Sunday, June 19, 2011

In the Meanwhile

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.

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.


  1. Please keep writing about this theme which is so poignant, interesting and don't forget the pictures

  2. Yes, need to better articulate and understand the situation here! Lots to learn from.

  3. Lovely post Asha. Got me thinking about a lot of different things! The best kind of post.

    The people of Grand Rapids, and Michigan, and many other parts of the country face the same question - what happens when the local industries die out and there's no good reason for them to be where they are. Must be very difficult to come to terms with the most likely answer, that there is no good reason, it makes less sense, and that their towns and villages will slowly die out.

    In a way it's good. In the last 100 years people spread out all over the country, making use of the great American highway system to spread out and find their own space and freedom. But that came at a cost. People moved farther from one of humanity's greatest inventions - the city - and missed out on the mixing, mashing, churning, and spontaneous development of new ideas. As smaller cities all over the country fizzle out, the people won't disappear, they'll move to bigger cities nearby, a boon to the cities, to the individuals moving, and to the ecosystems they leave behind. Think of all the efficiency gains for everyone involved!

    What's lost in the process? That's not something I've given a lot of thought too. Hopefully someone from a small town can add their perspective.

    This is the way of the world though - large scale evolution of the pattern of cities and all the physical links built by humans to connect them - and it makes me feel more alive and more a part of the world to see it first hand.

  4. Great post Asha!

    Shreyans, in what sense do you think the US has missed out on the spontaneous development of new ideas? In some sense, it has been at the heart of that as well, no?

    I wonder if some amount of small-scale entrepeneurship will be lost with urban migration. But perhaps not...

  5. Very nice post Asha and so nice to get a glimpse into this new part of your life. Hope you document the ups and downs of the coming months as you deal with suburbs, cars etc :)