Thursday, December 26, 2013

Snowy December and a very White Christmas

Winter kicked in early and rather passionately this year, with snow accumulating earlier than Thanksgiving.  December's snowfall is climbing up the records ladder to 8th snowiest in recorded history with almost an entire week left in the month to add to the accumulated 30.8 inches. Compared with the average snowfall as of this date, 17.9 inches, we're in the thick of it. Remember, this time last year there was no snow.

We haven't been pounded by it or snowed in with blizzards, rather it's snowed nearly every day this month, making for a number of treacherous commutes and car accidents as most of the side roads are snow (or ice) covered. It's also been colder than usual, which has made living even less comfortable, as 533,000 homes and businesses lost power after last week's historic - and deadly - ice storm. Many West Michigan families had to make alternate plans for Christmas, temporarily bunking with family and friends, and hurriedly draining their pipes before celebrating the holiday.

Despite the nearly constant snowfall, Grand Rapids snow plows have done a good job of clearing roads and driveways in a timely fashion, and, for the most part, neighbors have done well at keeping their sidewalks shoveled.  Remember, the City requires that your sidewalk be shoveled; if the snow builds up, they will send out city workers to clear your sidewalk and assess you a hefty fee for doing it. It's much cheaper to just go out there and push a shovel around, particularly when snows are light as they've been.

It looks like January may also be cold and snowy, although that, of course, remains to be seen.  I'd bet on getting a lot more use out of your skis, skates, and sleds this year. Winter sports are a great thing to do with squirrel-y house-bound, sugared up kids.  If you're not sure where to go sledding, here's another list of fun sledding hills in Grand Rapids.  Check out one or two of them before the holidays are over and then come inside for some hot chocolate.

Happy Holidays, everyone!  Here's to a health, wealth, sustenance, and love in 2014!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

10 Ideas For A Holiday Date Night Without The Kids

Sometimes during all the Holiday bustle, the adults need a night away for themselves.  Make sure this season you take the time to share in at least one festive evening with your partner.  Here are ten great ideas for a night away from the kids.
  1. Pick your favorite restaurant and head out for a special date night with your partner.  After dinner, Cirque de Noel is a wonderful way to bring in the season.  A show full of energy and amazing stunts; it is the perfect date night destination.  The show opens December 17 at DeVos Performance Hall.   
  2. Taken in one of the many Griffins games this season at the Van Andel Arena.  Tickets are fairly inexpensive and this is a fun activity for a snowy winter night.  Some evenings just call for a good game and a few beers! 
  3. Sign up for the annual GRBC Santa Crawl on December 21!  The Grand Rapids Pub Crawl provides transportation, various stops for fun festivity around Grand Rapids, and numerous drink specials all day long.  Get away from the kids, spend some time with a few good friends, and check out the tasty breweries Grand Rapids has to offer.
  4. Give your car a good winter once over and then take a long scenic drive with your loved one to check out the various light displays all over Grand Rapids.  There are multiple stops that shouldn’t be missed!  
  5. Music lovers, check out the Edelweiss Choir Christmas Concert at Saint Mary’s Catholic Church ("Our Lady of the Highway").  This is a free concert that features traditional holiday music from German-speaking regions of Europe.  The beauty of the Gothic church, built by German immigrants to Grand Rapids, accompanied by the festive tunes from the choir, will transport you.
  6. The Grand Rapids Choir of Men and Boys presents "Christmas Lessons and Carols."  On various evenings throughout December, join in the merriment of these beautiful holiday tunes. 
  7. Surprise your partner with a horse drawn carriage ride through downtown Grand Rapids.  Nothing says holiday romance this season more than a cozy carriage ride on a snowy evening.  The ride takes you by all the hot spots in downtown Grand Rapids.
  8. In the mood for something fun and lighthearted?  Head down to Stella’s for "The Drunken Retort," an open-mic night that features various acts that will have you rolling with laughter.  You can even hop on stage if you feel inclined to share your own humor.
  9. Spend an evening taking in the beauty of large-scale sculptures by sculptor Bernar Venet  at Frederik Meijer Gardens.  Five of his iconic pieces will be on display on the front lawn through the season.  It is a creative way to spend a date night. 
  10. Sometimes simply spending a cozy evening at home by the fire is the best way to reconnect this season.  See if a friend or sibling can take the kids for an evening and surprise your honey with a home-cooked meal and some holiday coziness.  I guarantee it will be as much of a treat as going out! 

Monday, December 16, 2013

10 Great Holiday Activities To Do With Kids in Grand Rapids

Looking for some fun Holiday activities to do with your youngsters this season?  There is plenty to do in Grand Rapids!  Here are ten fun activities that will get your family into the holiday spirit.  Hopefully you can fit them all in.

  1. Ride the Santa Train and get escorted by elves to your individual seat!  Every seat is decorated and festive; there is even a princess who reads the The Polar Express while you wait for Santa; its author, Chris Van Allsburg, is a Grand Rapids native.  Santa gives a present to each child who comes to visit. 
  2. Spend some time with an American classic.  Master Arts Theatre performs It’s a Wonderful Life on stage.  This is an amazing story filled with love and important life lessons to watch with your kids. If you can't catch it live, try to see Jimmy Stewart's old familiar face on TV, at least.  Kids should know that there was life before iTunes or even television.
  3. Keep your kids educated about the various traditions of the holiday by bringing them to "Christmas and Holiday Traditions Around the World" at Frederik Meijer Gardens.  The Gardens are transformed into a winter wonderland with wandering carolers, over 40 international displays and trees, and horse-drawn carriage rides.  It is the perfect activity to create a magical memory.
  4. Take the family to a Grand Rapids Ballet performance of "The Nutcracker."   This is a seasonal classic that should be seen by everyone around the holidays at least once.  The ballet is accompanied by the Grand Rapids Symphony to add to the splendor. 
  5. Pack up the car with some cookies and holiday tunes and travel around West Michigan to view the Christmas lights.  Whether in Rockford, Ada, Alto, or Grand Rapids, this area has some truly amazing displays.  Make sure to drive through some of the luxury homes neighborhoods that go all out with their festive holiday scenes.
  6. If you prefer to get your lights all in one place, the Fifth Third Ball Park's magnificent holiday display. has millions of them - Michigan's largest Christmas light display.
  7. Nothing is more essential during the holiday season than some old-fashioned sledding.  Sledding is so much fun with kids and brings back timeless memories for adults as well.  One of these days take the time to get all bundled up and sail down one of Grand Rapids's many snowy hills.  You won’t regret it! 
  8. Enjoy another holiday classic at Rosa Parks Circle downtown Grand Rapids.  The ice-skating rink opens December 6.  Skates rentals are even free with ID.  Ice-skating is the perfect activity for kids who are getting a little antsy being cooped up in the house.  With a little snowfall, nothing is more festive.
  9. No holiday is complete without at least one visit to Santa.  Kids love visiting Santa and his elves; it is definitely the best way to make sure he knows what they want!  Visit one of the many sites in Grand Rapids that he will be stopping this holiday season.
  10. And don't forget the tree!  Check out the local tree nurseries that Grand Rapids has to offer.  Some even offer a day full of festive fun with horse-drawn wagon rides and visits from Santa.  Choosing and cutting down a tree is the ultimate in family fun! 
There are many other festive holiday things to do and see with your kids in West Michigan.  Besides the above, which are your favorites?

