By Isaac Constans
Listen Up, Lansing Staff Reporter
In any major city, residents have mental maps of friendly areas and those that are uninviting, whether because of crime, blight, lack of interesting points, or all of the aforementioned. In Lansing, those mental maps seem to demarcate the south side of Lansing as a no-entry zone.
Lansing as a whole has higher crime rates than state and national averages, with 10.6 violent crimes per 1,000 residents compared to an average of 4.5 and 3.8 violent crimes per 1,000 residents on the state and national levels, respectively, according to Neighborhood Scout. Many of those stats intensify in certain south Lansing neighborhoods.
“I know the guy who works on my car can’t get out of Lansing,” Mark Skidmore, a Michigan State University professor of urban economics, said about his auto mechanic from the south side of Lansing. “And he needs to have all of this security equipment around his house and he got assaulted once while driving to work. He says, ‘You know, I’d really like to get out of Lansing because I don’t feel safe.’”
In the south side of Lansing, these occurrences seem more frequent to residents because they are. In November 2015, 355 crimes of 609 reported by the Lansing Police Department were south of Interstate 496, according to Crime Mapping, a resource used by the Lansing Police Department.
Interstate 496 delineates the boundaries of south Lansing, according to Elaine Womboldt, facilitator and founder of Rejuvenating South Lansing. According to her, higher crime rates themselves don’t exactly speak to the entire story because of recent police unemployment and the large geographic area and population of south Lansing.
“We do have issues with crime and we’re working on it, and we’re trying to find more ways to have more police support,” Womboldt said, adding that a recent decline in police employment made it tough for the officers to cover such a large area. “In the past, and this was explained to me, they would frontload and the would see how many police officers might be retiring and hire that many that were already trained… but they chose not to do that this time.”
Skidmore says apprehensions about crime and pernicious environments deter people from living in such areas, especially people who have children to look after. He says this is one reason that there is such suburbanization around Lansing.
Oren Ziv, an urban economist at Michigan State University, echoed Skidmore’s sentiments. He said that an entire lifestyle is shaped around the neighborhood where children are raised.
“There’s a growing body of evidence saying that when you live in a poor neighborhood, there are negative consequences, especially on kids,” Ziv said, including that education is a primary determinant of lifetime income but that substandard education is only one reason for a cycle of poverty. “It’s probably through who they end up knowing, how they end up spending their time, those types of things.”
Anecdotes of crime and safety concerns propagate quickly and scare those who would otherwise live in south Lansing. The struggle for Rejuvenating South Lansing and other groups dedicated to improving the community is highlighting the vibrancy of the community to help mute crime problems.
“In a way it reminds me of Detroit, back in the early 2000s,” Al Martin, a former resident of Waverly Park apartments in south Lansing, said. “I did live around a bit of chaos. There was a domestic violence dispute right across my door from where I stayed at and some right below me, as well.”
Martin said he never felt personally threatened living in the south side of Lansing, but credits this possibly to his upbringing in Detroit, the city with the seventh–murder rate in the country, according to Neighborhood Scout. He does recall specific instances that rattled him in retrospect, however.
“There was a moment when, this was like late at night, and I heard this loud (sound), it sounded like gunshots,” Martin said. “I honestly didn’t pay attention to it. I thought it might have been fireworks or something, so I went to sleep.
“I wake up and I’m anchoring the next day for WLNS… and right before they toss to me… Greg (Adaline) tosses to a story about gunshots at Waverly Park at 11 p.m or around midnight or something like that. And they’re showing footage of my complex and everything and I’m like, ‘Wow. So that’s what I heard last night.’”
A lack of directive education in a vocation-based community can fail to prepare many people for what lies ahead, something that is frequently the problem in lower-class neighborhoods in cities, according to Skidmore. Lansing’s failure to cope with the loss of manufacturing jobs with education over the past half-century is a cause and reason for crime.
“Like a lot of places in Michigan, we had a large manufacturing base that provided a lot of jobs for people in the low to medium skill group,” Skidmore said. “And those jobs aren’t available anymore and yet we have a lot of people who aren’t highly skilled. And if you aren’t highly skilled and if there’s not an opportunity for employment, then you’re going to really struggle.”
The departure of the GM Fisher Body plant from Lansing was a central symbol for many of these job losses, leaving many residents struggling to piece together a new source of living. Others had to pick up and leave.
“As the auto industry declined, it was very difficult because for many people who grew up here, it was the ticket to the middle class,” Valerie Marvin, president of the Greater Lansing Historical Society said.
“A lot of people grew up believing that all they needed was a high school education. They could get a job in one of the factories and they could be set for life, just like dad, just like grandpa, just like uncle so-and-so. And as those jobs started to go away, the trouble is we have a work force that was not as highly-skilled because they did not need to pursue an education past high school.”
So while many of the middle-class employees have left the city for the suburbs, most of those who came from the roots of the manufacturing industry remain. However, in a technological, skill-specific era, and many are ill equipped to handle the changing times, as are their children.
