My heart's in Midtown: A Neighborhoods of GR essay

In this special edition of Neighborhoods of GR, writer and former Midtown resident Marjorie Steele dives into her love for the neighborhood's diversity, chill vibes, and affordability.
It was the first and only house in Midtown I walked through with my realtor, but I didn’t get past the front porch before deciding it was the one. I was in love—and not just with the home’s new pinewood molding.

I’d fallen for Midtown.

I bought my first home in the summer of 2009, cashing in on the Obama administration’s first time homeowner stimulus right in the middle of the big market crash. I was working as a writer for an industrial manufacturing ad agency at the time, who was hemorrhaging clients as big auto slid towards bankruptcy. It was a good time, I decided, to quit my job and go into full time freelance copywriting.

I can still remember my mortgage agent joking with me at closing:

“You didn’t just quit your job or anything did you? Hahahaha…”

“Oh, hahaha, of course not!” I said, remembering the two weeks’ notice I’d handed in that very morning.

And yes, it’s true that my doe-eyed, first-time homebuyer self spent more than I probably should have on my little green house in Midtown, and the mortgage did go underwater for a few years there, but fortune seems to have favored the bold. I never missed a mortgage payment, and by the time I needed to sell it last spring, values had risen back to above the purchase price—enough for me to make a small but respectable profit.

I’d only lived in Grand Rapids for a year before buying my Midtown house, and I honestly didn’t know that Midtown existed, let alone that I wanted to live there. All I knew was that I wanted to be within walking distance of downtown, to not spend my every spare hour and dime fixing my house, and to be able to afford to buy it.

I was driving through neighborhoods scouting for “For Sale” signs when I saw a cute little bungalow that was being freshly sided, and had the most intense urge to see the inside—despite its lack of “For Sale” sign. I gave the address to my realtor, who said the listing was just about to go on the market, and that she could arrange for me to be the first one to see it.

It had just been flipped by a woman who said she could see the upstairs bathroom through a hole in the living room floor before they fixed it up. You’d have never known it, though; the place was darling, and built like a tank. Cute little plaster archways between rooms. Fresh tile, pine molding, and hickory kitchen cabinets. The tidy, functional layout. True to the legends of Dutch construction, the foundation of that little house had not a single crack, and the basement was bone dry in all seasons. The floors and stairs never creaked.

We walked through two other houses, but I knew it was just a waste of time. To be sure: I was enamored with the tiled bathrooms and the huge kitchen and the hickory cupboards. But it was more than that.

There was just something about it. The house, the block—the neighborhood. It felt like home.

About a third of the neighboring lawns were nicely but not obsessively maintained, with lots of flowers and hostas. Another third were ignored aside from a monthly mowing, and yet another third were chaotically unkempt. And that, perhaps more than anything, made it feel like home. It reminded me of my mom’s pretty but not over-manicured gardens by the house, juxtaposed against my dad’s unkempt hoard of chaos that was the pole barn by the woods.

“Nobody’s going to be shaming me for taking too long to mow my lawn in this neighborhood,” I thought happily. I’m a notorious procrastinator, so chill neighbors are a must for me.

I saw different types of people milling about the neighborhood—college students, professionals, blue collar workers, and kids. Lots of kids.

And they weren’t all white.

This turned out to be particularly important to me, and to my family, when I had my daughter, who is Filipino-American and has features very different from mine. She was just a baby when the “where is she from?” looks at the grocery stores started, and ever since, I’ve adamantly tried to protect her from picking up a sense of isolation, of being out of place. I want her to understand, by simply looking around, that people come in all different skin colors—even sometimes within the same family. I want her to know that she belongs, in her own family, and in the world.

I remember sitting out on my front porch with my daughter when she was about 18 months old, on a summer day, and watching a family with a white father, black mother, and their baby walk by. We smiled at one another and said hello, and as I watched them walk by, I saw the kids of the hispanic family who lived at the corner of the block playing out on the sidewalk with the children of the immigrant family two houses down. I remember looking at my daughter, and smiling as she played with cicada shells, feeling very much like we belonged.

Today, when her kindergarten friends ask her “Is that really your mom?”, she just laughs. “They think you’re not my mom cuz you don’t look like me,” she says and snorts. “That’s so silly.”

Although we’ve lived in our home in South Hill for over a year now, my daughter reminds me about our green house all the time. She still begs me to bring her to the park by Houseman Field.

And while I definitely don’t miss waking up to the sounds of summer track meets and band practice at Houseman Field on Saturday mornings, I do find myself back in Midtown on a near daily basis to visit Kameel Chamelly’s empire on the corner of Lyon and Union: Martha’s Vineyard, Martha’s Pizza, Nantucket Bakery, or Lyon Street Cafe.

Sorry, Wealthy Street Bakery et al: you’re good, but you’re just not Kameel’s corner.

South Hill is similar to Midtown in the diverse economic and racial composition of its residents. There are plenty of young families, but more retired folks than there are in Midtown, which makes for a quieter, sleepier neighborhood—which, frankly, I like. Pleasant Park is just around the corner—the first park to be restored to Grand Rapids’ urban neighborhoods after the2013 parks millage passed—which more than makes up for the loss of Houseman Field and the Midtown Greene.

I’m also grateful to have the extra square footage characteristic of South Hill’s homes, which, once our historic home’s massive attic space is finished, will come close to tripling the square footage of my cute little Midtown bungalow, which barely clocked at over 1,000 square feet.

Still, I side with my daughter: I do miss our little green house in Midtown. I miss the economy of the small yet well designed living space, the tidiness of the postage-stamp backyard. I miss being surrounded by young families with young children, and being within half a block of Logan’s Alley.

And yes, I know: everyone’s worried about the big G word in Midtown. I am too. The slew of large apartment complexes that have gone up (or are going up) on Michigan corridor have brought a lot of density to the area, and will bring more.

Still: Midtown has far from lost its character, andwhile housing costs have gone up as middle class incomes continue to be stifled, Midtown still represents one of the most affordable housing opportunities for young families and professionals near downtown.

With the continuedhard workof organizations like the Midtown Neighborhood Association, and with continuedvocalization from residents at city commission meetings, I think Midtown has a good shot at remaining a beautiful, affordable place for families to live, for a long time.

Maybe long enough for my daughter to buy her own starter house in Midtown someday—but not too soon.
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