Neighborhoods of GR: The history of Midtown

Welcome to Neighborhoods of GR, an informal series for Grand Rapidians, its visitors, and those considering calling the river city home. Each article in the series will covering a particular GR neighborhood will be covered by a resident writer, and showcase the charm, the history, and diversity of our fair city.
Modern-day Midtown, with a population of just over 4,000, according to 2013 Community Research Institute figures, is bordered to the north by I-196, to the east by Fuller Street, to the south by Fulton, and to the west by Union. It's one of the oldest and most venerated neighborhoods in Grand Rapids and is just as tethered to historical events as its neighboring communities.
Grand Rapids is a big little town.

It's a favorite conversation starter for taxi drivers, and seemingly the best way to describe both our neighborly attitudes and metropolitan aspirations.

But while Grand Rapids expands upward and outward, its foundation is yet influenced heavily by history. The neighborhoods of Grand Rapids are each distinct in their own way, reflecting a variety of cultural histories, economic changes, successes, and failures.

Modern-day Midtown, with a population of just over 4,000, according to 2013 Community Research Institute figures, is bordered to the north by I-196, to the east by Fuller Street, to the south by Fulton, and to the west by Union. It's one of the oldest and most venerated neighborhoods in Grand Rapids and is just as tethered to historical events as its neighboring communities.

The Midtown Neighborhood Association is currently one of the most effective and active associations in the city, but as with every other neighborhood in Grand Rapids, its roots are based in civil upset. The 1911 Furniture Strikes saw the interests of blue collar westsiders clashing with those of the wealthy factory owners on the east side of the Grand River. And a government once led by mayoral autocracy, where paid aldermen represented the concerns of 11 different wards, was fractured into the current city charter, which allowed room for 32 unfunded neighborhood associations in three wards.

The new rules were not entirely designed to represent citizen interests, however, favoring industrial expansion over citizens and sustainability.

As Assistant to the Grand Rapids City Manager Stacy Stout rephrases the wise words of Ray Charles, "Those that got, get."

The cycle of privilege reinforced an inequitable system, and it's impossible to define the characteristics of any neighborhood in Grand Rapids without taking that cycle into consideration. But that's not to say the citizenry of our fair city have been stifled by setback. Conflict begets progress, and Midtown is not outside that loop.


As the name "Brikyaat," the northeastern portion of the neighborhood, implies, Midtown owes no small part of its history to Dutch workers. Nearly 125 years ago, the "Banner of Truth," a publication based in New York City, heralded the beginnings of what was to come in West Michigan.

"A new Holland congregation was organized in the Grand Rapids Brickyard on Monday, February 6, 1893.

Henry Ippel, professor of history, emeritus, at Calvin College, and former field agent for the Historical Committee of the Christian Reformed Church, detailed the history of "The Brickyard: A Dutch Neighborhood in Grand Rapids" in a presentation he made by the same name to colleagues a century later.

"Already in 1852, the demand for bricks in the growing city encouraged the establishment of a brick factory utilizing the clay found on the eastern fringe of the city," Ippel wrote in 1993.

"Shortly after the Civil War, more factories were formed, one by three Dutch entrepreneurs: Martin Klaasen, Anthony De Heus, and Frank Overbeek. By 1890 there were three substantial brick and tile manufacturers listed in the city directory, and five years later these companies were united into the Grand Rapids Consolidated Brick and Tile Company, which survived into the twentieth century."

A concentration of "kilns, storage sheds, and clay pits" lent the name to the area we know today as the Brikyaat Neighborhood.

Alongside the Woods, Coldbrook Creek, Cegeilnia Crossings, Ashby Row, the Old East End, and North of Market, these districts make up what we know as Midtown.


As reported in the Grand Rapids Evening News on Aug. 17, 1901, "The 'by the brickyard' settlement extending from the East Fulton Street cemetery nearly to North Fuller Street and bounded by Fountain and Fulton Streets probably contains more houses, more inhabitants, and more children to the square than any other residence district in Grand Rapids.

