Monday, August 26, 2013

Grand Rapids is Making a Push for Public Transportation

Most great cities have a comprehensive public transit system. New York City has its iconic subways, Chicago has its color-coded lines, and Washington, D.C. has the Metro. In these cities, owning and driving a car is typically more of a hassle than it's worth. This isn't the case in most Michigan cities though and many have blamed the motor vehicle industry for this. But in past years, the Motor City has shifted its focus from building cars and trucks and has begun putting its eggs into different baskets. Because of this, Grand Rapids may be able to craft a convenient and well-used public transit system, and it seems that the city is trying to do just that.

Officials expect that the Silver Line will be completed by the end of next summer. According to the Rapid's website, service for the Division Avenue Bus Rapid Transit--another name for the Silver Line--will begin in August 2014. There will be more than 30 stops in three cities: Grand Rapids, Kentwood, and Wyoming. Residents in each city will be able to make use of the BRT line, allowing them to leave the car at home when they commute to work. This could lessen the parking problem that has plagued the downtown area for years and will certainly save money for individuals who have a single-occupant commute. In addition, this option will be more environmentally friendly.

A BRT system is different from the traditional bus system in many ways, but the one detail that is most important is that there is often a dedicated lane for the bus. This means that during peak traffic hours, the bus system will usually have an open lane, allowing its expected arrival and departure times to remain both constant and reliable. There are many successful BRT systems throughout the U.S. as well as many more throughout the world. For instance, MetroBus--the BRT system in Istanbul--is reportedly used by 800,000 people each weekday on a 45-stop route that covers a 50-kilometer stretch.

This is the planned route for the Silver Line,
also known as the Division Avenue Bus
Rapid Transit. | Courtesy of the Rapid
Many people say that the success of a BRT system relies on the flexibility that is inherent in the idea.
BRT combines the best of a traditional bus system with the efficiency of a rail system. The infrastructure and subsequent upkeep for a BRT system is much cheaper than a rail system, and this is quite advantageous, especially for a city the size of GR.

But the BRT system is still a year away. In July, city officials including city planning director Suzanne Schulz and director of the Downtown Development Authority Kristopher Larson were hoping to shift a considerable portion of annual revenue from six of the city's parking lots to the DDA so that the funds can be used to design and implement a plan to get more people to walk, bike, carpool, or bus to their downtown workplaces. The details are still hazy but it seems that the idea is to help employers create programs that will influence their employees into using more sustainable forms of transportation. Ideas include a monthly payment of $60 to employees who do not drive to work, discounts on bulk purchases of bus passes, and bike-to-work days. Such programs would certainly contribute to the success of the Silver Line and turn Grand Rapids into a better city than it already is.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Which is the best farmers market in Grand Rapids?

Are you looking forward to the grand opening of the indoor part of the new Downtown Market?  So am I!  I love farmers markets, and I've happily browsed then here in Grand Rapids, all over Michigan and in Eastern Europe.  It's a serendipitous experience, going to a farmer's market - you never know what you will find on any given day.  It looks like the new indoor market is going to be a foodie's dream too with a couple dozen artisan vendors - several of them have plied their trades via the West Michigan Coop for the last several years - food demonstrations, a kids' kitchen, and rooftop gardens, among other attractions.  Very exciting!  I love watching West Michigan's foodshed grow and develop.

But, to be honest, I think the Grand Opening on September 2 is going to be a bit of a crush, and I don't love crowds, so I'm planning to wait until things die down a bit before exploring.  Until then, and even after, I'm happy to visit the old/new Fulton Street Farmer's Market to get my fresh, local fruits and veggies and my free range meats as well.  I've become familiar with it over the years as I've eased myself and my family off the Standard American Diet, cooking more and with better, healthier ingredients.  I picked up my CSA farm share there for several years.  I was thrilled to see it get upgraded into a larger and more attractive facility last year.  And today I paid it a little visit just for the fun of it.

