On the Ground: The Heart of Grandville Avenue

Since last year we have been working on sharing empowering narratives informed by our neighbors, residents, entrepreneurs, and organizers of the southeast communities of Grand Rapids.  As we continue our On The Ground program and begin to move into the Grandville Avenue, we are kicking off the third OTG series by providing a closer look at how the history of the area shapes life for its modern day residents.

Para leer este articulo en español dale click aquí.
Welcome to the On the Ground GR. For 12 weeks, this series will highlight and celebrate the communities found touching Grandville Avenue of Grand Rapids.
“My grandfather died in the yellow house on Grandville Avenue. It wasn’t a surprise we were all there with him when he took his final breath. I now work and park and walk where the yellow house once stood and I am warmed by that feeling. I still feel close to him and everyone else who passed and called the yellow house home,” says Samaríz Hernández, KSSN community school coordinator at Cesar Chavez Elementary.  Hernández and her family for many generations have called Grandville Avenue their home. She moved to Grandville Avenue with her three siblings and her mother, María Cruz, on September 4 of 1992 from their hometown, Chicago, to be closer to family.

In the first few weeks, Hernández and her family stayed at her grandparents' house, which she describes as the big yellow house across the street from La Principal, where the owner, Paquito, sold her the best Cuban-Steak sandwiches she has ever had. Her grandparents’ yellow house stood tall on 1243 Grandville Avenue SW until 2007 when it was knocked down to build Cesar Chavez Elementary. Cesar Chavez Elementary Schoolreplaced the Hall Elementary School built in 1955, the “second” Hall Elementary School.
Hall Public School, Grand Rapids, MI (Courtesy of Grand Rapids History & Special Collections, Archives, Grand Rapids Public Library)

The “first” Hall School was built in 1892 and provided K-8 education to the children of the neighborhood for nearly 65 years. Though neither building stands today, Hernández hasn’t forgotten the multitude of afternoons she spent knocking on every single door of the neighborhood introducing herself.

“We walked all the way down from Clyde Park Avenue to Burton Street. We felt complete freedom,” says Hernández.
Living on Grandville Avenue, for Hernández, granted her a sense of safety she did not always feel growing up in the city of Chicago.

The Grandville Road

Grandville Avenue was not always the vibrantly busy and lively stretch it is today; at one point it was known as Grandville Plank Road. The road was made of wood planks, and horse-drawn carts and stage coaches made their way up and down the road. 

According to Mary Angelo, author of “I Remember…A History of Grandville Mary AngeloAvenue,” the road was basically in the middle of the woods, and James A. Rumsey was one of the first to have property along the avenue.

To this day, Rumsey’s legacy is remembered by the Rumsey Building on 880 Grandville Avenue built with the bricks of the house Rumsey first erected for his partner, Cornelia Stone, and their family.

Since its' inception as the first highway into Grand Rapids in 1836, Grandville Road was set up as an area to connect residents to the downtown area of the city. It wasn't too long after the development of the road around the late 1800s,that Dutch and Irish working class families settled on the avenue.

According to the historical documents on the area compiled by Angelo, the community has always been a diverse immigrant community. Throughout the years communities of Hungarians, Syrians, Lebanese, Iraqis, Italians and Black Americans have called the  Roosevelt Park Neighborhood their home. The Roosevelt Park Neighborhood includes the stretch from the railroad tracks on Century Avenue to Clyde Park. 

“In the1900s, you could go into any school or church and speak Dutch. If you lived in that neighborhood you could never learn English and get by. It has pretty much always been a bilingual neighborhood,” explains Angelo.

Although Dutch is no longer spoken on Grandville Avenue, Spanish and English are spoken interchangeably inside the schools and church buildings, and at the checkout lanes of the various grocery stores lining the avenue.

Author and historian Delia Fernandez points out in her journal article, “Becoming Latino: Mexican and Puerto Rican Community Formation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1926-1964,” that the first Mexicans who arrived in Grand Rapids were men who came here in the early 1920s and worked on the railroad tracks. These second and third generations Mexican Americans found homes in boarding houses near St. Andrew's Cathedral, many of whom were run by first generation Dutch immigrants.Grandville Avenue After WWII, many Mexican nationals came to Michigan through the Bracero Program to work in the fields picking crops. To this day, many Latinx immigrants are responsible for the harvesting of our states' seasonal crops.
According to records obtained by Fernandez from the Diocese of Grand Rapids, the number of Latinx residents jumped from 35 in 1940 to an estimated 500 individuals in 1945. These early Latinx settlers saw value in forming alliances and affinity groups with one another, as pointed by Fernandez in her work.

Daniel Vazquez and his partner Consuelo invited other Mexicans from the area to join their group known as, Sociedad Mutualista Circulo Mexicano. The “mutualista” gave people opportunities for banking and social engagement. Around the time that there was a dramatic increase of Mexican residents in Grand Rapids, the first Puerto-Rican also began arriving to the city, and both groups found commonality with one another. Despite the growing Latinx community in Grand Rapids, racism and discrimination plagued the community as many Mexicans and Puerto Ricans faced difficulty obtaining employment, or had few opportunities for advancement in the jobs that they had.

“Language requirements were a key element in restricting access to jobs,” explains Fernandez in “Becoming Latino.” Access to homeownership was also limited to Latinx immigrants in Grand Rapids, and many of them had difficulty finding allies who would sell a property to them on the southwest side of the city.

