GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — While racism and bigotry are at the heart of segregation, redlining helped emphasize the lines between communities across the nation and between neighborhoods.
Because the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation believed that Black or minority neighbors would drive down property values, most mortgage lenders would prevent Black families from moving into affluent neighborhoods to protect their investments. The practice, which is now illegal, pigeonholed Black families into rundown neighborhoods and properties with little potential to appreciate in value.
Grand Rapids was one of 10 Michigan cities to receive a “redlined” HOLC map, dictating which neighborhoods posed the most promise. Now, more than 80 years after the map’s release, the lines that carved the city have become scars — not seen solely through racial demographics, but also through property values and adverse health issues.
SEGREGATION BEFORE REDLINING
Since its official founding in 1850, Grand Rapids has been segregated in several ways. In the city’s early days, money is what mattered. The vast majority of what we consider Grand Rapids today had yet to be platted, let alone developed. Wealth dictated what land — and how much — a family could afford.
But by the end of the 19th century, Grand Rapids was steadily growing and more defined neighborhoods took shape. Thanks to the state’s ample timber reserves and the city’s burgeoning furniture industry, Grand Rapids experienced a population boom following the Civil War. From 1865 to 1910, the city’s population grew from approximately 15,000 residents to 100,000, including mostly European immigrants.
Whether it was an effort to hold on to part of their culture or purely for comfort, most immigrant groups stayed together. German immigrants established their own small neighborhood, complete with a German parish, Saint Mary Church. Many Polish immigrants soon followed and laid claim to the city’s west side, building their own parish — the Basilica of St. Adalbert — in 1881.
Historian Jeffrey Kleiman put it a little more succinctly.
“The Germans and the Poles didn’t like each other in Europe. It doesn’t mean they liked each other in the United States,” Kleiman said. “The Poles are away from the Germans: ‘I want a Polish parish. I don’t want to go to the German parish.’”
With the advent of the automobile, cities started functioning on a bigger scale. With those immigrant classes now established and growing, residents could look outside of their small, isolated neighborhoods. But the concept of segregation wasn’t going away. Matthew Daley, a history professor at Grand Valley State University, said it only shifted the boundaries.
“The (HOLC) maps show you that this is already built in. They are already segregated. The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation didn’t do it. It’s just going to make it worse,” Daley told News 8.
THE 1937 MAP
In 1937, Grand Rapids was carved into 61 different neighborhoods, with Reeds Lake serving roughly as the eastern boundary and Covell Avenue as the western. The still undeveloped North Park neighborhood served as the northern boundary and Kelloggsville to the south.
Of the 61 neighborhoods, six received A grades, showing the most potential for future development and safest bets for stable property value. Twenty received a B, 28 received a C and seven received a D. The analysis showed Black residents only lived in five of Grand Rapids’ 61 neighborhoods. All five received the lowest possible grade.
The analyses for all six “A” neighborhoods reported no Black residents, no “relief” families (welfare) and no “infiltration” of “foreign-born” families. Meanwhile, five of the seven “D” neighborhoods were noted for having Black or foreign-born residents, and all seven included some families on welfare.
Of the 20 “B” neighborhoods, none of them had any families on welfare, and only two were documented to have any “foreign-born” families — both Dutch settlements.
Marks were a little more mixed for “C” neighborhoods. Eleven out of the 28 neighborhoods were downgraded for having a small percentage of people on welfare or foreign-born families, including Kent Hills (C16), which the grader noted contained “a strong Dutch community with all that it implies of thrift.”
Neighborhoods received positive remarks for having city services like water and sewer and for being close to schools and transportation but were marked down for being too close to industrial areas. For example, the only noted detriment on the analysis for the Batjes Park neighborhood (C2) was that it included a large gravel pit.
Others were put in the “C” category simply because there were too many unpredictable factors. East Grand Rapids (C7) was given a “C” grade despite being a wealthy, white neighborhood because many of the homes were getting old. The Wealthy-Madison-Franklin neighborhood was exclusively white and white collar but included too many multifamily homes for the HOLC’s liking. And then areas like North Park, Comstock Park and Paris Township (now Kentwood) received “C” grades because they were simply undeveloped. To quote one analyst, the “future is completely uncertain.”
