On The Ground: With entrepreneurship, diversity & family, South Division sets sights on the future

With numerous languages being spoken in businesses and homes, an eclectic array of successful shops, strong leaders, and residents who have long fought to keep their community vibrant, the area found along South Division Avenue, touching on the Garfield Park and Burton Heights neighborhoods, features a unique and diverse identity and a welcoming spirit.

In the early 1920s, Black and Latinx residents began migrating to the Grand Rapids area, looking for an opportunity to make an American Dream of their own. Black individuals came here during the Great Migration, attempting to escape from racism in the southern United States, and the first Mexican immigrants moved here to work on the railroad tracks. The area was largely unpopulated, and the open scenery and beautiful landscapes attracted many who were looking to settle on the outskirts of the city. Despite the availability of land, people of color were barred from settling here because of racist landlords and racist development policies. It was not until 1970 that Black residents were sold land south of the railroad tracks, a change that occurred after the uprisings of 1967, when hundreds of Black residents took to the streets after witnessing the brutal arrest of several young Black teenagers by Grand Rapids police officers.

After tensions had settled, residents of color began moving over to this area while white residents put their homes for sale and moved out of the neighborhood; some even moved out before their homes were sold.

"As African Americans moved over the tracks and into the all-white neighborhood, many white neighbors grew concerned and began a mass exodus," details Linda Samuelson & Andrew Schrier in "Heart & Soul: The Story of Grand Rapids Neighborhoods."

Even though the area suffered and many businesses were forced to close down, those who moved in and those who remained sought to continue spreading the spirit of entrepreneurship that began in 1924 with the Burton Heights Businessmen's Association, the first business association in the city of Grand Rapids. Among those responsible for threading together the diverse business owners and visionaries of the neighborhood was The Garfield Park Neighborhood Association. In the mid-1970s, this group of invested residents, community members and business owners sought to ensure the neighborhood came together, despite their economic, racial or geographic differences.

Corners of Burton and DivisionThe overwhelming feeling of hospitality, as well as a pride in the community's diversity, continues to bring together those who occupy the area today. Currently, the neighborhood is made up of 19 percent Black residents, 63 percent Latinx residents and 15 percent white residents, and one can expect the businesses along the South Division corridor to mirror the area's demographics. House of Style, The Place and Mi Casa Restaurante are among the many businesses standing on the avenue that echo the area's longstanding history of entrepreneurship, fight for equitable economic opportunities and welcoming character.

An extended family
 
2013 S. Division Avenue is one of the corridor's historical landmarks, House of Style, the very first African-American business in the city of Grand Rapids to be incorporated. The business was incorporated in 1969—10 years after it was started and two years after the uprisings that forced half of the shops on Burton Heights to close down. When the current owner's family bought the building the business stands in today, the shop had been incorporated for 16 years.

A company run by Debra Reece, House of Style is a licensed unisex barbershop and beauty salon offering walk-in-only service six days a week and an array of hair products to clients of all races, ethnicities, cultures and ages.

"You got hair—we do it," Reece says when asked about her clientele.

The spirit of inclusivity and openness is what she asked the three young artists—Daniel Cornejo, 17; Railyn Eaddy, 15; and John Newton, 16— to depict in the mural on the back entry of the store. The mural, the first of its kind on this side of the avenue, was made possible through the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology (WMCAT) and seeks to give art exposure to places who wouldn't otherwise get it.

Sketch of mural depicted on the back entrance of House of Style




"We want to spread the idea that art is everywhere" explains George Eberhardt, the WMCAT painting, drawing and street art instructor.

The mural of a mother and a child depicts the family environment one can expect inside the salon.

The family-owned business was started by Reece's father, Ernest Mathis Sr., more than 50 years ago, and Reece has been around since the very beginning. Today, she continues to be able to carry on her father's vision for the shop. Every customer who walks into the salon is greeted by name, and all newcomers are invited in with sincerity and generosity.

Reece always wants to give back to her community, and one way she ensures the salon does that is by offering a discount on haircuts every Sunday.

"We want to make it affordable for those who are unable to cover the full price of a hair cut— everybody deserves to look nice," says Reece. This past Sunday was no exception, and all seven of her employees were kept busy cutting the hair of more than 100 clients—just in time for the start of school.

When asked about her future hopes for the avenue, she replies with, "we would like to continue to uplift the neighborhood and the community."
 
At House of Style, you can expect a warm, open-arm welcome and an invitation to be part of an extended family.

What is family?: "Ellos on the avenue son mi familia"
Israel Perez cutting customer's hair at The Place

It was a Thursday morning and The Place buzzed with the sound of razors and conversation. Israel Perez, the owner of The Place, stands busy in the middle of the barbershop, conversing rapidly in his most fluent language, Spanglish, as he buzzes the hair of the man sitting on his chair.