As I was making my way towards S&S Lamb to check out this month's Meat Box, a waft of lavender distracted me.  Well, not really - I couldn't actually smell the lavender until I got closer; it was the little canning jars that really caught my attention. These were filled with homemade cleanser, scented with lavender oil.  As I had just made my own cleanser with borax, baking soda, and powdered clementine peels, I stopped to ask the owner, Theresa Hein, about the products available at The Old White House. Theresa sells natural lavender laundry and cleaning provisions, and all of it was so fresh and clean and pretty, I wanted to buy at least one of everything - even though already make my own laundry soap, cleanser, and have a bottle of lavender essential oil in my herbal supplies.  Theresa is very committed to living greener, eating healthier, and exploring less chemical/pharmaceutical medicinal traditions, which explains her attraction to lavender.  Lavender oil is antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, healing and stress relieving, so it's a great oil to use in a so many ways.  I add it to many of the healing salves I make for people I know, and people always comment on how good it smells.

I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation I had with Theresa, and it underscored why I love going to the farmer's market so much - I get to talk with people who have the same interests I have and are on many of the same paths I'm traveling myself toward healthier living.  I enjoy being around other people who can (and do!) wax eloquent about garlic or free range chickens.  It's good to know that I can find kindred spirits just a short drive away to the farmer's market.  Try it for yourself one of these Saturdays while the weather is still beautiful and the produce is prolific.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Grand Rapids Original Swing Society Changing Venue Due to Street Violence

The Swing Dances at Rosa Parks Circle have gotten to be very popular this summer, drawing thousands, mostly young people, downtown to join in the fun.  Unfortunately, along with the kids interested in dancing, there are other people coming who enjoy causing trouble and making things difficult for everyone.

Here are people enjoying swing dancing in Grand Rapids on a less chaotic occasion:

Cool, huh?  A great way to enjoy the American cultural tradition of Swing and an opportunity to get aerobic exercise, something we could all use more of.  Hats off to Steve Zaagman, the founder and organizer of Grand Rapids Original Swing Society.

However, on August 13th, the crowd grew to about 1,000 people and most of them had not come to dance. According to the WZZM comments:

  • "fringe crowds were looking for trouble and dangerous." 
  • "One of the boys involved in a one sided altercation was jumped by 10-20 gang members. He had no gang affiliation but apparently offended one of the gang members by telling him to watch out because he walked into him on a sidewalk prior to the incident." 
  • "My friends child was crushed in the stampede (she is fine)...someone stabbed a police officer is what she was told."
Grand Rapids police arrested at least ten people in connection with the violence, but it's unclear from media accounts who exactly is causing the trouble.  It's not the dancers.  Prior to this year, there hasn't been trouble at these events, but small fights have broken out at previous dances this summer, and Zaagman hired security to handle them.  The Grand Rapids Police Department also assigned special response forces to the events.

Last night The Grand Rapids Original Swing Society held their event indoors at the Masonic Center on Fulton to avoid similar problems which relieved a lot of people who had been worried Swing might disappear.  It looks like for now, dances will be held at other indoor venues, but Zaagman says he is looking to bring them back for two nights during ArtPrize.  It's disappointing these events will be held indoors because part of their appeal is being downtown and outside during the seasons of Michigan that are pleasant.  These outdoor events also provide an introduction to Swing to people who are unaware of the pastime or the organization.  

It's also distressing to think that Grand Rapids may be experiencing the national trend of wildings, black-on-white violence, flash mobs, and other group behavior.  "Youth" or "young people" are not very descriptive terms, news media, and while I understand that you do not want (nor do I) to further inflame racial tension, already high after the Trayvon Martin case, if we don't clearly identify the problem, we cannot try to solve it.  So who were the people at Rosa Parks Circle causing the problem?  And how can we make sure they know they cannot do this?  Because moving law abiding, fun having people indoors is not the answer.  People all over the city want to use the beautiful public and green space we have for group gatherings, parties, reunions, and weddings in Grand Rapids without being molested or bullied by thugs, white, black or green.  Let's solve the problem here, not sweep it under the rug or look the other way.  This is a great city on the upswing.  How about we keep it that way?

