The road to reclamation

New group plans Black-owned business districts.
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From left, Tahj Gillespie, Preston Sain and Michael Buxton review blueprints in what will be their headquarters. Photos by Bryan Esler

Editor’s Note: This is part four of a four-part series on individuals and organizations stepping up to make a difference in Grand Rapids. Read the introduction to the series here.

A local collective wants to recreate Black Wall Street in Grand Rapids. The project pays homage to the Black business district of the same name in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In the early 1900s, it was one of the most prosperous African American communities in the country and featured luxury shops, restaurants, movie theaters, nightclubs and more. That is, until the infamous Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, when the district was attacked by a white mob, resulting in bloodshed and destruction.

Preston Sain, co-founder of Black Wallstreet Grand Rapids (BWSGR), said the idea started in June as a Facebook group but quickly transformed into something bigger. Inspired by how the original BWS created something out of nothing, the collaborative now plans to acquire and develop real estate in Grand Rapids’ underinvested southeast side to support Black entrepreneurship while creating a new tourist destination
in the city.

“We want to be intentional about engaging in these opportunity zones where a lot of us grew up and make sure we have ownership in these areas before gentrification takes place and leaves us behind,” Sain said.

The group’s mission is driven by the pervasive economic inequalities that exist in Grand Rapids. Tahjudeen Gillespie, co-founder of BWSGR, often referenced the fact that the city is consistently ranked as one of the best places to live and raise a family, while at the same time being one of the worst places economically to be a Black American.
“It’s a tale of two cities, where it’s beautiful on one end and there’s poverty on the other. We want to put a stop to that by creating these Black business districts. We’re looking for partnerships, not handouts. If people say Black Lives Matter, then allow us to change our economic conditions,” Gillespie said.

Its take on BWS will include Black businesses that have been around for ages, Black operations that exist but currently do not have brick and mortar storefronts and new Black businesses to come.

Existing members of BWSGR come from a range of business sectors, including Sian Gillespie of Gillespie Funeral Services Inc. and Ivy K. Gillespie Memorial Chapel on Eastern Avenue, Michael Buxton of Load A Spud on Madison Avenue and Dawlshawn and Erica Tyler of the upcoming Southtown Market on Oakdale Street.

“There is already so much talent and creativity in the local Black ecosystem. We just need an intentional space to thrive and partners that understand our vision,” Sain said.

While the project will take years to develop, the group hopes that by next year — exactly 100 years since the Tulsa massacre — the seeds of BWSGR will begin to sprout.

Bryan Esler
Black Wallstreet Grand Rapids plans to transform Burton Street SE and Eastern Avenue SE into a bustling Black business district by renovating the empty buildings in the area.

Celebrating Black culture and talent

BWSGR designated specific areas in the city’s southeast side as “opportunity zones” where it plans to develop thriving hubs of Black culture and entrepreneurship.

It mapped out BWSGR in this particular neighborhood for many key reasons: Black business owners already exist in the area; a substantial number of Black residents — including Sain and Gillespie — grew up or currently reside there; and what remains is a series of dilapidated buildings with plenty of potential for renovation.

“Wouldn’t you rather see beautiful districts of businesses and culture versus a bunch of vacant and abandoned buildings that don’t do anything?” said Sain. “It’s a no-brainer!”

Phase one of the development plan includes the following areas: Eastern Avenue SE and Burton Street SE, Franklin Street SE and Neland Avenue SE, Franklin Street SE and Eastern Avenue SE, Madison Avenue SE (near Brown Street), Boston Square, Oakdale Street SE and Hall Street SE.

“Out of the seven districts in Phase 1, our first priority is Burton and Eastern, where our headquarters will be. We already have some properties in our possession over there and we want to keep expanding on that. There are already a few Black-owned businesses in the area like The Chicken Coop and Wing Heaven. It’s the perfect place to launch the first BWSGR district,” Sain said.

BWSGR also plans to honor Breonna Taylor, who was murdered by police executing a warrant inside her home in Louisville, Kentucky. Taylor’s name has become a rallying cry at global anti-racism protests. “Many folks don’t know she is actually from Grand Rapids. We plan to name a street after her and paint a mural of her,” said Sain.

Because there are currently no Black-owned pizza places in Grand Rapids, the group is also in communication with the corporate team behind Lebron James’ Blaze Pizza. They hope to bring a franchise to Boston Square, which falls in one of the proposed BWSGR districts.

The team also has an app in development where users can invest in different listed Black businesses.

Creating intentional spaces for Black business

At the time of writing this article, BWSGR is in its early stages. The group’s next major step in the upcoming months is to fine-tune a business plan for investors and meet with city officials to figure out how to make the idea a reality. It also plans to collaborate with local neighborhood associations in the proposed districts to ensure that their plans align with the vision of BWSGR.

“When you think about it, there are plenty of intentional spaces similar to BWSGR nationwide,” Sain explained. “There are Chinatowns over the world. Grand Rapids’ southwest side has plenty of Hispanic grocery stores and businesses. White-owned businesses are literally everywhere. We want to create Black business districts that are welcoming to everyone, where diverse patrons can enjoy Black culture and support
Black businesses.”

Sain and Gillespie believe that a thriving BWSGR will help transform Grand Rapids into a world-class city. “We hope to be the blueprint for Black Wall Street in the USA,” Sain explained. “We can duplicate this system all across the country and it will be a tourist attraction for every city that has a Black Wall Street. It’s a win-win for everybody because, while our country does not love Black people, they do love Black culture.”

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