Neighborhoods of GR: Charm and determination make history in Ottawa Hills

The story of Ottawa Hills is about families coming together and golf courses splitting apart. It’s about longtime residents and new neighbors. It’s about community resources, and walks. A lot of walks.

The story of Ottawa Hills is about families coming together and golf courses splitting apart. It’s about longtime residents and new neighbors. It’s about community resources, and walks. A lot of walks.


There’s not a heavily trafficked business corridor to boast of, save for Mr. Thanh, Tailor, and the Cutting Edge barbershop in the neighborhood’s Southwest corner. There’s not a farmer’s market, there’s not a brewery, there’s not a supermarket. There’s not a lot of reason for someone to visit Ottawa Hills for more than a weekend, but plenty for someone looking to make a more permanent move to a community of friendly and supportive neighbors.


Little Free Libraries are often more common to see in an Ottawa Hills front lawn than a “For Sale” sign, and when those signs go up, they aren’t around long. It’s not hard even for a curious two-and-a-half-year-old to see why. Children enjoy the swings, sales, basketball courts, tennis courts, and wide open green space of Pontiac Park even on dreary days.


A walk down Giddings takes us past the East Congregational Church where my daughter points to a signpost and reminds me, “That says peace on Earth.” There are a lot of reasons to be anxious in 2018, even for a young child, but in Ottawa Hills, at least, peace seems like more of a possibility.


And, it should. They’ve been working on perfecting the recipe for nearly a century.


What does a city do with 80 acres of mud?


Ottawa Hills first came together in 1922, a medium-sized neighborhood in Grand Rapids’ expanding Southeast end, after the second of two golf courses closed up and sold its land back to the city. Since then, the neighborhood has grown to comprise about 294 homes between Franklin and Hall, and from Giddings to the East Grand Rapids border. It covers 80 acres of land that was once part of a 160-acre pig farm around the beginning of the 20th century. Half of the farm belonged to the City of Grand Rapids. The other half was in Grand Rapids Township and would later become part of East Grand Rapids, which was an unincorporated village at the time.


According to Ottawa Hills Neighborhood Association President Fred Davison, the area's first large developments came when golfers turned the city side of the pig farm into a nine-hole course, save for a large marsh, but weren’t able to see their greens expand.


Fred Davidson

Some of the members of the Grand Rapids Golf Course were looking to add a second nine, but couldn’t afford to buy the property from Grand Rapids Township. They left and became the Highlands Golf Course on Leonard, now the Elks Lodge and
Blandford Nature Center. 25 of the original GRGC members continued to maintain the course between 1916 and 1922. They also came short in obtaining the 80 acres for another nine holes. The Grand Rapids Golf Course was closed, the property sold back to Grand Rapids, and the members moved eastward and founded the Cascade Hills Country Club.


It wasn't long before new permanent residents started moving in.


Lots for sale north of Alexander Street began to sell immediately. Soon after, a developer caught the interest of Grand Rapids Public Schools, which purchased land near the marsh for Ottawa Hills High School.


Excavation of the site was a large undertaking at the time, and mostly by shovel, but "not a whole lot of mechanized equipment," Davison says. But it helped give Ottawa Hills the character that remains today.


"They took the the dirt from all the foundations that they were digging, dumped it in the marsh, and created a park," Davison says.


Property south of Fisk Road to the Hall Street boundary was the next to be purchased, with the final 80 acres on the east side of the neighborhood bordered by Gladstone Drive SE becoming part of East Grand Rapids in 1925.


Ottawa Hills then contained 179 homes, and was evolving culturally, just as much as physically.


Late fees and smoking sections


It's 1957 and a group of curious Grand Rapidians are sitting on wooden chairs in a darkened basement, smoking and watching reel-to-reel films. Nothing of the sort happens at 1150 Giddings Ave SE today, but the building hasn't changed. It is today, as it was then, the Ottawa Hills Branch of the Grand Rapids Public Library.


The GRPL was experiencing a period of rapid expansion in the late 50s. Director Donald W. Kohlstead was building branches in growing suburban neighborhoods like Ottawa Hills and Alger Heights. Those new branches were making national headlines, too. In 1957, the Ottawa Hills Branch received an award from the Western Michigan Chapter of the American institute of Architects for excellence in design.


The library boasted 12,000 volumes when it opened, “nearly all of them new,” a July 27, 1957 article from the Grand Rapids Press reports.


“Interesting features of the $95,000 building include the accessibility of a night deposit, air conditioning, and stuffed chairs,” The Grand Rapid Herald proclaimed the following day.


