Neighborhoods of GR: Alger Heights, a community of little intentional actions

Alger Heights is the only area of Grand Rapids that experienced growth during the Great Depression and WWII. Take a closer look at this vibrant, tight-knit community.
"Tight knit." Alger Heights resident and business owner Alex Courts uses these words to describe Alger Heights, and when asked to explain exactly what he means, he takes a minute to gather his thoughts.

"It's more something you feel rather than express with words," Courts says. "From the minute you move into this neighborhood, you are welcomed. One of my neighbors moved in a couple months ago, but it already feels like they have been here for a long time. This is a community, in the real sense of the word."

Courts, 23, joined his parents Ken and Gina Courts to open Ken's Fruit Market in the neighborhood business district in 2010, which centers on Eastern Ave. and Alger St. on the southeast side of the city, just north of 28th street. The building previously housed Mersman's grocery store, where his father shopped in the '50s and '60s. His family knew that their store would start on strong footing there, as even in 2010 with a struggling economy, Alger Heights housing was still in demand.

Alex Courts inside of Ken's Fruit Market in Alger Heights.

This vibrancy dates back to the Great Depression and World War II. According to "Heart & Soul: The Story of Grand Rapids Neighborhoods", Alger Heights is the only area of Grand Rapids that experienced growth during these turbulent times in history. The business district was established in 1946 after a housing boom took place in the neighborhood from 1940-41.

Courts grew up in Ionia, and explains that his family brought a small town perspective to the way they stocked the store at the start. "We had a certain way of doing things, but as we got to know the neighborhood customers, we listened to their ideas and began to carry a larger variety of items." For example, Courts had never heard of turkey knuckles, but when customers cooking southern food requested them, Courts began carrying them. He now finds they are one of his best-selling items.

Nearing eight years of business, Courts comments that even after opening two larger stores, customers tell him they like the Alger Heights location the best. With narrow isles and three cash registers, it's reminiscent of a neighborhood store in a big city like Chicago, and it's likely the cozy space has spurred more conversations and relationships than big box grocery stores. Courts shares that many of the staff live in the neighborhood and in turn become friends with the customers.

The close quarters also bring together people from different walks of life: Courts appreciates the large range of incomes, backgrounds, and races that pass through the market doors every day. "Alger Heights is a cool place,” he says with a smile. “I can't say that enough."

Courts bought his first home in Alger Heights in the summer of 2016, as he was attracted to the affordability and resale value of the neighborhood. While he admits he doesn't plan to live there too long, he is proud of his investment and believes that neighborhood pride is bolstered by millennials like himself.

"There are a lot of young people in this neighborhood who care about themselves and the world around them,” he says. “They are looking to better themselves."

The Brass Ring Brewery.

While Courts points to new businesses like The Old Goat and Brass Ring Brewery as bright signs that the neighborhood profile is expanding, long-time residents like Marsha Peters marvel at the changes over the years. Rather than breweries or upscale restaurants, Peters thinks the neighborhood most needs "a really good bakery" like Princess Bake Shop, which used to be in the area for many years.

An Alger Heights resident for 65 out of her 71 years, Peters says that although things have changed, her street is "stable," with neighbors who make an effort to maintain their yards and homes, which she values greatly.

"We're an odd breed, those who have stayed here," she says with a laugh, as her siblings have long left the neighborhood for Jenison, as they wanted larger homes and found the taxes were lower than Grand Rapids. She points out that while many young people start their families in Alger Heights, they often leave for the suburbs because "they can't imagine two kids sharing a bedroom."

Her father built her two-bedroom childhood home on Belfast street in 1945 and as the family grew to four children, her father partitioned the dining room to create another bedroom. By today's standards, while these homes are considered small, many residents believe they contain a charm not found in newer, larger homes, such as archways and unique ceiling molding. "Early American Style," "Cottage Bungalow," or "All Brick Colonial" read the original real estate postings from the '40s, which reveal the thought and care that went into the construction of the homes.

"The world is so different today," Peters says, recollecting how, as children, she and her siblings would pack lunches and ride their bikes to spend the day at nearby Plaster Creek or on 28th street, which was then only two lanes and surrounded by farms.

"Today, you don't see kids riding bikes as much," she says, although she enjoys running into neighbor kids once the weather turns warm. And while she did leave the neighborhood to live at 36th street briefly many years back, she didn't like it. "There were no sidewalks, no community feeling," she explains. "You don't know your neighbors. I can go down my street right now and name every person who has lived in each house, going back generations."

Andy Miller, President of the Alger Heights Neighborhood Association.

Andy Miller, the president of the Alger Heights Neighborhood Association (AHNA) since spring 2017, believes in knowing your neighbors—even to the point where they can share lawn mowers rather than purchasing their own. And he sees this communal way of life happening in Alger Heights. He points to neighbors who worry about how parents with strollers will navigate uneven sidewalks or to 30 volunteers who shovel snow for residents with disabilities or elderly residents.

Several years ago, Miller, 29, and his wife were living in the Baxter neighborhood and weren't planning to buy in Alger Heights. But when a friend bought a foreclosure in Alger Heights in 2015 that he was planning to flip, he visited the neighborhood and was immediately attracted to the "small town feel." He noticed that the business district offered "mostly everything you need...and business owners were invested. They put on events and are known faces in the neighborhood."

Miller was a chef and community gardener before moving to the neighborhood and co-founded Revive Realty last year, which is focuses on providing “a truly genuine and authentic real estate experience for all buyers and sellers.” He is inspired by the "little intentional actions" of the residents of Alger Heights, like the approximately 100 block captains who distribute newsletters and make new neighbors feel welcome, or the many volunteers who put on the National Night Out or the Halloween 5K events.

And yet, after noticing that such events tend to attract the same core group of neighbors, like families with young children, Miller says the board and block captains have begun challenging themselves to go further by asking: “How do we catch the people that have been neglected and forgotten, such as families without kids or seniors?”

As the Neighborhood Association focuses on being more inclusive, they are hoping to offer a more diverse range of events in the future, such as Alger Heights Happy Hour, which Miller explains is aimed toward “any adult who simply wants to hang out.” Miller laughs as he explains that the all-volunteer crew is limited in terms of the time and energy required to plan new events, yet they remain idealistic in their common vision: “We want all people to have access to the good aspects of this neighborhood.”

Natalie Tomlin is a freelance writer based in Grand Rapids. Her recent work appears in Midwestern Gothic, New Pages, Literary Mama, Cultured.GR, and elsewhere. A former public school teacher, she has taught writing for over a decade, most recently at DePaul University in Chicago.

Photos by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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