"The houses on the narrow courts and alleys are so close together that in many cases if a busy housewife should discover that she was out of tea she could borrow from a neighbor without leaving the house."

Compared to a beehive on a summer's day, the neighborhood detailed in the Evening News continued to swell and recycle itself into further prosperity for decades to come. And on most of those days, nowhere else in Midtown will you find a greater collection of locals milling about with their neighbors than at the Fulton Street Farmers Market.

"Aside from being the primary marketplace in the area, I think that the market brings in all sorts of clientele to the area and hopefully in return, they also shop at the other businesses in the Midtown neighborhood," says Market Manager Rori Weston. "I believe that the Farmers Market's role in the neighborhood is bringing forth a common place for the neighbors to gather and shop for local food."

Founded in 1922, the FSFM was initially monikered the "East Side Market," the oldest and largest of the four public farmers markets that have been in operation within Grand Rapids. For decades, its tables and tarps endured prosperity and depression. The office building as seen from Fulton Street was even once a diner between 1953 and 1955.

By the 21st century, it was obvious the market had fallen into disrepair. A rebuilding campaign with Midtown serving as the contractor helped create the beautiful and farmer-friendly market aisles and outpost we know today.

"My earliest memory of the market was back in 2008 when the market was just tarps and tables," says Weston. "I have some fond memories walking down the tiny aisle with barely any room to move and my arms full of produce to feast on."

As it was then, and still is today, the market is a place of community engagement, wellness, and love, Weston says.

"I have always had sense of belonging to this space," Weston says. "It was about the farmers and the friends who came together each Saturday, week after week."


By the 1950s, the Dutch population of Midtown and their business interests had waned. The community built, quite literally, upon a foundation of bricks, tempered by austerity and the Dutch Reformed Church, which was passed on to other Grand Rapidians returning home from World War II.

Today you can find nearly every race in the world represented in Midtown, and expansion happening seemingly on every corner. And one of the clearest signs of growth and social prosperity, according to Midtown resident, former Midtown Neighborhood Association Board Member, and current West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC) President Christine Helms-Maletic, is the variety of restaurants.

"When we first moved here you couldn't find a vegetarian restaurant besides Gaia within a 20-minute drive," says Helms-Maletic. "Now I can walk to my 10 favorite restaurants in town. I think that's the biggest change. The neighborhood business districts have made huge strides since then."

Even before Little Africa, and Kitchens Curry and Kangaroo came to town, Midtown's location made it the epicenter of action for anyone wanting a walkable neighborhood.

Helms-Maletic says when she and her husband first came to Grand Rapids by way of Bloomington, Indiana, in 1997, they nearly bought the first house they saw. The second one, they didn't pass by.

"I walked by it and said, that's the house for us. We made an offer the same day," she says. "I loved the neighborhood. I loved the fact that you could walk to the library, the farmers market, or downtown. At the time, the [YMCA] was still the Y. The location was very appealing."

Nantucket BakeryMidtown businesses continue to branch out and expand, and perhaps none so fittingly represent the diligence and industriousness of our neighborhood's roots than those of Kameel Chamelly. Chamelly founded Martha's Vineyard as a wine shop at 200 Union Avenue in 1981. Today, along with Nantucket Baking Company and the Lyon Street Café, Chamelly's patrons are finding much more than wine at the corner of Lyon and Union. The intersection has become a meeting place for friends from all over the city, and a landmark stop-of-all-trades for Midtown residents.

While Michigan Street has seen the most construction over the last year, Fulton Street is turning a corner, as well, Helms-Maletic says. But that's not to say all forms of expansion are healthy.

Martha's Vineyard"We're starting to see more occupancy in our district, but I also think the high demand can drive up prices, and then you don't have the same level of opportunity for everyone, and that's concerning," she says.

Today, someone may put their house on the market and see it sold within three days, Helms-Maletic says, which is encouraging to those who own their own homes, but such economic trends aren't as kind on renters.

"To me, renters keep a neighborhood vibrant," she says. "It's important to have a good mix of owners and renters. That brings in a good mix of income, a good mix of ages, a good mix of races and ethnic backgrounds. To me, that's a good neighborhood."


