Garfield ParkNear

On Burton Street: The great divide

Growing up on Burton Street in Grand Rapids' south side, Ken Miguel-Cipriano thought all neighborhoods looked like his. It was not until high school that he saw other communities in depth and began to understand the stark difference Burton Street makes.
Born in Lima, Peru, Ken Miguel-Cipriano grew up on Grand Rapids' south side and graduated from the University of Michigan in 2010 with a degree in Critical Medical Anthropology. His post-graduate work has concentrated in the intersection of international aid/development and emerging technology. Today, he's living in Grand Rapids and working as a startup collaborator. Here, he discusses the importance of the south side and how Grand Rapids can better support the residents living in the community.

The south side of the city of Grand Rapids is many things to many people. For some, it’s a through-way on their daily commute downtown. To others it is  a brief destination for food. Very seldomly do I run into someone at a professional event or conference who actually resides on this side of town. Now, I must make a distinction here between two very different neighborhoods on the south side of our city. Burton Street serves to bisect a section of the south side, separating Alger Heights and Burton Heights. 

To the south of Burton we have Alger Heights, a neighborhood where, if you lost your bearings, you would think you might be in the suburbs. The trees line both sides of the street, and the perfectly manicured lawns and soccer fields give those passing the impression one has exited the city limits. To the north of Burton, we enter the Burton Heights neighborhood. At some point, Burton Heights was rebranded to be included into the larger Southtown designation, but is commonly referred to by residents as simply “the south side."  To me, the south side is a breeding ground for vibrancy and culture. 

I have been a resident of the south side for more than 25 years and have seen it through many changes. For much of the 90s the neighborhood was generally calm and quiet. I would ride my bike with my brother and neighbors to Garfield Park and Alger Heights. We were only allowed to bike further south, as our parents had become worried after a few incidents in our own neighborhood. 

As the years passed, police presence and crime increased in our neighborhood; yet our neighbors just south of Burton seemed unaffected. During this time I had several bikes stolen and a car robbery; a Grand Rapids Police Department cruiser on our corner become a weekly occurrence. Home-owning neighbors moved away, renting neighbors moved in and out, and our family stayed. 

Garfield Park always served as a buffer between Alger and Burton but saw most use from Pop Warner players and the average hooper going out after school to play on the hard courts. For as large as both neighborhoods are, the park was most visibly used by the Burton Heights neighbors. Much of this has changed as the neighborhood has changed, along with much of the rest of the city.
Streetview from South Division Avenue S. towards south of Burton Street

The opening of the Kroc Center on the edge of Alger Heights in 2010, along with the installation of a new disc golf course in 2016, both within Garfield park, have attracted more people from outside of the neighborhood. These new additions to the area have made for a gradual, yet noticeable, difference in the area. Although we see new people using the park, there are few to no new residents on the north side of Burton Street. 

It would be difficult to continue without pointing out that both neighborhoods are also different in another very recognizable way, with Alger Heights being predominantly a white neighborhood that has little to no visible rental signage. Burton Heights is a predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhood with many rental properties and signage.

According to data obtained from the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University, the Alger Heights neighborhood has close to 24 percent renter occupied housing and less than 8 percent vacant housing, while close to 39 percent of housing on the south side is renter occupied and close to 16 percent of housing units is vacant. One would be hard pressed to believe that this formation is a natural occurrence for a city of this size. 

How does this separation affect our neighbors, our children, and our city as a whole? As our country’s politics become more divisive, we must look for the early signs, the precursors, the initial splash that causes the ripple effects that aggregate to such a great divide. It is surely not the doing of individual neighbors, but a system as a whole. 

Usually these divisions are larger and set further apart. For example, white flight creates predominantly white suburbs and leaves behind Black and Latinx inner city neighborhoods. The distances between the suburbs and the inner city are usually enough to have us forget the underlying issues that create false fear, catalyze flight, and uphold the barriers that perpetuate segregation.

In no other place in my travels or living have I seen the distinction and proximity so great as I see it on Burton Street. If we are to have any meaningful change, it must first begin with open dialogue around the issue. So, let us begin with looking at these two adjacent neighborhoods and ask ourselves how we can welcome the change that is coming to our city while still maintaining the diversity that is present.

Changes in neighborhoods are often felt strongest by the underrepresented and socially-immobile in our society. They are forced out of their homes by rising rents or taxes and no increase in income. If we are to have a diverse and inclusive city we can all be proud of, we must make an honest and meaningful approach to understand how the Burton divide was created, how we can dismantle it, and how we can prevent it from happening anywhere else in our beloved city.

It is my goal that I be a part of this process because of all that this city and neighborhood has given, and taken, from me. From immigrating from Peru in the early 90s to going through the Grand Rapids Public School System to moving away and back again, I have hopes of seeing my neighbors bridge the divide, start businesses, and raise their children here. I have such great hope for my beloved south side, because I believe in this city and the power its people have to endure and enact change. 

Ken Miguel-Cipriano

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. Through it all, I welcome the tide… I remain south side.

On The Ground GR

On The Ground GR is a new Rapid Growth series. This series will highlight and celebrate the communities found along South Division Avenue that touch the Garfield Park and Burton Heights neighborhoods. You can read all the On The Ground articles published to date here

Over the next few months, On The Ground GR journalists will be knocking on doors and getting to know the neighbors and community members. We will dive deeper into topics concerning this neighborhood's residents and stakeholders while celebrating the diversity and strength found in this area. We are on the ground listening and want to celebrate the community's unifying spirit of positivity and vibrancy.

Follow On The Ground GR's work via Twitter using the hashtag #OnTheGroundGRFacebook and Instagram. To connect with On The Ground GR's editor, Michelle Jokisch Polo (read more about Michelle here), you can email her at [email protected] and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

On The Ground GR is made possible by the Frey Foundation, the Grand Rapids Community Foundation and Steelcase, organizations that believe democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. 

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