Small town in the big city

Historic neighborhood’s walkability lends to a simpler, more connected way of life
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Brass Ring Brewing, Heights Cream, and Alger Hardware are three Alger Heights establishments that give the area a small town feel. Photo by Wes Kitten.

Talk to anyone who lives in Alger Heights and one of the first words out of their mouth is “walkability.” They walk to Ken’s Market for produce, Brass Ring Brewery for libations, The Old Goat for lunch, the Seymour Square library for a good read.

The roughly 4,500 residents that live between Burton Street on the north and 28th Street on the south, Kalamazoo Avenue on the east and Eastern Avenue on the west live in one of the most popular city neighborhoods that is seeing renewed interest in the already much-loved area.

For Gwendolyn Johnson, a real estate agent who has lived in Alger Heights since 1993, it’s the walkability that draws her, along with the neighborhood’s diversity. “I love to meet new people so I love walking around the neighborhood, plus the variety of foods available and the diverse population,” she said.

Brass Ring Brewing serves traditional English pub fare. Seen here, “Bangers and Mash.” Brass Ring Brewing was a finalist for best bar in the Grand Rapids Magazine readers’ survey. Photo by Wes Kitten.

Jody Smith, a social worker devoted to foster care, moved into Alger Heights in 2001 at the urging of a long-time friend and real estate agent.

“I have never once regretted moving here,” she said. “I love the diversity and I love being the only white person and only one solely speaking English when I go to the bank or grocery store or library.”

She knows her neighbors and their pets and loves to stop and chat while she’s out walking. “So many things are within walking distance here, plus it doesn’t take long to get anywhere in the city,” she added.

Alger Heights was one of the only neighborhoods in the city to be built up during both the Great Depression and World War II, with a housing boom expanding it even more in 1940-41. The business district at Eastern Avenue and Alger Street came into being in 1946 to accommodate the growing neighborhood and new families moving in. In those days it was “suburban” Grand Rapids.

In came Mersman’s Super Market at 2420 Eastern Ave., De Waard Jeweler, Alger Heights Hardware, Anton’s Soda & Grill, Polly Anna Pastry and a barbershop. At one point there was a Sunoco Gasoline Station at the corner of Alger and Eastern. As time passed, Boersma’s replaced Mersman’s and Swierenga Jewelers replaced De Waard. Both are gone now, replaced by new businesses eager to tap into the popular community. Alger Hardware is there as well, offering small-town service instead of big-box anonymity.

The Seymour Square Library opened to the public in 1963, and Seymour Christian School served children in the Grand Rapids Christian School system. Alger School served children via Grand Rapids Public Schools, with Alger Middle School now serving grades six through eight.

Now, Seymour Christian School is permanent home to Tabernacle Community Church, with a second building purchased by ICCF to turn into condos. For Tabernacle’s Pastor Artie Lindsay Sr, the first order of business when the church decided Alger Heights would be its permanent home was to purchase a house in the neighborhood.

Pastor Artie Lindsay Sr. of Tabernacle Community Church. Photo by Wes Kitten.

“We’ve seen over the last twelve or thirteen years that neighbors are willing to help other neighbors, willing to engage in opportunities to gather together, to participate in events together,” he said. “There’s a desire within the community to connect with people who might be different from them.”

A recent gathering at the nearby Kroc Center saw residents from both Alger Heights and Garfield Park working on the Alger Garfield Neighbors Collaborative, with business, church, and neighborhood leaders comparing notes and getting to know one another. It’s this willingness to work together that draws and keeps residents in Alger Heights.

Keverne Lehman has lived there since 1981, purchasing her first home as a single woman and then buying a bigger home when marriage and a baby came along. What’s keeping her in Alger Heights for 43 years? “Walkability, diversity, trees! And the shopping area, library, post office close by, and proximity to all parts of the city.”

The Alger Heights Business Association has a dream for the east and west sides of Eastern Avenue just south of Alger Street. Jay Brooks is owner, with wife Barbara, of Reinspired Treasures, a home décor store with a mix of vintage and new finds that opened eight years ago. He was recently elected president of the Alger Heights Business Association.

“Our goal for this year is to get more businesses involved. We’re almost going door-to-door to do that and are trying to involve in-home businesses as well,” said Brooks, whose first home was in Alger Heights. “We want to work together to make the business district stronger for both the businesses and the community. The more we can do that, the more impact we’ll have.”

Brooks is responsible for bringing the popular Eastern & Alger Popup Market to the business district. Running the second Saturday of the month from June to October, the market brings people from around the city and the neighborhood looking for unique gifts from a variety of vendors.  They can get a coffee from Sip Coffee and Cocktails, lunch at Real Food Café or The Old Goat, and pick up something for dinner at Ken’s Market.

The popup market takes advantage of one of the unique facets of the business district: 25 feet of frontage from the business’s front door to the sidewalk. No other neighborhood in the city, according to Making Thyme Kitchen owner Karen Bryan, offers that kind of outside space.

That space has the business association dreaming of “creating a space that will be relevant and useful for the next 25 years,” said Bryan. Making Thyme Kitchen has been in Alger Heights for five years after having space on Cherry Street and then five years at Downtown Market. It offers fresh food for walk-ins and for delivery.

“We wanted to be back in a neighborhood with free parking available, with a tight and supportive community and with neighbors committed to local businesses,” said Bryan.

Alger Heights has all of that, and now Bryan and the business association dream of even more.

Seating areas, shade trees and greenspace, sculptural play equipment, permeable pavement for storm water remediation, a small performance stage, bicycle parking, EV charging stations, traffic safety features.

Initial plans and renderings, done by local firm Fishbeck, were paid for by a $30,000 grant from the Southtown Corridor Improvement Authority (see photo). Now the AHBA is searching for additional grants to pay for the new streetscape and redo parking lots behind the east- and west-side businesses.

“We want to make our business district more attractive, function better, and have more greenspace,” said Brooks.

For Keverne Lehman and so many Alger Heights residents like her, “Most of all, it’s a feeling of community with my neighbors. It’s about living a simpler, connected life.”

Alger Heights is in the middle of the 58-square-miles of Plaster Creek Watershed. Plaster Creek Stewards—a collaboration of Calvin University and community partners—is eager to restore the health of the watershed.

Plaster Creek Stewards offers free curb-cut rain gardens to Alger Heights residents whose curbside meet criteria. The rain garden helps rainwater flow off the streets and into the natural filtration system of native plants on its way to Plaster Creek.

For more information, visit calvin.edu/plaster-creek-stewards/

 

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