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 a particularly outsized 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 10 miles to the south), his family continues his legacy with Russo's Italian Marketing and Wine Bar.

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 Organizations

Annual Events

  • Irish on Ionia is an annual downtown street party celebrating our Irish heritage, often kicking off right after our annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
  • The Dozynski Polish Heritage Festival in August and Pulaski Days in October invite the entire community to party Polish-style.
  • The Sparta Celtic Festival (August) celebrates Celtic heritage through music, food, merchandise, “Scottish Highland” games and kids’ activities.