“When the unskilled workers lose their job in the manufacturing job, they are usually going to move down in terms of earnings,” Ben Zou, a labor economist at Michigan State University said. “That is particularly the problem in places like Lansing. Job opportunities would go away and that would exacerbate the problem.”
But while stories are circulated about people being “trapped” in a city, many others left to pursue similar jobs. A decline in premium housing created and expanded poor neighborhoods, according to Ziv.
“As a city becomes less populous, the houses don’t go away,” Ziv said, mentioning that in economic theory, a house is always wanted by someone for a certain price. “What first happens is the prices of housing drops and that changes the composition of neighborhoods… and who wants these houses becomes a questions. And that’s usually lower income people.”
Dealing with a declining housing stock is no easy task, but members of the community believe bringing in business and face-lifting commercial streets will assist in the process. After receiving a $50,000 grant from the governor’s office to improve the community, Keith Lambert of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership (LEAP) focused in on southwest Lansing.
“The physical building stock is decrepit. I mean, there are so many older buildings that aren’t being reinvested in,” Lambert said of the general state of buildings in south Lansing. “So we really need to help businesses reinvest with their properties, and it all starts by getting these business owners together, so that’s what we’re doing.”
Womboldt had the same line of thinking. However, she thought that low housing costs were a reason why south Lansing could be the up-and-coming neighborhood.
“We have homes that are very, very affordable,” Womboldt, a resident in her home in south Lansing since 1971, said. “People could be buy them and it would be less maintained around. We’re hoping we could get young people to move into south Lansing.”
In low-income neighborhoods with higher crime rats, auxiliary costs are necessary for security and safety, such as expensive insurance and measures to maintain maximum protection. Lower housing stocks pose fiscal problems for governments, who have to deal with fewer taxes from upper-class residents that migrated outward, convoluting the rectification of the problem. With less tax money to use, the quality of schools and the expansion of urban amenities are reduced.
“The demand for housing and the housing stock is not as high as it is in East Lansing or Okemos,” Skidmore said because of additional costs and risks, applying this principle for his own settlement decision in the suburbs. “So if you’re a higher income person and you’re thinking about location, do you go to Lansing with worse schools and lower stocks, or do you go to East Lansing or Okemos or Mason?
“So how do you revitalize an urban, core place? And I don’t have an answer to that question but that’s a big one.”
For LEAP and Rejuvenating South Lansing, it’s a grassroots movement that starts with investing in businesses and encouraging migration inwards.
“You’ve got to remove the blight, you have to remove the worries, and from there it’s really a momentum-type thing,” Lambert said. “There’s a lot of people that are working for good, but it’s really just a momentum thing. It’s when your neighbor wants to do something that it just comes naturally.”
Since the creation of Rejuvenating South Lansing in the fall of 2014, Womboldt says she thinks the community tightness and spirit has improved. Businesses are happy to play their part, and residents are all contributing ideas to improve their home area.
“It’s getting better and better,” Womboldt said. “One of the things south Lansing needs is some commitment and loving attention, and we haven’t been getting funding from the city and we’re hoping to get more funding so we can do some of these projects. But we’re working on an idea of a restaurant hub… and we’re looking for a location where we could have several different ethnic restaurants and a community room.”
Lambert says that he feels a new wave of optimism running through the area, and he’s hoping to see a development similar to REO Town’s over the course of many years. In southwest Lansing, for example, the diversity of the area is brimming as an epitome of untapped culture, with over 10 percent of Lansing’s population consisting of refugees, according to Lambert, most clustered in southwest Lansing.
“You could almost think of southwest Lansing, if you’re looking at what’s there right now, as a blank slate,” Lambert said, including elaborate plans for revising the use of a shopping center, occupying a vacant school as a creative space, and creating a community center.
“We’d like something that people can just walk their dog around and again, something just proud and not worried from a safety standpoint, and just have something that their neighbors are supporting them and the neighborhood is heading towards something good.”
For Lambert, this all starts with gathering business owners together to invest heavily in the appearance and resources of their buildings and businesses. The newest project comes at the intersection of Interstate 96 and Pennsylvania Avenue, where a new, $5 million Alfa Romeo dealership will be planted.
With a shrinking tax base and the existing difficulties, the most direct route for organizations like LEAP is to directly invest in local business. The results might not be seen in statistics for decades, but the vivacity of communities can hopefully reverse a worrisome trend towards continued impoverishment, blight, and disservice.
“We really need to help business owners reinvest in their properties, but it all starts with getting the business owners together,” Lambert said.
While the byproducts of such investment might not be the transformation of a poor Lansing subdivision into an affluent region, the simple improvement of amenities available to the residents is an important step forward, even if they did not result in the advancement of residents, according to Zou.
“Poor neighborhoods are not necessarily bad,” Zou said, referring to the availability of housing to underprivileged people who would otherwise be uncared for. “They don’t look great, but people choose to live there. There must be something good about that.”