Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Newsweek Says...

... that Grand Rapids is a dying city. There are groups now dedicated to countering this claim. Many who live here love Grand Rapids with a passion. I actually pretty much loved it too when we moved here, and have considered it coming alive rather than dying myself over the 10 years we've been here. But this article got me thinking about what I loved about it then, why I cannot freaking wait to leave now, what it has that is vibrant and wonderful, and what it needs to keep it moving forward.

I don't think it's dying. I have to say, Newsweek, I think that you maybe looked at some things that aren't really here, or were looking for things that used to define the city that no longer do so. Jim was born and raised here. He was a kid here when there were innovations in education, and when Grand Rapids became the first city in the USA to floridate the water supply. He was a teenager in the late '70s when all the businesses moved out of downtown, and businesses boarded up their windows. He watched this city die. It looked nothing like it looks today, as it has started getting some CPR.

When we came here in 2001, Jim had been gone since 1979. There were tract houses and chain restaurants where he used to play in the woods, where his dad used to go hunting.  There is now a large arena right downtown. It accommodates major concert tours, including Lady Gaga, Kenny Chesney and Ozzy Osbourne. Businesses and restaurants are opening in downtown. Businesses are open on Sunday, and just this year the law changed to allow alcohol sales before noon on Sundays. Yay for mimosas at brunch! Or hitting Costco for a cheap case of Sierras while the populace is still at church.

When we came here, I really loved it. We'd come from Seattle, where the cost of living was astronomical, we didn't know our neighbors, because nobody came out of their houses for walks or bike rides or a smoke on the porch. Because we didn't know any of our neighbors, I didn't really let the kids out to play on their own much at all. They certainly weren't allowed to ride their bikes in the neighborhood, or walk to the park. Not that there was a park to walk to... but you get the idea. The day that I opened my car door, and a syringe fell out OF MY CAR, apparently the leftovers from someone who walked up from Aurora, the dingy main drag about 5 blocks east, I knew it was time to leave. As I looked at the thing in horror, I noticed my door. The door that my nice landlord had been kind enough to install a cat door in. I walked up on the stoop, lay down, and stretched my arm up through the cat door. Yup. It was tricky, but I could turn the deadbolt. I'm 5'4". Arms any longer than mine would have no trouble with it at all. My kids, at ages 8 and 10 spent many hours at home alone, as Jim and I worked a combined 130 hours a week to pay the rent and bills. I counted the tips I was saving for Disney, where they've still, at 18 and 20, never gone, and discovered we could move with what I had. We weren't planning on Grand Rapids, but this is where we landed. And it was great!

We found a place for $450/month including utilities. WTF?! We'd been paying over $1000/month just for rent, and our bills were easily another $1000/month. So that was just amazing! We could work less, and have more disposable income. We could eat out! Go to movies! Buy books! Pay for activities! The kids found friends in the neighborhood (!), the neighbors came and introduced themselves (!), and gave us a phone list of the folks on our block and the next. The kids started going to the park with their friends. They skated, they walked to different playgrounds, some in the parks, some at local schools. They went trick-or-treating in groups. Without us. Their friends parents invited us for bar-b-ques and New Year's Eve parties. Those people remain my friends today, 10 years later. But it was also much more conservative than anywhere I'd lived in years. Maybe ever. I'd never lived anywhere really where one of the first questions I was asked by many people was, "Have you chosen a church yet? I'd love to invite you to mine!" Grand Rapids has lots and lots of churches. It is the world headquarters of the Christian Reformed Church. These are the Dutch Calvinists. Calvin College is here. Hope College is here. It's kind of intense. And yet, these most irritating things seemed to be also the nicest things. I felt the kids were safe, people knew each other, they looked out for their neighbors and their neighbors' kids. We all knew who every kid belonged to, and where they lived. That seemed largely to grow out of the religious community mentality that permeates the place. But, I had that in college, with a bunch of atheist/agnostic, pro-choice, liberal friends. We watched each other's kids, we went trick-or-treating in groups, we had bar-b-ques, and we looked out for each other. But it seemed, at first, that I would be able to build community, and be happy here. It seemed that way for several years. Then, our lives changed irrevocably, and we have seen the 'other side'.

When Cassady got pregnant, our friends were great. Very supportive of us and her. When she couldn't do it, at 16/17, and we took over with Connor, they were verbally supportive, and some of my friends have remained very supportive of ME, as an individual, but not US so much, as a family in and out of crisis, trying to find our center as grandparents starting over. I've been ill this winter, and what I've needed more than anything is help with Connor. No one has offered that other than one friend who took him for one day, another friend who had him for a sleepover with her girls, and his wonderful preschool teachers, where he only gets to go the two days I'm sick in bed because we're so broke from my not being able to work, who took him one day over winter break. Four months. Three times I've received help in the most-needed area. This winter, and our travels the last two summers, have really brought into focus what is missing in my life, what is missing IN THIS CITY, to truly make it come alive, and keep it alive.

Or maybe it's me. Maybe I just need to suddenly decide that I will become Christian, go to a conservative church, vote Republican, and I'll have friends who'll help with the kid? Hah!!! That'll be happening exactly NEVER!!!

