GRAND RAPIDS — Patrick Lyoya’s death took place in a Grand Rapids neighborhood long traumatized by icy police-community relations that’s also in the process of a major redevelopment to help overcome long standing underinvestment.
Lyoya, a 26-year-old Congolese refugee, was shot in the back of the head by a Grand Rapids police officer on April 4 near Boston Square on the city’s southeast side.
Over the past six years, neighborhood activists, city officials, nonprofits with strong financial backing and developers have focused on Boston Square as an opportunity to help mend inequities and historical disenfranchisement.
In particular, the symbolically named Boston Square Together project along Kalamazoo Avenue would encompass about seven acres across 12 adjacent properties. Plans call for up to 270 residential housing units and commercial space.
The Boston Square Community Association formed four years ago to make sure residents in the Grand Rapids neighborhood have a seat at the table to fight potential gentrification, said Victor Williams, who leads the Boston Square Neighborhood Association and founded the Grand Rapids Media Initiative and Film Incubator that aims to employ more minorities in film and media.
Amplify GR, a nonprofit founded with financial backing from the Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation, the Cheri DeVos Foundation and Rockford Construction Co., is planning Boston Square Together, the largest development in the neighborhood’s recent history.
The goal is to help bring vitality and representation to the neighborhood, but it’s unclear how such a traumatic event will affect those endeavors.
“If we hope to attract and retain some of the talent that exists here within our Black and brown communities, to me it’s about customer service and creating the culture where all people feel included and feel safe,” Amplify GR Executive Director Jon Ippel told MiBiz. “Our posture initially is one of listening and seeing how we can be a support to local residents and neighbors who reside here in Boston Square.”
Amplify GR came to the Boston Square community six years ago, working with neighbors to incrementally add to the community, Ippel said. The organization is headquartered about a half-mile north of where Lyoya was killed.
“This is generational work, from our perspective,” Ippel said. “We believe it’s up to us to continue to learn from what neighbors are saying. It’s a transcendent human value we all value and desire, the feeling of being safe, and really that’s been articulated by people in the neighborhood.”
However, that’s far from the atmosphere in Boston Square, according to Williams and other residents. Police profiling is a major issue, as well as law enforcement inadequately responding to violent situations that do occur, Williams explained.
The Boston Square Neighborhood Association in the past has invited police officers to speak with their organization to address residents’ issues, which was met with disrespect from law enforcement toward the Boston Square community, Williams said.
“We brought our concerns to the city commission and the chief of police, saying we need to get this under control and get better training for officers and maybe more police from the community to police our community — but to no avail,” Williams said.
Lyoya’s death reinforced that the city is not delivering the support that the community needs, he said.
“We’re not being heard by the city of Grand Rapids or the police department,” Williams said. “As a community, we have to raise our voices louder and be more vigilant and more active and just push our local narrative and our residents to get involved in every fashion.”
Williams’ immediate concern is giving community members time to grieve and express condolences to the Lyoya family, as well as getting members of the Black community access to therapy after the event took place where they live, he said. Williams is actively working to find a way to connect members of the community with some form of therapy or counseling.
“I’m sure there is someone who is really traumatized and needs to sit down with someone,” he said. “That has to be job No. 1 right now to make sure our community’s children and community members as a whole can not only vent about this but also bring in some professionals to help.”
‘Clear pattern of disparities’
Amplify GR is now in the process of hosting community listening sessions with its neighborhood advisory council and residents.
“There is a clear pattern of disparities that exist, and that’s the space where we want to be an instrumental partner and help resolve some of those challenges,” Ippel said. “This is a reaffirmation of what neighbors have been saying over decades. There are real opportunities to resolve some of the disparities and discrimination. Some of that can be attributed to policing, but it’s a much bigger topic.”
Williams and other community leaders have been working with Amplify GR to push for local ownership of new businesses and institutions that would be located within the Boston Square Together project. Residents, in particular, have been pushing for a community-owned financial institution and grocery store. Even if outside groups intend to be equitable, they can end up being counterproductive without local voices at the table, Williams said.
“That’s what we want to do: Make sure we’re thinking this thing all the way through, particularly for the Black community, because that’s the biggest community in Boston Square right now and historically,” Williams said. We have walked hand-in-hand with (Amplify GR), but we can’t just say, ‘Go ahead, we trust you.’ It’s a process.”
Kzoo Station: A Community Kitchen + Eatery is the first part of the Boston Square Together project that is set to open this year at 1445 Kalamazoo St. SE, in coordination with SpringGR. The community kitchen will allow local residents to test out restaurant concepts in an incubation space.
“Kzoo Station is the first physical manifestation of the plan that will be incrementally implemented over the years,” Ippel said.
Welcoming New Americans
The Boston Square area also has a large immigrant population, which makes it more important to “go the extra mile,” understand and welcome each other, Williams said.
Similar to Lyoya and his family, many immigrants are fleeing violence from their home countries and violent and untrustworthy law enforcement — and they bring that with them to their new community, said Tarah Carnahan, executive director and co-founder of Treetops Collective, a local nonprofit that connects refugees to community resources.
“When there is that language barrier or cultural disconnect between law enforcement, the community needs to come at that with an understanding that fear already exists or trauma already exists,” Carnahan said. “Language and systems barriers when someone resettles here are so profound. In order to understand how to navigate the legal system or do things like get a driver’s registration, if you have language barriers or haven’t navigated that, it needs to be addressed on the front end when people arrive.”
Treetops Collective was among nonprofits that collaborated with the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, the city of Grand Rapids and Kent County to create a “welcome plan” in 2020 that set out to address concerns among the immigrant community. The plan includes steps to restore trust with law enforcement agencies and residents who are immigrants, as well as promoting equity in education and business opportunities.
Facilitating the plan has been stalled during the pandemic, Carnahan said.
“There wasn’t someone that was hired to oversee the implementation,” Carnahan said. “There is a necessity to oversee the convening of those parties and ensure the voices of the community leaders in the refugee and immigrant community are centered in how it is implemented.”
Kent County is in the “final phases” of identifying a coordinator to implement the welcome plan, said Omar Cuevas, vice president of investor and corporate relations at the Grand Rapids Chamber.
The welcome plan coordinator will be a Kent County employee and collaborate with the steering committee that formed the welcome plan in 2020, he said.
Lyoya’s death will “heighten” the importance of addressing specific law enforcement-related issues in the plan for the immigrant and refugee population, Cuevas added.
“One of the goals of the welcome plan addresses our immigrant community feeling safe and connected to the community,” Cuevas said. “We’ve had the Kent County Sheriff’s Office involved in the welcome plan process itself, and it is something that is top of mind for us: How we improve relations with our immigrant community and law enforcement.”