Thursday, April 24, 2008

The 1967 Grand Rapids riot

As I'm finally getting out of the haze of final exams over in Ann Arbor, I figured that I might update people on a writting project that I have been working on over the past few months. A professor at Michigan encouraged me to look at some of the urban issues in Grand Rapids from a planning perspective. I figured that might be a good idea, and I've done a bit of research that I'll be writing up later this summer. Last fall I did compile some of my research on the 1967 riot into an article which I though might be worth putting in the Grand Rapids Press. However, since the paper cut out the "My Turn" column, they were unable to run it. So, I've posted it here, and can provide it as a PDF as well for interested persons.

Peter Bratt
September 26, 2007

A Region, 40 Years Later

Little mention is made of an event which occurred forty years ago in the shadow of the massive construction developments being built in the downtown of Grand Rapids,. In late July 1967, as racial tensions blazed in Detroit, another tale of urban devastation occurred in Grand Rapids. As news of the violence in Detroit reached Grand Rapids by late July 24, 1967, sections of Grand Rapids soon began experiencing vandalism of commercial property, armed confrontations, and confrontations between the growing number of Grand Rapids Police officers and African American youths. The police officers’ perceived beating of a youth by enflamed the growing crowd, which promptly rained rocks and bottles upon the officers. Tensions did not subside until noon of July 27, 1967, when local police and the Michigan State Troopers charged a group of rioters near the intersection of Hall and Jefferson. The civil emergency orders issued first by Mayor George Sonnevelt, and later Governor George Romney, were called off as the rioting subsided.

What do we make of this event forty years after the streets of Newark, Detroit, and Grand Rapids were filled with clouds of smoke? While a few newspapers have written upon the fortieth anniversary of the riots in Detroit and Newark, many seem content to let the past remain untroubled. This is especially true in our region. Little, if any, was written to commemorate the 1967 riot in Grand Rapids, and the impact that the event had upon the greater metropolitan region has likewise been pushed aside. To ignore this story is to forget a part of ourselves, and forgo future directions that our region might choose.

Shortly after the 1967 riot, the Grand Rapids City Planning Department issued a reported entitled Anatomy of a Riot. Issued in October of 1967, the report sought to provide details on how and where the riot occurred, and what actions the city might take to prevent further outbreaks of violence. The report provided a brief overview of the events that occurred from July 24 to July 27, and noted that estimated cost of the damaged amounted to $500,000 (well over $3 million if adjusted for inflation). While almost all of the rioters arrested on July 25 were African American, more than 25% of the rioters arrested on July 27 were white, who hailed from other regions of the city and the surrounding suburbs. If our perception of the riots of the 1960s is colored by the image that the rioters were African Americans attacking whites, the image is, at best, incomplete.

Much of the destruction of property occurred within the historic African American ghetto. This area was bordered by Wealthy Street to the north, Lafayette Avenue to the east, Cottage Grove to the south, and Division Avenue to the west. The area had high unemployment, the highest median rent within the city, the highest percentage of minorities within the Grand Rapids metropolitan region, and contained many of the oldest residential structures within the city. Anatomy of a Riot noted that this neighborhood had “deteriorated residential structures that were poorly maintained by absentee landlords that charged the highest rents.”

The report also commented on the ridged boundaries of residential space within Grand Rapids. Noting that almost all African Americans in Grand Rapids faced racial discrimination that limited housing and employment opportunities in both the city and burgeoning suburbs, it warned that local governments within the region needed to provide a regional solution to discrimination.

