Hidden Grand Rapids

Whether you are new to the city or a longtime resident, there’s a good chance that at least a few of the following have flown under your radar.
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Editor’s note: This feature was written before the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” executive order was put in place. Please feel free to visit these locations after the order has been lifted.

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Art
History
Places
Food and Drink


Art

UICA’s Exit Space

Ouizi, “Untitled,” 2016 Courtesy Matthew Lavere

Outdoor art is proliferating around the city. A lot of that has to do with the success of ArtPrize, which showed just how much Grand Rapidians enjoy seeing large-scale artwork on their daily commutes around town. Today, you can see outdoor art, including a number of murals, in every city neighborhood.

A specific program that is responsible for many of the downtown murals is the UICA’s Exit Space program. To date, 15 murals have been created in outdoor spaces as a result of this program (another 31 public art projects have been created within the UICA as a part of this program).

“Our city is changing at a rapid pace with new businesses and buildings being added to our skyline,” said Katherine Williams, education and community programs at UICA. “This growth presents a unique opportunity for our community to design spaces that are welcoming and create a sense of belonging through public art and activation.”

Expect to see a new mural added to the collection this year. Dave Battjes, a local artist, was commissioned to install a “welcome wall” adjacent to the I-196 overpass at the Ottawa Street exit. The wall will feature the word welcome in all five of Grand Rapids’ Sister
City languages.

Find the full list of the UICA Exit Space pieces at uica.org/exit-space-project.

GVSU Bob Dylan photographs

When photographer Douglas Gilbert was 21, he joined the staff of LOOK magazine in New York as the second-youngest photojournalist in the magazine’s history. He left LOOK and went on to publish photographs in publications such as LIFE, The Saturday Evening Post and Glamour.

Gilbert grew up in Holland, Michigan, and now lives in Grand Haven.

Last year, he gifted Grand Valley State University with the gift of a lifetime. The large gift of prints, negatives and slides, along with personal items such as letters to understand the collection, contained a subset of unpublished Bob Dylan photographs.

Gilbert explained on his website, “In July of 1964, one year before his music changed from acoustic to electric, I photographed Bob Dylan for LOOK magazine. I spent time with him at his home in Woodstock, New York, in Greenwich Village, and at the Newport Folk Festival. The story was never published. After reviewing the proposed layout, the editors declared Dylan to be ‘too scruffy for a family magazine’ and killed the story.”

Community members, with notice, can see the pieces at the Engagement Lab within the newly created Art Storage Facility on Winter Avenue in Grand Rapids. Gilbert’s other images captured during trips to Italy over a 10-year period are among his personal favorites and are the subject of a Grand Valley art exhibition that runs through June 19 at the Blue Wall Gallery at the DeVos Center on the Pew Grand Rapids Campus.

Visit douglasrgilbert.com.

Ebony Road Players

Ebony Road Players is a local theater company based in Grand Rapids with a mission to “inspire, educate and engage cultures of our community with high-quality theater productions focused on the Black experience.”

The theater group was founded in 2014 by Edye Evans Hyde to help provide youth in the community with a creative outlet.

“The summer before, there had been a lot of shootings in the city involving young people in the inner city. I was heartbroken and was trying to figure out what our youth were missing that I had when I was growing up,” Hyde said.

“I came to the conclusion that I had an outlet in the arts, which is something our community was missing. At this time, we had not had a Black theater company in Grand Rapids since the 1990s. With a city this size and the importance of art in the city, it was imperative to have an artistic outlet for underrepresented voices,” Hyde said.

Ebony Road Players’ first production was held in 2014 and was a staged reading of “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rain” by Ntozake Shange. This past year, Hyde said the theater group was able to put on a full production of the show and had over 300 members of the community in attendance.

This year, Ebony Road Players will continue its annual Loving Day celebration with a kickoff event, the Arts Advocacy Awards Ceremony on June 12 at the Gerald R. Ford Museum. The event will be a fundraiser and showcase.

