photos by Adam Bird of Bird+Bird Studio.
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