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The racial segregation of housing in Grand Rapids: Past and Present

January 15, 2019

In honor of Richard Rothstein’s visit to Grand Rapids today, I though it might be important to take his analysis from the book, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.

In addition, while Rothstein’s book focuses on the government’s role in housing segregation, it is important to think about how the private and non-profit sector’s have contributed to housing segregation in recent decades.

Grand Rapids is pretty typical in many ways, but before looking at GR’s housing segregation, I think it is important to acknowledge that Grand Rapids is founded on land that belonged to the Anishinaabe people. Settler Colonialism is the foundation of Grand Rapids and you can’t have homes without first having land. White Settlers used a variety of tactics, legal, religious coercion and the threat of violence to remove the indigenous population along the Grand River to make way for the creation of Grand Rapids.

It is also important to acknowledge that there was a great deal of class-based housing segregation in Grand Rapids, with the early Robber Barons living in luxury and work class people living in substandard housing.

When the African American population grew in Grand Rapids in the early part of the 20th century, this is when we see more over forms of housing segregation. One early example is cited in the book, African Americans in the Furniture City, where white residents objected to blacks moving in to the 1100 block of Thomas St. SE. The white residents went to the City Commission meeting to voice their opposition.

Todd Robinson, in his important book, A City Within a City: The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, Michigan, documents the practice of red lining that primarily impacted the Black community beginning in the 1920s.

Pictured here is a map from the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC) from 1937, that demonstrates where red lining was taking place in Grand Rapids. To understand the color coding, go to this link

The practice of Red Lining became the norm. The following information is based on a 1940 Urban League report:

Another report for the Grand Rapids Urban League in 1947, demonstrates that after WWII, the same kind of housing segregation took place. Look at the data from the report, by going to this link, but here is a brief overview of the housing conditions for African Americans. 

Another important point that Rothstein makes in his book is how the late 50s highway construction project across the country, which was initiated by the federal government, also contributed to racial segregation. The same also took place in Grand Rapids, with the construction of US 131 cutting through the north to south and 196 cutting through the city east to west.

I interviewed Fr. Dennis Morrow years ago about the freeway construction in Grand Rapids, since he has done the most extensive research on that topic locally. He said there were roughly 1,000 homes destroyed and 4,000 families displaced. In addition, the highways did contribute to both a form of racial and class segregation, which continues to this day.

Rothstein also makes it clear that white flight contributed to housing segregation. In Grand Rapids, the white flight began in the 50s, with white people moving to places like Rockford, places that Todd Robison refers to as bedroom communities. However, the white flight increased after the 1967 uprising in Grand Rapids. White fear is what motivated the flight, but the other consequence to white flight was that white people also took money out of the city, particularly in areas with the largest concentration of black people.

This disinvestment of the southeast part of Grand Rapids had a long lasting impact on the black community. However, there were still plenty of white landlords who were profiting off of the black community, landlords who often did not maintain those rental properties. The economic decline of the southeast side of the city is well documented, but that changed at the beginning of the 21st Century, when white people decided to move back to the city and buy up property in areas like the Wealthy Street corridor.

This new re-investment by white people is known all too well by black people in this community……it’s called gentrification. Rothstein also identifies this dynamic, stating:

Gentrification of private housing in urban areas, redevelopment projects, and highway routing have forced low-income and minority families to search for new accommodations in a few inner-ring suburbs that are in transition from white to majority minority.

In addition to the gentrification along the Wealthy Street corridor, there has been major gentrification happening in the Bridge St. area, in the Belknap neighborhood and concerns that the Boston Square neighborhood will be next because of the DeVos/Rockford Construction land grab in that area

The government still plays a role in the new gentrification, through the form of subsidies for new development projects or state funding for housing projects that are often run by non-profits. The private housing and development sector and the non-profit sector get these subsidies with virtually no public input and get to redesign the city how they see fit. Now, some may argue that the non-profit housing sector is doing a good thing by building affordable housing, but this can also be misleading. First, the public is not really part of the process, even though public tax dollars pay for these projects. Second, many of the affordable housing projects have been for individuals, so there is still inadequate housing options available for families experiencing poverty. Lastly, the use of non-profit housing projects is somewhat of a false solution, since it doesn’t really address the main problem we see in cities like Grand Rapids, which is the wealth gap.

In 2016, Grand Rapids had the largest wealth gap in the state, according to a report done by the Economic Policy Institute. This trend have having a large wealth gap between the rich and the working poor doesn’t seem to be changing. What we need to do is to come up with new ideas and ways of thinking about addressing the segregated housing reality in Grand Rapids. We need to think about structural oppression and systems of power in order to address the problem of racial segregation in housing. We also need to make sure that those who are the most affected in this community by housing segregation, specifically the black and brown communities need to be the one to lead the effort to dismantle housing segregation in this city.

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