Hyde said attendees also will get a sneak peek of the upcoming show, “Anne and Emmitt” by Janet Langhart Cohen that will be showing at Wealthy Theatre June 18-20. “We are also hosting a series of other community events June 18 and 19. We are still in the planning stages for our fall production so be on the lookout for more details on that,” she said.

Ebony Road Players produces its shows in a variety of venues around the city. Find more information at ebonyroad.org.

Grand Rapids Art Museum

The Grand Rapids Art Museum’s permanent collection is full of treasures. If you are visiting the GRAM soon, here is a unique piece worth seeing.

Basket by Kelly Church

Basket by Kelly Church Courtesy Kelly Church/Grand Rapids Art Museum

Kelly Church is a fifth-generation basket maker and member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians in Michigan.

“Church and her family harvest black ash trees in the swampy areas of rural Michigan in a time-consuming, traditional process, which are then woven into both utilitarian and decorative baskets,” said Elizabeth Payne, communications manager at GRAM.

Church’s work ranges from traditional wedding baskets to other works such as baskets made from vinyl window blinds.

Church’s piece is special to GRAM because it is a show of activism. This piece focuses on the preservation of the black ash basketry and educating the public about the emerald ash borer, an invasive pest that is decimating North American black ash forests. Church is using art and different materials to preserve a tradition loved by her culture to hopefully evoke change.

Gemini Handmade

The fish mural by Paul Collins was unearthed when Gemini Handmade renovated the space. Courtesy Gemini Handmade

When Elyse Marie Welcher and Jacob Vroon, the couple behind Gemini Handmade, were renovating their shop’s current space at 963 Cherry St. SE, they discovered a piece of history that had been drywalled over.

A giant fish mural created by Grand Rapids artist Paul Collins had been hidden for a number of years behind the drywall. The mural was created when the building was owned by Superior Fisheries. Collins created it back in 1952 when he operated a mural and graphics company. Collins has since become a well-known artist with other works displayed around the city.

Today, the fish mural is prominently on display once again. Stop by Gemini Handmade to glimpse this cool artwork — and score leather goods and more created by local artists from the community.

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History

Grand Rapids Public Museum

In the late 1800s, Grand Rapids was booming and businesses were growing. In a tribute to the city’s past, the Grand Rapids Public Museum’s exhibit, “The Streets of Old Grand Rapids,” shows off a prosperous past with historic items and 11 shops modeled on 19th-century businesses.

J.C. Craig Barber Shop
After the Civil War, James C. Craig moved to Grand Rapids and opened a barbershop. He was one of the first Black business owners in Grand Rapids. By 1895, he also operated the first shop with all electric instruments. Once located at 72 Canal St., customers came in for a trim, shampoo and even to have their whiskers dyed.

Grand Rapids Brewing Company

The original Grand Rapids Brewing Company sign before Prohibition. Photo by Johnny Quirin

The Grand Rapids Brewing Company was formed in 1893 when six local Grand Rapids breweries merged into one major business to compete with other national breweries; the new brewery opened at the corner of Michigan Street and Ionia Avenue. When Prohibition happened in 1920, the business changed its name to Grand Rapids Products Company and sold pop instead.

Meteorite slice
You can also find a very cool piece of natural history among the museum’s permanent collection.

The first documented meteorite in Michigan was found in Grand Rapids in 1883. It was found 3 feet underground and weighed 112.4 pounds. The second-largest meteorite was found in 1889 in Allegan and weighed 70 pounds.

Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum
Located at 303 Pearl St. NW., the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum is home to many of the 38th president’s most-prized possessions and honors. It also is the burial site for Ford and his wife Betty Ford.

Stop in and scope out one of President Ford’s highest honors. On May 21, 2001, Ford was honored with the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for demonstrating political courage.

Sen. Edward Kennedy presented Ford with this honor and spoke positive words on his behalf: “At a time of national turmoil, America was fortunate that it was Ford who took the helm of the storm-tossed ship of state. Unlike many of us at the time, Ford recognized that the nation had to move forward and could not do so if there was a continuing effort to prosecute former President Nixon. So, President Ford made a courageous decision, one that historians now say cost him his office, and he pardoned Richard Nixon.”

