Monday, July 29, 2013

What's the Value of ArtPrize?

With ArtPrize less than two months away, the city is getting a makeover. Construction seems to be pervasive, blocking Cherry from being used and making my bike rides down the hill on Fulton a little more dangerous with cones and drivers who already don't know how to interact with two-wheeled vehicles. I don't want to admit it, but a lot of that construction is necessary, especially if we want to look good to the world during our annual flagship event.

That's right, Grand Rapids needs to put on its pretty face for the world. With artists from 45 states and 47 nations submitting their works for the judgment of whomever can download a smartphone app, eyes from everywhere will be watching. But, more importantly, did you know that Time named ArtPrize one of the five events that you shouldn't miss in 2013? No, this is not just the five events in Michigan that you shouldn't miss. It's not even the five events in the U.S. that you shouldn't miss. It's accounting for the entire world. Can you believe that? I mean, it's an incredible event--truly--but is it really one of the top five festivities in the world?
The prize money in pie-chart form, courtesy of

Thinking about past incarnations of the event, I'd say no. It's inspiring and emotional and aesthetically pleasing and democratic (supposedly), but is it one of the most monumental things I've participated in? Again, I'd say no. I feel like riding a bike down any hill in Grand  Rapids is more exhilarating than ArtPrize. But the fact of the matter is that tourists don't come into a secondary city to ride a bike down a hill. They will, on the other hand, come for art--and they do. In droves. According to estimates, approximately 400,000 people descended on Grand Rapids during the two-and-a-half weeks of ArtPrize last year. My friends and I lovingly call these people "shoobies"--yes, this is a nostalgic nod to a cartoon from our childhood. If you know it, you know it; if you don't, you don't.

When the shoobies arrive, the sidewalks swell with bodies. Traffic becomes a nightmare and driving directly through downtown is suddenly a mistake only oblivious fools make. Areas of the city that are rarely touched are transformed into venues, attracting citizens of the world to areas that citizens of the city have never been to. But even we like to go downtown during the event and walk around. Our families come into town to see this stuff, to guess what will win the grand prize this year. Last year, I got it right with Elephants, a stunning pencil-drawing by Adonna Khare. The surreal piece was something to behold, especially since the artist was working on it in real time, in front of the swarms that had piled into the Grand Rapids Art Museum on whatever day of the week it was.

…You know what's funny? I think I've just convinced myself of the value of ArtPrize. So what if our streets are full? Isn't that the way they're supposed to be, instead of having gas-guzzling monsters belching on the streets? So what if it's hard to get into a restaurant that you love? Don't you want people to love the food that you already have had the pleasure (time and time again) of indulging in? The event brings people, from here and from around the world, into areas of the city that are rarely used. Isn't that something to be proud of, to marvel at? ArtPrize may be about art, first and foremost, but I think it's also--perhaps accidentally--about putting Grand Rapids on the map. I mean, Time mentioned something that happens in our city as an occasion that people all over the world should attend--what? If nothing else, we should be impressed with ourselves.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Growing Grand Rapids

The past couple of weeks, a few conversations have really stuck with me. The most recent conversation left my jaw on the floor.

I was in Los Angeles, where my friend had moved in January to join the "real world." He talked about how another one of our high school friends is attempting to get a job in California as well, in an effort "to get out of Grand Rapids."

Because Grand Rapids is just that bad, isn't it? Such much so you have to go to the dirty streets and filthy air of Los Angeles and join the crowded workforce that crams the huge freeways every morning, afternoon and night. It's almost as though they don't believe in Grand Rapids, or what it has to offer in terms of potential.

Back at the end of high school, not too long ago for me, I felt the same way. Grand Rapids was a small city,  if I were to get a job out of college in a bigger and better place, then I'd go. But I've also always held a soft spot in my heart for G.R. And every time I came back from college, be it a weekend or school break, I found myself noticing something else getting better.

So I decided I needed to come back to Grand Rapids. I got a job — two actually. One of which is bartending at the Mitten Brewing Co. Being part of the thriving craft beer scene has led me to many observations about Grand Rapids, as well as getting to know a lot of key people in the city. (That beer scene isn't going anywhere, either, but I'll save that for another time.)

Recently Mayor George Heartwell noted that the beer industry is great for the city, not only because it spurs creativity and brings in money, but it draws in a young, "hip" population. That population is key to driving a city's growth. The amount of potential Grand Rapids holds is unlimited, and the more intelligent and influential the young people who move downtown, the better the city will get.