Monday, December 9, 2013

Saving the Trees, One Ash at a Time

Usually non-natives are welcomed with open arms to Grand Rapids, but in previous years our city has had to deal with one specific unwelcome guest: the emerald ash borer. These invasive insects were found in southeast Michigan in 2002 and have since infested millions of ash trees in our fair city.

Photo credit: Mlive.com
Since 2009, emerald ash borer (EAB) infestation has occurred in numerous spots all over Grand Rapids. The insects lay their eggs on all species of ash trees and when the eggs hatch the larvae feed just underneath the bark of the tree, which cuts off essential water and nutrients for the ash. In the past several years, you may have noticed ash trees lining the streets that were marked for removal. These were dead ash trees affected by EAB. Last December, 31 Fuller Avenue ash trees were removed due to infestation; just one example of the city’s removal of dead trees.  Fuller does not look the same.  Parks all over the city have received similar haircuts.  It's been hard on tree lovers to see so many beautiful and useful trees gone.

In the early years of infestation, there was little evidence to draw on concerning any type of successful treatment plan for the city’s nearly 5,300 ash trees. Also, treatment prices were quite high for each tree. The city’s initial plan in 2007 called for massive removal of infected ash trees over a period of ten years. Approximately 1,600 trees were removed between 2007 and 2010. In 2008, citizens responded to such drastic removals and an alternative treatment plan was tested. The following year, the Urban Forestry Committee collaborated with the city of Grand Rapids and launched a new plan to treat our ash trees with a compound called TREE-Age, which has become more affordable over time. This solution prevents EAB infestation for up to two years.

Photo credit: Mlive.com
By 2011, close to 1,000 ash trees were treated with the preventative medicine. The future looks far more promising for Grand Rapids' ash trees. The city plans to treat 1,400 trees each year and assess 5% of the previously treated trees annually. Only dead ash trees will be removed, with the goal being to save as many as possible from EAB infestation before the EAB population declines or treatment decreases it even more. Ash trees that are dead need to be removed; if they are on private property it is the responsibility of the homeowner to eliminate the tree before it becomes a hazard.

Grand Rapids hopes to sustain the lives of our ash trees with joint efforts from the city staff, volunteers, Parks and Recreation Department, Urban Forestry Committee, and the EAB Task Force. Our trees add to the splendor of Grand Rapids and we are lucky to have people that are working hard for their preservation.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Building a Greener Grand Rapids, Literally

Sustainability is one of the most important issues today.  We are continuously looking and discovering new ways to live greener lives and ensure the preservation of our environment for future generations.  Grand Rapids is at the forefront of the sustainability effort.  Most residents may not realize the efforts Grand Rapids takes and has taken to push for greener living.  In 2008, Grand Rapids was named “America’s Greenest City” by Fast Company magazine.

Our fair city leads the nation in LEED-certified buildings per capita; a fact that in 2005, Mayor George Heartwell did not take lightly.  That same year he pledged that 20% of the city’s power would come from renewable resources by 2008 and hit this target a year early.  He then pledged that by 2020, the target would be 100% of the city’s power from renewable energy.  This is a large goal, but the steps Grand Rapids has made may walk us right to this target by 2020.

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.  LEED-certification is third-party verification and recognition that a building was designed and built using high performance standards in human and environmental health.  There are numerous prerequisites that buildings must meet to be certified, and credits they can receive to gain extra points in their certification.  LEED provides a basic framework for buildings, neighborhoods, and communities to implement green building design, construction, and operation.  

Grand Rapids boasts numerous firsts in the sustainable buildings effort.  We have the first LEED-certified YMCA (downtown), Gold art museum (Grand Rapids Art Museum), transit station (Rapid Central Bus Station), Habitat for Humanity Home, church (Keystone Community Church), and healthcare project (Lacks Cancer Center), to name a few.  In 2012, we were voted 1 in 5 model cities for sustainability by Earth Day Network.  BillMoyers.com voted Grand Rapids 1 of 12 cities leading in sustainability in 2013.  


Sustainability and conservation in Grand Rapids is coordinated by the Office of Energy and Sustainability.  The Sustainability Plan sets more than 200 goals for our city to reach every year, such as increasing household participation in recycling to 45,000 by 2013.   Sustainability is not only the building itself, but extends to interior design and furniture.  There are extensive LEED-certification prerequisites and credits for building sustainable furniture and interior design.  Furniture companies such as Custer, a Steelcase dealer in West Michigan, has contributed and participated in more LEED-certified building projects than any other dealer.  The list of sites they have contributed to is extensive.

Grand Rapids has no plans to slow down their sustainability efforts in the years to come.  Our efforts have far exceeded so many cities in the United States and we should feel proud.  You never know when you are stepping into one of our numerous LEED-certified buildings or sitting in an office chair that was built using sustainable resources.  These efforts are not always clearly recognized or realized, but they are helping preserve our city and environment.  

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thankful for

We Grand Rapidians have many things to be thankful for in regards to our hometown.  Here are a few that come to mind:

Unlike so many Midwest cities, Grand Rapids is not dying, but blooming.  The downtown looks better than it ever has and there are so many more things to see and do in Kent County.

A lower unemployment rate than the rest of Michigan , and, at 6.4%, lower than last year.  Full-time, well paid positions with benefits are still pretty scarce, but jobs are out there, at least.

Many of those jobs come from our agricultural sector, which has grown 8% since the start of the Great Recession.  Michigan is second only to California in the diversity of crops grown here.  We owe much of that to our location and the abundance of water in the state.  The Great Lakes also provide a buffer from the harsher weather other northern states experience.  Michigan's more temperate climate allows for cultivation of many fruit trees and bushes that produce an abundance of table wealth for us to enjoy and profit from.  Good, rich soil also helps.

All of that abundance is made available in the state's 200 or so farmers markets.  Pure Michigan brings up 41 farmers markets just within 20 miles of Grand Rapids.  That's a lot of fresh, often organically grown or sustainably raised food to sample.  And our growing food scene reflects it!  Cooking a diverse range of great, healthy food made with healthy ingredients has never been easier.  No food deserts here.

We are sheltered from much of Nature's fury by our location as well.  Last week, the Midwest and particularly Illinois experienced devastating tornadoes which resulted in 8 deaths, huge amounts of property and environmental damage.  People in Peoria will be clearing rubble and trimming damaged trees for a long time to come.  While we occasionally see tornadoes in West Michigan, we are spared most of them and the most ferocious of them.  We also don't have earthquakes, hurricanes, cyclones, tsunamis, long term drought, or out of control wildfires.  We don't even have to deal with poisonous snakes or insects.  If you can handle a long, gray winter, that's about the extent of our weather horrors.  We can be grateful for that.

