Grand Rapids’ Division Avenue once known as “Little Italy”

Posted at 6:08 AM, May 05, 2015
and last updated 2015-05-05 06:08:56-04

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.-- It's an area of Grand Rapids that's seen it's share of crime and violence over the years. Yet, it's an area that is seeing new life and revitalization.

A stretch of Division Avenue between Hall and Wealthy Streets used to be known as Little Italy.

Local businessman, John Russo, recalls growing up and helping his family develop that area.

His family immigrated from Sicily at the turn of the 20th century. Before long, his family owned a large portion of land near Franklin and Division Avenue.

"It's phenomenal to think about how much was on that property verses now." Russo recalled.

What is now just one Burger King, used to be more than half a dozen shops and apartments. Among them was a bustling night club called Roma Hall. It was a popular spot for weddings and banquets. Russo said it also saw some music icons.

"The real heyday that got a lot of attention from it was the big R&B stars that played there," Russo said. "BB King, Nat King Cole, the Supremes, James Brown.  Al Green was from Grand Rapids, went to school with some of my relatives and was a clerk at D’Amicos market. [He] started singing at our hall. And, the rest is history.”

But the area along Division Avenue where Roma Hall once stood, known at the time for its music and night life, has gotten attention for a different reason over the past several years.

A fatal double shooting on Halloween of 2013, and further down Division Avenue, more recently at the Chicken Coop, was the scene of a triple shooting in September of 2014 and a murder in March.

"It's really a shame because there is so much rich history and there were so many really good buildings there," Russo recalled.

But, the area is turning a corner. The place where immigrants once saw potential for new life and great success is once again coming back. Revitalization is bringing new homes and mixed-used buildings.

There are just a few memories of Little Italy such as Our Lady of Sorrows Church that still brings families back to the area.

“I would hope in the next 25 years that whole area will be brand new again," Russo said. "I'm seeing good things happen but it’ll be a while before it’s brought back to where it should be.”

Russo still carries on his family's entrepreneurial legacy with Carrettino market, set to open a new store along the lakeshore.