A few weeks ago, I was chatting with a guy from the economic development group, The Right Place. His whole job is to look at Grand Rapids and where it's headed. He said Grand Rapids is right about where Portland, Oregon, Brooklyn and Austin, Texas, were about 20 to 25 years ago. Where are they now? Hip, creative, thriving cities. The thing is, according to him, Grand Rapids is already ahead of those cities in some aspects.

While the majority of Grand Rapids was off on long weekend camping and beach trips during the Fourth of July, I was stuck bartending. The night was incredibly slow, dominated by beer tourists. The night's costumers included an amazing couple from Fort Wayne, Indiana. They were your classic mid-40s DINKS — Double Income No Kids. They both work in an aerospace factory, and made fairly good money, and although they weren't college educated, they were smart, both street and book. They also were well traveled and shared my love for Dave Grohl.

But they were amazed at Grand Rapids. (This also was just a few hours after a pair of guys from Columbus were in and were amazed a "small town" like Grand Rapids was so young, big and thriving.)  I spent a good three hours focused on the Fort Wayne couple. We chatted about everything, from the industries including the big companies, manufacturing, beer and the Medical Mile. They said they would take the Grand Rapids area over many others, because of the climate and the great people and beer.

They were confused when I told them not many of my high school classmates are left in the city. They couldn't understand why someone wouldn't want to come back and be apart of something bigger and help a city grow and be influential. Cities don't become amazing, bigger and better without the help of smart, young, ambitious people.

Then again, some people would rather disappear and be part of a bigger ocean of people.

Monday, July 22, 2013

How Long Can Our Beer City Bubble Last?

Those of you who know me will not be shocked to see that I'm writing about Michigan beer. My love for the liquid from our peninsular state is blatantly apparent, and it doesn't hurt that I've accidentally surrounded myself with people who are extremely agreeable with me on the topic. Known to some (including myself) as the Great Beer State, Michigan has the fifth-highest number of breweries in the nation at 122, according to a 2012 report from the Brewers Association. Homing in on Grand Rapids and West Michigan, we find a handful of them. A brewery tour crafted by Experience Grand Rapids lists 21 establishments, 15 of which are located in Greater Grand Rapids.

Heavyweights like Founders and Bell's easily made the cut onto this tour, as did Brewery Vivant, a particularly propinquitous location to my home that is known for sustainability and Belgian beer, not to mention the fact that it's situated in a repurposed funeral home. Lesser known brewers like Pike 51, White Flame, Waldorff, Harmony and Jaden James were included as well. Notably absent is Perrin Brewing, but that could be due to the operation's relative youth. It's likely that several others didn't make the list, as well.

Keeping track of these breweries has not been as hard as one might think, probably because the whole industry is dear to my heart. Still, I cannot say that I've been to all of the breweries that Grand Rapids has to offer, let alone all of those that I listed. And thinking about the sheer number in our city--let alone West Michigan and the entire state--got me wondering just how long our brewing bubble can last. The number of new companies each year seems to go up little by little (I'm looking at you, Perrin), with some breweries like Founders expanding on what seems to be an annual basis. National data reported by the Brewers Association show that there is still serious growth, year after year with 13 percent by volume in 2011 and 15 percent in 2012.

But growth can only continue for so long. As of 2012, the U.S. had the highest total number of breweries (2,403) since the 1880s. More than 400 breweries (counting both brewpubs and
Excluding Prohibition, the mid-to-late 1970s saw the lowest
number of breweries in the nation, bar none. (Infographic
courtesy of the Brewers Association)
microbreweries) opened in 2012 while 43 closed their doors. Though the closings account for about 10.5 percent of the openings, few people seem to be worried that their dreams of opening a brewery or working as a brewer are endangered. The burst of this delicious, carbonated bubble likely won't happen for awhile, but it should be noted that a saturated market often leads to the weeding of the weak.

So with a swollen craft brewery sector, Grand Rapids moves forward as Beer City USA for the second year in a row. But what does that title even mean anyhow, when it seems that we may have been the only city to circulate a pseudo-political campaign for the win? You saw all of those coasters, right? Grand Rapids had more than half of the total votes cast during the poll with 27,005 votes out of approximately 50,000. Coming in second place, Kalamazoo had 11,150 votes, just above Asheville (who tied with us last year for the title) with 10,075 votes. Maybe our beer is just that good--who knows? But be sure to notice that the top two cities are from Michigan… Could this be a sign that our state is too deeply in love with its own beer? Let's hope not because it's apparently contributing more than $133 million to our state's economy, according to the Michigan Brewers Guild, and it's certainly having a major impact on tourism in Grand Rapids and other cities throughout the state.

