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.