Finally, Grand Rapids has a history of philanthropy and volunteerism.  Grand Rapids residents volunteer at a rate of 37.6%, significantly over the national average, and the city is Michigan's most generous.  We all benefit from the giving nature of Grand Rapids's citizens, in large and small ways.

Not everyone loves Grand Rapids, but many of us are thankful to live here.  Happy Thanksgiving to all of our readers!


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Winter hits Grand Rapids a little early

You just never know what you're going to get with weather in Michigan.  Last year winter didn't hit until halfway through January, and this year we have snow on the ground - with actual school delays and closings -  before Thanksgiving.  It's been a number of years since that last time that happened.  The city hadn't yet swept the gutters of leaves, many of them only fallen in the last week, so now there are frozen clumps of them at the ends of driveways, pushed up by the plow.  Be careful backing out!  Here's hoping we get a spate of warmer temperatures so that last clean up can get done before snow is here to stay.

The Farmer's Almanac is predicting a "biting cold & snowy" winter for the Great Lakes.  Bill Steffen also thinks we're in for some real winter weather, and early.  None of that is written in stone, of course, but if you haven't hired your snow removal contractor or checked your snow blower to make sure it still runs and you have both gas and oil for it, now is the time.  Small engine repair shops in Grand Rapids usually have a couple of weeks' wait time for service, so procrastinating until that first big blizzard and then pulling the cord and praying - it's not such a great plan.  It's also worth picking up a sack of salt or kitty litter to cover those icy spots on your driveway and sidewalks.  Round up the snow shovels, too, and put them where they are close to hand, and make sure your car is ready to drive in snow.

Walking on icy sidewalks can be a challenge.  Owners on the northeast side of the city, at least, are pretty good at shoveling, particularly early on in the winter.  But after that first major storm, the number of icy encrusted sidewalks build.  That's when you want to start wearing Yaktrax, or at least boots with thicker tread, and stepping carefully, choosing grass or snow over icy surfaces.

If you're new to the area, the bad news is Grand Rapids is cloudy in winter.  We do not get the bitter cold temperatures that sweep over the Dakotas, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, but the trade off is overcast days and lake effect snow.  If you have Seasonal Affective Disorder or get the "winter blues," investing in a sun light might not be a bad idea.  Also, even though you might want to stay inside and burrow under your covers, exercise is great for shaking off a gloomy mood.

Fortunately, there are a lot of fun things to do in Grand Rapids in the winter.  There's local skiing and snowboarding, ice skating in or outdoors, and plenty of sledding hills.  Horse drawn carriages tour the downtown.  The Civic Theater does a family production every year at this time.  This year is The Sound of Music.  Then there are the holiday traditions: the Grand Rapids Symphony is doing Holiday Pops, the Grand Rapids Ballet will perform The Nutcracker, and the Calvin Oratorio Society will perform Handel's Messiah.  Before and after the holidays, there are a number of cultural opportunities for music, drama, and art enthusiasts.

In short, winter is coming: prepare, but do not despair!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Watching Downtown bloom

My first idea for naming this blog post was, "Watching Downtown Come Back to Life," but that's not really correct, since it never really died, per se.  When I was in high school in the late 1980s, the Monroe Mall area, as well as most of S. Division, was pretty derelict and desolate, though.  Not Soviet derelict, but no one went there for fun, and you weren't tempted to stroll down S. Division unless you were on a mission to find drugs or illicit sex.  When Herpolsheimers closed in 1987, there was a misguided attempt to make it into a mall, but that soon failed.  Downtown was not the place to be.  Many, if not most Grand Rapidians were resigned to seeing their city turn into another waning Rust Belt casualty.  Having lived for awhile in Detroit, it's almost miraculous to see it bloom again today and to watch people stroll about, eat things, and be genuinely excited to be there and witness what is happening.

Who would have thought that cool Art Moderne building Junior Achievement abandoned would get a makeover and a chance to shine again?  It sat there empty so long, still beautiful, still interesting under layers of grime and broken glass block.  And there is TowerPinkster today, occupying it with pride.

Devos Place turns ten this month.  Having a safe location was no doubt as asset for the owners, but there wasn't nearly as much to see and do downtown a decade ago.  Van Andel was there, the Gerald R. Ford Museum was there, but ArtPrize wasn't even dreamed of, the brewery culture hadn't taken off, and the Grand Rapids Art Museum was still over on Division in the Federal Building that was purchased and renovated by Kendell College of Art and Design.  It was rededicated in June of this year and looks fantastic.

Turn and look the other way down Division, and it's all new as well.  Van Andel Institute, Betty DeVos Children's Hospital, and a completely re-terraced Hillside park have banished any rundown feel on the right side.  Michigan St. has been transformed as well.  What was a local scene of gas stations, houses, and stores, is now a wall of glass containing a series of state-of-the-art medical buildings.  It's hard to remember what the old Butterworth Hospital looked like or that Calvary Undenominational Church once took up nearly a whole block on Michigan.

Travel the S-Curve and you'll see cranes looming over the city and buildings being wrapped like Christmas presents.  The new Grand Valley Seidman Center has taken the place of an old warehouse, but that whole Pew Campus is brand new, not to mention the shiny YMCA building.  Follow the S-Curve and the Custer building salutes you, and the renovated Founders Brewing Company peeks out over her shoulder. Drive a little way further and you can peek into the greenhouses of the new Downtown Market.

It's almost like a brand new city!  What are your memories of the Grand Rapids that used to be?


Monday, October 28, 2013

Going Gaga Over Good Design: Grand Rapids Knows How to Please Me (Aesthetically)

In this modern era (as if there were others), the importance of standing out is infinitely obvious, at least when success is concerned. Riddled and inundated with a constant flow of imagery and information, people in Grand Rapids need to be impressed to be won over: That's where good marketing comes in.

I have this theory that starts with the army of corporations claiming West Michigan as home: Amway, Herman Miller, Steelcase, Gordon Food Service, Meijer, to name a few; these major players have tendrils that reach around the world and back again. Now, imagine what could spring up around these monsters: Amway brings its entrepreneurial customers into the area; Steelcase and Herman Miller provide some of the best furniture that money can buy; Meijer and Gordon Food Service bring food to countless tables owned by both families and restaurants. Behemoths like these thrive on a mix of business-to-consumer and business-to-business transactions, meaning that people not only have access to their goods and services at home but also at their businesses.

Here's an obligatory photo of GR on the banks of the GR | Source: Women's LifeStyle
That's right, I said, "Their businesses." If the geographical and political climate can breed the gargantuan companies I named earlier, other entrepreneurs will certainly give it a go. And they have. Finally, we're back to a point where my theory becomes relevant. Swimming in a sea of similarly-geared newbie business owners, one has to find a way to peacock to a point without becoming obnoxious and arrogant. This is why there are so many marketing companies in Grand Rapids. To name a few, we have Full Circle, Fusionary, Deksia, Plenty, and Mighty in the Midwest. Each of them do a stellar job of conveying the companies that hire them in a mild-yet-impressive way.

Full Circle does a lot of work with projects related to the major benefactor families of the city like DeVos and Van Andel. On the agency's website, they proudly display work they've performed for Van Andel Arena, the DeVos Performance Hall, and DeVos Place. This is a company whose portfolio supports my theory of good marketing becoming both viable and valuable when fertile land has been cultivated by a corps of movers and shakers. Fusionary has done work with Frederik Meijer Gardens, a partnership that further highlights the importance of knowing people in any business, especially those that hinge on having clients.

But what speaks louder than who you know? The depth of your story and the quality of your work. This is where Deksia shines: The marketing firm was originally located at 1111 Godfrey SW, a warehouse that many aspiring artists and entrepreneurs continue to use while incubating and exercising their ideas. Having moved from there, the company now has its own space, which Rapid Growth Media called "a splash of color in an industrial area." Looking through Deksia's site, it's easy to see how much they invest in each project they take on. Just check out their branding page and spend some time scrolling through their clients and services--it's honestly impressive. My personal favorite they've done is CHOP, a tree service in West Michigan. The subtlety of the severed trunk within the logo is cunning. The feel of the website is rugged; it's well-toned with a consistent color theme (not scheme) pervading the pages. …Wow: I'm rambling. I'll cut it short with this: What makes a good marketing firm? Good design. And we've got plenty of it here in Grand Rapids.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Reveling in a Reexamination of the GRNow Gems

Earlier this year, GRNow posted a list of what it called "the GRNow Gems." Twenty-six different locations and activities populated what the website properly called "hidden (and not so hidden)." First on the list was Honey Creek Inn, a place I've not been to, probably because it's actually located in Cannonsburg--not Grand Rapids. Other oddballs technically located outside city limits included Herman's Boy in Rockford and Tokyo Grill in Kentwood, two more establishments I've not had the chance to experience. Herman's Boy sounds like it's straight out of the past in a really good way--unreasonably low prices in this evermore-expensive world and premises that include a deli, bakery, fudgery (is fudgery a word?), and a coffee grinder. Their website says you can get a bagel for 65 cents!! So much, all in a converted farmhouse. Tokyo Grill, according to GRNow's reporting, has better sushi than Ju, Sushi Kuni, and Maru--a serious claim, if you ask me. I'd love to find out for myself, but my vegetarian ways (yes, that means I don't eat fish) would make judging their sushi a little unfair. I could compare the veggie-friendly options and base my ruling on that but let's be honest: Sushi is all about the sea creatures inside.

Others on the list brought me pleasure because I've actually been to them and know how great they are. Honorable mentions Cult Pizza (you know I love you) and  Bartertown (same goes for you): These establishments are employee-run and serve up some of the best vegetarian and vegan food I've ever had, in this city and elsewhere. Their cooking is part of the reason that I'm still not eating meat--their concoctions proved to me, long ago, that a diet can still be delicious without meaty flesh.

Taqueria San Jose!! | Source: Eating Our Way Through Grand Rapids
Tacos el Cuñado made the GRNow list too. I hadn't been to this Mexican joint located on the westside until their head honchos decided to open a satellite location in the Downtown Market. Since opening there, I've been thrice: Once with a crew of my coworkers, once with my roommate, and once with my mother. The fact that I went here with my mother--she was visiting for my birthday--to have some of the best Mexican in town is saying something. But missing from the list in regards to Mexican is Taqueria San Jose on Division. Seriously, you need to try this place if you haven't yet. It's right across the street from the Salvation Army in an old drive-up restaurant. Go! Now! You won't know what you've been missing until you've touched one of their tacos to your tongues! And be sure to try their sauces--they're to die for.

More from the list: Hopcat and Founders, of course. Other obvious inclusions are San Chez Bistro, Madcap Coffee, Marie Catrib's, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket Baking Company, the Fulton Street Farmers Market, and Robinette's. Exiting the realm of consumable goodies, we have Frederik Meijer Gardens, "Antiquing in an Old Furniture Building," Heritage Hill, Redux & Argos, and Vertigo Music. A few of these surprised me, but they are welcome additions considering how fantastic they all are or seem to be. The list, with its greatness and its absences, reminds me just how fantastic we have it here. Grand Rapids has come a long way from its days of making primarily chairs and office furniture.  Of course, we could argue about what's on it and what's not and what should be there--everyone has an opinion based on their own experiences--but let's just cherish what we've got instead: We've got it all.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Where Are You, Career?


Unemployment is one of those dreadful words that has peppered our news religiously for the last decade.  It has ebbed and flowed with each year that passes.  To the average American, unemployment simply refers to whether one has a job; but to a Generation Y American the underlying meaning is much more complex.

I graduated from Grand Valley State University in 2011 with a specific path I thought I would follow.  As a middle-class American, I was not given many other options than attending college right after high school.  It was expected; so I did.  I learned a lot, both scholastically and personally, and graduated with a political science degree I was proud of.  I began applying for jobs towards the end of the 2011 summer.  I am here to tell you - it is 2013, I have had eight interviews in two years, and there is nothing on the horizon.      

Grand Rapids is a growing city, there is no doubt about that.  More restaurants, breweries, and shops pop up daily.  For the college graduate looking for work in their field, it doesn’t offer as much as one would like.  The unemployment rate for Grand Rapids in March 2013 was 6.2%, and has infinitesimally fallen and risen to 6.4% in August.  In 2008, the unemployment rate was high at 11.5%.  The rate is expected to continue to fall.   

I realized after a year of applying to at least three to ten jobs a week, it was not going to be as easy as I thought.  My search expanded from more specified jobs to a wide range spreading across numerous fields.  People would ask, “What do you do with a political science degree?”  My response was, "What every graduate hopes to do, find a job."  I received excellent feedback from my interviews.  I am comfortable speaking to groups, I have hard work ethic, and I am creative. Every position I interviewed for was given to someone with more experience who was also out of work.  The Great Recession laid off a massive pool of applicants who have more experience than me and now are making less money than they did before. 

A report released in August 2013 by PayScale and Millennial Branding, claimed that Generation Y is specifically underemployed and overqualified for the jobs they are working.  During the Great Recession many Baby Boomers and Generation X-ers lost their higher-paying jobs and instead settled for lower-paying, entry-level positions that would have normally gone to people like me.  Plenty of Boomers, who normally would have retired, stayed in the labor market because their net worth crashed after 2008.  Generation Y seems to have been left out of this equation, and pushed into un- or underemployment. 

53.6 percent of college graduates 25 and under are either unemployed or underemployed, according to the Associated Press.  We are unable to find jobs in our desired fields and are turning to jobs that are severely beneath our skill sets.  Many 20-somethings graduate from college, only to find the pool of competing applicants has more than tripled while they were in school.  The dream of each generation doing better than the last seems as far away as that ideal job.  Born to Baby Boomer parents, the expectation of financial success still seems reasonable for us, but the economy simply cannot supply the jobs.  Since the recession began in December 2007, average incomes for 25 to 34-year-olds have fallen 8 percent.  

