The Garfield Park Neighborhoods Association functions as the second largest neighborhood association in the city of Grand Rapids. As the organization makes the effort to build community, including searching for a new executive director, it becomes increasingly challenging, and important, to engage the residents of the area while addressing issues of job availability and displacement.
In between 28th Street, one of the most commercial areas in Grand Rapids, and the south exit of the city sits Garfield Park. The 29.54-acre forest preserve is one of the largest parks in the city and serves as the common ground, both literally and figuratively, for the communities found along South Division Avenue, including the Garfield Park and Burton Heights neighborhoods. Found on the north entrance of the park is the Garfield Lodge, which is also known as headquarters of The Garfield Park Neighborhoods Association
(GPNA): an advocacy hub focused on addressing crime prevention, the beautification of the neighborhood, and acting as a buffer between the city government and the residents of the area.
The lodge was built in 1906 thanks to funds donated by the late Harriet Garfield, the wife of Samuel Garfield and father of Charles Garfield, who sought to ensure the area became a gathering place where neighbors could come and be surrounded by a variety of wildlife and trees.
The GPNA incorporates the word “neighborhoods” into its title to represent the large area that it covers. The boundaries are 28th Street to the south and Cottage Grove to the north, and it extends from Eastern Avenue west to US-131 -- an expansive space where about 17,000 people make up one of the city’s most diverse areas. Close to half, 44.8 percent, of the area is Hispanic or Latinx, according to federal statistics
from 2013, the most recent data available. Black and African-American residents make up about 23.1 percent of the community, and white individuals constitute about 27 percent.
GPNA formed after a contentious fight ensued between a group of residents of the area and the City Commission in 1923, which resurfaced again in 1968. At both times, the City Commission had submitted a proposal to release the land where the park sits today to sell as city lots. This motion went completely against what Charles W. Garfield envisioned for the area. In 1906, Charles W. Garfield and Julie Fletcher, co-owners of the land, deeded 25 acres of Garfield Park to the city with the intent of it remaining forever as a “forest preserve." The remaining 4.5 acres were deeded in 1918 by Charles W. Garfield and his wife, Jessie S. Garfield.
The land, they said, “shall not only serve as a place of restfulness and quiet recreation, but that it shall also become a means of education, especially in horticultural and landscape art,”
as detailed in the official deed presented to the Register’s Office of Kent County on Feb. 6, 1906.
Cartoon by Gert Van Houten depicting the conflict between the residents of the Garfield Park Neighborhood and the City Commission | Front page of The Grand Rapids Chronicle, January 11, 1923
Irate over the city’s plans in 1968, a group of citizens came together and began holding meetings, appearing before the City Commision, writing letters to the Public Pulse, a section of the Grand Rapids Press, and searching for old files, records and facts in hopes of being able to advocate for Charles W. Garfield’s legacy. The way they were able to achieve ownership of the park was by the group becoming incorporated and applying for the right to lease Burton Woods and the care of it to the group.
Michael Scholten and his wife Kelli and two sons, Jack and Theo
Photo courtesy of Michael Scholten
The organization is headed by the board president and longtime resident Michael Scholten. Scholten lives less than a block away from GPNA’s headquarters with his wife, Kelli, and his two children, Jack and Theo. When asked what his vision for GPNA, he replies with a simple phrase: “project facilitators.”
In other words, GPNA is seeking to be the thread connecting and advocating for the voices of the community while helping advance the development of the area.
And this is exactly the role GPNA has played in helping promote LINC’s project to provide more affordable housing to the area. LINC has purchased the vacant church on 100 Burton St. SE to build affordable residences for multiple families.
Today, the group is made up of a six-member board and one paid staff employee, Fran Dalton. The organization has functioned without an executive director since 2013. It split the work between two part-time staff: Dalton, the Southeast Neighborhood Organizer, and Esther Reyes, the Southwest Neighborhood Organizer. Reyes retired earlier this summer, leaving the organization to work with a single part-time paid employee.
Because the area is home to more than 17,000 residents and 5,000-plus households, it can be increasingly difficult for an organization with one part-time staff member and six volunteer board members to reach out to every neighbor. One way the organization makes their resources available to the Hispanic or Latinx residents of the area is by providing their biannual newsletters in Spanish.
