A year after the big move, Grand Rapids is still the place to be

Just over a year ago, my wife and I moved our family back to Grand Rapids after nearly a decade on the East Coast (most of that time in Washington D.C.). Our move home was unexpected. Though we still considered ourselves Michiganders, we had made our peace with D.C. and had developed deep and abiding friendships there. Indeed, we were happy there, loved the place, and were not looking to leave. For reasons, I’ve explained both elsewhere and previously in this space, that all changed and we found ourselves happily and enthusiastically back in Grand Rapids.

Since about our return home, in conversations and discussions, I’ve been asked whether my initial enthusiasm about our return has been tempered. While I struggled through my first real winter in a long time, I can honestly say that after a year back in Grand Rapids, I have no regrets.

That is not to say that there haven’t been difficulties. I miss dearly and daily the friends we made in Washington who were with us as children were born, as sickness was faced – I underwent open-heart surgery while we lived there – and life lived. But despite the tug of those friendships, being back home in the Mitten has been a great joy.

That verdict hasn’t remained on an emotional level. I’ve thought through why I believe this unexpected move was the right one and one that I am truly glad came to be. Here are a few reasons in no particular order:

First, Michigan is a beautiful state with so much national grandeur to offer. Within a few hours’ drive of my home are the beauty of Lake Michigan, the splendor of Grand Traverse Bay, the quiet of the Manistee National Forest, or the highlands around Crystal Mountain. We sometimes take these things for granted, but we shouldn't. Having a second chance to experience these things has made me appreciate them all the more.

Second, Grand Rapids truly is a burgeoning city. Art Prize has become a mainstay and a much-anticipated event. The cultural energy that will start pulsating through downtown Grand Rapids in the coming weeks is remarkable, especially for someone like me who remembers the moribund downtown of the 1980s. It seems like new breweries and restaurants are opening on a weekly basis.

A friend who is new to Grand Rapids, and has lived in bigger cities like Toronto and Cincinnati, said the restaurant scene is really remarkable for a city this size. Moreover, the diversified business culture makes for an interesting place to work and live. Here you find people doing high-level and interesting work in medicine, law, business and marketing. New efforts like the Downtown Market are increasing the attraction of downtown Grand Rapids and providing an anchor for residents and new businesses.

Third, while Grand Rapids has many of the positives of a big city, it isn’t a big city. It really hits a sweet spot in terms of size. Everyday life here is just easier than it was on the East Coast. I don't think I realized how consuming – of both time and energy – tasks like grabbing something from the grocery store, running to the dry cleaner, popping over to the doctor’s office, and the daily commute to work were in D.C.

The intensity of life that was a daily burden there isn't present here, which necessarily translates into more time with family and friends. This point was driven home to us when we spent spring break back in D.C. While it was great to reconnect with our friends, driving around that city and dealing with the aggravations of traffic and other inconveniences made me thankful to be back home in a smaller town.

Fourth, the stereotype of the kind, neighborly Midwesterner is true. Our neighbors have welcomed us with open arms. One hosted an ice cream social for the block after we arrived. Several whose children are older or grown have brought us their old toys. Another family shares their surplus garden produce with us. I could multiply these stories by many.

Have there been disappointments? For sure. Grand Rapids needs to develop a better and more comprehensive public transit system. I was spoiled in Washington D.C., but there is no reason Grand Rapids can’t do better here. Indeed, Grand Rapids used to have an extensive streetcar system. We would do well to aim to reestablish that system.

Finally, there have been surprises. I will end with just one. Despite the fact I lived in the Washington D.C. area for eight years, I never felt compelled to get involved in my community – neither in Silver Spring, Maryland, where I first lived, nor Capitol Hill. That changed immediately upon returning to Grand Rapids. This is a civic-minded town where one is encouraged to get involved and pursue one’s passions as a volunteer. Returning here I wanted to get involved, make time to be part of the community, and help to better it for my children and my children’s children. It is here that I returned to my roots and, in turn, where I have wanted to sink my roots.

