“But let justice roll down like waters / And righteousness like an overflowing stream.” Amos 5:24, NASB
On the first Saturday in May my spouse and I worked with the Grand Rapids Urban Forest Project and Seeds of Promise planting trees in the Southtown area of Grand Rapids. The kids came too, but pretty much against their will. The group of us twenty-or-so volunteers spread out over several streets to plant. Our pod of four ended up staying on Umatilla Street where everyone had parked and met up and gathered gloves and shovels and shivered in the morning shade waiting for our planting assignments.
At our first planting location we shoveled out a deep round hole for the tree from the scruffy strip of city-owned grass between the sidewalk and street. Meanwhile our little sprouts complained they were cold. Help us shovel then, we said, working and moving will keep you warm. Nooo! they whined and instead lounged like bored cats on the sunny sidewalk about 30 feet up the street from us. The younger one brought me a piece of broken glass as if it were a non-dangerous novelty like beach glass or a shell. Mom mode kicked into hyperdrive. “Ah! Put that down! Watch where you’re sitting, guys. There’s broken glass. And if you see anything weird don’t touch it. Especially anything looking like a needle. And don’t wander off. If you’re not helping you need to stay there on that sidewalk.”
What did they think of these surroundings, I wondered? What’s it like to be a kid and see only what you see in a place like this and not think about cause and effect? What’s it like to look around Southtown and not think you understand socio-economics and urban decline and food deserts and property values and upward mobility and suburban sprawl? What’s it like to be able to just see things and people and take them in as-is and not read between the lines, not assume, not think you have answers, not have it break your greedy privileged heart?
In the overturned dirt I spotted a marble. There were other items too–an orange Crush bottle cap, plastic wrappers, some nails, but nothing else as interesting as a marble. I picked it up. It was mint green milk glass with a few tiny chips where dirt had settled in. I nearly threw it back. What was I going to do with a marble? Maybe it needed to stay here for someone else to find someday. Then I changed my mind. I slid it into my pocket and we finished planting the tree.
At home I put the marble on the kitchen window sill temporarily, or so I thought. So it wouldn’t roll away or get lost I nestled it in a corner near two smooth stones, one pinkish, one cream-colored. They were river rocks I probably plucked from the water on some vacation a decade or so ago. Together the two have a visually calming effect so they rest in our busiest, messiest, most conflict-prone area of the house–the kitchen. The stones sit at the feet of a praying angel figurine given to me six summers ago by my aunt-in-law, Mary, as we left their house in New Jersey after a lovely visit. I’m still not sure why she gave it to me. She’s from the South so maybe it was a hospitality thing. Or maybe she just wanted to get rid of it. In any case it’s been on my kitchen windowsills ever since. The faceless angel’s hands are together, fingers pointed upward like the prayer emoji. On her gown below her hands in chiseled bas-relief is a tree. From her back, dark looped wires form the outline of wings. Stark and simple, they contrast the paleness of her skin and dress. Her chestnut hair is parted down the center and swooped low into a Ma Ingalls bun. Flip her over and the inscription reads “a tree, a prayer.”
I wonder if I didn’t want to keep the marble because I didn’t want to think about how it got there. After all, the marble would likely have been left from a child back when children played marble games outside on sidewalks in this part of Grand Rapids, back when it was safe to do so, back when kids played with marbles, probably back when this was a place where white folks lived, back when this street named for a Native American tribe would have seemed quaint and not tinged with irony.
It turns out that Southtown is a new name, a “rebranding” of sorts, for an old part of town. Up until a few years ago it was called Madison Square. In 1915 it was a bustling residential and business district according to the book Heart & Soul: The Story of Grand Rapids Neighborhoods. During the 1960s it saw enough racial violence to earn the nickname “Killing Corner” in the 1970s. It seems since then some progress, albeit strategic and likely governmental, has been made. It appears to be a place trying to transition out of dark times, trying to rise out of the smoldering remains of a heavy past. There are new houses with brightly colored aluminum siding and doors peppered in with abandoned and run-down houses and littered vacant lots. It’s obvious to a casual observer that the fresh and bright structures are probably built with federal funds. It doesn’t seem like self-suffiencent, earned-income funded families with a choice of where to live are here now. Today if you live in Southtown it is most likely by default. You’ll find a liquor store, but not a microbrewery. You’ll find graffiti but not an Art Prize venue.
White flight is no stranger to my family story. The textbooks will tell you that when the soldiers, including my Grandpa Don, came home from World War II they came back to marry and start families in new suburban areas around cities like Chicago, which is usually used as the classic example. But as my Grandpa Don told it there wasn’t enough existing housing to accommodate this huge influx of returning soldiers, these soon-to-be family men. So my just-married grandpa moved from suburban Evergreen Park into the city proper, to the Roseland neighborhood, where his new bride Ruth was from and there was more housing available. My dad, the youngest of Don and Ruth’s four Babyboomer children, told it like this:
My parents rented apartments until about two years before I was born. I think there were two different rental locations in Roseland. From where I lived at 106th and Eggelston you could see on the northeast corner a brick two story house that was owned by Grandpa Bandstra, my mom’s dad. That may have been one of the places they lived in before I was born. I’m not sure, I just remember that he’d owned that building near our house.
We moved out of Roseland the summer of 1970. I think what happened was that as the neighborhood changed it became less safe as a whole. The first black families that moved in were very friendly, happy to be out of the bad neighborhoods that they came from. But as some of those first people moved out and others came in the people became less friendly. Now we started to become the minority–too many groups of teenagers walking through the neighborhood. Once Uncle Jim was stopped as he got off the Chicago Christian High School bus and threatened by one guy and two girls. Grandpa Don could see that for the sake of the family it was time to move. This wasn’t going to be the time and place for a safe integrated neighborhood. The home values were dropping because of the scare tactics of unscrupulous realators. The Roseland house sold for $17,000 and Grandpa Don bought the next house, back in Evergreen Park where he came from, for $30,000. I remember that the last year we lived in Roseland I was always a little on edge whenever I was out in the neighborhood. I was not a very brave 12 year old.
The Umatilla marble is still here at the feet of the parting-gift angel on the kitchen windowsill with the river rocks. Now it seems to belong there. It’s there so I will remember to pray for Umatilla Street–safety and provision for the people and regular visits from city watering trucks for those baby trees.
Spring changed to summer and summer to fall and the Umatilla marble has come to mean even more. Since the eruption of hate and violence in July at Charlottesville and the recent massacre in Las Vegas the marble has become a prompt to grieve our fractured American fairytale, our “veneer of civilization**”, our brokenness. The Umatilla marble seems to have taken on our inward upward groaning, our wordless pleas to heaven, our longing for justice to roll far healthier and mightier than the low mucky trickle of the Grand River, the still-toxic flow of the Kalamazoo. One day, writes the prophet Isaiah, “the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them” (Isaiah 11, NIV). Maybe that child will walk barefoot down Umatilla Street, a drawstring pouch of milky marbles in his hand.
*Heart & Soul: The story of Grand Rapids Neighborhoods. Linda Samuelson, Andrew Schrier, et al. Grand Rapids Area Council for the Humanities, 2003.
**this term is used by a Vietnam War veteran in The Vietnam War PBS series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick to describe how frighteningly easy it became to brutally kill and destroy as a soldier. The episode in which the veteran’s statement appears, Episode 7, is named “The Veneer of Civilization.”