Grand Rapids—Michigan’s second largest city, with a population of 193,000—owes its development and name to the rapids of the free-flowing Grand River, a place of gathering and exchange since Louis Campau established a trading post here in 1826. The power and transportation afforded by the river, coupled with the abundance of wood from the neighboring forests, made the growth of the city’s furniture industry a natural.
By 1854, logging had become an important industry, and Grand Rapids entered the most vigorous phase of its development. Huge quantities of logs were floated down the Grand to Grand Rapids’ mills. Upstream mill owners, seeing the valuable timber floating unattended past their mills, often stole the logs and cut them into lumber. This practice, known as “hogging,” precipitated fierce brawls along the Flat, Rogue, Grand, and other area rivers and caused the birth of the “river driver,” a colorful character who rode the logs downstream to ensure they reached their final destination safely.
Grand Rapids was not always the Calvinist stronghold it is today. During the 1860s, Campau Square was notorious for its brothels, gambling houses, and basement bars. It became better known for its furniture making in 1876, when the city’s wares were displayed at America’s centennial celebration in Philadelphia. In 1880, the incorporation of the Wolverine Chair and Furniture Company helped solidify that reputation; by 1900, Grand Rapids was nicknamed “Furniture City.” The moniker still sticks today, since the area serves as headquarters for Herman Miller and Steelcase, two of the largest office furniture companies in the country.
Grand Rapids went through a decline in the early 1980s, but somehow managed to reinvent itself as a thriving showcase for the arts, local history, and business. Today, the downtown sparkles with busy hotels, shopping areas, pedestrian malls, and public artworks. One of the most striking downtown sights is Alexander Calder’s dramatic sculpture, La Grande Vitesse, a 42-ton strawberry-red sculpture that pays homage to the rapids that built the city. Controversial at first, it has since become a symbol of Grand Rapids. More recent city improvements include a new eco-friendly Grand Rapids Art Museum  and the addition of one of the nation’s largest lion exhibits at the John Ball Zoo.
Much of the redevelopment can be attributed to the area’s loyal and exceedingly generous business community, a group that includes the headquarters for the Meijer Corporation (pioneers of the dual grocery/discount store phenomenon) and Amway, that genius of direct marketing, which racks up annual sales in the billions. The names DeVos and Van Andel—the founding families of Amway—seem to top the list of every charitable cause in town. Most of the business and civic leaders are alumni of nearby Holland’s Hope College (part of the Reformed Church in America) or of Grand Rapids’ Calvin College, run by the Christian Reformed Church. Grand Rapids, by the way, is the epicenter of religious publishing in the United States.
Hardworking Grand Rapids may be known for its Protestant work ethic, but a surprising amount of diversity hides beneath the city’s Calvinist veneer. Yes, it’s a Republican stronghold, but Grand Rapids is also home to an active alternative press and one of the state’s largest Native American populations. The city’s older neighborhoods celebrate a mix of cultures, comprising Asian, Latino, African American, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, German, and Polish communities.
Grand Rapids is accessible via plane, train, bus, and, naturally, car. The Gerald R. Ford International Airport (GFIA) (5500 44th St. SE, 616/233-6000, www.grr.org ) is southeast of town. Both Amtrak (431 Wealthy St. SW, 800/872-7245, www.amtrak.com ) and Greyhound (250 Grandville SW, 800/231-2222, www.greyhound.com ) serve the city. Of course, if you have a vehicle, you can reach Grand Rapids via I-96, I-196, U.S. 131, and several state highways.
Once here, you can either stick with your car or hop aboard The Rapid (www.ridetherapid.org ), an outstanding public transit system that even links Grand Rapids to surrounding towns, from Kentwood to Grandville.