Why we love GR
By Marty Primeau and GRM Staff |
Photography by Adam Bird
Boy, were we wrong.
The GRM staff sent emails to dozens of Grand Rapidians asking four questions, including “What’s your favorite thing about Grand Rapids?” and “What makes GR unique?”
We expected quick responses like “the beer,” or “ArtPrize,” or “Go Griffins!” Maybe a smattering of happy faces and emoticons.
What we received from everyone — young and old alike — were thoughtful and often lengthy answers extolling the city’s sense of community and culture of giving back.
Most of all, those who responded praised “the people” — and not just such prominent families as the Van Andels, DeVoses and Meijers whose names grace buildings and cultural institutions.
“We hear lots of stories about the many philanthropic people, and they play a huge role,” wrote gallery owner Richard App. “But there are many more people who give of themselves to make the city such a great place to be.”
What makes GR Unique? “ArtPrize! This Midwest city hosts one of the largest international arts festivals in the Midwest, attracting more than 300,000 visitors in 19 days. ArtPrize is Grand Rapids, an urban city with a metropolitan look and a country charm. This arts appeal and appreciation attracts a creative class which brings with it an urban lifestyle that further defines Grand Rapids’ urban spaces, streetscape, walkways, parks and recreation, entertainment districts and, yes, craft breweries.” — Roberto Torres, executive director, Hispanic Center of Western Michigan
Roberto Torres, executive director of the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan, talked about the optimism and diversity of Grand Rapidians.
“This city has people of great character and culture,” Torres said.
“Perhaps it’s a product of its deeply rooted faith community, plentiful higher institutions of learning, great sense of philanthropy, and simply that ‘West Michigan Nice’ that I have come to know that makes Grand Rapids a welcoming city — even for a young man from the Buckeye State.”
Ditto from Kathy Crosby, president and CEO of Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids: “They welcome you, share with you and offer their support,” she wrote about the city’s residents.
Comedian Stu McCallister cited Gilda’s LaughFest as an example of how people work together.
“A 10-day festival that brings laughs, joy and happiness is amazing — all with proceeds going toward such a great charity in Gilda’s Club. And to be honest, all of this happens because of the community — everyone who comes out to volunteer and make this fest (and many other events) happen.”
Missy McCall, the entrepreneur who founded Boxed GR, described Grand Rapidians as hardworking, creative, proud and collaborative.
“The people here rolled up their sleeves and really got to work investing their time, money and talents in making this city what it is today. There is no shortage of new and exciting projects, celebrations and movements happening daily.”
Derek Coppess, CEO of 616 Development, described GR as a city filled with action-oriented people.
“Unlike any other place I have experienced, Grand Rapidians make it happen! It is so refreshing to live, work and play with not only big thinkers but big doers!”
What’s your favorite thing about GR? “I wouldn’t be a good superintendent if I didn’t say my favorite thing about Grand Rapids is our community’s children. They inspire me every day and have inspired me since I started working for GRPS when I was a 16-year-old student worker. Another favorite is the Beltline Bar. Love their burritos!”
— Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent, Grand Rapids Public Schools
What makes GR unique?
Tami VandenBerg, executive director of Well House and co-owner of The Pyramid Scheme and The Meanwhile, summed up many key points in her response about what she loves best: “The people who live in the city, the distinct neighborhoods, the artists and musicians, the people fighting for equity, the historic architecture, the food-growing climate.”
Andrew Steiner at Feeding America West Michigan had a nice explanation of what makes the city unique.
“Grand Rapids is small enough to get your arms around and yet big enough that there’s always something going on. And those things tend to be a little weird, a little unexpected and a lot of fun.”
Connie Flachs is a ballerina with Grand Rapids Ballet and also active in the Slow Food movement. Her favorite thing about Grand Rapids is the big-city sense of growth and excitement in a small-city setting.
“I love being involved in the events and ideas being created, while still running into people I know.”
Others praised the culture.
“Behind every corner and every sight, there is a story,” said Malayna Hasmanis, a student at Grand Valley State University. “This city is so rich in culture and history, you cannot help but be inspired.”
Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of Grand Rapids Public Schools, wrote about the “remarkable collaborative spirit that exists in our community. When there are issues or projects that need to happen, we roll up our sleeves, lock arms with public and private partners, and get it done, together.”
Paul Jendrasiak, photographer and CEO of SpamBully, praised GR for “its big city amenities that go hand-in-hand with a close-knit small town ‘everybody knows your name’ feel.”
Of course, many talked about the food and beverage scene.
“Grand Rapids is unique in its local food and beer,” said Wendy Hammond, who writes the Eat Local, West Michigan! blog.
“So much beer!” was the enthusiastic response from Christine Helms-Maletic, board president of West Michigan Environmental Action Council.
And we love this thought from Erin Wilson, manager of Wealthy Theatre, recalling why he and wife Amy moved here from the East Coast.
“We chose Grand Rapids in part because of the polar extremes — political, economic, ideological, cultural. This tension on the fringes ... requires the middle to retain some elasticity and to resist rigidity. In that center, you find people who are open because they exist between these charged edges. And you know you need one another because you’re surrounded by sociopaths and millionaires and sociopath millionaires. And — hey, who wants to drink and dance and make stuff? Me. I do. And we found our people.”
What makes GR unique? “Some people may think of GR as this sleepy mid-sized city between Detroit and Chicago, but it is far from boring. There’s a lot going on, you just have to know where to look. GR is making a name for itself in the arts and culture world. And, it may sound cliché, but I think our proximity to nature makes us incredibly unique. We have beautiful bike trails, we’re 40 minutes from Lake Michigan and great camping areas, and we place an emphasis on creating green space and
maintaining our parks within the city.” — Brandy Arnold, program
coordinator, Kids’ Food Basket; secretary of East Hills Council
of Neighbors; community volunteer
No more ‘Bland Rapids’
We asked people to tell us the biggest change in Grand Rapids in the past decade. Most responded by saying the city has grown from a sleepy mid-sized town to a cultural destination.
McCall, owner of Boxed GR, wrote, “There’s an overall huge rise in the coolness factor.”
She used this analogy: “I could compare it to an awkward teenager unsure of herself and her identity and then, 10 years later, she’s this confident woman who is doing big things, has worked hard to get there, and is full of promise and a healthy sense of adventure.”
Many cited downtown development. “Investment into central city neighborhoods — both public and private,” wrote WMEAC’s Helms-Maletic.
Mayor Rosalynn Bliss, who lived through the economic downturn during her time on the city commission, pinpointed the economic turnaround in Grand Rapids.
“We have a strong economy and significant development throughout the city,” she said. “We have an inspiring mix of local, innovative businesses, as well as successful global companies.”
Architect Mark Miller is an urban designer and planner who talked about the scale of the city, the deflected vistas of the downtown, and the river.
“People now desire to live, work and play in the downtown and in the city’s near neighborhoods,” he said. “This renewed appreciation of urbanism has set the stage for a more livable, vibrant and dynamic city.”
What’s the next step for GR? “My favorite metaphor for our city is a jet airplane. A jet airplane will never reach full altitude without all of its engines going strong. Neither will our city reach its full potential if we ignore a critical economic component.”— Pat Miles, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan
U.S. Attorney Pat Miles cited the city’s gentrification. “Some of the ‘pocket communities’ in various neighborhoods have flourishing boutique stores, restaurants and new housing developments,” he said.
David Abbot at Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids pointed to the growth of the art scene: “With the biggest game changer being ArtPrize and the leadership at the GRAM under Dana Friis-Hansen, it’s great to see lines of people around museums to see art!”
Dan Gendler, program director at Secchia Institute for Culinary Education, described the “amazing growth in the culinary and brewery scene downtown and in the neighborhoods and small towns surrounding downtown Grand Rapids.”
Dr. Robyn Hubbard agreed: “It’s suddenly a hip singles spot. Ten years ago, young adults had to go elsewhere to try and find a singles scene!”
John Sinkevics, editor and publisher of Local Spins, said, “The burgeoning music scene — along with the explosion of micro-breweries — has made Grand Rapids a destination that it wasn’t 10 or 15 years ago. Add to that events such as ArtPrize, LaughFest, Founders Fest and new music venues, and visitors can’t help but be impressed by what’s happening here.”
Kathy Crosby, who says this is her first decade in Grand Rapids, recalled her impression during her first visit to the city in July 2006 as “a quiet downtown with corners of occasional activity and some attractive spots. Today, much of downtown is a bustling, growing urban center that is both teeming with activity and offers many pictures of success.”
What’s the next step?
This question garnered a variety of responses with many pointing out the need for racial and gender equality.
“Grand Rapids is one of the highest-ranked cities in the U.S. regarding income and growth, yet the median income for African-Americans seems to be quite low,” wrote Otis Smith, head coach of the Grand Rapids Drive who moved to West Michigan from Florida. “This is an issue that must be addressed in order to bring everyone together and more cognizant of the disconnect to poverty-stricken homes.”
Abbot wrote: “Embracing diversity as an economic and social responsibility.”
Mieke Stoub, marketing manager at Local First, agreed, saying Grand Rapids needs to be more inclusive for all.
“More power-sharing in elected and appointed positions for people of color, women and the LGBTQ community,” said Roberta King, vice president of public relations at Grand Rapids Community Foundation.
VandenBerg wrote: “Much of the city is thriving, but not everyone. We need to implement evidence-based solutions to homelessness, violence, problematic drug use and unemployment. We need to extend prosperity to those not yet benefitting from our growth.”
What makes GR unique? “Kids’ Food Basket puts stuff in bags or baskets, like food and money, and gives it to people who don’t have food. At school, we decorate bags and bring in food to go in those bags. And Spoonlickers! I don’t know if it’s ice cream or frozen yogurt, but it’s the best.” — Josie Nugent, 2nd grader
That thought was echoed by 8-year-old Josie Nugent: “People have been asking for money on the streets. That needs to be a tad bit more handled. It’s so sad.”
Urban planner Miller said, “A better, more robust, transit system is critical for the continued livability of our city. We need to continue to invest in transit.”
Mayor Bliss wrote: “More people living, working and playing downtown. As our downtown marches toward critical mass, the flywheel will really begin to start spinning! All of the fun stuff follows people living in dense urban areas. Movie theaters, grocery stores, innovative retail amenities will flock to downtown over the next season of growth.”
Yang Kim, creative director at Peopledesign, said, “Grand Rapids is still a small town and we need to be more competitive. I hate to talk about big brands because everyone wants to support local, (but) not wanting bigger brands to move into Grand Rapids is short-term thinking.
“Making Grand Rapids a great destination by enhancing its features will make it a better place to keep and attract talented people. We have a few nice neighborhoods, but they need better planning. There are certain lifestyle stores that are helpful and then you have businesses that just don’t make sense. I think it’s a shame that Lululemon moved to Breton Village. It really comes down to better editing in city planning,” said Kim.
So what did we learn?
Grand Rapids is a great place to live — for a lot of reasons. And yes, the city needs to improve, but Grand Rapidians are the kind of people who will make those changes and keep moving in the right direction.
Or as one South Carolina native and GVSU student so aptly stated: “Grand Rapids is a place that is never dull or mundane.”
Malayna Hasmanis, who serves on the GVSU Student Senate and recently accepted a “Young Leader” award at the White House, said she adores “the sense of exploration and promise for adventure. I never would have thought that I would love this city so much. But I stand mistaken and gladly so.” GR