As Youth Services Librarian Jeanne Clemo explains, there are more than a few reasons the branch has since ended its basement film series — lacking an egress, for one — and aired out its former smoking lounge. The exterior of the building has gone through slight cosmetic changes, as well, with the addition of handicap-accessible ramps and doors.


Accolades aside, the library was once slated for demolition. A report prepared by Aaron Cohen Associates in 1989, “A Master Plan for the Grand Rapids Library," recommended the closing of the Ottawa Hills branch, citing its size as “both too inadequate and too close to the East Grand Rapids Branch of the Kent District Library."


It remains open today, thanks to the the help of community support and two millages passed in the 1990s.


A neighborhood association unites


As more and more Grand Rapids Public Library card holders began visiting the Ottawa Hills branch, the nearby high school was changing even more. The school had grown in attendance from holding merely 650 students in 1925, to accommodating elementary school students (and later sending them to Mulick Park Elementary), and in size, to five floors and 350,000 square feet before 1960. When Ottawa Hills High School moved to Rosewood Avenue in 1972, the building was renamed Iroquois Middle School, which it remained until it was vacated in 2005.


Property values in Ottawa Hills were at an all-time high in the early 1970s. As the same situation has played out in other Grand Rapids neighborhoods since then — and still does today — local realtors and land developers began taking a greater interest in the area. The Ottawa Hills Neighborhood Association was formed to retain the community’s culture and push back against land grabbers looking to flip a fast buck.


Davison was not a member of the association at the time, but admires that early spirit of community stewardship. When he got involved years later, he carried that spirit on.


And when GRPS left the neighborhood, it was needed.


In 2007, two years after shuttering its doors, Grand Rapids Schools put Iroquois Middle on the market.


"It was vacant and empty for about two or three years, which really had an effect on the neighborhood, because it was a big piece of property that just sat there," Davison says. "And the school system didn't maintain it."


The neighborhood association helped trim the weeds in the meantime, preserving the park for neighborhood children, while they had seemingly little say in who the property was sold to.


“Then there was the suggestion by the school board that they were going to sell the property, and basically put out an open invitation to bid on it [to] developers and everybody else that we’re interested in it,” Davison says. “We heard that the possibility of turning 350,000 square feet into condos and literally changing the level of population, and the community substantially. And so the association again, got active.”


A few of the association members looked at the original bill of sale and found a clause that said the property could not be used for anything other than a school or a park unless the neighbors adjacent agreed upon a different usage.


“That became the wedge,” Davison says. "The association went to them and said, ‘Here’s the here’s the original bill of sale documents. And, as an association, we oppose the development of that other than as a school.’”


Grand Rapids Christian Elementary School

Unbeknownst to the association at the time, the Grand Rapids Christian school system was closing and consolidating a handful of elementary schools. To ease the transition and house younger students in a more convenient location, the Christian school district bought the vacant Iroquois Middle School building in 2008.


Then, the old school was demolished.


The exit of the former Ottawa Hills High School was bittersweet, but it's safe to say, the best parts remain. Many of the finer architectural elements have been preserved according to the community’s wishes. Marble and terra cotta details from Iroquois Middle have been repurposed in the new Grand Rapids Christian Elementary.


“They’ve been just great neighbors,” Davison says of the Grand Rapids Christian School. “They worked with the association, they talked to us about the concept of keeping the old school and the possibilities of that use, and we all understood from the beginning that they didn’t need, for K through four, a school with 350,000 square feet and five floors.”


In turn, the association helped raise $30,000 in contributions to the school system to better Pontiac Park. There’s evidence of that in a plaque next to the tennis courts on the northeast end of the school property.


“We’ve had just an absolutely wonderful relationship,” Davison says. “In this neighborhood, when the old Ottawa Hills or Iroquois Middle was vacant, you’d have probably 15 to 20 homes up for sale and they just wouldn’t move. As soon as that school went in, and we saw all these people driving in with their kids from all over the city, we said, it’s just a matter of time before they figure out what a great place Ottawa Hills is to live and allow your kids to walk to school versus drive them to school.”


A decade later, it’s still a popular place for families to move, but opportunities to do so arrive much less frequently.


“You can’t find a house in the neighborhood,” Davison says. “The housing is in demand, and it’s primarily young families who are moving into the community because they’ve got the opportunity to walk their kids to school, they’ve got a beautiful park, green space where they can ride their bikes around the track, they can play tennis, softball, they can do any number of things. That park is used all the time by the neighbors and by the school community.