I have to remain hopeful, even in the face of constant rejection.  The reality of my future is drastically different from that of past generations.  I sustain myself financially by working in the service industry, and creatively by finding odd jobs and internships that will build my resume.  I am continuously marketing myself.  I have to hope that as a resident of Grand Rapids, a city I love, growth will come to all sectors of our economy.  I strive to build a future for myself and my family to the best of my ability with the options I am given.  I have to hope it will be enough.  I have to hope that the vision of the ‘American dream’ will continue to grow with my generation. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Kent County In The Face Of Disaster

We see it all over the world; flash floods, unpredictable tornadoes, and stifling blizzards.  Natural disasters have an element of surprise that can be unnerving.  Although, certain incidents can’t be avoided in times of emergency, there are preventative ways to help eliminate the dangers of natural disasters through city preparedness.  

In April 2013, Grand Rapids experienced extreme flooding.  The Grand River, which flows through downtown, reached an all time high of 21.85 ft.; the flood stage for the river is 18 ft.  Images of emptied homes and windows with visible fish swimming by them rush to mind.  For at least a week, I was concerned my car would get stuck in the pools of water while driving and have to be dragged to an auto shop in Grand Rapids.  Mayor George Heartwell declared a state of emergency, the first since 1998.  What action was taken to further prepare our city for a disaster of this kind?

See if you can recall the February blizzard of 2011.  It began with 6.1 inches of snow recorded Tuesday, and continued with another 11.1 inches on Wednesday.  Countless businesses closed and all schools did.  Numerous homes lost power.  Out of necessity, neighbors worked together to dig snow from front doors and cars.  Not a state of emergency, but quite a disaster.  How did the city respond to this massive blizzard?

The Kent County Emergency Management Division is in charge of planning for, preparing for, and responding to natural disasters that occur within Kent County.  The Department of Homeland Security has identified specific projects that receive funding to improve the level of preparedness in our county in the face of disaster.  With the funding for these projects, Kent County has been able to increase training for our response agencies and improve our overall capability for natural disaster response.  Some of the specific projects are, enhancing Bomb Squad capability, critical infrastructure protection, providing Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear and Explosive equipment to responders, and citizen emergency training and preparedness programs; to name a few.  

Grand Rapids is working on a collaborative effort with 13 surrounding counties to develop a Regional Response Plan.  This will enhance abilities to respond and protect our communities by working together.  In 2012, a revision for the Greater Grand Rapids Hazard Mitigation Plan (GGRHMP) was approved by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency).  The plan is a joint effort between Kent County, Ottawa County and the city of Grand Rapids to identify risks and vulnerabilities of potential hazards.  

Kent County just started the Kent County Citizen Preparedness Program.  This is a twelve month program that focuses on a different area of emergency preparedness each month.  It is specifically designed to be understandable to Kent County residents and addresses various action plans in the face of emergency in West Michigan.  Monthly fact sheets are available at the Kent County Sheriff Department and the American Red Cross of Greater Grand Rapids.  

Grand Rapids may be a stranger to hurricanes and tsunamis, but it is comforting to know that our county is taking aggressive measures that will protect and prepare us for any natural disasters headed our way.     

  

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Will the Gilmore Collection seriously address their death problem NOW?

Grand Rapids: We have had yet another death associated with the B.O.B. Also known as the Big Old Building, the B.O.B. has become a place that many in our city have learned to avoid. For some, this avoidance started long before the most recent deaths occurred--three happening on the same stairwell, two of which just this year. But with another fatality reportedly associated with a brawl that happened outside of the facility this weekend, the question must be raised again: When will things at one of the douchiest establishments in town change?

Pictures of the three stairwell victims. | Source: Heidi Fenton, MLive
In what seems to be an ArtPrize farce, a group posted fliers that leaned in a similar direction. Instead of asking when things will change though, the fliers were much more direct, telling readers to "Boycott the B.O.B." Two different versions of the postings existed: one showed three outlines of bodies and listed the names of the three men who died; the other included several paragraphs, discussing the cost of fixing the stairwell that the three men fell down, a figure that was less than 10 percent of the settlement paid to the first bereaved family from 2009. Interestingly, the fliers had an ArtPrize voting number that had been used last year by a 96-year-old woman. She passed away in May of this year, the same month that the most recent of the stairwell victims died.

The poster with outlines, accurately calling the B.O.B. a "deathtrap" | Source: Heidi Fenton, MLive
Some residents of West Michigan were upset by the fliers, stating that visitors to the city did not need to see such things without all of the information being present (sounds like an excuse to keep the curtain pulled over our city's flaws, if you ask me). Indeed, some tourists were confused by the fliers, uncertain of what was going on, of what had happened. Even if these fliers somehow give our city a bad rap (which I doubt, considering that they're targeted at one facility and its parent company: the Gilmore Collection), I think that these details need to be heard and the B.O.B. needs to have some sort of internal review.  When there are three deaths within six months of each other, a pattern has formed, and it is likely that there is something to blame. If the Gilmore Collection fails to look into it and fails to change, things could get hairy for the B.O.B., one of the company's biggest endeavors.

Adding in the most recent death, we have three men who died at the age of 21; the other man, Kevin O'Brien, a home restoration/remodeler, was 36 when he passed away. That internal review I mentioned: It may not need to be thorough (it should be, though) but at least get some outside training for your staff.  Getting TiPS certifications for all of your workers could be extremely beneficial--if not for your clientele then for your liability. Certification programs like this could provide the wisdom to know when to cut someone off. I don't know the details of what happened each time, but alcohol was involved in most, if not all, of these deaths and such training could save a patron's life in the future.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

ArtPrize: More Than Just Art

As the last of the ArtPrize tents, easels, and pieces are packed away, the streets are swept and the dumpsters around Grand Rapids emptied; it's hard to imagine our city in the weeks prior with thousands of people bustling around.  It looks desolate compared to the previous three weeks.  To local Grand Rapidians, particularly those in the service industry downtown, it is a much-needed reprieve.  But even the most exhausted bartender cannot argue the numerous benefits ArtPrize brings to our fair city.

Walking around downtown during ArtPrize is a different experience for everyone.  People have been arguing that the art was questionable this year and only pieces with good locations got recognition, but the art was not the only thing being recognized.  Art is subjective, and kudos to anyone that had the stamina to finish a piece and enter it.  I applaud you.  
As I walked around and gazed at pieces, what caught my attention were the swarms of people lined up to get into the newly remodeled Founders Brewery or taste some of the culinary genius at SanChez.  For two weeks straight, restaurants, bars, and everything in between were full to the brim of patrons new to Grand Rapids looking for a tasty bite or a thirst-quenching beer.  

To me, the most exciting aspect of ArtPrize is the attention it draws to our budding, Midwestern home.  No competition or event draws more people to the city.  I love the fact that visitors to Grand Rapids not only get to experience such fantastic creativity through art, but also get to walk around the brand new Urban Market or taste one of our fabulous home brews.  Guests are able to see what this city is all about and where it plans to go in the future.  