Those who read Bridge have a love for or connection to Michigan. Still, any of us can take it for granted. We shouldn’t. This is a great state with great natural and human capital. I know I won’t take it for granted again.

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Sat, 09/21/2013 - 6:44am
Just waiting for someone to come to my front door with a check for this house we live in. The the car will be gassed up, the moving van loaded, and we will move to the Grand Rapids area. After all, that is where my adult/kids live! Anyhow most of them. The rest are welcome to come and visit!
Bill Lovett
Sun, 09/22/2013 - 5:20pm
I have lived virtually my whole life in Michigan 2/3's in the Southeast section of the state. Then my wife and I bought our what became our retirement home in Charlevoix .Much of our state has an abundance of natural beauty, but Northwestern section of the Lower Pennisula, in my opinion can't be beat! I'm a car enthusiast, particularly Porsches, and this year the Porsche Club of America held its annual one week convention in Traverse City at the Grand Traverse Resort. This convention attracted over 1,700 members from throughout North America driving a total of 782 Porsches to OUR state! The activities included the opportunity to explore one or more tours on beautiful two lane roads throughout this section of our state. Toward the end of the week I had numerous members come up to me saying in effect, "I never knew Michigan was so beautiful!" I'm one proud Michiganian!
Jeff Poling
Mon, 09/23/2013 - 9:50am
Most out of state people don't know how beautiful Michigan is because we are considered "Fly Over Country" by the east and west coast based national media - not worthy of recognition. By the way, thanks for considering yourself a "Michiganian" instead of a "Michigander". After all, we are not geese.
Thu, 09/26/2013 - 9:30pm
Good job. Well written. Best wishes from a Detroit-born occasional Michigander,
Sun, 12/28/2014 - 10:36pm
Hi! We are planning to move to Kentwood, MI in April 2015. I will like to met serious and professional people of that area to request some information. I did my homework and research as much as I could. I have a friend there as well. But, I will like to have the opinion of other people and their experience. Thank you. I really feel I was in Michigan while I was reading your post! Happy Holidays!
Wed, 04/22/2015 - 7:57am
I was born in NC, I grew up in Kentwood MI. It is truly a beautiful state. I love Mackinaw Island, UP. Since leaving MI. I have liver all over the US and and visited several other Countries, my 3 favorite places are Northern California, Northern Michigan and the Blueridge Mountains of North Carolina Believe it or not other than the winters MI and NC are a lot alike in scenic value. BEAUTIFUL!
Fri, 04/01/2016 - 7:45pm
In 1973 I spent a summer on northern Lake Michigan. I still remember the drive from the east coast. When we got to Michigan, we traveled upstate on the most beautiful winding roads past all the fruit farms, and sadly past the Native American communities that were pushed up north. -Not saying it was a bad existence because the absolute natural beauty overrides just about anything - but to see meager shops (even back then) selling moccasins which I bought seems like such a distilled version of the magnificence of the culture. That summer was without a doubt the most magical, wonder of natural beauty, 'have the whole place to yourself', time of my life. Sleeping on the northern dunes, a billion stars, the northern lights, the line storms, the crystal clear water.... Collecting Petoskey stones, gorgeous agate, walking on beautiful sand beaches, swimming and sailing in the crystal clear water, and hiking in the nearby forest was sublime for a 17 year old in 1973. I often think the "adventurer self" could just spend a lifetime exploring the west. But there is something about Michigan, Lake Michigan that keeps me wanting to come back. Perhaps it is the biodiversity - SW, too hot and dry, the West is so precarious with the water situation, the south too oppressive weather-wise. We have the Adirondacks on the East Coast - truly a gem, but the great lakes are so much more. No one thinks the great lakes is the next Las Vegas... That is so great! Oh let's hope not. Even with the harsh winter, I think Michigan tops my retirement list! xoxo Rose