Defining Division: Maintaining and building community identity

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For our fifth feature in the Defining Division series, we are asking residents and leaders of the area to define community. 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 are the boundaries the Planning Department of the City of Grand Rapids has allocated for the South Division Development Area Specific Plan.
Faced by the potential of future development, community members of South Division and Burton Heights share their insights on the strength of their community's identity. 

For Johana Rodriguez, maintaining a community identity in which every resident has the opportunity to flourish in Burton Heights means connection. A connection to the neighbors and one another. A connection beyond the four walls of home.


Johana Rodriguez shares a moment with a student at Burton Elementary and Middle School.
“Community here is one of safety—where we look out for one another,” shares Rodriguez.


Rodriguez, who serves as the Kent School Services Network Coordinator at Burton Elementary and Middle School, helps connect families to resources, and one another.  She spent her childhood visiting her father who lived on Darwin Street, a street located right behind Burton Elementary and Middle School. “The area of plaster creek was our backyard and where we would play when were kids,” says Rodriguez.


Rodriguez has always seen herself as a bridge builder. Upon entering the position of KSSN Coordinator at the Burton Elementary and Middle School, she wanted to focus on making the connection between the different groups of families.


“There are a variety of things that characterize the families of this area. It’s not just about their nationality, or the languages they have in common, but their desire to build each other up in spite of the barriers they face,” she says.


The community in Burton Heights is predominantly Latinx, many who identify as first and second generation immigrants from Central America. Not all of them speak Spanish as a first language, and many have had to learn Spanish to be able to navigate resources in this community.


“The greatest strength of the people here is the community. The way they are resources to one another, whether it is by sharing with one another where the least expensive groceries in the neighborhood can be found, or by providing child care if a neighbor has an appointment or has to stay late at work—they are here for each other,” describes Rodriguez.


Every day, Rodriguez witnesses the families she works with show up for the community’s children.


Johana Rodriguez
“Their strength is their commitment. Whether it’s dropping their kids at school, or finding ways to get involved even when they are working more than one job. They live passionately and fight through tooth and nail to protect their kids” says Rodriguez.


Communitary work is how Lorenzo Miguel chooses to describe the strength of his community in Burton Heights. Miguel has lived in the area with his wife, Emiliana Miguel-Cipriano, and his four now adult children, since March 14, 1990. The family moved from a small town in Peru known as, “La Pequeña Rusia,” or “The Little Russia,” a name given to the town because of the large number of residents who had immigrated to Russia, according to Miguel.

Lorenzo Miguel

“Yo me acuerdo una de las primeras navidades que las pasamos como familia en Grand Rapids, y alguien entró a nuestra casa y dejo nuestra sala llena de regalos de navidad para nuestra familia. Nunca nos enteramos quien lo había hecho. Esa es nuestra comunidad. Una comunidad que nos conoce tan bien que hasta sabe el hecho que nosotros nunca dejabamos nuestra puerta con seguro,” shares Miguel.


(I remember the first Christmas we spent it in Grand Rapids as a family, and someone came into our home while we were away and left the living room full of Christmas gifts for our family. We never found out who did it. That is this community. A community that knows us so deeply to know that we never left our home locked).


Angelica Velazques inside her business, La Casa de la Cobija (The Blanket House) located on 2055 South Division Avenue.
Angelica Velazquez can’t help but characterize her community as “acogedora” or “embracing” in English.


“Me senti acogida. Como que se me abría una puerta al cielo” (I felt embraced like a door to heaven was being opened up to me), shares Velazquesz, about the way she felt when she first moved to Grand Rapids in 2001 with her seven children.


Since arriving, Velazquez has been living out the very sense of the word embrace through her efforts of community building in the Burton Heights neighborhood. Her business, La Casa de la Cobija (The Blanket House), located on 2355 South Division, has become her entrepreneurship dream come true not because she is able to sell blankets and clothes, but because she is able to share her building with members of the neighborhood to host events and fundraisers that benefit the most marginalized in her community.


“Hemos hecho eventos recaudando fondos para personas que necesitan transplantes medicos, o familias que estan pasando dificultades a causa de alguna deportación. La comunidad viene a mi negocio a recibir un cierto tipo de comfort o alguna ayuda,"  explains Velazquez.


(We have hosted fundraisers here for individuals who have needed help paying for organ transplants, or families who are experiencing difficulty making ends meet due to a deportation of their own. People from the community come to my business because they know I am here for them).


Like Velazquez, Dr. Sharif Sahibzada, the Director of the Islamic Center of West Michigan, located a couple of blocks north of South Division and Burton Heights, has sought to create a community without any restrictions or obstacles for anyone who wishes to worship there.


As the first Imam of West Michigan, Dr. Sahibzada made it his life’s work to create connection and a space open to interfaith fellowship out of the Islamic Center of West Michigan. Imam is the leadership title given to an individual who oversees a mosque or a muslim community among Sunni Muslims. In the case of Dr. Sahibzada he oversees six mosques in the West Michigan area.


“In my mosque there is no membership requirement for those who want to join the worship and any visitor is welcome,” shares Dr. Sahibzada.


2001 for Dr. Sahibzada is not only the year he first moved to West Michigan from Pakistan, but also the same year the terrorist attacks of 9/11 occurred in New York City and anti-muslim sentiments radically increased from the community at large.

Dr. Sahibzada in his office at the Islamic Center of West Michigan.

“That year things were a bit hard—we were uncertain of the kinds of attitudes we would face from the community. Everything turned upside down for us” says Dr. Sahibzada.


Since then, Dr. Sahibzada has sought to guide his community with gentleness and the understanding that, as a religious center and place for worship, their mission is to create a place of harmony for the betterment of humankind, “a place for humanity to flourish regardless of faith, ethnicity, skin color, or background.”


Lorenzo Miguel walks with his wife, Emiliana Miguel-Cipriano in their neighborhood of Burton Heights

Rodriguez, Miguel, Velazquez,  and Sahibzada, though they occupy different spaces and roles in their community have sought to make it a reality for themselves and the residents around them.

As the discussion of future development and change continues to increase in their neighborhoods, these four bridge builders believe maintaining the community identity of embracement and connectivity is critical to the flourishing of every resident in Burton Heights and South Division.

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 [email protected] / 616-456-3585.


Defining 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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