History of the Black Hills

The Black Hill’s may come across on paper as a quaint neighborhood to live, but this neighborhood of around 430 households is a place that struggles with gang related issues, drugs and deep issues of generational poverty. Yet, in the midst of this struggle the Black Hills neighborhood is a place that is brimming with hope. It is 15 square blocks made up of 350 houses and 80 apartments. The Black Hill’s gets its name from the Black Walnut trees that use to exist in the neighborhood. In the early 1900’s people would travel from as far as Chicago in their horse and buggy to gather the walnuts. The neighborhood is geographically isolated between Godfrey, the Grand River, and the railroad tracks. It is surrounded by industrial parks on all sides, and truth be told, you could easily drive right past the small island neighborhood.

The major religious influences in the neighborhood are Christian, Islam, Mormon, and Jehovah Witness. The racial mixture as of 2000 was 30% white, 30% African American and 40% Hispanic. The age ranges are 43% under the age of 18, 53% in the 18-64 year old range and 4% 65 and older. 25% of the kids living in the Black Hills live at or below the poverty level.

Immigrants began to first settle in the Black Hills in early 1900. It was mostly made up of Dutch, Polish and Germans who worked at the rail yard and factories near by. By 1990 the neighborhood had diversified greatly to become 68% white, 23% black and 5% Hispanic. As can be seen, this percentage has changed drastically in the past 18 years.

The Black Hills has been no stranger to the effect of “white-flight”, which is simply the idea of white families leaving the dangers of the inner city for the comfort and safety of the suburbs. Judy Rose, who has lived in the Black Hills with her husband for 48 years, has seen this change directly. She said that most of the people, except a few, have moved out of the neighborhood. In her 48 years of living in the neighborhood she has seen the neighborhood change predominantly from white middle class to the diversity that it is today. Judy and her husband stayed simply because they liked the old neighborhood and wanted to get to know their new neighbors, find out who they are, what their values were and where they were from. They saw the Black Hills as a place in which God wanted to redeem. God is now in the process of redeeming the neighborhood through ministries like United in Christ and also Habitat for Humanity, which has built 40 houses.

The Black Hills may be an obscure place in the midst of the city of Grand Rapids but it has lofty hopes. The Neighborhood Association in the Black Hills has this thank you note printed at the end of their monthly newsletter, “You help make the Black Hills the ‘Best Little Neighborhood’ in the inner city of Grand Rapids.” Through the grace of God manifested in Jesus Christ, the help of the many people living here and the volunteer support, The Black Hills will one day become the “Best Little Neighborhood” of Grand Rapids.


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