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Group makes plans to bring Black Wall Street to Grand Rapids

The group has identified districts on the city's southeast side as opportunity zones for Black-owned businesses.

GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan — A group wants to rebuild Black Wall Street, the term commonly used for the thriving business district in a Tulsa, Oklahoma neighborhood that was devastated when a white mob massacred residents and their livelihoods in 1921. By next year, 100 years since the massacre – Black Wallstreet Grand Rapids hopes to continue what Tulsa's Black residents started. 

Preston Sain, who co-founded the group Black Wallstreet Grand Rapids (BWSGR) at the beginning of June, said it began with a Facebook group. But it quickly grew into a plan for change. 

"Our mission is to acquire and develop real estate to build Black business districts," Sain said outside a vacant building at the corner of Eastern Avenue SE and Burton Street SE, one of the group's seven designated districts. 

Sain says the group, which is made up entrepreneurs and business owners in a range of sectors, is driven by the economic inequalities they've witnessed in the city, often referring to a 2015 Forbes article that listed Grand Rapids as the second worse place economically for African Americans. 

He said they see opportunity in the dilapidated buildings that sit on the city's southeast side, and they want Black businesses owners to have the chance to develop them. 

"Before these areas where we were born and raised are 100% gentrified with us being excluded," he said. 

Tahjudeen Gillsepie, co-founder of Generation Wealthy Unity & Faith, says this is just the start. 

“Black Wall Street is us finally being able to come together and utilize all of our strengths," he said. "If Black lives truly matter, then Black wealth should matter."

The districts include buildings at 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. 

The districts include areas where Black business owners both new and established already exist. 

Credit: Emma Nicolas/13 ON YOUR SIDE
Cindy Waver stands with her son Brandon inside her business Cindy's Chicken Coop on Eastern Avenue SE. Waver has owned the restaurant since January 2019.

Black business owners talk Black Wall Street 

Current Black business owners on the southeast side see Black Wall Street as an opportunity to share their knowledge and support with new entrepreneurs. 

Sian Gillespie, manages and owns Gillespie Funeral Services Inc. and Ivy K. Gillespie Memorial Chapel, which has been in his family and on Eastern Avenue SE for decades. 

To him, BWSGR serves as an opportunity to instill the work ethic his dad taught him into other young people. 

"We are not ashamed about being intentional about targeting our Black youth, because our Black youth is in danger," he said.

For Michael Buxton, owner and franchiser of Load A Spud on Madison Avenue, it's about re-imagining the areas they grew up in. 

"It means a lot. It's good for the youth to see the neighborhood can be rebuilt," he said. "I just hope we can all work together and be successful and leave a legacy for our kids and their kids and all the other generations to follow." 

Meeting the community's needs 

In one of the proposed districts, a pair of siblings already have their idea for a new business. Dalshawn and Erica Tyler plan to open Southtown Market inside a building that their grandmother has owned for years. 

Initially, the brother and sister had planned to open a cigar lounge within 821 Oakdale Street, but the pandemic changed that.

"This community is crying out for certain things, and we could bring those resources right here," Dalshawn said. 

Dalshawn said he and his sister realized that a market would do more to serve their neighbors, especially in an area where access to fresh food is lacking. Their goal is to put their own spin on a version of the Downtown Market.

"We know everybody around here we've been here 30 years plus, we know the older women that don't drive to the grocery stores. We can walk their food to them," Dalshawn said. 

He is also hopeful that the kids who have grown up around him and his sister will be motivated by seeing them run a business like the Southtown Market. 

"Changing the mindset. Giving them a vision. Without a vision it's hard to see any future, especially when you only feel like you have limited options," he said.

On August 15, they plan to host an outdoor market to help raise money for their new business. The market will rent tables out to vendors and creators who may not have other means of selling their product in person. 

Next steps for Black Wall Street in Grand Rapids

The plan is in its early stages, but the goal is to roll out a business plan that they can bring to investors and city officials in the months to come. 

"With all the racial unrest we see going on nationwide and locally," Sain said. "We want to improve the character of the communities in the inner city, and we believe economics is the solution to that"

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► Emma Nicolas is a multimedia journalist. Have a news tip or question for Emma? Get in touch by email, Facebook or Twitter.

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