The telephone that Ford used to talk directly to the astronauts during the Apollo-Soyuz mission on July 17, 1975, also is displayed in a beautiful wooden case in the museum. This is monumental because it was the first international space mission. It was the first time the two powerhouse space travelers, Russia and the United States, agreed to conquer a mission together. This paved the way for future cooperation in space.

You also can find a leather football helmet that is believed to have been worn by Ford when he played for the University of Michigan from 1932-34. The helmet features the Michigan Wolverine logo. The front is embossed, “MOS/Spaulding,” with “Pat’D No 1.864.104” on the back.

Native American history
From The Norton Mounds to the over 2,000 artifacts held by the Grand Rapids Public Museum, Grand Rapids has worked hard over recent years to preserve the history of the native tribes that called this land home first.

While The Norton Mounds, a group of 11 burial mounds located near the Grand River southwest of the city, are not open to the public, you can view many artifacts held by the Grand Rapids Public Museum. The collections include objects from tribes all over the country and in many mediums, including pottery, basketry, beadwork, regalia, sculpture and more.

A couple of pieces to look for:
The museum recently acquired a piece of stoneware pottery by Shirley Brauker. “The piece is decorated with images of sturgeon and is on display in the “Grand Fish, Grand River” exhibit, where it helps tell the story of the importance of the sturgeon to Native people,” Moore said.

Another significant piece, which is on display in the Anishinabek exhibit, is a pink shawl, made by Native women in Grand Rapids to help raise awareness about breast cancer in the Native community.

You also can find a bronze marker commemorating the people of the Three Fires (the Ottawa, Potawatomi and Chippewa tribes) in Ah-Nab-Awen Park, just east of the Gerald R. Ford Library & Museum. And three large, grassy mounds symbolize the Hopewell Indian mounds located in the park, as well.

If you’d like a more active approach to learning about the city’s Native American culture, every summer, the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians host the Homecoming of the Three Fires Powwow downtown, featuring traditional Native American music, dancing and arts.

Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archive
The Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archive is a small but powerful collection of artifacts telling the stories of African Americans. The museum, 87 Monroe Center NW, opened in its temporary space in December 2016. It is currently undergoing a campaign to raise money for a new and much larger contemporary space downtown.

Among GRAAMA’s collections are a series of oral history recordings titled “Grandma’s Voices,” which are a series of audio and video recordings from “various Grand Rapids natives and residents, all with their own personal insights and interesting historical perspectives.”

According to the GRAAMA website, “Oral history in African culture was performed by the griots or storytellers. They kept the history and traditions of the family, tribe and nation, but (it) was generally considered a masculine job. When Africans were brought to the Americas, that duty shifted to our womenfolk. In recent times, that person was a grandmother, granny, nana, grandma or GRAAMA. Our acronym describes much about our mission: collecting and retelling the rich, colorful stories which compose the historic African American tapestry of living in Grand Rapids.”

Executive Director George Bayard helms GRAAMA, using his extensive knowledge of African American history — he is an expert in 20th century African American art and collects Black memorabilia —to drive the organization’s collections and exhibits.

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Places

Downtown Hidden Garden Tours

Dwelling Place offers Hidden Garden Tours during summer. Erika Townsley at Downtown Grand Rapids Inc.

Located in the heart of Grand Rapids are several unconventional hidden gardens that you can tour during the summer months.

Hidden Garden Tours are hosted by nonprofit Dwelling Place of Grand Rapids. Dwelling Place was formed in 1980 to help people living in homelessness and with mental health issues obtain affordable housing. Today, Dwelling Place still is helping low-income families find homes, but three summers ago, it also introduced gardening.

