I enjoyed walking through Grand Rapids, Michigan early each morning before most people crawled out of bed. It offered opportunities to explore quiet corners at my own pace and discover sites that I bet most visitors never would have noticed. Naturally I put my own geo-oddity spin on things, observing peculiarities that fit the offbeat themes of Twelve Mile Circle.
Why Grand? Why Rapids?
Long before I arrived I wondered how Grand Rapids got its name. I couldn’t see rapids, grand or otherwise, as I scanned satellite images of the city. It took a little searching although I uncovered an explanation eventually from the Grand Rapids Historical Commission, quoting from a 1913 source.
This sharp fall or decline in the river bed at Grand Rapids is disguised because of the power canals on each side of the river which take up the water and carry it through many factories and out through numerous tail races, so that the name "Grand Rapids" is not suggested any more by the present appearance of the river.
The Grand River running through downtown Grand Rapids fell about 17 feet between current-day Sixth Street and Wealthy Street, a distance of about 1.7 miles (2.7 kilometres). Modern controls masked the drop with a series of terraced ledges. Nonetheless, the elevation truly dropped. I observed this for myself at Fish Ladder Park, a brutalist contraption that let migrating fish push upriver past one of the higher drops (map).
I didn’t realize that Grand Rapids placed so much pride in its logo until I walked around town awhile. I noticed it everywhere.
Lots of street signs included the emblem on their left sides, placed before to the name of the street. It seemed to be a geographic representation to me. I interpreted the blue line as the Grand River, perhaps with the squiggled portion noting the "rapids." Maybe the yellow circle represented a larger metropolitan area radiating from the city center in all directions?
That red blob became a Rorschach test. My geo-centric brain figured it could signify the original historic city boundaries or something. My son the animal lover thought the left knob could be a fish tail symbolizing fish swimming through the rapids. Notions like that filled my mind during those early morning walks. I daydreamed little non sequiturs, a wonderful way to get away from everything mentally and clear away the complexities of modern life.
Look, the logo even appeared on manhole covers, trash cans, and city vehicles. I tried to ignore them after awhile even though it became increasingly difficult as it appeared in even more places. Also I learned that maybe I had a thing for manhole cover designs, following on my discovery last year in Nantucket (photo). I’ll have to pay more attention in the future.
The whole mystery could have been solved if I’d simply searched on the Intertubes where the answer hid in plain site. Instead I preferred to wander around the city hoping to figure it out on my own, only to forget all about it as soon as I got near a computer. Silly me.
La Grande Vitesse; by Russell Sekeet on Flickr (cc)
The city clearly said,
The City of Grand Rapids’ logo was designed by Joseph Kinnebrew, an internationally-recognized sculptor and painter. It incorporates a yellow sun, blue river, and a red representation of the "La Grande Vitesse" sculpture by Alexander Calder, which was erected in downtown Grand Rapids on Calder Plaza in 1969.
I let that be a lesson to myself. Next time I will act on my curiosity immediately instead of waiting until I returned home to research an article. I passed within maybe two blocks of the Calder sculpture (map) and never saw it. That became a big missed opportunity. I would have made an effort had I known about it.
The Original Boundary
Grand Rapids remembered its past. I didn’t find the entirety of its original 1850 boundaries during my morning strolls although I discovered a couple of them. One ran down Eastern Avenue Southeast (map). From its name and placement relative to downtown, I assumed it must have been the original eastern boundary although I couldn’t see a street with that name on an 1853 map that I found online. Wealthy Street also featured similar boundary signs and that vintage map did reference it by name as the city’s southern border.
Wealthy Street seemed oddly named. It was nice although it hardly seemed wealthy. Certainly other streets in Grand Rapids featured many more stately homes constructed during the second half of the Nineteenth Century. Grand Rapids Magazine provided the answer.
Jefferson Morrison was a merchant in the early days of Grand Rapids. He named two streets in the city: one to honor himself (Jefferson Avenue) and one to honor his wife, Wealthy (Wealthy Street). Mrs. Morrison’s unusual first name proved to be somewhat ironic, as the family went into serious debt after building an extravagant house between modern-day Ionia and Monroe avenues.
Wealthy didn’t describe a street as much as it described a woman who stayed Wealthy even if she no longer remained wealthy, and the street remained Wealthy long after people forgot about Wealthy Morrison.
Why would parents name their child Wealthy? That mystery, alas, remained unsolved.
The Inexplicable Sign
Then I found the inexplicable sign on Eureka Avenue, a short one-way street through a suburban neighborhood (map). Residents couldn’t park on the eastern side of Eureka Avenue on odd days during the winter months, except for several hours in the evening. A similar prohibition applied to the western side on even days. I figured it must have been related to snow removal. Hopefully most people living on Eureka Avenue had driveways. Moving parked cars from one side of the road to the other every day for five months of the year would get old after awhile. Also, no other street seemed to have this prohibition. I pondered that one for awhile too.
Articles in the Michigan Journey Series:
See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr