A Brief History of North Lansing

by Michael A. Kolhoff

"I live in the oldest part of town,
Boarded-up buildings almost falling down,"
(from "The Oldest Part of Town" by Paul Emery)

As the oldest part of town, North Lansing naturally has some of the oldest and most interesting buildings. The area around the North Lansing dam was the location of the community's first business concerns (the dam built by John Burchard and the mill owned by James Seymour), established in 1843 and 1844. The old mill buildings on the eastern bank of the Grand River at the Grand River bridge were probably built in the 1850s and 60s on the site of the original mill.

To get a mental picture of Lansing at these early times, imagine a vast forested area on either side of the river, broken by the occassional marsh and a few scattered cabins. The area of Grand River avenue and Turner street, with it's few cabins, dam and mill, was as close to evidence of an organized settlement there was. However, within five years a thriving community was carved out of the forests and well established along the river, with three distinct areas of settlement:

  • Lower Town (north Lansing)
  • Upper Town (near the confluence of the Grand and Red Ceder Rivers) and
  • Center Town (near the newly established state capitol).

    Of these three areas, North Lansing, as the most established, was by far the most prosperous and lively.

    With the ongoing lumber boom and the location of facilities in North Lansing around the dam, the area continued to be the primary business district of Lansing up to the civil war period. It wasn't until the lumber boom tapered off and the economy crashed in 1893 that the life of the community began to more completely focus toward the area around the capitol and, with the establishment of a mineral springs resort, upper town around Washington Avenue and Main Street.

    Although gradually declining in prominence, North Lansing remained an important area of the city, and the principle shopping district of city residents living north of Saginaw street. This continued prosperity is reflected in the continuous new building which took place from the civil war to the great depression. It's also reflected in the many fine homes built in the area during this time, some of which still survive.

    By the end of the second world war North Lansing had been dramatically reduced from it's original status. The area that had been the cradle of the community had become an increasingly marginalized section of the city. The antique architecture which forms the basis of it's current charm was viewed with disdain during the 1950s and 60s. Development (mercifully for the buildings of north Lansing), was directed elsewhere. The direction of investment capital away from the area combined with economic downturns of the 1970s to force North Lansing down a familiar path of urban decay. The stores began to board up their windows, their upstairs offices were converted to low-rent apartments. The former Grand Hotel at the corner of Center Street and Grand River Avenue became a cheap rooming house. The Northtown Theatre closed and was finally torn down. The buildings looked ever shabbier and the neighborhood began to take on a skid-row character.

    The North Lansing neighborhood seemed doomed to the kind of downward spiral that destroyed so many other urban neighborhoods. However, a peculiar outgrowth of the social consciousness movement of the 1960s took the form of an energized influx of young "bohemian types" to North Lansing during the 1970s. This group was actually attracted by the anachronistic buildings and low rents that frightened off capital investment in the area. Interest in preserving and restoring the North Lansing business district resulted in the aquisition of public funding to repair buildings and improve the look of the area. It is largely due to these efforts that as much of North Lansing survives as does. Without them several buildings would have simply collapsed.

    The efforts at preservation begun in the 1970s lost momentum in the 1980s with the Reagan-era cuts in funding for urban areas. But people continued to hope for a renewal of North Lansing, and in the early 1990s a new wave of preservation and development began, and this time it seems to be successful, with a number of small shops, restaurants and businesses locating in the old buildings.

    There are still a number of buildings in serious jeopardy in North Lansing, the above-mentioned old mill structures being just one example. These old mills are slowly crumbling into the Grand River. They have been allowed to reach such a level of decay that it might well be too late to save them without completely dismantling them. As the repository of so much of our local history, the preservation of North Lansing is the preservation of Lansing history. It is as vital to our identity as a community as the river that runs through the middle of town.

    Michael A. Kolhoff
    © LAHA 1998