Listening to the Stories of the Neighborhood: South Hill

Photo+by+Emily+Cole

Photo by Emily Cole

The South Hill neighborhood, located near downtown in the southeast end of Grand Rapids , prides itself in upholding a strong sense of community through generations of change.

Nearly a thousand residents call South Hill, the smallest neighborhood in Grand Rapids, home. The neighborhood is nestled between the Madison Square, South East Community Association and Heritage Hill neighborhoods.

South Hill is shaped by its ethnic history, which began with Dutch and Italian immigrants and later became a majority African American community following waves of white flight in the 1960s. The area experienced growing pains during this time, as businesses and residents left for the suburbs and crime rates increased as a result of the shifting nature of the neighborhood. African American-owned businesses thrived during the time, however, creating a strong, close-knit community.

Residents of the neighborhood foster a warm atmosphere, convening on porches and sidewalks and biking along the roads. Today, the neighborhood is approximately 40 percent African American, 40 percent white and 15 percent identifying as Hispanic.

South Hill is distinct in that it is almost completely residential. There are few businesses, so most residents travel outside the neighborhood for employment and to frequent stores and restaurants.

Cameron Kritikos, a senior at Calvin, moved into the South Hill neighborhood recently with a few other fellow Calvin students. “Though I love the location of South Hills, most of the money I spend is outside of the neighborhood because that is where business is,” he says.

However, Kritikos emphasized that “what is unique about South Hills is its proximity to much of what Grand Rapids offers as a city of rich culture and tradition, as the Heartside Neighborhood on Division as well as the Cherry Hill Historic District are in roughly equal proximity in opposite directions.”

Churches rooted in the neighborhood, some for over a hundred years, have greatly shaped the culture of the community. Pilgrim Rest Missionary Baptist Church, First Christian Reformed Church, Madison Square CRC and Madison at Ford CRC have been longtime partners with the community in its growth and transformation.

One of the most striking features of the South Hill neighborhood is the new Pleasant Park. The park was transformed from a parking lot in 2014 as a part of a collaborative mission by a number of local community organizations. It boasts expansive green space and spaceship-like playground equipment that draws a wide variety of the neighborhood’s residents. It is “without a doubt, my favorite spot in the neighborhood,” Kritikos said.

A longtime resident of the neighborhood lent insight into the evolution of South Hill and spoke of the rich history and support systems evident in South Hill. She noted, however, that the neighborhood may change in the coming decade as middle-income individuals move closer to the city, which may increase home prices, displacing some longtime residents.

The neighborhood will continue to address challenges as gentrification creeps into the area. South Hill borders Heritage Hill, a nationally registered historic district with higher home values than its neighboring counterparts, and nearby Heartside neighborhood has been a site of increased concern about gentrification over the past few years.

As the community changes, neighborhood leaders have emerged to encourage positive community development. Great Lakes Urban is one organization working to foster growth and strength within the neighborhood through community listening, asset mapping, and building social capital and connecting individuals with local institutions to recognize the strengths of different working components of the neighborhood.