THEN AND NOW
Grand Rapids has changed a lot in the last century. At the turn of the 20th century, Black residents made up just a tiny fraction of the city’s population. According to the 1930 census, Grand Rapids had 2,795 Black residents — 1.6% of the city’s total population. As of 2021, 17.8% of Grand Rapids’ population was Black.
Craig Carpenter, a professor of community economics with Michigan State University, used information from the 2019 American Community Survey and overlaid Grand Rapids’ current demographic data with the 1937 HOLC map. The data highlighted some patterns.
Of the seven “D” graded neighborhoods — the only neighborhoods with Black residents in 1937 — four of them now have a minority majority, meaning more than half of the neighborhoods’ residents are people of color.
Conversely, despite the major shift in racial demographics within the city, the six “A” neighborhoods are still predominantly white. For three of them, the largest segments of the neighborhoods are at least 90% white — Ravenswood, Fisk Lake and Cascadia. The other three — Garfield Park and the two neighborhoods that comprise Ottawa Hills — are still majority white but people of color make up more than a quarter of the population.
One of the biggest changes was on the southern end of the city. The city’s Black population outgrew Grand Rapids’ “Black belt,” expanding into Burton Heights, Godwin Heights and Kentwood — all areas that went from zero Black presence to between 25% and 50% people of color. Some parts of those neighborhoods now have a minority majority.
Minority communities have also moved north but in smaller numbers. The northern half of the city does not have any neighborhoods with a minority majority. Approximately one half of the northern neighborhoods have a population between 10 and 25% people of color. Another quarter is between 25 and 50% while the remaining quarter — notably the northwest side — is at least 90% white.
We can also still see the economic impact of Jim Crow-era laws and racial discrimination. As of 2019, 22.4% of Grand Rapids residents lived at or below the poverty line. With a population more than three times larger than Black or Hispanic counterparts, white residents only make up 12.8% of people below the poverty line compared to 38.8% for Black residents and 35.1% for Hispanic residents.
Liz Keegan of the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan said that income gap is reflected in where those families live and other sacrifices.
“Where you live directly impacts how you live,” Keegan told News 8. “If you plug in your zip code to some databases that are available online, it will tell you your life expectancy. And when you look at redlined neighborhoods, your life expectancy is shorter. The data is really telling us these stories that I think are helping people better understand how we are paying the price for that history.”
Most redlined neighborhoods are closer to industrial zones or in some cases even mixed-use. That means more exposure to pollutants and more concrete. More concrete means fewer trees and more trapped heat on hot days.
A New York Times report in 2019 analyzed Richmond, Virginia, one of more than 200 cities that were mapped by the HOLC. It found that temperature readings were multiple degrees higher in redlined neighborhoods compared to surrounding areas. Other research shows a similar comparison between higher temperatures and asthma and other respiratory issues.
Grand Rapids’ 49507 zip code is another example. The area, which includes some industrial zones, has the highest rates of lead poisoning in Kent County. It is also one of the few areas that has a minority majority.
Lead poisoning can stunt growth and cause nerve damage along with learning, hearing, speech or behavior problems. For years now, the Kent County Health Department has worked with city officials and nonprofits to help clear lead paint and other hazards from homes in the neighborhood.
“We have worked hard on this issue for a very long time,” Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss told News 8 in 2020. “We have seen those numbers decrease, but even one child poisoned in our community is one child too many.”
In a 2021 presentation to the Grand Rapids Historical Society, Keegan said our understanding of fair housing and the long-term impact of redlining goes deeper than simple segregation and bigotry. Even decades later, patterns are still shaping the city and causing undue harm to people of color.
“We are better understanding the harm to living close to industrial areas that were not well controlled. What it can do to our groundwater. What it can do to the earth. We are better understanding lead poisoning, lead paint usage,” Keegan said. “Literally, the environment that we spend time in correlates directly with our health.”
— This article is the second of a four-part series looking at redlining and the fight for fair housing in Grand Rapids. The first article can be viewed here.