--Matt Knaack lives in Grand Rapids and occasionally blogs for ZZP.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Our Motto Could Move Mountains... If Anyone in the City Knew It

Do you know what the motto of Grand Rapids is? Many residents--probably the majority--do not. Even some of the hipsters who live in Eastown and the oh-so-in-touch urbanites of Heartside are unaware of it. In my eyes, those that do not know are missing out on a very motivational piece of our fair city's history--I'm writing now to change that. The motto of Grand Rapids is two, short words: "Motu Viget." The Latin phrase is succinct and (maybe) a little hard to pronounce, but its translation--"strength in activity"--is much deeper than all of that, leaving a chasm of room for interpretation behind.

Some people will know this phrase because it is the given name of a much beloved sculpture that sits not in Calder Plaza, but just behind it, next to the Gerald R. Ford Federal Building. The installation has been in that spot on the federal building's lawn for more than 35 years and I'd be willing to wager that visitors are seen on an almost daily basis (excluding the winter months) from the windows of city hall. This is because the sculpture, designed by Mark di Suvero, is a functional piece: Residents of the city may also know it as the Giant Tire Swing.
Photo courtesy of Brandon Bartoszek, Flickr
After the piece was named and dedicated, many people were confused by the title. Just like today, citizens had forgotten their own endearing history and the decisions of the past that led them (and us) to the present. According to an anecdote from an arts activist here in the city, di Suvero pointed this out, telling those that questioned him about the name that it was actually the city's slogan; that it was theirs and not his. During the hustle and bustle of daily life, the concerns that plague us as individuals constrict our minds and bodies, making us quick to forget the things we have learned and experienced, those tools that can help us build a better future and an even better present.

So, strength in activity: What can we learn from this local idiom? Some might interpret it as a physical call to arms, pushing them toward a regimen of care for the community through manual labor. Others may consider it a mental or intellectual declaration, reminding citizens to keep their minds sharp by using them as much as possible. There is, of course, a social interpretation to this that combines both aforementioned meanings. As a community, acknowledging the plights of others and working to defeat such oppositions is a great representation of socially active strength. Using the muscle that we can generate as a whole, rather than as a fragmented many, is something that is taken advantage of from time to time but should be used more often.

Groups like Friendly Corps, Creative Youth Center, the Bloom Collective, and the Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition are excellent examples of citizens working together to fortify our fair city in ways that each group believes to be necessary and resilient. By joining together and working toward something better, the individuals that make up such movements have turned themselves into shining examples of that forgotten pillar that has helped turned Grand Rapids into what it is today: Motu Viget.

--Matt Knaack lives in Grand Rapids and occasionally blogs for BGL.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Grand Rapids Community Sponsored Agriculture

West Michigan has a reputation for conservatism, but West Michigan natives have actually seen a lot of change.  One of the more interesting changes has been Grand Rapids's food transformation.  From organic produce shops to coffee shops to breweries, the food scene has diversified and intensified.  And at the farm level more options have also emerged.  One of these is Community Sponsored Agriculture (CSA).

For those unfamiliar with the CSA concept, defines it as:

Here are the basics: a farmer offers a certain number of "shares" to the public. Typically the share consists of a box of vegetables, but other farm products may be included. Interested consumers purchase a share (aka a "membership" or a "subscription") and in return receive a box (bag, basket) of seasonal produce each week throughout the farming season.
This arrangement creates several rewards for both the farmer and the consumer. In brief...
Advantages for farmers:
  • Get to spend time marketing the food early in the year, before their 16 hour days in the field begin
  • Receive payment early in the season, which helps with the farm's cash flow
  • Have an opportunity to get to know the people who eat the food they grow
Advantages for consumers:
  • Eat ultra-fresh food, with all the flavor and vitamin benefits
  • Get exposed to new vegetables and new ways of cooking
  • Usually get to visit the farm at least once a season
  • Find that kids typically favor food from "their" farm – even veggies they've never been known to eat
  • Develop a relationship with the farmer who grows their food and learn more about how food is grown
If you've ever had fresh, hyper local produce, you know it's a very different eating experience than grazing the salad bar at Big Boy's or even getting organic at the supermarket.  The sooner vegetables (or fruits) are eaten after harvesting, the more nutritious and flavorful it is.  Farmers can grow their product for taste instead of presentation or shelf life, which means you get to taste food as it should taste.

With a CSA share you also get exposure to vegetables you may never have tried, expanding your food horizons and opening your life up to new culinary experiences.  It's true that it can be a challenge to cook unfamiliar foods, but with a little time and a Google search, you could have a gourmet meal at your own home in no time.  Many families really like being forced out of their food ruts in this way.

