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East Hills Council of Neighbors' efforts lead to a better Grand Rapids

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Members of East Hills Council of Neighbors photographed in front of the "Center of the Universe" building

Members of East Hills Council of Neighbors photographed in front of the "Center of the Universe" building /East Hills Council of Neighbors

Taken in front of 1001 Lake Drive, the "Center of the Universe" building before the building was built.

Taken in front of 1001 Lake Drive, the "Center of the Universe" building before the building was built. /East Hills Council of Neighbors

The Sparrows Coffee, Tea & Newsstand located at 1035 Wealthy. It was one of the buildings saved by SEED's efforts.

The Sparrows Coffee, Tea & Newsstand located at 1035 Wealthy. It was one of the buildings saved by SEED's efforts. /East Hills Council of Neighbors

During the 1960s, the automobile provided the luxury of unrestricted travel. This led to people leaving the cities for what they perceived to be a better life in the suburbs. The abandonment of the city ushered in a plethora of absentee landlords, which led to major neighborhood deterioration, leaving them crime-ridden and mere shells of their former selves.  The neighborhoods that we enjoy so much today were near extinction till the early 1980s when a group of concerned citizens emerged to form the East Hills Council of Neighbors.

East Hills neighborhood is comprised of the houses and businesses between Fulton, Fuller, Wealthy, and Union streets.  It encompasses the business districts of Wealthy, Fulton, Cherry, and Diamond.  All together, it consists of 2,000 houses and is home to 4,000 people. 

EHCN's mission is to make East Hills a beautiful place to live and work. They advocate at the city level on behalf of East Hills residents.  Some things on their past agenda include saving trees, funding neighborhood parks and pools, and making abandoned or rundown buildings into respectable homes and businesses.

I talked to Kathryn “K.C.” Caliendo, EHCN's full-time neighborhood organizer, about crime prevention. East Hills has had a neighborhood officer for 20 years, partnering to work on the daily crime issues through organizing and enforcement. It has come a long way from the 1980s when the neighborhood was much rougher and citizens volunteered the use of their house so police could observe gang activity. K.C. discussed how residents would actually video tape the gang members and turn the evidence over to the police. The crime rate has dropped sharply from those days. K.C. also works closely with the police and residents to insure that crimes get reported and that necessary steps are taken to crush potential criminal activity.

“In reaction to white flight and the deteriorating neighborhoods all over the United States, federal funding became available through community development block grants. All the neighborhoods started in around the early ‘80s,” K.C. said.

K.C. explained that community development is comprised of crime prevention and neighborhood development.

EHCN was founded in 1981 to address crime and housing concerns. At this time, home ownership in the East Hills neighborhood was about 30%. Presently, it is 60%.

EHCN began its battle at Cherry Hill. The neighbors organized and pushed for designation as a historic district in order to prevent any further demolition. K.C. said they did this because the best way to get rid of irresponsible absentee landlords is to make the neighborhood historic, which sets high physical property standards. Landlords who are unwilling to fix up their properties will eventually sell.

At the time, nearly 70% of Cherry Hill properties were owned by absentee landlords, who often rented to criminal tenants.  Cherry Hill residents contacted absentee landlords to ask the selling prices of their property and then began to market those properties for sale to owner-occupants through a program called “How to Buy Your Own House Just When You Thought You Couldn’t.”  The group held Saturday morning workshops on how to buy a house, how to fix up a house and how to get help improve the neighborhood.

At the same time, neighborhood organizations bordering on Wealthy Street founded the South East Economic Development corporation, known as SEED.  SEED focused on bringing about the economic revitalization of the Wealthy Street business corridor.  

I talked to Rebecca Smith-Hoffman, the co-chair of EHCN's board of directors. Ms. Hoffman is also a former board member of SEED and was one of the major contributors to what the neighborhood is today.

“Many buildings that would have been lost are now thriving businesses thanks to SEED”, Ms. Hoffman said.

Ms. Hoffman informed me that SEED viewed the buildings as the neighborhood's main asset. The City of Grand Rapids did not and saw the future of Wealthy Street filled with fast food restaurants and strip malls.  I asked Mrs. Hoffman about some of the projects that SEED helped to save. She shared a few examples and a little about their history with me.

  • Joseph Huizenga opened Huizenga Hardware store at 1035 Wealthy in 1910. His son raised a family of seven in the upstairs apartment. The hardware store closed in the late 1980’s and the building fell into disrepair.  Following a fire in the building, the city wanted it torn down. Through the efforts of SEED the building was saved and rehabbed in 1996 by Carol Moore. It is now the location of The Sparrows Coffee, Tea & Newsstand, a popular coffee shop on Wealthy Street.
  • The Passtime Vaudette located at 1130 Wealthy was built in 1911; it was the first neighborhood theater in the area.  In the 1920’s, it reopened under new ownership as the Wealthy Theater and remained in operation for 53 years until 1973. The city wanted to demolish it. SEED negotiated a deal in which the city agreed to donate the theater for one dollar with the understanding that it would be rehabilitated into a community arts center. It reopened in 1998 and has become a very popular neighborhood theater that hosts many local events.

K.C. Caliendo talked about “the Center of the Universe” located at 1001 Lake Drive S.E. It had been a Shell station since 1932 and been abandoned for fifteen years, with old underground tanks that were leaking and contaminating the site.  Shell and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources were funding efforts to clean up the site. East Hills obtained a grant to carry out necessary pre-development activities, such as overseeing completion of site clean-up and the necessary legal work.  Bazzani Associates completed the building in 2004, recognized as the first double-gold LEED certified building in the United States  by the US Green Building Council.  It now is home to three groups: West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC), Cobblestone, and Marie Catrib's Restaurant.

“Success breeds success. Once we created places like the Center of the Universe and fought for redone brick streets, we were able to reverse the East Hills business stock,” K.C. explained.

After businesses started sprouting, EHCN began the Trees Please project. Money was raised from various sources to maintain trees that make the neighborhood beautiful. The project was expanded in August 2008, when a grant from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation funded a tree inventory in East Hills that identified size, species and condition. Assisted by volunteers, foresters inventoried all park and street trees in the neighborhood.  The neighborhood has 1,493 trees consisting of 58 species, with a total value of $4,061,233.

After hearing about all these projects, I asked K.C. about any future goals East Hills has. She said they are working on an ongoing project that will connect the streets and improve the sewer and street lights on Wealthy's side streets. They are also trying to raise the owner occupant rate and the percentage of responsible landlords.

“Many citizens have worked for over 30 years using their own money and many hours of their time to bring about their vision of a healthy, safe, walk able urban neighborhood,” Ms. Hoffman emphasized.

So next time you are having a beer at The Meanwhile, eating a great plate of food at The Green Well, or buying some wine at the Cherry Hill Market, remember all of the people and their efforts that have pulled the neighborhood out of near death and continue to build on it today.

If you have a crime issue or want to volunteer your time or money to help the East Hills neighborhood you can contact K.C. at The East Hills Council of Neighbors located at 131 Eastern Ave. S.E. Grand Rapids, MI 49503, telephone 616-454-9079, or e-mail the office: [email protected].

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 awesome article! as a new rapidian that frequents these places, i have to say i really dig hearing about the history of the area, about the work that went into the places i love to go. good job