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.