Covering an extensive area of the Grand Rapids community, including from Eastern to Giddings to Franklin to Adams, the Martin Luther King Park Neighborhood Association
is described by Jenn Victor, the chair of events and programming, as a “mixed bag; a big spectrum that needs to come together.”
A behavioralist by trade, Victor, has utilized her skills as part of the Association and active neighborhood participant for over nine years. After the 2019 MLK Park Quality of Life Study — a resident-driven initiative with a focus on building neighborhood capacity, creating a common vision for the neighborhood and recommending park improvements and activities — one of the first goals that was accomplished as a result was the organizing of the new MLK Neighborhood Association.
“We started looking at the strengths, the needs and the barriers in the area, as well as the future goals of what we wanted to see,” says Victor, who shares that the Association received their nonprofit status in early 2020. This occurred right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country, causing the efforts of the Association to move forward virtually in their meetings and continued planning.
The previous Association had been defunct for a long period of time, but the neighborhood was ready to show their presence in the community. Victor describes herself as one of the newbies in comparison to the members who have more years in the neighborhood in comparison, such as 20-plus year resident, Marci Jenkins, who serves as secretary for the Association.
Jenkins and her husband have been in the neighborhood since 1998, having moved into a flipped house that was allegedly used to traffic drugs. Jenkins is just houses down from the MLK Park, where she says that she can see the park’s pool from her home. After so many years in the neighborhood, Jenkins still does not consider herself a “legacy member,” adding that there are others in the area who have an even longer history in the neighborhood.
According to Jenkins, there are still families present that are three generations just on her street alone. “I just can’t say enough about how much I think people are missing out [because] they don’t know their own history,” Jenkins says. “Honoring who is now, honoring who was here in the past, the shared struggles, that’s where I’m at.”
Considering the current struggles, both Jenkins and Victor express that attempts to come together during the pandemic have been one setback. Others include reemerging and gaining the trust of the community after the drama associated with the previous Association, as well as maintaining the positive qualities of being in the community while dealing with the negatives, such as increased crime rates.
“Consistency and maintaining those things are super important for building trust,” says Victor, who also lives just walking distance from the park. “So, if we are able to do that, then we’re going to change the culture of this area.”
The Association is looking forward to having their first in-person meeting in June, after hosting bi-monthly virtual meetings and creating a calendar of events to get the group working toward their goals for bringing the community together and becoming a hub for the area. As Victor points out, the area served as a place of refuge, strength, hope and support for the Black community in GR for many years, and the Association would like to bring that feeling of hope and comfort back to the area, which has transitioned to a mixed, multicultural neighborhood.
Victor and Jenkins emphasize that the addition of new members and volunteers will help maintain the vibrancy of the community, which offers the best of both worlds by being so close to downtown GR but also far enough away to provide a close residential setting.
“I have high hopes,” says Jenkins, who expresses that things still seem to be lacking unity after all of these years in the community. “I think I put a lot of hope in the Park, the Park being the unifier. I’ve got everything hanging on that right now.”
Upcoming improvement and renovation projects include those to the historic MLK Park lodge, which will provide an accessible space for greater public use. Jenkins says that having only a few people actively taking part in Association events, such as the recent street renaming initiative and the upcoming neighborhood clean-up, can become challenging for the few who do work hard to achieve these initiatives. Jenkins says this is why more volunteers and neighborhood participation is needed. “Let’s be a neighborhood and do this!”
Photos by Isabel Media Studios
Southeast Strong is a series funded by the City of Grand Rapids that is focused on the multi-faceted neighborhoods of the city's southeast corridor. Through the exploration of the neighborhoods' entrepreneurs, nonprofits, and community members, the series' local storytellers will highlight the resiliency of resident voices and projects, especially during COVID-19 recovery.
Shanika P. Carter is an author, freelance writer, editor, and adjunct communications instructor. She is also the Principal Consultant of The Write Flow & Vibe, LLC (www.writeflowandvibe.com), offering writing, editing, and content development services to a variety of clientele, including fellow authors and businesses. Shanika is the author of the book To Lead or Not to Lead, which was released in 2019.