Grandville Avenue: A neighborhood confronted with a history of redlining and segregation

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The cartographic analysis for this feature was done by Anel Guel.
Neighborhoods in the city of Grand Rapids are reflective of the way income inequity and housing segregation exist in the city. Ezequiel Ramirez, a 37 year-old resident of Grandville avenue, shares the ways folks in the community are challenging these barriers. 

On any given morning, Ezequiel Ramirez can be spotted on Grandville avenue supported by his cane, his right hand in the air in the sign of a wave, and his head nodded slightly upward in a welcoming manner. Unafraid to meet every single resident of Grandville Avenue, Ramirez' first words to utter to any newcomer are, “Welcome to the neighborhood.” Many residents on Grandville Avenue refer to Ramirez as “Mayor of Grandville Avenue,” a title he has earned after investing countless hours getting to know every single member of the neighborhood.

Ramirez makings one of his daily neihborhoods rounds on Grandville Avenue

"I used to walk from Market Avenue all the way to 44th street every single day,” shares Ramirez, of how he came to know every crevice of the area. At 77 years old, Ramirez continues to make his regular rounds around the neighborhood by foot, and though he is not physically able to make it all the way to 44th street, he still patrols the area from Clemente Park to Market Avenue and all the way to Clyde Park.

Ramirez was born in Harlingen, Texas, a town neighbored on one side by the Mexican border and the other by the great Gulf of Mexico. Having grown up in an area so close to the United States border with Mexico, Ramirez understands the meaning of a transient lifestyle, something he was unable to shake off until he landed on Grandville Avenue almost four decades ago.

Having dedicated much of his life to the fields as a migrant worker moving from state to state, Ramirez shares this allowed him to experience different communities. From spending afternoons under the scorching Florida sun picking the best oranges all the way to Michigan helping gather the best cherries Traverse City has to offer—Ramirez’ work ethic is admirable. Today, when the resident is not making his rounds around the neighborhood, he spends most days working helping fix up his neighbors’ gardens in the winter, raking leaves in the fall and shoveling snow during the winter.

“I really like working with flowers, and making these look nice in the garden,” says Ramirez.

Ramirez stands outside of his house on Underhill Avenue

Ramirez has been renting the same house on Underhill Avenue for the last 37 years. He explains that many in the community want to be able to own property. According to U.S. Census Data, 68 percent of housing units are owner occupied in Grand Rapids compared to the 39 percent on Grandville. While Latinxs make up 16 percent of the total population in Grand Rapids, Grandville is 78 percent Latinx, making it one of the largest concentrations of Latinxs in the city of Grand Rapids.

Segregation in the city of Grand Rapids is nothing new to long-time residents who faced years of redlining; it was not until 1970 that Black residents were able to purchase homes outside of Hall Street on the south, Cherry Street on the north, Fuller on the east, and the river to the west.

This map depicts the neighborhood demographics within the city of Grand Rapids. The purple are the white residents and the blue and turquoise markers are where black and Latinx residents are. Cartography by Anel Guel.

Today the area in the southwest side of Grand Rapids—south of Division avenue, Boston Square, and Burton Heights—is where the majority of residents of color in the city live. The change in demographic was a result of the federal and city governments’ attempt to address the institutionalized effects of racist housing practices through the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the 1976 Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act, and the 1994 City of Grand Rapids Community Relations Commission Ordinance on Housing Discrimination. The surrounding areas of Heritage Hill, Alger Heights, John Ball Park, downtown, and Creston are made up of mostly white residents.

According to Gordon Groenhout, a geography student at Calvin College who examined the effects of redlining in the city of Grand Rapids for his final undergraduate project, the affluent white population are continuing to move out of the city in all directions but especially east of the city—Heritage Hill, Ottawa Hills, East Grand Rapids, and Cascade.

Per the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation maps from 1937, Black Americans in Grand Rapids lived in areas labeled as hazardous. The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation is a corporation established in 1933 under the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation Act passed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The purpose of this act was to help refinance home mortgages who were at risk or in foreclosure. During this time, The Federal Housing Administration worked with the HOLC to help grade neighborhoods from green to red. The areas where Black Americans lived were consistently labeled as red. A “green” grading was considered the best grading and was given primarily to white resident occupied neighborhoods.

In this map we see depicted household median income by neighborhood. The orange colors represent income closest to the 43k mark and the turquoise blue colors mark the incomes closer to 28k. The area within the black line is Grandville Avenue. Cartography by Anel Guel.

Grandville Avenue residents earn a median income of $28,000 dollars per year, compared to the city’s median income of $43,000 per year. Ramirez explains that when he first moved to the area the kinds of jobs available to folks where temporary employment like farm-work—a fact he says is still true today.

“People don’t want to have to pay a salary with benefits, and the temporary jobs are the kinds of jobs that are easiest to get in this area,” shares Ramirez.

Another practice of redlining was to zone neighborhoods of color for industrial plants and waste disposal. On Grandville Avenue today, industrial businesses make up 34 percent of all businesses. While in the West Grand and John Ball Park neighborhoods combined, industrial business only make up 25.6 percent. This is not to say that poverty in the city of Grand Rapids is limited to residents of color, but that access to high grade housing and economic prosperity has been consistently denied to communities of color in the city. According to U.S. Census data, 26 percent of residents in Grand Rapids are living in poverty. Out of those unemployed in Kent County, residents of color make up 94 percent, according to the report the 2015 report from the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, “The High Cost of Disparities."

This map depicts home owners and renters based on racial demographic within the city of Grand Rapids. Dark purple are white homeowners. Light purple are white renters. Black owners are depicted in orange and black renters in yellow. Latinx owners are in dark green and Latinx renters in light green. The area within the black lines is Grandville Avenue. Cartography by Anel Guel.

For Ramirez, owning property is not something he wants to do anymore, if the opportunity had presented itself when he first arrived he explains he wouldn't have thought twice about it. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, renters on Grandville Avenue are nearly double the percentage than the number of renters in the city of Grand Rapids as a whole. He says he would rather spend the money he earns for taking care of the stray four legged-residents of the neighborhood.

“I try to give every stray cat in the neighborhood a home. In the side of my house I set up a shelter of hay and provide them with food so they don’t freeze in the winter,” shares Ramirez. Most recently, Ramirez has been taking care of a small Chihuahua, who he explains no one wants to take care of because he is an “ankle biter.” Ramirez calls Grandville Avenue his home. A neighborhood made up of people like him. People who like him have had limited access to economic and housing opportunities, and have had to work harder to earn access.

Ramirez shares a moment of conversation with Tony, owner of Tony's Emergency Auto, a business on Grandville Avenue.

“A lot of outsiders think this neighborhood is bad, but we have made it good and created our own opportunities through relationships and shared experiences,” shares Ramirez.

On The Ground GR

On The Ground GR is a Rapid Growth series. This series will highlight and celebrate the communities found touching along the Grandville Avenue of Grand Rapids.

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.

You can follow On The Ground GR's work via Twitter (#OnTheGroundGR @rapidgrowthmedia), Facebook 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, Twitter and Instagram.

On The Ground GR is made possible by The Frey Foundation, The Grand Rapids Community Foundation and the Steelcase Foundation organizations working to guarantee all communities thrive.

Photography by Segun Oyesile
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