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.