So, this is what I have sifted from my really thinking about Grand Rapids and this article. It reminds me, in it's own way, of when The Utne Reader named Arcata, where I lived at that time, as a Top Ten Green City. No recycling, nobody stopped to let cyclists cross, even a 6 year old girl with her dad, no community garden... not really a lot other than a leftist idealism among the student at Humboldt State. And a really good co-op. My thought then, as now, started as, "They really should actually visit a place and see what the reality is. You can't determine stuff like this from what the numbers on a spreadsheet indicate." And now, as then, it really got me thinking... what is good about this place? What makes it not work at all for me now, why do I want to get the hell out of here soooooo desperately? And this is what I came up with...

Grand Rapids has some great stuff going on. There are new restaurants, we have the first LEED certified Art Museum building in the world, there are good bars, and a good brewery. There is a vibrant underage/punk music scene, which has been amazing for my son. Coming from Seattle, music capital of the '90s, where you couldn't go to live music until at least 18, once in a great while, that was a wonderful thing. Cheap, safe venues for 14 year olds to go hear and play music. The arts scene is growing and vibrant. The DAAC, UICA and their new building. ArtPrize is freaking stunningly wonderful and innovative. The moves toward getting the rapids back in the river are promising, and moving forward. The farmer's market is pretty great, I like that it has a dedicated place, and that it has been around for so long. I hate hate hate that people are actually allowed to sell produce like bananas that they obviously buy on closeout from the grocery stores and simply resell at the farmer's market. Talk about missing the point. Rob Bliss may be a tool, but he makes cool shit happen here. There is stuff for unencumbered adults to do. Art movies at UICA, workshops at Institute for Global Education, low-cost theater. But it's soooooo limited! Finding food... it's like, "We have Harvest Health!" so the need for a health food store is met. Ummmmm... NO it's not! C'mon! I really don't want to drive the 60 miles to effing Kalamazoo to buy bulk food from actual bins with actual scoops, but that's the closest, best place to do so, so occasionally, I make the trek.

And yet, there is nothing for me to go do without finding, and finding a way to pay for, a babysitter. For instance, even with the music venues? We're driving to Detroit twice in the next 6 weeks to see the two tours we'll probably see all year, same as we did in '09. These folks don't play GR. The arena is too large, the bars too small. We can go to Chicago or Detroit, and if I never drive the Dan Ryan through Chicago again, it'll be too soon. Also, this situation most certainly increases the cost of seeing a concert... 3 hour drive each way, food... turns a 2 hour concert into a 10-12 hour odyssey, requiring childcare for that whole time. Thank goodness for an awesome teenage son who does what he can, and doesn't charge. He'll save me a whole butt load of money, even though his work schedule doesn't allow him to the whole stint.

BUT. What I saw in summer of '09, and summer of '10, has brought home, as it were, the glaring shortfalls and shortsightedness of Grand Rapids, brought it into sharp relief.

What I have discovered really missing the last couple years, as we have had our grandson living with us and he is growing, are, for one thing, family activities that are affordable, and inclusive. Also, as much as it was easy to make friends when my kids were 9 and 11, with a small child, even one who has been in the same preschool for 2 and a half years, we have NO FRIENDS with kids his age. When my own kids were his age, we shared dinners at least once week with other parents. We trick-or-treated in groups. We watched each other's kids. We had community. Maybe it was because we lived in northern California. But no. I've seen this community exist elsewhere. In fact, our relocation choice is based on the existence of that community.

Here, our neighbors won't speak to us. Here, on our block, filled with kids, our grandson has no one to play with. I thought, when we moved in last November, that in the spring we'd go for bike rides and walks down the block, and we'd meet our neighbors and their kids, and he'd have kids to play with. How hopeful and naive. Literally, moms have taken their children by the upper arm and escorted them into their own backyards when we've gone out for walks, all while giving me the stink-eye, and not saying even 'hello'. Three families with similar aged kids have moved out since we moved in.  The only thing I can figure is that because we don't fit the mold, we are threatening to them. We don't go to church. I have long hair that is occasionally quite purple. Connor will be 5 in May. He got his first haircut just before Christmas. My husband has long hair too. We wear tie-dyes. We have Grateful Dead stickers on our car. And yet, even the folks across the street with Dead stickers and dreads don't talk to us. Of course nobody else talks to them either, but still...

And there's nothing to do as a family other than go to a cheap movie at Woodland Mall, or walk in the park. I live right by Riverside Park. I was so excited to be so close to a park with a bike/running path and multiple playgrounds! But I can't take my grandson to the playgrounds there, because they get vandalized, and they are not repaired. We drive to Jenison, to Hagar Park, if we want a nice playground. That's 15 miles.
Community pool? Closest one is in Holland. Almost 30 miles.
Pools in summer? Only if some philanthropist pays for one, then community members raise funds for a couple more... the city will happily provide trailers with extra police in the summer, which is good if they don't open the pools, because those bored kids too old for day camp are gonna create a need for those cops if they have nowhere to go. We had 5 pools sit empty last summer. The wading pools had grass growing up through the cracks.
Swimming lessons? Closest ones are in East Grand Rapids, and cost almost 80 dollars for 5, 25-minute lessons.
Children's museum? Not bad! But you can only go there just so often, or it gets 'been there, done that' for the kids.
And again, none of these things, other than a community pool, are family things. They are places you take your kid, which is different than doing family stuff.