ArtPrize is a chance to show off.  Yes, we were voted Beer City USA in an online poll two years in a row (2012 and 2013).  Yes, our food is unique to the Midwest and breathtakingly creative; check out Grove, an Essence Group restaurant that was named one of America’s top 100 restaurants for ‘American Cuisine’ by OpenTable in 2012 (an online reservation company).  Yes, Grand Rapids is growing, improving, and thinking creatively every day.  ArtPrize not only invites visitors to see what we have done, but where we are headed.  

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Location, Location, Location: What Really Matters During ArtPrize

Some nicknames that became popular amongst the
service industry this year: #fartprize #artprison
#shartprize | Courtesy of ArtPrize
It's over! ArtPrize! It's ended! Words cannot express how grateful so very, very many people from the service industry are to know that this week, we all might actually get two days off. Though we made money hand over fist, too few bars and restaurants were adequately staffed. But that's understandable, considering the fact that the wave of people that ArtPrize brings is merely temporary. Sure, it lasts three weeks and it can bring a server/bartender/barback to her/his emotional and physical knees--usually through a combination of customers' lofty expectations and personal frustration regarding humanity--but it ends. And we've made it. Congratulations, my sisters and brothers: We did it.

Now that I've got that off my chest, let's move onto my next rant: the holier-than-thou attitude that so many locals have regarding this competition. Let's get real for a second: Art is art. To those of you who say that ArtPrize is filled to the brim with garbage, get off your high horse. Sure, some of it is not going to be good. A lot of it is not going to be impressive, but that doesn't give you the right to scoff at the entirety of the process. First, consider what ArtPrize has done for Grand Rapids: It has put us on a global map--not just a national map, a worldly one. Seriously, people from all over the world come to see what art is displayed and, at the same time, see what our city has to offer. This is incredible and has given us a serious boost in cosmopolitan cred over the last few years.

Second, realize that ArtPrize is about art. Some artists will certainly peddle to the crowds that they think will vote and give them a victory (and $200,000 along with it) but many will do their best to make something that they believe in, something that piques the curiosity of a viewer, something that speaks through the artist and peaks into the souls of anyone who visits the piece. I found something like this at the Kendall College Federal Building: It's called Trash Mirror and I hope it stays put for a serious amount of time--screw it, I want it in this town forever. Words would not do it justice, but I'll try anyways: Basically, you stand in front of a wall of pixelated trash, each pixel possessing a motor. A camera watches you from somewhere within the piece and when you stand in front of it, your reflection is cast in the trash pixels. The motors bend the corresponding pieces of trash from up to down, creating a shadowy interpretation of your figure. It's really something to behold, just like another installation in the same building: Courtesy Hallway | Doors.

This installation is a set of nine doors that swing in both directions. The hallway measures 32 feet and visitors get to walk/run/creep/crawl through each of those feet and each of those doors to come out the other side. A friend and I went through this entry a handful of times, laughing and running and enjoying the hell out of it. Something that I didn't enjoy was that these pieces (and several others at the Federal Building) were neglected due to location. How sad it is to see the old realtors' proverb in truthful action: location, location, location. It's what matters during ArtPrize and if you look at the Top 10, it's blatantly obvious that this is the case. All of them were located within a few blocks of the Grand River (at most), with the top four showcased at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. What's up with that? Apparently a large number of ArtPrize voters didn't care to walk or bike around Grand Rapids to see some of the more far flung pieces.   And the fact that two of the Top 10 were quilts? Again, something curious is going on here: Are ArtPrize goers getting older? Are quilts hip? Are hipsters being sarcastic, making ArtPrize another one of their victims? Or are older people just finally learning how to use smartphones? Alas, it's a mystery that will have to be solved next year.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A Plea to the Powers That Be in GR: Make the Winner of 54Jeff a Reality

Alright: So I wrote about the 54Jeff competition last week and I can't help but go into it further now that I've seen the winners. I accidentally attended what I think was the reception the other night and I was stunned to get a glimpse at the visions people had for the space. Seriously, human beings are some creative son-of-a-guns when they want to be and what I saw was some astonishing stuff. Let's look at the top three entrants and you'll understand exactly what I mean.

Grand Rapids Automaton by Peter Dumbadze | Courtesy of 54Jeff
In third place, we have the Grand Rapids Automaton. Sticking with the museum concept, Peter Dumbadze from the University of Michigan had the idea of putting the archives to use in a really intricate way. Basically, a new section would be built on top of the current building, adding two floors to the museum according to the diagram. This would house the entirety of the archives and double the facility's height. In addition to this addition (heh), there would be a number of elevator shafts installed--13 to be exact--each of which is directly connected to a gallery in the museum area. Museum goers could then enter the archives area--the Automaton--and send artifacts and pieces into the museum below. With or without rhyme or reason, patrons could create a brand new museum experience every time. In my opinion, this was the most fascinating idea for the space because it brought an oddly democratic feeling to the museum concept, allowing the patrons to choose what they and others see. And by allowing things to become caddywompus--because let's face it, it's definitely going to get sloppy--it seems like there is a lot being left to chance. Dumbadze noted that the inevitable occurrence of ridiculous combinations could inspire insights and conversations that would not have otherwise happened, particularly those regarding intercultural interactions. Let's be honest: I'm probably biased toward this idea because of my degree in anthropology.

Light Beams by Doonam Back, Yann Caclin, and Hugo Pace | Courtesy of 54Jeff
In second place, we have Light Beams. Dreamt up by two architects and an intern, this French submission is a very modern redesign of the space. The beauty in it resides in its reliance on the old--the ceiling is cut like the ribs of the famous whale skeleton that used to hang in the facility, the same one that hangs in the new Grand Rapids Public Museum. With a rooftop garden, an inner amphitheater, and a genius reallocation of space with minimal addition to the facility's exterior, I have to say I was impressed. Very much so. I can imagine spending quite a bit of time at a place like this, especially if it became a well-respected venue for entertainment and community events.

Reforestation by Danielle Berwick | Courtesy of 54Jeff
First place was insanely impressive, though. Long story short, the public museum would become something I've never seen before: a pseudo-museum for tree trunks. The project, called Reforestation, was designed by Danielle Berwick from Vancouver, Canada, and I'm not quite sure that words could do it justice. Half indoor green space, half sustainable practices, half visual orgasm, the space would become one-of-a-kind. Don't worry, I know that I listed three halves; I'm just flabbergasted and this project deserves some praise beyond what I can provide within the confines of normality. Tree trunks on tree trunks on tree trunks, all hanging from the ceiling--though dead, the trunks cling to life by reclaiming the position they once held on a plot of land that is ancestral to them: before the great Chop of the Lumberjack, trees used to be everywhere. Honestly, I've never heard nor dreamt of anything like this and what Berwick has created, even if it's only a plan, is something out of this world. I want to see this happen. Desperately. It would add yet another thing to Grand Rapids that no other city has, yet another thing for us to be proud of as citizens of this wonderful town.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Unemployed in West Michigan: How to navigate the Unemployment Office

This month I became unemployed for the first time in fifteen years.  The last time I faced the job market, the internet was just becoming popular and finding a job was simply doing legwork or "pounding the pavement."  After all, the economy was roaring and it was more a matter of finding the right job rather than a job.  Today I'm becoming acquainted with a far different, very challenging job market.  And being able to skillfully navigate internet job boards beats any amount of legwork you're willing to put in.

Nonetheless, my first responsibility was to file for an unemployment claim.  Not unlike the Secretary of State's Office, Michigan's Unemployment Insurance Agency has people take a number and wait to speak with an agency representative.  As I sat waiting, I wondered just how long the wait would be.  A twenty-something woman let me know that it would be a few hours.  That is, unless I was willing to stand in line at eight in the morning.

Just as I was about to leave, a UIA worker came out and announced that first-timers could apply online rather than wait. She also apologized to everyone there, announcing that the state had cut four hundred  positions at the state's UIA within the past year.  Apparently it is in the midst of further automating the unemployment process.

Which is a grand idea!  Except that most of the people waiting to talk to a UIA worker had special circumstances (i.e., conflict with disability payments).  The UIA workers I did observe worked diligently to make sure the process worked for those in need, but just being unfamiliar with a new and bureaucratic system can make you feel like you need help too.

Getting unemployment is not typically a monumental ordeal, but you must follow the process carefully (including answering phone questions on a specific day and time).  And the UIA has a reputation for frequently changing its claims process.  Next week, applicants will have to answer a variety of different phone questions through MARVIN (Michigan's Automated Response Voice Interactive Network).  Government agencies have a real affinity for acronyms, don't they?

After making the initial claim, the UIA requires applicants to apply to at least two open job positions each week while they're receiving unemployment checks - which means trudging off to the nearest Michigan Works building.

The Michigan Works staff are tasked with helping the unemployed register for employment on the Pure Michigan Talent Bank. The staff were quite helpful to me in this regard. And the site itself is rather easy to use. However, the connectivity glitches made a 20-minute task turn into an hour. And woe to the unemployed person who has no computer experience whatsoever.

In all, applying for unemployment went fairly smoothly was not the bottleneck or broken pipeline I'd feared it might be.  As with any government entity, correct procedures must be followed to avoid a mess.  Happily, I found the people working at these institutions to be very helpful.

What is your experience with unemployment in West Michigan?

--John Potter 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Arise Grand Rapids: The Revitalization of Downtown

Slowly but surely--even rapidly in some cases--Grand Rapids is transforming. Our old buildings, vacant for some time, are finding new owners with an eye for the future and tenants that are cut from the same cloth. Take the old Harris building for example: Run down for some time after its construction more than 100 years ago, I remember being intrigued by it a handful of times when I was traveling along Division Avenue. I had tried to pull open the door to see if it was unlocked (I do this pretty regularly to buildings that catch my attention) but, as usual, I had no luck. It was a few months later that I heard about something called #saturdaze. Basically, the idea behind this was to host a party. I don't know if it was the first time #saturdaze did this, but they somehow managed to land access to the Harris building. I marked my mental calendar, impatiently awaiting the first time I would get to enter this old gem.

Ah, the Harris building | Photo courtesy of theharrisbuilding.com
The party was killer. So was the party after that. There may have been a third and a fourth fiesta after these, but soon the streak would end and the building would get a new owner. It's safe to say that I was sad to see the venue go as it kind of made these parties what they were: grungy yet mystical. Case in point: My friends and I would wake up the next morning with the blackest of boogers, having danced in a space that wasn't put to use for years. We soon realized it was all of the dust that had been kicked up; those little particles had plastered themselves to the insides of our nostrils while the feet of strangers shuffled around us--kind of disgusting but kind of alluring, right? Though tragic, the death of the relationship between #saturdaze and the Harris building was beautiful because it brought a renewed attention to the Harris building and now, with its new owner, it has been revitalized. A locally-owned organic pasta company called The Local Epicurean moved from its Eastown location into the first floor of the building as soon as it could--and other retailers are expected. Future plans include residential lofts, restaurants, community event space (which means #saturdaze might be back!), and work studios. For the next handful of weeks, the building is even an ArtPrize venue (I guess this shouldn't be too surprising). If everything goes as planned, the Harris building could become a model for the restoration of other buildings in the city.

Another building that is getting a lot of attention is the old Grand Rapids Public Museum. After opening in 1940, the museum moved to its new location in 1994. The building went mostly unused--to the public, anyways--for 16 years. It was then that a nonprofit arts group known as SiTE:LAB began collaborating with the museum to make use of it as a space for ArtPrize. Many citizens enjoyed what SiTE:LAB did and began wondering what the space could be used for the rest of the year, thinking that there had to be something that could occupy the 30,000-square-foot spot for more than just three weeks out of the year. Through these notions, a competition called 54 Jeff was conceived and dozens of entries were submitted for the building's revival. A board of expert jurors, focused mostly on art and architecture, are expected to reveal the competition's winning idea later this month and I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't excited.

Anyone traveling on the S-Curve on any given day will see cranes, scaffolding, and insulation going up on buildings like wrapping paper.  Clearly there are big plans for Grand Rapids' old formerly industrial parts.  Cleaning and refurbishing them is something all of us can be happy about.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Let the (Food Truck) Revolution Commence!

With ArtPrize just a single day away, the city is stirring. Art is popping up left and right, kind of like weeds--if weeds were expressive, aesthetic, and created by human beings. Grand Rapids is in a liminal period, biding its time; it's in a cocoon and the city is ready to break through, it's ready to blow the minds of Michiganders, Americans, and citizens of the world alike.

But even its own citizens may be surprised to hear a decision that was recently passed down by the city. Remember that huge conflict surrounding food trucks that happened last year? I do. It was the brick-and-mortar restaurants versus the food truck vendors, with every hungry Grand Rapidian caught in-between, salivating over what could be. Many of us had eaten from the Silver Spork (RIP) or What the Truck outside of the Fulton Street Farmers Market at that point (and have since), but this just wasn't enough for vendors and patrons--both parties wanted to see food trucks in spots scattered around our ever-coveted downtown.

Upon hearing this, some restaurant owners began shaking in their boots--they were scared that a quick-and-dirty option like ye olde food truck would eat into brick-and-mortar profits. And they're probably right: If I'm in a hurry and I can get something fast--and it's good--that's what I'm going to do, almost every time. This means that the business-types who work downtown would probably head to a food truck instead of sitting down at Cinco de Mayo or Bull's Head Tavern, at Donk's (formerly Taco Boy) or Tre Cugini. By the end of the Great Food Truck Conflict of 2012, it was the frightened restaurateurs who had won, not the food truckers, despite the single concession given by the city: Food trucks could now set-up shop on private property. On paper, this may have seemed like a victory for food trucks, but I think it was a ruling that made citizens think that food trucks were allowed. In reality, it was a decision that was in-line with the worried restaurant owners. Few food trucks took advantage of this change, proving that it perpetuated the status quo.

Could the Silver Spork still be alive if the city made this
call sooner? | Photo courtesy of the Silver Spork
Flash forward to about a week ago: That was when the city decided that it will allow two food trucks outside of the Grand Rapids Art Museum for 200 days per year. This means that some of the aforementioned businesses really will have something to worry about. Instead of complaining about it and trying to fight the ruling, the efforts of fearful owners should be used toward innovation--revamping their menu, opening up new options, and exploring unknown territories to catch the eyes, ears, and taste buds of those seeking a place to fend off hunger in the future.  They might take a cue from GR breweries and reduce restaurant waste or go organic.  An article from WZZM 13 said that the GRAM will be allowed to begin its life as a food truck station after ArtPrize is over, since the trucks are allowed to be around during special events like one of the world's largest art competitions. I for one can't wait for this, since it could easily make our already-great food scene into something even better.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Hunger Action Week: Views of hunger in West Michigan by those who serve the hungry

Since it is Hunger Action Week in West Michigan, and other people seem interested in having a conversation on hunger, I decided to talk to a few people who work directly with the people we are talking about.  The central question I asked was, "What do you think is most important to know about food insecurity in Grand Rapids and West Michigan?"

Because I don't think most people who aren't food insecure think about people who are food insecure except at certain times of the year - Thanksgiving, Christmas, Lent, during food drives - I wanted to examine more general attitudes about those who eat with help from SNAP and food pantries.  I talked to Marge at Degage Food Pantry, and she said there was a shortage, not just of fresh nutritional food, but of food education.  That lots of people who are food insecure eat terribly unhealthy food without really knowing the alternatives or even realizing how bad it is for them.  But talking about this with her, we both came to the conclusion that was true of many, if not most, people, not just those who do not have enough to buy groceries.  There's a whole generation of kids growing up now drinking pop instead of milk or even water.  Soda is not just nutritionally empty, it's actively bad for you and linked to obesity and even behavioral problems in kids.  Children and young people often have no concept of what constitutes real food, in the sense that it comes from plants and animals, is cooked or minimally processed and consumed soon after together with other people at a table or in another communal setting.  Most kids do regularly eat foods that contains a scary list of chemicals rather than simple ingredients like milk, eggs, flour, and salt.  Many kids in Forest Hills or Rockford or Jenison are malnourished as well.

So in this sense the food insecure are just like the rest of us, eating crap food because it's cheap, because it's tasty, because it's been deliberately, chemically modified to be addictive, because it's been marketed to us continuously since childhood.

I also talked to Angie Kelley at Westminster Food Pantry.  She agreed that food insecure people often buy the worst food because it's cheap.  She also wanted to stress that while a common perception is that people who use food pantries are scamming the system, most people in fact would prefer not to use food pantries and for them it's a matter of being able to afford food OR some other necessary thing like rent or medicine.  No one is building a dream house by going to food pantries instead of Meijer.  Chances are, they've also sidelined items like getting kids braces or paying the phone bill.  It's embarrassing to many people to ask for help; but as a community (and a nation) we are struggling with unemployment and chronic underemployment at the same time food and energy costs are quickly rising.  Many people have themselves donated to food pantries and then found themselves using them in a time of need.

Angie wanted to mention the shortage of fresh produce (something Marge also mentioned).  There isn't a shortage of food, per se, but there is a shortage of healthy food.  With the opening of the Downtown Market, Degage has a new source of fresh produce as the market is donating its excess to them, but most food pantries do not have it to offer, and most people aren't familiar with ways to cook healthy meals from food pantry staples.  Angie said she would love it if there was a centrally located produce distribution center available either to the public directly or to food pantries to supply them.  She also thought it would be wonderful if the various food insecurity agencies would work more collaboratively so that all populations of the hungry could be served better.  As a librarian, further organization always sounds like a good idea to me.
Another tip I took away: Do not donate expired food to food drives or pantries.  It will be discarded.  It's past the recommended date of use for anyone.  Apparently people do this all the time, perhaps not knowing it will be thrown out.

I'd love to hear your further ideas about food and hunger in West Michigan.  Please leave them in the comments!

Monday, September 9, 2013

Get a Cab, Grand Rapids

We all know that drinking and driving is a dangerous habit. And in a city like ours where the beer flows both strong and deliciously (as does the liquor and wine), I would think that fewer people would be willing to get behind the wheel after emptying their glasses for the night. But from what I've seen, cab usage is rather minimal. Walking isn't rather common either, at least not downtown. People who live in Grand Rapids proper need to understand that our city is not that large, that you can easily walk, ride, or bicycle Grand Rapids both to and from any establishments within the Heartside neighborhood. Even in the winter, your feet are a viable option that can get you where you need to go. If you're feeling cold, quit complaining and take advantage of the Skywalk that runs from DeVos Place to Van Andel Arena--trust me, it'll provide at least some respite from the cold.

But back to the topic at hand: nixing these options when alcohol has been consumed. C'mon people! It might be a little more time-consuming to hoof it back home if you live in a nearby neighborhood like Heritage Hill, East Hills, Eastown, anywhere west of the Grand River, or in GVSU housing but at least you're not putting yourself, your friends, and any other drivers, bikers, or pedestrians at risk. Still, some people would rather not walk, would rather have their vehicle with them--this is when the option of a designated driver becomes an obvious matter. But let's be honest: Few friends want to be left out of the libation celebration, especially if the friends that are drinking are a) extremely fun or b) extremely annoying when they've had a few.

Victorious cab driver is victorious (or angry?). | Source: CNN
Since no one wants to be the DD, it looks like we've come back to cabs and their lacking usage in Grand Rapids. Excluding Ionia Avenue on the weekends, cabs are a rare sight. I imagine that trolling for fares in areas that have an attraction--e.g. Ionia and its many bars on the weekend--is the only legitimate way for a cabbie to get a decent night's pay. So, some people are definitely taking advantage of the cabs when they should be, but this is only a fraction of the market. Too many people are still getting behind the wheel for a number of reasons: they might think that a cab is too expensive or they could be too proud to admit that they are drunk. Get over it! The cost of a DUI in addition to the damage that could be done to a number of parties should be enough to convince both your wallet and your ego to think again about taxis.

If I want to get a taxi, I have to call one of the handful of companies in the city: Yellow Cab, Metro Cab, and Calder City Taxi are my usual choices. Just the other night, I had one of the best cab rides of my life; that's saying something, considering I've belted Celine Dion with my friends and a driver on one occasion. This recent driver though, he didn't sing. Instead, he said that McFadden's was terrible (he was preaching to the choir) and then we proceeded to talk about George Carlin, Noam Chomsky, linguistics, and Mensa--the world's oldest high IQ society. He was a funny man named Scott and he gave me his card. Looks like I'll be calling him whenever I need a ride now because he saved me and my friends from a drunken stumble home.