If this sounds interesting to you, please search for their CSA listings.  Some CSAs still have room for more foodies this season.  My family has had great experiences with both Trillium Haven Farm and Eden Farm.  My son loves to see where his food is grown and do some U-pick harvesting, and my husband loves the variety of eating the CSA experience encourages.  Check out the links and make an investment in healthier living today.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Has Somebody Poisoned Our Watering Hole?

If you've ever driven north on Monroe Avenue, you've likely noticed the gorgeous, brick building located at 1430 Monroe Avenue NW but may have overlooked a historical marker in the area. These green signs seem to get ignored quite frequently, but on a bike ride some time in the past, I stopped and read this particular piece of history. According to the words on the plaque (you'll get this pun in a minute), Grand Rapids was the first city in the entire world to mix fluoride into its water supply, beginning in January 1945. The history lesson goes on, noting that our city was the subject of a ten-year study to determine if the addition of fluoride to the public water supply was healthy. In 1955, researchers concluded that there was a 65-percent decrease in the prevalence of tooth decay when compared to the control city: nearby Muskegon.

Photo courtesy of SSTEFFEK via Wikimedia Commons
Now known mostly for its architectural value, the building was once acknowledged mainly for the health benefits it supposedly provided. Opened in 1912 and expanded in 1924, the facility began treating water from Lake Michigan in 1938, likely sourcing its water from the Grand River until then, considering the plant's proximity to the river. Besides cavity-defeating fluoride, the treatment plant reportedly helped decrease the number of deaths attributed to typhoid fever from 25 per year to less than two per year. Sources conflict on the dates associated with the end of operations for the facility: One source said 1961 while another said 1992.

Regardless, the fluoridation of our water has been happening for more than six decades. There is much controversy surrounding this topic, even though it has been going on for so long. Scientific and social communities have members that fall on either side of the fence, either for or against the mass fluoridation of the public water supply. It's extremely interesting to realize that the debate, which is still raging, basically began here in Grand Rapids.

Though fluoridation is prevalent here in America, other English-speaking countries have stopped the practice. For instance, a large portion of Europe has ceased fluoridating its water and now, it's banned by the European Union as a violation of human rights. Sweden stopped doing it in 1971; the Netherlands quit in 1976; Finland: 1993. Even the Soviet Union stopped it in 1990, potentially debunking the conspiracy theories that were born during and after the Red Scare, suggesting that fluoridation was a plot crafted by the communists to take over the U.S. in some subversive manner.

You might ask, "Why would those countries stop? What makes fluoridation a human rights violation?" According to advocates against the practice, there are health issues that can be caused by fluoridation. Environmental issues can occur as well. Others oppose fluoridation because it is a form of mass medication, giving the same dosage to individuals in varying stages of life with varying health situations, something that many physicians are opposed to nowadays. Some economically-minded individuals believe that the reported benefits are not worth the cost incurred by the public. Then there is the understandable position of individuals simply wanting a choice when it comes to putting fluoride into their bodies. According to some who are vehemently opposed, at least one type of fluoride that is largely used in the process has never been approved as a medicine nor submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for consideration. This allows such opponents to allege that community water fluoridation is an illegal form of medical research and it may be one of the longest ongoing illegal research studies in the world.

--Matt Knaack lives in Grand Rapids and occasionally blogs for Procare.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The City Is Giving Us the Roundabout.

Mlive reported last week that the City of Grand Rapids is planning to repave Monroe and rework it to include four (4) roundabouts and a cycle track between Leonard and North Park.

Four roundabouts!  That's a lot of roundabouts.  Personally, I'm ambivalent about the cycle track.  I support cycling and other more sustainable methods of transportation and understand that these new cycle tracks may be safer for cyclists, but that whole stretch is already paved for cycling in Riverside Park and isn't in any way congested most of the time.  And how many commuting cyclists are there in Grand Rapids?  I'm not sure about this "If you build it, they will come" approach of the city's.  I'd prefer there to be significant demand before throwing money at a project like this.

As it is, installing these four new roundabouts more or less assures that some of Monroe's traffic will reroute to Coit - an outcome I am personally against as I live on Coit.  Some years ago, they added four-way yield circles up and down Oakwood which re-routed some significant traffic to Coit.  It looks like if you want to go North/South in Creston, you'll have to use either Coit or Plainfield after this change, and Coit is in desperate need of repair in many spots already.  The city did an overhaul of the road from Ann to Sweet this year to match the repair/sewer updating they did last year in Creston, but that's not the most trafficked part of Coit.  If it pushes all the additional traffic from Monroe, I'm going to have to save up for more car repairs.