As the wave of urban revitalization spreads throughout Grand Rapids, Southtown's ethnically and culturally diverse neighborhoods are stepping out of economic decline into a new era of stability and vitality.
Once-dilapidated storefronts are sporting new facades on the outside, and housing new businesses on the inside. Ethnic restaurants, a modern library, a renovated theater, unique shops and salons, city parks, and a variety of other attractions now regularly draw visitors.
Southtown – bordered by Wealthy Street on the north, Fuller on the east, Burton on the south, and US-131 on the west – is an amalgamation of lifestyles and cultures that seem to vary from block to block. A tour around the community takes visitors from 1920s Arts and Crafts style houses on one street to modern row houses on the next, from hip coffeehouses to a pre-Civil War cemetery.
History and art buffs can spend hours roaming the nearly 67 acres of Oakhill Cemetery. Lofty oak trees, some of which were planted in the 1800s, shade Civil War veteran burial sites, family plots with Egyptian temple-like mausoleums, and a Jewish cemetery. Visitors are often surprised and delighted by the intricate statuary monuments, which include angels, anchors, trees carved from stone, and sandstone benches that appear to be carved from wood.
Valley City Cemetery and Oakhill Cemetery became one cemetery in 1859, but remained divided into north and south sections by Hall Street. During World War II, the iron gates and fencing that once surrounded the cemetery's perimeter and many of its individual graves were removed and sent to local scrap yards to be melted down and used for the military. Of the three wrought iron gateways into the cemetery, only the stone columns remain.
"Some noted Grand Rapidians are buried there," said Trudie Anderson, a financial assistant for the City of Grand Rapids and an expert on the city-owned cemeteries, "like the Herpolsheimers, the Kendalls from the Kendall Art Institute, and the Bissells from the Bissell Carpet Sweeper Company. It’s a spectacular Victorian style cemetery."
Free guided tours are offered for one day each fall. The Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Department provides maps and brochures for self-guided tours.
Southtown's other outdoor attractions include the summertime SouthEast Area Farmers Market. A National Night Out event in August is one of the largest in the city and features a speaker, a cookout, kids activities, and free swimming for the entire day at Martin Luther King Park.
Campau Park is the centerpiece of Campau Commons, a $13 million urban revitalization housing project. The park offers a swimming pool, playground, baseball diamonds, outdoor basketball courts, tennis courts, and soccer fields.
Just north of Southtown is the Paul I. Phillips Recreation Center which features an indoor fitness facility with treadmills, stair-steppers, elliptical machines, exercise cycles, and weight training equipment. A certified fitness instructor is available to show visitors how to use the equipment. Free after-school and evening events and organized activities that include the Dr. Martin Luther King Celebration for Peace provide entertainment for all ages. The full-sized gymnasium is available for free basketball play. Visitors can contact the Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Department for information and a schedule.
Wealthy Theatre was built in 1911 as a local venue for vaudeville and live theater. In later years, it spent short stints as a neighborhood movie theater, a World War I aircraft warehouse, and a cinema for foreign films before it was abandoned. After 25 years of decay, the theatre was restored in 1998 and became the southeast side's choice for community arts and events, including film, drama, international folk dancing, ballroom dancing, and praise and worship concerts.
Southtown businesses draw upon the distinctive character of each of its main business districts to provide singular shopping and dining experiences.
Sam's Oasis is one of the city's first restaurants specializing in Middle Eastern cuisine. Seven Mares Restaurant serves up authentic Mexican food in a no frills atmosphere. The Boston Square Dollar Store is a fun stop for bargain-seekers. Across the street, do-it-yourself aficionados will enjoy browsing among Modern Hardware's extensive selection of kitchen and bath hardware, woodworking supplies, and fireplaces.
"The neighborhood is booming," said Pamela Tardy, owner of Turning Heads Salon. "We get a lot of business from the other businesses like R & L Shoes next door because they’re drawing people to the neighborhood. People go there and then they stop here, and vice versa."
Turning Heads' has several stylists and a barber and provides total hair care services for men and women, including hair extensions, weaves, braids, and color. They also offer eyebrow arching, manicures, and pedicures.
Across the street is New China Restaurant, O. J. Enterprises Beauty Supply, and Family Dollar. BP & T's Southern Fish Fry is a short walk away. Musicians might be interested in recording with Joint Heir Music Productions, a recording studio with national distribution connections. The Madison Square Branch Library sponsors creative family events and children's storytime gatherings.
Bargain hunters, flea market fans, and garage sale seekers enjoy browsing at the St. Vincent de Paul Society store, and the Salvation Army store, one of the largest in the city. The proposed Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center is expected to open in 2008 and will offer families expansive facilities, including: a baseball diamond, basketball courts, soccer fields, a swimming pool with slides, a climbing wall, an outdoor playground, a fitness center, vocal and instrumental training, and drama and dance.
Ernie's, one of the city's oldest barbershops, has made men, women, and children look their best for over 40 years. Folks looking to satisfy their taste buds will be happy they stopped at Sharks Fish & Chicken for southern style cuisine, or Black Castles for good and sloppy burgers.
A bit further south on Eastern Avenue is the original Harvest Health Foods, offering what the owners call "healthy groceries, healthy vitamins, and healthy answers." Eastern Deli, Classy Nails, and Venito clothing store are within a short walk.
The dogged spirit of Southtown's residents is evident in the rebirth of its retail centers and restaurants and the desire to provide entertainment and activities that can be enjoyed by all. Out of that has come a fresh new face for the city's south side.
Oakhill Cemetary has victorian era crypts and headstones
A new home in Campau Commons
Harvest Health Foods
R&L Shoes anchors Madison Square
Photographs © Brian Kelly