Monday, August 19, 2013

Watching a Film at Water's Edge: Movies in Ah-Nab-Awen Park

When I heard that the citizens of Grand Rapids would get to watch movies in Ah-Nab-Awen Park, I got excited. I was already elated about the uses that the green space outside of the Gerald R. Ford Museum had recently been apart of, namely the visit from New Belgium Brewing Company during its Clips Beer & Film Tour in June. I saw something during that early summer night that I hadn't witnessed yet downtown: a relaxed outdoor atmosphere with friends and families--families with kids in strollers to kids in braces--enjoying a beer in a part of the city that I always saw as underutilized.

And then, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. announced its Movies in the Park series. Apparently, the Downtown Development Authority approved $55,000 for the purchase of the necessary goods--projection equipment, an inflatable screen, and a trailer for transport--after a survey indicated that the people of GR wanted outdoor films. The first film screening was earlier this month--on August 2--when "The Princess Bride" was shown. Though I didn't go to the inaugural event, I'm sure it was successful, considering the turnout for the second film screening on August 16. I went to this one and though I wasn't there for the beginning or the end of the movie, I did get to experience one unexpected side effect of watching a movie in the park: viewers with skewed expectations.

It's one thing when you're watching "Back to the Future" in a movie theater (or some other movie, considering "Back to the Future" was originally in theaters during the 1980s) and you tell people around you to quiet down, but when you're in a public park at a viewing with hundreds of people in attendance, you should expect a little background noise. So, to the person who sat in front of me and made your hand look like it was talking and then proceeded to flip me and my friends the bird, we weren't nearly as disruptive as you were acting. If you wanted to hear better, you should have gotten there earlier to get a seat closer to the action--we were all the way in the back! And, though we were talking, I think you were the rude one. You didn't even have the courtesy to turn around when you showed your vulgar side--if you really want something to happen, you shouldn't have been so passive aggressive.

[Insert witty reference regarding 88 mph here] | Photo
courtesy of Downtown Grand Rapids Inc.
Besides that, the event seemed to be a victory for urbanites wanting to see some green space being used both efficiently and appropriately. I mean, there was a real DeLorean on the premises! I got to watch a movie outside with my friends! Hundreds of people showed up! Risking the judgment of our readership, I was both stunned and ready to take advantage of the fact that I could have a couple of beers in the park. What could be better than that? The next Movie in the Park is "Anchorman" on August 23 so mark your calendars: that's this Friday. So if you're interested in having a few drinks on public property while you enjoy a movie that most people find hilarious, keep the event in mind. And cross your fingers that you don't sit near someone who has inflated expectations about when and where movie courtesy is required.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Help Grand Rapids fight poverty

A few days ago the City of Grand Rapids tweeted this:

It caught my eye.  Currently there's a lot of interest, a real positive vibe - if you will - floating around the city because of all the investment in it by citizens big and small.  Unlike many cities in Michigan, you feel like Grand Rapids is going somewhere, has a real future.  As a longtime resident of the city, I would like that to be true.  I certainly do not want to go back to the days when downtown was empty and dilapidated.  It was like that when I graduated high school.  

Why was it like that?  There wasn't a sudden influx of indigents, after all.  Well, one reason was that older generation Grand Rapidians had a love affair with the suburbs in the sixties and seventies.  The country had a little prosperity bump after World War II, and people were flush - and sick of the constraints of cities.  They wanted a house with a yard. They wanted to try something new.  They wanted a little anonymity and privacy.  So they built to the north in Northview.  They built to the south in Wyoming.  They pushed into Comstock Park and Kentwood.  

Then the schools integrated and people's kids were being bused all over the city in a grand social experiment, and parents really didn't care for the fact that they couldn't pop into their kids' schools with a forgotten lunch or pair of gym shoes.  They didn't like it that they had no control over where and with whom their kids were taught and how long they'd have to sit on a bus in the morning and the afternoon, and they complained about it.  And the government said, "Shut up.  We know better than you.  This is progress."  So they moved out to Rockford and Hudsonville and Forest Hills where they could have their yards and control where their kids went to school.  And Grand Rapids lost a lot of good prospective homeowners and taxpayers and law abiders and community investors, and the city suffered.  