“The Dwelling Place has also introduced activities like community gardening and community arts activities to engage residents and strengthen the community,” said Latrisha Sosebee, marketing coordinator at Dwelling Place. “It is increasingly recognized through research and scientific literature that gardening is good for our health and well-being.”

Dwelling Place residents who take care of these spaces are very proud of their work and are excited to share what they have been growing for the fourth annual celebration this summer.

“Urban gardening presents us with a way to alleviate some of the environmental degradation we face in cities by adding green spaces, improving air quality and biodiversity, increasing pollinators, absorbing rainfall, and producing fresh food,” said Jonathan DeHaan, community garden coordinator. “The Heartside neighborhood may not seem like a green space destination, and yet, residents are making do with the limited space available and growing on rooftops, in between buildings and parking lots, and rehabilitating a pocket park.”

To find tour dates, partnership opportunities and more information, visit wellingplacegr.org.

James C. Veen Observatory

Contemplate the night sky at James C. Veen Observatory, 3308 Kissing Rock Ave. SE in Lowell. For Stargazers in the know, Veen Observatory is a Grand Rapids favorite.

Operated by the Grand Rapids Amateur Astronomical Association, Veen Observatory is an educational and research facility that offers public viewing nights throughout the summer.

Visitors are invited to use the observatory telescopes to glimpse the night sky, and GRAAA members often set up additional telescopes to share with the public.

The first public observing night of 2020 takes place from 9:30 p.m.-midnight Saturday, April 25. Featured objects include: crescent moon, Venus, star clusters and galaxies.
This year also marks the Veen Observatory’s 50th anniversary. The observatory was constructed over a five-year period and opened in 1970.

Pickerel Lake

If you are looking to escape the city, head to Pickerel Lake (also known as the Fred Meijer Nature Preserve), 6001 Ramsdell Road NE in Cannonsburg. This Kent County-operated park offers three distinct hiking trails ranging in length and with several branches so you can add additional miles to your trek if you’d like. All of the trails are set around the stunning 80-acre Pickerel Lake.

One of the most remarkable features is the park’s 900-foot boardwalk that crosses a portion of the lake. The lake is fishable so set out with your pole and see what you can hook.

Whether you are fishing or not, there is little chance you won’t see wildlife on your excursion, from a variety of birds, snakes, frogs and even ducks and geese, this natural area is bristling with animals.

The park is open to cross-country skiers in the winter months.

Lookout Park

Overlooking the city of Grand Rapids, it would seem that Lookout Park, 801 Fairview Ave. NE, would be a popular hangout spot; however, this small micro-park is actually a hidden gem that often is overlooked.

Comprising no more than 2 acres and an array of benches, this park offers stunning views of the city at sunset. This park is a popular spot for fitness buffs, who climb the steep hillside staircase nearby as part of their routine.

The park likely will see more visitors in the near future, though, since it’s in a neighborhood seeing significant development thanks to Spectrum Health and Grand Valley State University.

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Food and Drink

Diners

Shelley’s Kitchen’s Western Burger Photo by Johnny Quirin

From the cool blue and tans on the wall to the classic faded diner stools, Shelley’s Kitchen is cozy and welcoming. Shelley’s has been loved by the Wyoming-area community for over 13 years. It has been said to be the city’s biggest hidden diner. In addition, Shelley’s may go down in history as having the world’s friendliest staff.

The kitchen serves homemade specials, desserts and soups. Known for its killer omelets and diverse atmosphere, stop by Shelley’s, 1140 Burton St. SW, and experience the small, homegrown diner for breakfast or lunch. Take-out orders also are welcome.

Cheshire Kitchen has a retro vibe. Photo by Michael Buck

Cheshire Kitchen, 2162 Plainfield Ave NE, is a multicuisine diner that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. The kitchen makes mostly everything from scratch and has a wide variety of classic items and modern dishes. Every night, you can look forward to a dinner special.
This diner is celebrated for its stylish, ’50s style interior. From the black-and-white-checkered flooring to the classic red and white retro diner chairs, Cheshire takes you back to the time of glass Coke bottles and full swing dresses. Stop in and try its unique Monte Cristo Hot Dog and various milkshake options.