Shortly after moving to Midtown in the 90s, Helms-Malefic got involved with the Neighborhood Association alongside previous staffer Kelly Otto, a dynamic force of community building in her own right. Through her work with the association board, and her experiences as an educator, Helms-Malefic was tapped to offer project consultation during the FSFM capital campaign in 2011, launching her current career in the field.

But while the neighborhood’s roots can be traced back to civil unrest, the neighborhood association’s beginnings aren’t that dissimilar.

“It is a fact of life that political activism only happens when something goes wrong,” Midtown resident Julie Stivers is quoted in “Heart & Soul: The Story of Grand Rapids Neighborhoods,” by Linda Samuelson and Andrew Schrier.

What went wrong once stood on the current footprint of Midtown Green Park at the corner of Fountain and Eastern. The Baxter Laundry building, left vacant and crumbling in the mid 70s, was getting little attention from the city, despite the warnings of a group of concerned citizens.

Following a fire in the building that left the neighboring homes covered in soot and ash, this group took on the name FUMD (Fulton, Union, Michigan, and Diamond), and brought their heated issue to city leaders. They met regularly throughout the 80s, and as Community Development Block Grant funding became available in the 90s, eventually organized as the Midtown Neighborhood Association.


When Midtown Neighborhood Association Board co-chair Mark Stoddard moved to Grand Rapids in the 1980s, and to Midtown in 1992, he says, most of his neighbors were in their 70s and 80s. The following decades saw the neighborhood renew itself as younger individuals and young families moved in, replacing those older neighbors.

"Many of these new residents have further invested in the neighborhood by renovating their homes and improving an already solid housing stock," says Stoddard. "The crime level has decreased over the years, and I’ve seen a sense of community grow between neighbors on a block—or, in the case of the Ashby Row sub-neighborhood of Midtown—grow between most residents within the sub-neighborhood."

The CRI data from 2013 list 71.3 percent of the Midtown population as white, an increase of 4.32 percent over the prior three years. African Americans have been attracted to Midtown in much higher numbers, making up 21.3 percent of the population in 2013, from 13.15 percent in 2000. Hispanics or Latinos have left Midtown in the greatest numbers, claiming 13.35 percent of the population in 2000, but just 2.7 percent three years later.

What sets Midtown apart from the other neighborhoods of the city, Stoddard says, is its economic diversity.

"Traditionally, no matter your income level, you could find a place to rent or buy within Midtown’s boundaries," he says.

On the flip-side of that coin, what sets Midtown apart from the other neighborhoods is that it is currently threatened by its own redevelopment along Michigan Street. Adding hundreds of market-priced apartments to the Michigan Street Corridor has raised costs of housing in the adjacent neighborhoods, and could filter out all but individuals and families of a certain income level.

"Midtown is working diligently to remind those at city hall and the developers working in our neighborhood of the need to focus on uses that do not weaken or destroy the fabric of Midtown and to help us to protect the economic diversity of our residents, which is a matter of pride among so many in Midtown," says Stoddard. "And the neighborhood association is working hard to build a sense of community amongst neighbors and a sense of pride in Midtown. These two components are crucial to the building and sustaining of a healthy neighborhood."

As a lawyer, Stoddard says he brings advocacy skills and an attention to detail to the Midtown Neighborhood Association. As a Midtown homeowner, he brings a desire to protect his investment in his home and the neighborhood.

"But as a 25-year Midtown resident, I bring an enthusiasm, love for, and a commitment to, the neighborhood," he says. "Like most Midtown residents, I want to help make Midtown a place you want to come home to."

People have been coming home to Midtown for over a century and a half. The little brick-built corner of a larger city's story. And our neighborhood is all the richer for it.

Matthew Russell is a Midtown resident, currently living in the Old East End, and an advocate for technology and equitable design in Grand Rapids. He enjoys audio books, bicycling, coffee, and playing with his daughter. You can email him at [email protected], or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
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