“The city wants to engage the neighborhoods, and they want GPNA to facilitate the process,” explains Scholten.
Connie M. Bohatch, Managing Director of Community ServicesAccording to Connie Bohatch, Managing Director of Community Services for the city, GPNA receives a total yearly budget of $52,377 dollars, funding which comes out of federal dollars allocated specifically for public service. $28,003 is to be used for civic and leadership engagement of the neighborhood, leaving the rest to be invested in leadership and civic engagement.
Out of the total amount the city of Grand Rapids receives from the federal government to focus on public service activities, only 66 percent of it is available for neighborhood organizations, providing all neighborhood organizations a total of $490,701 to work with. These funds then are specifically targeted to communities with low to moderate income residents. GPNA is one of these communities.
“The reality is that the money that we use is from federal sources, there is a cap on the amount of money considered for public services and specifics on how this money can be spent,” Bohatch explains.
Neighborhood organizations are then left to raise money on their own, or depend on membership dues charged to those residents who opt in to support the association.
According to Scholten, the greatest concerns of the area residents are displacement and job availability. Data obtained from the U.S. Census Bureau in 2013 shows the neighborhood had a 14.8 percent unemployment rate, compared to the 13.2 percent rate of the city as a whole. In terms of the housing vacancy rate, the area has a 11.1 percent rate, compared to the city’s 7.1 percent.
“I’d like to see a vacant building not be vacant anymore,” says Scholten.
Dalton, the Neighborhood Organizer and Crime Prevention Specialist at GPNA, echoes these concerns.
“We need to work as a collaborative to help ensure the community knows of the resources available and can lean on one another to make these problems visible,” she says.
Dalton, an advocate at heart, has been with the organization for the last six years. In this role she has been entrusted with helping to build relationships with the residents of the area. She came into the position after an early retirement from nonprofit and public administrative and management positions.
“I always worked in non-profits, government positions and service organizations—my heart is in the community," explains Dalton. With more than 25 years of government service and a wide range of experience within the community and knowledge of community resources, Dalton, who holds a Master’s degree from Grand Valley State University, uses her knowledge for neighborhood organizing, crime prevention, and providing service training opportunities to community organizations and school groups.
When asked about the role GPNA has in helping residents get connected to resources, she gives us a small glimpse of the ways residents and business owners can come together through GPNA as a unifying link.
“Last week, a resident called us asking for help to remove a large wasp nest from an area well trafficked by the children walking to school. So, I called the city and was told they wouldn’t cover the cost of removing it—and then I contacted Smitter Pest Control, a local business in the area, and they agreed to remove it for free. That is what community is.”
Young residents of Garfield Park Neighborhood at the Summer Celebration this summer.
Photograph courtesy of Garfield Park Neighborhood Association
Each year GPNA hosts an eclectic variety of events, fundraisers and educational programming.
All of these are made possible thanks to the great commitment of residents and area volunteers, without whom the success of the organization would not be possible.
“Volunteers are our resources. With only one paid staff, we have to rely on our volunteer base,” says Dalton.
Despite a strong volunteer base, GPNA struggles to tell the stories of those residents who remain on the outskirts.
“Sometimes our neighbors select to be invisible, and it becomes a real challenge to build community if that is happening,” explains Dalton.
Regardless of the challenges, Dalton states being committed to ensuring the neighborhood grows stronger.
“I love the opportunity to go out there with an idea and make it happen by collaborating. All the things I truly love to do I get to do here,” she says.
In order to continue expanding the success of the organization, GPNA is seeking to hire a part-time Executive Director. Community members, residents and business owners are encouraged to be part of the interviewing and hiring process.
“We want as many voices represented in the process,” explains Scholten.
To find out more information about the position, click here
Much has changed for the organization since the early 1900s, evolving from the activist group of residents who sought to ensure the park did not become plots of land to be sold to being the second largest neighborhood association in the city of Grand Rapids. As the diverse population increases it becomes vitally important for the organization to take lead in advocating to address the problems facing the community today.
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 (use the hashtag #OnTheGroundGR), Facebook and Instagram. To connect with On The Ground GR's editor, Michelle Jokisch Polo, you can email her at [email protected] and follow her on Facebook and Instagram. You can learn more about Michelle here.
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.