If you are craving a delicious malt, the Choo Choo Grill, 1209 Plainfield Ave. NE, is the place to go. The Chocolate Peanut Butter Malt paired with one of Choo Choo’s highly acclaimed burgers is a meal that will not disappoint. However, The Choo Choo Grill is more than just a diner; it is historic to the Grand Rapids area. The building dates back to 1928 when it housed Shipman Coal Co. While the diner’s interior is small, it is well worth a visit.

Charlie’s Bar and Grille, 3519 Plainfield Ave. NE, is celebrating 24 years of business. Charlie’s opened in March 1996 as a family-owned business and has been the hangout spot for locals ever since. Famous for its homemade chicken pot pie, prime rib French dip, and corned beef and cabbage, Charlie’s is known for a good time. Whether that be live music, delicious beer or friendly people, this bar is always rocking.

Bud & Stanley’s Pub & Grub, 1701 4 Mile Road NE, opened on Dec. 8, 1999. Bud & Stanley’s is named after the previous owner’s two golden retrievers. This pub serves all sorts of dishes, including burgers, pasta and Mexican items. The best time to visit is from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. for the $5.75 lunch with various meal options, such as goulash and hot beef sandwiches.

Check out the daily specials and head in on Mondays for the $5.95 burger and beer. If entertainment is on your radar, visit on a Saturday night for karaoke and impress the audience with your skills.

Ethnic restaurants

Olga Benoit in the Chez Olga dining room. Photo by Michael Buck

Chez Olga, 1441 Wealthy St. SE, is an easily missed hot spot located along the Wealthy Street corridor due to its nontraditional façade. Though, once you know where it is, it stands out because it is housed in one of the most unique storefronts in the Eastown neighborhood.

Operated by Olga Benoit, Chez Olga serves Caribbean cuisine — particularly from Haiti, where Benoit was born. Benoit knows how to bring the heat. With a heat scale from 1 to 10, Chez Olga will set your mouth ablaze if you so desire.

It’s not just the flavors that will have you dreaming of a Caribbean escape; the dining room of Chez Olga is brightly lit with a tropical mural spanning the restaurant, and easily transports diners to a more tropical environment — even if it’s only in their mind.

Benoit opened Chez Olga in Grand Rapids in 2010.

Looking for the best Indian food in town? Try Curry Leaf, 2222 44th St. SE, where you’ll find an extensive menu filled with popular Indian dishes. You’ll find a variety of uthappam (a thick pancake served with sambar and chutney), dosa (a crepe), paneers and more. You also can find many vegetarian options here.

Finger food takes on a whole new meaning at Go Jo Ethiopian Cuisine, 421 Norwood Ave. SE. All of the dishes are served with injera — an Ethiopian flatbread meant to be used in lieu of utensils. The menu at Go Jo is filled with different types of watt, stew-like dishes that can be heaped onto the injera. It also has vegetarian options.

This hands-on dining experience can be leveled up with the request for a traditional coffee ceremony. According to Go Jo’s website, “During the coffee ceremony, green coffee beans are roasted over a fire and then ground by hand. The beans are then placed in a traditional ceramic pot and boiled with water. Once the coffee is ready, it is poured into coffee cups that have been arranged on a wooden tray. The coffee beans may be boiled as many as three times. Often, the coffee ceremony includes the burning of incense during the process.”

You must call ahead to request the coffee ceremony, which will then be performed while you wait for your meal.

Family-owned Bosna Express, 128 28th St. SW, serves Bosnian cuisine in a comfortable atmosphere of dark woods and warm lighting. You can enjoy a gyro and a European beer while watching the game — the restaurant offers multiple TVs airing different sports games live.

The restaurant celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, too. Damir Duratovic opened the restaurant in 2000. He also co-owns Zivio Modern European Tavern and Grill, 724 Wealthy St. SE, with his sons, Dino and Denis Duratovic.

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