The Place stands on 1922 S. Division and has been a neighborhood staple for more than 60 years. Tom Willette opened the barbershop in 1954 and kept cutting hair until his death in December of 2015. The space remained vacant for a couple of months until Perez moved in July of this year.

The 28-year-old had been wanting to open up his own shop since he got started cutting hair three years ago but had been unable to find a place to rent in the corridor. Having grown up in the area, Israel could not easily dismiss the strong community who, without question, has his back.

"The people here son mi familia (translation: are my family) and I wanted to stay here," says Perez.

He had opportunities to open up a shop on 44th and 28th street, but he held out hope for a spot on the corridor. "One day on on my way home from work I saw the "FOR RENT" sign hanging from the door, and I bugged the owners until I got it," explains Perez.

This was four months ago, and since then he has been able to expand to employ five other barbers at the shop, all while planning a wedding and expecting a child.

Getting started was not easy, and, after a stint in prison, Perez was left to raise his son on his own. At the time, he wanted to find a profession that would allow him flexibility to be able to care for his son, and cutting hair gave him just that.

"On the day my son's mother left us, she left a note on the bed that said, 'You'll never be a boss,' so I decided I would never give up and one day I would open up my own shop," recalls Israel. For Perez, the painful memory serves simply as a reminder of how far he has come since then.

When asked about what he hopes to see in the corridor, he replies with, "I want this area to come back to life—everybody is hiding. People are hiding from gunshots and immigration."
 
At The Place, you can expect to be inspired.

A family legacy

Beef Jibarito and Shrimp Mofongo

Mi Casa Restaurante proudly stands on 334 Burton St., bringing a taste of home to the area. It's impossible to pass southwest of Burton without noticing the great number of customers lining up outside the restaurant, drawn by the smells of home cooked chivo guisado and platanitos (goat stew and fried plantains). Mi Casa Restaurante is a family-owned business which opened for the first time in April of this year in hopes of being able to bring the taste of "tu segunda casa" (translation: your second home) to the neighborhood. The business is owned by Eduardo and Rosa Madera and operated by their daughter, Rosibel Vialet.

Julisa Diaz and Rosibel Vialet, Chef and Manager of Mi Casa Restaurante
Thus far, Vialet has been successful in being able to recreate the sense of home, family and belonging within the restaurant.

"From the customer service, to the presentation of each dish we strive to ensure the customer feels and is known by us," says Vialet. Her spirit of entrepreneurship and love for her community are contagious, she greets all her customers with a smile and open arms, and one can't help but leave the restaurant without the feeling of arriving at home.

The restaurant features typical Dominican, Venezuelan, and Central American dishes in its menu, as well as features of the day on its "menu especial." All dishes are prepared under the direction of Julisa Diaz, the head chef at Mi Casa Restaurante. Diaz, who originally hails from the Dominican Republic, brings a wealth of knowledge and more than a decade of restaurant experience.

"Immigrating to the United States was not easy," explains Diaz. "My experience and passion was not recognized—so it took time and hard work to get where I am today. Now I get to share a little bit of what home is for me with others with the food I prepare."

Even though Eduardo and Rosa Madera, natives of the Dominican Republic who settled in Michigan close to two decades ago after living in New York for about 12 years, have been doing business in the area on their own for 17 years with Burton Meat Farm, a Latinx specialty food store and butcher shop, their desire to learn from, and empower, their daughter, Vialet, has made possible what Mi Casa Restaurante is today.

The young entrepreneur recently graduated with an MBA from Davenport University and has since helped to rebrand the family businesses and taught her parents to use social media to grow their clientele.

"Burton Meat Farm helped cover the cost of my education—so now I want to give back and use the knowledge I obtained to grow our family businesses," says Vialet as she recalls the time when her family arrived to Grand Rapids with the hopes and dreams of owning their very own butcher shop. Now, 17 years later, the dream is a reality.

At Mi Casa Restaurante, you can expect to arrive home.

On The Ground GR

On The Ground GR is a new Rapid Growth series. This series will highlight and celebrate the communities found along South Division Avenue that touch the Garfield Park and Burton Heights neighborhoods.

Over the next few months, On The Ground GR journalists will be knocking on doors and getting to know the neighbors and community members. We will dive deeper into topics concerning this neighborhood's residents and stakeholders while celebrating the diversity and strength found in this area. We are on the ground listening and want to celebrate the community's unifying spirit of positivity and vibrancy.

You can follow On The Ground GR's work via Twitter (#OnThe GroundGR @rapidgrowthmedia), Facebook and Instagram. To connect with On The Ground GR's editor, Michelle Jokisch Polo (read more about Michelle here), you can email her at michellejokisch@gmail.com and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

On The Ground GR is made possible by the Frey Foundation, the Grand Rapids Community Foundation and Steelcase, organizations that believe democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. 

Photography by Kevin Doyle.
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