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?