People with options left partly because they felt the City had no concern for their desires and needs.  They also left because when the first waves rolled out, the number of law abiding citizens still in the city relative to law breakers dropped: it became less safe to live there.  And when it's no longer safe, you get out.

This happened all over the country, and it was the same story everywhere.  Cities were left gutted and crime ridden.  With declining budgets, cities had fewer options except maintaining basic services (or not).  Detroit is the poster child for devolution.  It was once a beautiful city, a vibrant city, a great city.  Now it's a shell.  Soviet Russia was nicer.  Much nicer.  I know; I've lived in both places. 

I have a great deal of interest in making sure Grand Rapids does not become another Detroit.  Or St. Louis.  Or Baltimore.  I'd like to keep the lights on and the murder rate down.  I'd prefer it if the fun pastime of burning down houses didn't catch on here.  So, what to do?

Really the only viable answer to keeping poverty rates down is to encourage more law abiding, tax paying, home owning families into the city.  Grand Rapids doesn't have the money to "fight the war on poverty" and it doesn't have the money to patrol everywhere all the time, so it needs to draw in more residents who will willingly invest their time in making community.  When criminals become a greater share of a population, you have more crime, but when they become a lesser share, you will have less.  This is because people police others better than the police do, at the street level.  People who invest in their neighborhoods - and feel the city will back them up - don't put up with crime.  They form neighborhood watches and they keep an eye out for troublemakers and report them.  They paint over graffiti, and they restore old houses.  They plant trees.  They put their kids in the schools and they volunteer in them.  You see this with gentrification.  Bakeries open and crack houses close down.  They bring in dumpsters and clear garbage and old tires out of city lots and build community gardens.  Things get safer.  Criminals don't like it when people pay attention and complain.  They move out.  

Grand Rapids Public Schools do not have a great reputation.  There are some really solid schools, but most of the kids in GRPS come from families that stay in the city because they don't feel they have other options, and the test scores and graduation rates are poor.  What the City of Grand Rapids needs to do is to lure families who like urban living (and all the amenities cities have to offer) in with schools designed for their needs.  This means more investment in schools like City High because if parents feel they have good options for schools, they will move back into the city (or not move out when their kids get to be school age).  We need to go back to having neighborhood schools.  Grand Rapids has a number of very nice, very safe neighborhoods, but parents who live their know their kids won't go to school there.  So they make other arrangements.

Kids are a sign of growth and the future.  Any organization with a lot of young faces will stick around because when kids grow up loving something (a place, an activity), they usually stick with it.  The City of Grand Rapids needs to invest in families.  Whether this manifests itself as tax breaks or neighborhood schools, parks and playgrounds or active community/neighborhood watch groups, the focus can't be on the poor, if you want the city to be less poor.  The poor will always be with you, someone famous once said.  It's great to help the poor, but city planning should focus on getting and retaining people who think long term and put their money and their sweat into the city itself.  

Monday, August 12, 2013

Got Extra Free Time? Give Volunteering a Try

When you have a job that leaves you with even less than what most would see as part-time, you might discover that you're alone a lot, doing pretty much nothing. Sure, you can zonk out on Netflix for days at a time (seems like everyone in my generation is capable of this evil), but there are certainly more valuable ways to spend your time. For two years, I've worked less than 20 hours per week. But instead of bemoaning the fall of the economy and becoming another zombie who has watched every episode of The X-Files five times, I decided I would do something else: I would volunteer.

I didn't realize it at the time, but doing this would allow me to to socialize, something I had lost when I started working from home. But there weren't just benefits in it for me; advantages abound when a person volunteers for at least three beneficiaries: the volunteer, the organization, and whomever the organization wants to help. This might mean working at a food pantry or meal program downtown--such as God's Kitchen, Mel Trotter, Westminster Pantry--or finding a foundation with goals that fit your personality. Here are some organizations that I enjoy:

Community Media Center

The Community Media Center has been in operation for more than 25 years. According to the group, it has "acquired and maintained technology, tools, media services and venues to benefit the Grand Rapids community." This organization is in charge of the Rapidian, a news outlet described as "very local" because it is a citizen-contributed new source. CMC also runs Wealthy Theatre, a venue used for many things including films, concerts, and community meetings. Volunteers can help run concessions; become a programmer for CMC's radio station, 88.1 FM WYCE; contribute to the community television station, GRTV; the list goes on and on. If you want to get in touch with this organization, head to

Well House

If media and technology do not interest you, maybe spending some of your extra time at Well House will. This organization "provides safe, affordable housing to the homeless." Unlike other shelters though, this facility does not use a blanket approach for all people who reside under its roof. Each person is treated as an individual with different issues than any one other person. By recognizing this, Well House has given many of the residents a better chance at recovering and reintegrating with the community. Volunteers can help renovate the house, work in the art studio, or assist with the urban farm. I can't end this description without commenting on how stylish this organization's website looks: It's really crisp and simple. Be sure to check it out at

Creative Youth Center

The many communities of Grand Rapids that could use your
help. (Image courtesy of the Community Research Institute)
If you would rather work with kids, the Creative Youth Center may be for you. This group hopes to better students by working on their writing skills, both in and out of school. Honestly, this is one of my favorite nonprofits in GR, largely because I love writing and each child that works with the CYC becomes a published writer--how cool! In addition to that, volunteers help provide tutoring after school in any subject that a student brings to the table. Volunteers can also help students become reporters through the Rapidian--proof that nonprofits in Grand Rapids can collaborate to provide even more benefits to the community. All of the programs are free to students of Grand Rapids Public Schools. Visit their website (also rather swanky) at

So, if you have more time on your hands than you know what to do with, consider reaching out to one of these organizations. If none of these groups interest you, why not work for your neighborhood association and help make your region of the city a better place to live? Use this website to figure out the contact information for your local association.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

New L. William Seidman Center, a complex creation

If you've driven the S-curve in the last 5 years, you've seen some change in the first bend of that S - an old building was demolished a few years ago, and the new $40M GVSU Seidman Center, has arisen from that rubble.  The newly finished Seidman Center now houses the entire Seidman College of Business and is a very attractive building inside and out.  According to the Grand Rapids Business Journal:

"The $40 million, 127,643-square-foot center is GVSU’s 16th LEED-certified building, said Bob Brown, project manager. Brown is expecting a silver rating, attributed to the building’s cost efficient and energy saving highlights, such as LED screens and a green roof.

"The four-story center will house the Small Business and Technology Development Center, as well as the Van Andel Global Trade Center, the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and the Center for Leadership and Innovation.

"The 3,000-plus business students in GVSU’s program will enjoy a state-of-the-art financial marketing trade room and cluster classrooms designed for team building. The new building is named after the founding chair of GVSU’s Board of Trustees and former FDIC chair."

Custer did the interior furnishing, which is stunning.

The Seidman Center did not come about without some controversy, however.  The building it replaced, the old A&P warehouse, was owned by Michael DeVries, President of development firm, Ed DeVries Properties Inc., and he was resistant to GVSU's offer to buy it.  GVSU made some rumblings about using eminent domain to acquire it - which raised some hackles - but eventually a deal was struck without resorting to it. (Don't read the comments on these articles if you don't want to process people's anger over eminent domain, GVSU's expanded presence in downtown, property tax revenues and Dick DeVos.)

Sadly, I could not find a good shot of the A&P building in its heyday, but given the utilitarian nature of its architecture, I think it could be said the Seidman Center is the most attractive building to stand at this location.  Apparently A&P was the Wal-Mart of its time, an American grocery icon, but it navigated the changes of the 1950s and 1960s rather poorly and closed stores left and right in the succeeding four decades.  Only about 300 stores remain open, down from 4,500 in 1950.  For some evocative pictures of the down-on-its-luck building before the wrecking ball encountered it, click here.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

What's good for the trees is good for the beer

Grand Rapids has made a lot of lists.

It's a great place to raise a family, a leader in sustainability and green initiatives, an emerging downtown and a happy place to work, among other wonderful things.  But two of those titles are coming together as one industry ensures its mark will be left on Grand Rapids for years to come.  In May, Grand Rapids was voted in a national poll as BeerCity, USA, for a second consecutive year, while the Arbor Foundation named Grand Rapids a Tree City, USA, for the 15th straight year.

