As is the case with many American cities, the unique character of Grand Rapids was shaped largely by successive waves of European settlers. Dutch immigrants had the most lasting impact - Grand Rapids was long known as a center for Dutch religious and cultural life in America. But many other European immigrants put their own stamps on the city.

The French were among the first Europeans to establish a stronghold in the area that would become Grand Rapids. French fur trader Louis Campau established a trading post on the east bank of the Grand River in 1826. Numbers of his countrymen followed, drawn by inexpensive but fertile land, abundant timber, and rich natural resources.

These same features attracted English, Scottish and Welsh settlers who came to the area directly from Europe or from the colonies (and later, states) of New England. These first-generation immigrants blended easily into existing settlements and neighborhoods populated by others of English descent.

That was not necessarily the case with future waves of Europeans. The first Irish came to the area in 1835, to build a canal around the rapids on the Grand River. Discrimination forced many of them to gather in a "shantytown" near where the river boats docked.

Dutch, Poles, Germans and Italians followed, many finding employment in the furniture factories that earned Grand Rapids the title, "Furniture City U.S.A." While the new immigrants worked together, they settled into distinct ethnic neighborhoods.

Polish, German and Irish communities on the west side of the Grand River constructed a number of majestic Catholic churches that served as the focal points of their respective neighborhoods. The Germans built St. Mary's, the Irish built St. James and the Polish built St. Adalbert, all within a few blocks of each other. Each continues to serve the faithful of Grand Rapids, though the ethnic divisions have long since blurred.

A neighborhood of Sicilians just east of the river became known as "Little Italy" shortly after the turn of the 20th century. Giovanni Baptista Russo opened a grocery store there in 1905, and more than 100 years later (and eight miles to the east), his family continues his legacy with G.B. Russo & Son, an "international" grocery.

Grand Rapidians of European descent no longer segregate into different neighborhoods, but many continue to celebrate the traditions of their ancestral homelands - and the contributions their families made to Grand Rapids.

Community Highlights

  • The city's thriving craft beer community can trace its legacy back to Englishman John Pannel, who launched the area's first brewery in 1836. Pannel later partnered with German immigrant Christoph Kusterer in one of six breweries that joined together as Grand Rapids Brewing Company - a name that lives on today in the Midwest's first certified organic brewery.
  • Irish on Ionia is an annual downtown street party celebrating our Irish heritage - something Flanagan's Irish Pub and McFadden's Restaurant & Saloon do every day
  • Two annual events - the Dozynski Polish Heritage Festival in August and Pulaski Days in October - invite the entire community to party Polish-style.
  • European immigrants and New England transplants who made fortunes in the Grand Rapids lumber trade built grand mansions adjacent to downtown - many of them still survive atop Heritage Hill, a historic district of 1,300 homes.
  • Downtown Grand Rapids and its immediate environs are often referred to as "Steepletown" for the soaring church spires that rise above the cityscape - including these built by European Catholic immigrants: St. James (1872), St. Mary's (1872), Cathedral of St. Andrew (1875), Basilica of St. Adalbert (1880), St. Alphonsus (1888), Sacred Heart of Jesus (1904), and St. Isidore (1917).
  • Jewish immigrants to Grand Rapids came first from Germany (beginning in the 1850s), then central and Eastern Europe. Jewish Theatre Grand Rapids dramatizes the Jewish experience, past and present.