Where we're going, there's a kick-ass outdoor community pool. There's a kick-ass indoor community pool. Lessons? 25 dollars for eight weeks.
There's a skate park. Free. In one of the many parks.
There's a killer playground, which the community built, with volunteer labor, in 9 days. Next to it is a carousel, built by and for the community, with volunteer labor.
The city as a whole values and has written into the mission statement that every citizen be close to a neighborhood park, and have easy access to bike routes and paths. There is a partnership that focuses on getting kids outdoors with their families, and has even written a bill of rights for kids' access to the outdoors, to nature. And they back it up, yo. Free activities monthly, like snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, camping, swimming in lakes. With guides, instructors and gear included in the 'for free' category.
New Year's eve is a 12 hour, family-friendly extravaganza, with art-making, music, theater, shuttle buses, crafts, dance...
There are also great music venues, breweries, and restaurants. An amazing art scene. A university.

The kicker? GR is 3 times larger. Where we're moving offers 10 times more for where we are in life.
If GR wants to truly be a growing city, a vibrant city, get people here and KEEP people here, there will need to be a focus on stuff for families. Give the kids things to do. But I can tell you right now that won't happen, and I can tell your right now why... families here are very isolationist and self-protective. They don't want those 'other kids' (read dark and poor) to 'take advantage' of resources that 'we' pay for. Of course all parents want to keep their kids safe. These parents do that by keeping their precious snowflakes in private playgrounds in back yards. They take them to supervised, indoor activities that cost bank. They take them to supervised, outdoor activities that cost bank. They don't utilize the resources this city does offer, and resultantly, those resources go away rather than strengthen.

I remember once standing in line to register my daughter for summer theater camp at the Children's Theater. Ran into a mom from her school. She remarked, "I'm so glad we can finally do this! He's wanted to be in theater for so long! (the kid was probably 12), but it's so DANGEROUS down here, I could just never ever have sent him to a class downtown! I always worried, with the location, that he'd get shot, or I'd get carjacked dropping him off! But now that the police station is across the street, I'm sure It'll be okay. Of course, I'd still never do it in the winter. But in the summer, I can sit on the bench by the police station with a book." And I remember thinking... "Shot!!! Carjacked?!?!?! At Monroe and Library Circle?! Are you effing kidding me?!" Sheesh... have these people never been to a CITY?! Maybe one with an actual BAD NEIGHBORHOOD?! Detroit? Chicago? Columbus? Indianapolis? Fer Pete's sake, ya'll.

The fear is completely insane, and completely unfounded, but it permeates everything about parenting a young child in this city. I've taught 20-something students who, when enrolled in a class at the downtown campus, are driven to the city by their daddies, who wait in the car outside the building, because their daughters are simply in too much danger, at 23, to be downtown alone. TWENTY-THREE?!?! Students from small towns who are allowed to go to Grand Valley on the condition that they NEVER go into Grand Rapids. What if they take the wrong bus? The 50?! Really?! It's kinda hard to screw that one up, and even if you do, you stand there for 5 minutes and POOF! Another 50! Like magic.... whoa...


This place has made me cynical. I've felt socially isolated and often unwelcome. I have lost much of my positivity, my ability to find every silver lining, no matter how thin and tattered it may be. The drenching of the culture in this specific religious tradition has pushed me closer to atheism and out of spiritual. And I don't recognize myself, my spirit, after 10 years here. And I don't like that, so I'm changing it. I'm going to reclaim and empower my artistic, spiritual self. But, like getting off drugs required leaving the environment that encouraged that mindset behind, I have to leave this environment to leave this negative, stagnant mindset behind.

So, no, Grand Rapids itself is not dying. But it's not fully alive either. It's got some personal growth issues to attend to.

Like me. I'm not dying, but I'm not fully alive either, and the energy of Grand Rapids has really stolen something from me that I want back. I feel like the frog in the pot of water. It was comfortable when I got in. It got uncomfortable so slowly, I didn't even notice until all of a sudden it was REALLY UNCOMFORTABLE, and I couldn't live in it anymore. The water boiled a year or two ago. Okay. Really ready to jump the hell out of this pot now. Four and half months... I have enough purging and packing to keep me focused on the going, finally, and get over the ick of the staying.

1 comment:

ValVery said...

It's so good to see this kind of purge of emotions when it's seemingly been bottled up for quite some time. You can honestly say you gave GR a decent chance to prove itself worthy to you, and it fell short of the line. Keep you eye on the prize: Missoula. Keep your focus there and let the rest fall to the way-side. It's SO unimportant, now, and now you're free of it, because you purged it.
I wish we could have hung out long enough to get to know Connor and I wish I could have been there for help you; coulda, shoulda, woulda. It's all good, girl.