An arguably hipster bar, The Meanwhile, in the East Hills neighborhood of Grand Rapids, where a few entrepreneurs have pushed to keep the arts and cultural scene alive.
I made some interesting choices this summer. I migrated from the tech gold rush in the Valley to spend 8 weeks in a fairly sleepy Michigan town, Grand Rapids. I'll be doing many things I've fought hard to avoid previously in life:
- driving a car, everyday, everywhere!
- living in a place that is 96.9% white.
- working for a large corporation in a massive corporate building in the middle of nowhere with tinted windows, security badges and suits (a place where corporate protectionism and idealism still resides)
- (the worst) living in the suburbs!
However, I signed up for the adventure and in Week 1, I've found many pleasant surprises.
This place boomed from the automobile and furniture industries, so it has strong roots in art and design that are still palpable. There are old art deco buildings scattered throughout the city, tons of small local artist galleries and many cafes that are quintessential expressions of small town kitsch. Charming to say the least. And everyone, I mean everyone, wants to chat about anything and everything. Kind-hearted, honest, pleasant, smiling people.
But digging below the pleasantries, the elephant in the room is palpable too. What will be of this place over the next quarter century? With most youth migrating away and primary industries in decline, how long will old money sustain this town?
There's a population that are fighting tooth and nail (but with a Mid-Western kindness and subtlety) to keep this place relevant over the next quarter century. But, realistically, as the US economy moves from a manufacturing-based to services-based economy and as companies' primary assets change from plants and materials to people and ideas how can isolated towns compete with well-connected cities?
Time will tell, but in the meanwhile, people continue to celebrate their family and community. The most important parts of life anyway.