The response to the 1967 riots required a regional approach that transcended the divisions between the city and suburbs. These divisions were driven in no small part by the expansion of Grand Rapids’ city boundaries and the rise of a neo-progressive elite leadership within the city’s business and governing community. This leadership assumed power following the successful recall election of Mayor George Welsh in 1949, and led to the establishment of the good government wing of the local Republican Party, which was led by then-Congressmen Gerald Ford, incoming Grand Rapids Mayor Paul Geobel, and activist Dorothy Judd. They pushed for a city would govern efficiently, promote economic growth, and modernize city services. Of special interest for the new city administration was preserving the downtown as a major regional economic center. This effort was carried out by urban renewal projects that created Interstate 96, Michigan Highway 131, and destroyed many of the existing commercial and residential structures in and surrounding the downtown. City planners originally intended to spend urban renewal funds to restore the housing stock in the central parts of Grand Rapids that later burned in July 1967. However, these concerns were pushed aside by the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce and suburban leaders that sought infrastructure improvements that would integrate the suburbs with the downtown business district. While these programs were successfully implemented, they did little to improve housing conditions or reduce social tensions within the central city.

The 1967 riot pushed Grand Rapids’ government and many grassroots organizations to direct an increased focus on city neighborhoods. Many private organizations, among them the Inner City Christian Federation and Project Rehab, were created by concern citizens that were vested in the central city. Church ministries and community organizations such as the Baxter Community Center and Heartside Ministries sought to address the continued urban decay that followed the sustained departure of many city residents to the surrounding suburbs.

Grand Rapids avoided Detroit’s post-1967 fate due to regional cooperation and economic growth. The suburbs continued to capture a large share of commercial and residential growth as the city’s population levels remained static. However, business leaders reinvested in the downtown, with redevelopment efforts were launched with the opening of the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in 1981. At the same time the nearby Heritage Hill Neighborhood reemerged as a desirable city neighborhood. Even the Wealthy Street Neighborhood, which experienced much damage and disinvestment following the 1967 riot, experienced stabilization and became increasingly gentrified. Relations between the city and suburbs improved, as leaders collaborate on issues that transcend municipal borders and were supported by regional planning organizations such as the Grand Valley Metro Council.

Forty years after Grand Rapids was plagued by civil disturbances, social problems within the central city in 1967 still exist. However, the gentrification of many Grand Rapids neighborhoods has led to poverty within the region taking a suburban nature. The 2000 United States Census revealed that there were more people living in poverty in the suburbs than in central cities; and the Grand Rapids metropolitan region is also experiencing a growth in suburban poverty. While in 2000 only three census tracts in Grand Rapids had poverty rates of 40% or greater, it is expected that there will be at least two census tracts each in Wyoming and Kentwood by the 2010 Census that will contain such figures. Accompanying the rise of suburban poverty is the decline of many suburban commercial districts, especially in portions of Wyoming, as businesses have relocated to the core or to the ever growing periphery. As suburban residential neighborhoods and commercial districts continue to age, suburban municipalities will struggle to deal with many of the same problems that led to the 1967 riot.

The Grand Rapids metropolitan region must pursue regionalism with even greater vigor in the decade to come. Greater governmental efficiency and delivery of public services will be realized by further cooperation of all local units of government and may reduce expenditures in an era of fiscal distress within the state. Some of this cooperation is already occurring, as Grand Rapids and some suburbs are working on creating a unified emergency dispatch system. Yet more remains to be done with regional collaboration. A unified zoning code and planning development will allowed for sustained growth and reduce ruinous competition between municipalities for economic growth. The first-ring suburbs of the region (Grandville, East Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Walker, and Wyoming) have much more in common with Grand Rapids than the fast growing suburbs that lie outside of the beltways. Developing a regional greenbelt strategy that involves both established municipalities and rapidly growing portions of Kent County will help preserve our agricultural resources and existing green spaces.

The 1967 riot in Grand Rapids occurred in a concentrated portion of the city, yet affected an entire region. As our community continues to wrestle with the legacy of this event, may the Grand Rapids metropolitan region develop a long-term strategy that sustains the entire population along the Grand River.


cory smidt said...

You might have noticed I'm enjoying your site today Peter. Three questions/comments Peter.