“It's something that we experienced when we moved into our house 32 years ago. And we were the young family with young children,” he continues. “So, it’s been fun to watch.”


Davison says he's always been interested in the Ottawa Hills neighborhood, and while he was off at law school during its early formative years. "It was just a matter of time after I retired from my practice of law and I got tangentially involved," he says.


After serving as vice president of the association for two years, Davison scaled back his responsibilities, but remained active in various committees.


He couldn’t pass up participation in annual Garden Tour, of course, or hearing the sweet sounds of jazz music waft through oak and sycamore, care of Noel Webley & His Jazzy Friends.


“He lets his friends know that we’re having the garden tour and they all show up,” Davison says. “We just have a wonderful time. We have a roving bagpiper that wanders the neighborhood, high school kids who are excellent musicians playing on patios and gardens, it’s just a really fun event every year.


“We have a wonderful community, and community spirit,” he continues.


The march of progress meets the Fourth of July


At least one day a year, the Ottawa Hills neighborhood adds to the story of a celebration older than most of its residents, an event no other street in Michigan can claim.


Usually, there's candy.


The Hollyhock Lane Parade, run by a group of Ottawa Hills neighbors as the Calvin-Giddings Patriotic Association, is the oldest such parade in Michigan. It has marched down Giddings, from Iroquois to Franklin, every year since 1934, even in the rain. As far back as parade chair Eric Doyle remembers, just as political candidates are more likely to visit in an election year, the Hollyhock parade is one of the most reliable institutions in Grand Rapids.


Doyle has been attending the parade for the last decade and a half, and his children are regular participants, but like many residents of Ottawa Hills, his involvement in this community came after moving from another.


"One of my friends, who also lives in the neighborhood, invited me to a parade planning meeting a long time ago," Doyle says. "I had been on the board in Riverside Park when we moved about 10 years ago, and was just looking for a way to volunteer some time and get involved with some different activities that they had going on in Ottawa Hills. The parade was always something me and my family really enjoyed.”


The Hollyhock Lane Parade has seen its fair share of notable political candidates running for local and state positions, but perhaps the most interesting entries in the event represent the neighbors themselves.


“The Allerton neighborhood is on a street just south of Hall,” Doyle says. “For the longest time, I thought it was a church. It turns out it's just a group of neighbors that live along the street and they come and they do a float every year.”


The Allerton neighbors aren’t necessarily part of a privileged few, just willing to put in the effort. Participation in the Hollyhock Lane parade is open to anyone willing to meet its venerated requirements: line up at 8 a.m. Start marching at 8:30.


“It's open to everybody whether or not you want to walk in the parade, have a float, drive an antique car, or motorcycle,” Doyle says. “We even have a person that has been riding a unicycle in the parade for a while. I want to say 47 straight years.”


One of those years, the nimble unicyclist even broadcast the event on Facebook Live with a 360-degree camera mounted to his helmet.


“He has been riding in that since he was a child every year,” Doyle says. "That's … that's quite something.”


Everyone loves a parade, and the residents of Ottawa Hills are no exception. For Doyle, however, the sweetest moment is when the last vehicle leaves.


“Because that's the point in time when you know that everything has gone off successfully,” he says. “You know everybody is just enjoying it. You can just sit back and relax. And, this year actually, I got to walk in part of the parade. That was a unique change for me.”


Doyle wrangled his wife, daughter, and son to hold banners out in front of the 2018 parade. After his son made his reluctance a little more obvious than the others, Doyle stepped in and led the way, himself.


“It was nice to actually be in the parade rather than behind the scenes,” he says. “That’s the best part. Once the parade is off, all of the festivities began. And it's just a great time.”


The future of Ottawa Hills


As long as the park is open, there will always be friendly neighbors walking around Ottawa Hills. I am proud to count myself as one of them.


Along with our daughter, my partner and I moved to the nearby Fuller Avenue neighborhood in 2017 after spending half a decade in Midtown. There, we were just a few minutes' walk from the Ryerson Library and downtown Grand Rapids. Now we visit the Ottawa Hills branch. Instead of climbing up and down Lyon Street on our way to join other urbanites around Monroe Center, Marguerite prefers to take the “city bus.”


Without the Rapid, without the Ottawa Hills branch of the GRPL, without walkable streets, neighbors inviting us over for lemonade, and a parade that’s as close to Brigadoon as Americana can muster, we might even miss living in Midtown.


So far, we haven’t made any plans to move back.

Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.

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