As noted, Grand Rapids is huge into sustainability, with more LEED-certified buildings per capita than any other city, and just an overall environmentally-conscious population. But the beer community exemplifies this.
A collaboration between 17 area breweries and the Friends of Grand Rapids Parks will donate money from each of the breweries' "tree beers," which are all made using an aspect of a tree.  The money will be used to help fund "brewers groves" in area parks.

This isn't the first time the breweries have cooperated to support the environment. Earlier this year, three area breweries teamed up and joined a national clean water movement, because as one would guess, it takes clean water to brew clean beer.

But it's not just vocal movements, breweries build sustainability into their everyday business.
The regions two biggest breweries, Founders Brewing Co. and Bell's Brewery, direct more than 90 percent of their waste away from landfills. They also use steam from their heating processes to power parts of their buildings and have incorporated many more green practices into their business models.  Grand Rapids Brewing Company is the only certified organic brewery in the state of Michigan.

The Grand Rapids beer industry is in a mad dash to grow, but our local breweries are also doing their best to stay around and better their community and the world at large.  That's good news for all of us, beer lovers or not.

Monday, August 5, 2013

People in Detroit Are Still Alive, Know That Grand Rapids Exists

I was in Detroit this weekend and guess what: The city was still in the same shape that it was when I left so many months ago, bankruptcy withstanding. Growing up just north in Roseville, I had a friend whose father would bring us downtown in a beat-up van with car parts flying this way and that. We'd go to that oh-so-scary city south of 8 Mile to see bands and, eventually, to see himself and my close friends play together. Years have gone by and he's still playing; instead of the family band he once fronted, he's now representing his own id through a primeval state of Neanderthalic garage rock (Caveman Woodman). Another one of my close childhood friends is part of a band (Phantom Cats) that just dropped their first album, with every bit of their complex, crisp instrumentals in tow. While they played music, the consensus for most of the rest of us was to move away, one as far as Washington, D.C. So when the nation's capital let him come back to Michigan, I decided I would revisit the cities that helped make me who I am today.

Besides affirming my hunch that the news media was lambasting the city once again with its coverage of the bankruptcy, my weekend let me realize something astonishing: People in southeast Michigan actually know that Grand Rapids exists! Before I moved to the west side of the state, I had no idea what was going on over here. I'd never been out to the region--which I often refer to as "a different state entirely"--but after coming here, I fell in love (obviously). We all have our reasons for being here and for staying. What's glued me here is a hodgepodge of ingredients, loosely summed up in the following, unordered categoricals: friends, food, beer, community, the woods, and the water.

So, while I was in Detroit, people asked me where I was from. My answer left me kind of amazed because I said Grand Rapids without a second thought. This was quickly followed by the fact that I was both born and raised just north of Detroit, largely because I'm loyal to my past, but also because of the considerable amount of street cred such a claim provides. But more surprising than my immediate response of Grand Rapids--to me at least--was the general regard people had for GR and the allure it possesses for those individuals. For instance, a couple who randomly sat with us at a bar said that they had just been here to see Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers play at Frederick Meijer Gardens and they said that it wasn't their first time out here, that they'd been downtown before and loved every bit of it.

Another person--the guitarist for the Phantom Cats--said that he'd lived out here for a bit when he went to GVSU. First of all, I had no idea he had gone to the same school as me. The only difference was that he moved back to the east side because little in the way of music was going on here circa 2009. But now, with bands ramping up their efforts (the ubiquitous Crane Wives as well as psyched-out acts like Stepdad), we've got something legitimate going on. And the musicians of Detroit have recognized this--some are even considering coming out to our fair city to take a peak over the fence, to have a conversation, and to see exactly what is going on here: We are Wilson and Detroit is, fittingly, Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor. But neighbors we'll likely remain because, just like Grand Rapids, Detroit has its own string of mysterious enchantments that it has cast on so many of my generation.

And this photo only represents some of those attractions.