1) Would you say that Grand Rapids' urban development and gentrification is good or bad for the poor across Kent County? Isn't better (and more efficient) to have poorer neighborhoods centralized from a government services point of view? Most people tend to think the Wealthy street neighborhood's improvements are "good" for the city when it seems to me all it does is price out the poor and push them elsewhere. Some times I think "urban development" is now a code word for "get the poor out."

2) As you rightly point out the poor in GR are more likely to live in the inner ring suburbs. How much is that to do with the age of residents vs. cost of living/housing? I am utterly ambivalent about Wyoming's condition. On one side, I think it is poor because it is old and has many retirees living on pensions. On the other side, I recognize many immigrant working families moving in there. The second case is much more promising for the future of not only Wyoming but the county.

3) Finally, what role does the auto-worker play in Wyoming/Kentwood decline? It strikes me that, in its prime, auto-workers often moved to the location to get the good union job. Makes me think that most have only lived in the region for only one or two generations at most. Does that mean they have weaker family ties and are more likely to move? Is that also a factor in Detroit?

PB said...

1) Dead on with the urban development and gentrification. Centralized (and concentrated poverty) between 1945-1992 was largly in traditional urban neighborhoods that had built in transit, housing stock, etc. that allowed for poorer residents to have far better access to jobs and services than in the growing slums of Wyoming and Kentwood. In particular, census tract 4 in Kentwood (the apartments behind Centerpointe Mall) are quickly becoming a new suburban ghetto, and the established networks that lower-income residents rely on are not well-established in this part of town. Time will tell how the suburbs deal with urban poverty that long-bedeviled central cities.

I personally am disappointed that the city government hasn't done more to encourage the development of mixed income housing in the booming areas around downtown (especially Medical Mile). I think that ICCF and other organizations do a great job and provide excellent housing, but the role of the city (and the county) has been very muted over the past few years.

Tom Christoffel said...

Hi Team - This paper provides important history for the Grand Rapids region and is itself an example of what I call "regional community." Regional communities are emerging all over the U.S. and the world. A link to this post will be in the next issue of Regional Community Development News. It will be on-line May 8 at Please visit, check the resources and even consider a link. Regional Planning will be a theme at the 2009 APA National Conference. Cheers. Tom

FCBethany*VISTA said...

I was wondering where and how did you get your information on this topic?? I'm interested in getting involved in healing Racism in Grand Rapids and I know it starts with understanding the past and growing through this to gain a bright future of justice and equality.

PB said...


Feel free to email me via if you want some information.

Peter Bratt

Rosemary Barnes said...

I was at Calvin at the time and working as a group worker at Juvenile Court. Avoiding the details of how it happened, I will just say that I got totally enmeshed (in spite of my whiteness) in ghetto life. My close friends during both years of riots (there were 2 consecutive years) ended up in jail. What I remember the most about the whole time was the "black rage" once people awakened to the incredible injustice going on (E.g, unemployment , "directed studies" in high school because "negroes are ______, not ___________", discrimination in the marketplace (restaurants, clothing stores...everywhere out of the ghetto!), segregation, housing issues -- in general a feeling that if "you" ( a negro) showed up somewhere out of your boundaries , you were made to feel "dirty" , unwanted,etc.
When I had my black friends in our apartment on Bates St SE, the landlord called my mom to report to here that I had "black friends" (or, maybe "colored"...that "black" term was rather new...)...Mom told him, "My daugher used to be such a good Christian". As if having black friends equated having lost one's Christianity. (The point should have been that my friends were NOT Christian nor did they remotely act Christian. No one even asked about that.)
Anyway...just reading your articles about this brought up lots of memories.
The memories go past the riots. We later got into listening to the speeches of Malcolm X over and over. We yelled "Say it Loud, I 'm black and I 'm proud" at the James Brown concert at Houseman Field (yes, I did overidentify a tad bit in those times).
Dr. Pastor Rosemary Herms Barnes