In the early 90s, the Latinx families who lived on the avenue were from Mexico and Puerto Rico, but the area has seen a shift as more Guatemalan families have moved into the community, explains Hernandez, who also works as a community school coordinator at Cesar Chavez Elementary, a GRPS school located on the southwest corner of Hall Street and Grandville Avenue. Unlike the first Mexican and Puerto Rican families who first moved to the area, the Guatemalans who are in this community are indigenous and speak one of the many Mayan languages such as Popti, Mam or Quiche. 

In a community where 76.6% percent identify as Latinx ccording to U.S. Census Data obtained by the Dorothy A Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University, the immigrant experience contains many of the same challenges for those who live and work on the avenue today.

Entrepreneurship on Grandville

Angelo, who also grew up in the area and later became the director Roosevelt Park Neighborhood Association, an entity serving the residents of Hall Street to Clyde Park for the past 21 years, remembers growing up in the area surrounded by Dutch working class families and Christian Reformed Churches.

“The neighborhood had many furniture factories—which guaranteed jobs for anyone who lived and was willing to work there,” explains Angelo.

One of these early neighborhood businesses was The Hekman Biscuit Company built by Edsko Hekman, a Dutch immigrant who came to Grand Rapids in 1893. Hekman began his business by selling homemade cookies to residents of the avenue using the family’s baby buggy. Eventually, Hekman’s side hustle became Hekman Biscuit Company on 1363 Grandville Avenue and was the largest biscuit bakery in the United States.

“Eventually a lot of Dutch immigrants who lived there after three or four generations were able to improve their lot in life whether it was through developing businesses of their own or obtaining better employment and they moved out of the neighborhood,” says Angelo.

William Kingma, founder of Kingma’s grocery and produce stores, started his business on Grandville Avenue by selling fresh fruits and vegetables from a cart. Eventually, the first Kingma’s opened on 1427 Grandville Avenue.

Though not everyone on the avenue had the same economic capital to open up their own store, they did not shy away from engaging in their own side-hustles to make ends meet. Among these, were the Puerto Rican and Mexican women who used the weekly baseball games held at Rumsey Park to sell traditional food to the crowd, as detailed in Fernandez' journal. To this day, we continue to see a spirit of entrepreneurship connecting residents of Grandville Avenue to realized dreams of opportunity. The eclectic businesses standing on the avenue gives those from the community the opportunity to witness folks who look like them build and open grocery stores, bakeries, barber shops, delicious restaurants, and even laundromats.

Highway 131

Although it was deemed as a step toward urban renewal by proponents of the development of highway U.S. 131, and an opportunity to improve transportation for those living outside the city of Grand Rapids into the heart of the city, the erection of the highway forced thousands who were working and living on the avenue to relocate. According to Michigan Land Institute, the state of Michigan the continuing development of U.S. 131 through downtown resulted in demolition of hundreds of buildings on the avenue and relocations of thousands of residents.
Map of Grandville Avenue before the development of highway 131 - circa 1960. Grandville avenue sits within the two red lines. (Courtesy of Grand Rapids History & Special Collections, Archives, Grand Rapids Public Library)“The building of freeway 131 further isolated the neighborhood, separating the east from the west. It isolated the neighborhood by moving the businesses and the houses that connected the neighborhoods to the east of us,” says Angelo.

Groce’s Barbershop, built circa the 1950s on 418 Grandville Avenue SW, was ownedGroce's Barbershop located on 418 Grandville Avenue SW (Courtesy of Grand Rapids History & Special Collections, Archives, Grand Rapids Public Library) by Daniel Groce, Jr., a Black American who came to Grand Rapids from Texas in 1947. The shop was bustling with clients from all over the neighborhood to get a fresh lineup. In 1960, the shop was forced to move to the Baxter neighborhood after it was demolished to make room for U.S. 131.

The proposed urban renewal of U.S. 131 affected greatly the Roosevelt Park Neighborhood, a community that continues to be made up by a large proportion of residents of color. 

As development and changes seep into Grandville Avenue, Hernández hopes families in the community have the opportunity to gain economic capital and become stakeholder of their communities by owning property.
Samariz Hernández Fernández“My aunt Tere works at Southwest Community Campus, my cousin works at the Hispanic Center, and my cousin Joanna works as a nurse for Programa Puente a program my mother built on Grandville Avenue and Tulip Street. When I got the job at Cesar Chavez Elementary—I realized Grandville is where I am supposed to be. We are rooted in the neighborhood.” – Samaríz Hernández

On The Ground GR

On The Ground GR is a Rapid Growth series. This series will highlight and celebrate the communities found touching along the Grandville Avenue of Grand Rapids.

Over the next few months, On The Ground GR journalists will be knocking on doors and getting to know the neighbors and community members. We will dive deeper into topics concerning this neighborhood's residents and stakeholders while celebrating the diversity and strength found in this area. We are on the ground listening and want to celebrate the community's unifying spirit of positivity and vibrancy.

You can follow On The Ground GR's work via Twitter (#OnTheGroundGR @rapidgrowthmedia), Facebook and Instagram. To connect with On The Ground GR's editor, Michelle Jokisch Polo (read more about Michelle here), you can email her at [email protected] and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

On The Ground GR is made possible by The Frey Foundation, The Grand Rapids Community Foundation and the Steelcase Foundation organizations working to guarantee all communities thrive.

Photography by Dreams by Bella.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.