Ah beautiful! Grand Rapids is named for the ripples that run on the Grand River in this western Michigan city, the second largest in the state and the hometown of former US President Gerald R. Ford. Formerly the custom furniture capital of the United States and sometimes called the city of steeples for the large number of churches, it is now the craft beer capital of the US (with the largest number of craft beers produced) and the medical hub of western Michigan. I have come here since I was a child and seen so many changes, but I look at it through new eyes now that my mom has decided to return and live here. Most of my mom’s side of the family still live here, so every visit feels like I am coming home.
One of my first nights here I visited Riverside Park on Monroe, across from the Veterans home and set along the Grand River. At bit of controversy surrounds the park now as some want to put in competition rapids for kayaks and terrace the park to avoid flooding. There is currently a wonderful walking trail along the river; the roadways have been reconfigured to add spectacular bike lanes. There are a couple of roundabouts, something seldom seen in the US. I have been here before for soccer games. Today I got to see my cousin Kyle play baseball. He played third and also pitched for his team. With two outs in the last inning, his team rallied from behind 2-11 to come within one run of a tie. Perfect weather and an exciting finish. The boys were so excited you would have thought they had won.
From beautiful victorian homes to cultural events, there is so much to offer. After living in Houston, I appreciate that there are the amenities of the big city without near the drive time I experience at home.
The Art Prize competition, set for 2 1/2 weeks in September and October, gives out the most prize money ($720,000 grants and awards in 2015) among similar competitions in the United States. Art installations are all over town with the highest concentration in Downtown. One of the prizes is voted on by the visitors and the other by professional judges. The economic impact on the city is more than 22 million dollars. The competition draws visitors from almost 50 countries; visitors total 400,000 with more than 30,000 visitors coming from outside the state.
This year I was in town for the 46th Festival of Arts, the first weekend of June and one of the longest running festivals in the state. Friday was overcast, Saturday perfect, and Sunday saw threatening skies and 20-mile-an-hour winds, but there were strong crowds each day. The free event in Downtown with music, performances, children’s activities, and a wide variety of foods has been part of the lives of Grand Rapids residents for generations.
When we arrived, mom took Rocky on a “legacy tour” of some of the places she frequented as a child. I always enjoy when she tells Rocky stories, because I often learn things too. Many of the stops were places I went as child; they are smaller than I remember. Especially my grandmother’s home which had a basement, something we don’t have in a Texas home due to the soil. I always loved the zoo at John Ball Park and it has recently added a wonderful tiger exhibit. I really had to search hard to find the original pathways and enclosures. Things were very different. Go for the short, but memorable camel rides, the penguins (I recognized that building), frogs (another familiar and almost missed building), bald eagles, bears, tigers, and wallaby.
Like many American cities in my mom’s generation,Grand Rapids had people of many ethnic groups who populated distinct areas of the city. All you have to do is look through the roster of Catholic Churches in GR and you will find the churches founded by these various groups. That said, I was always told growing up that GR was primarily Dutch Christian Reformed or Polish Catholic city. Dutch names are found on many of the buildings along GR’s Medical Mile, sports and arts venues, Grocery store chains (Meijer) and even bakeries (Van’s Pastry Shoppe).
You’ll also find various markers acknowledging the city’s Polish heritage. A few doors down from my grandmother’s home is a marker for a Polish immigrant and American Revolutionary War military hero, General Casimir Pulaski. This heritage is also celebrated during Pulaski Days the first full weekend in October. A drink fest and organized opportunity to get some really good Polish food; the event will be held at 15 participating clubs in 2015 and I promise you my cousins will be there.
Each summer I am in Grand Rapids, I take advantage of the wonderful produce that is grown here and visit the farmers markets. My favorite is the Fulton Market (near Fuller and Fulton) open Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday 8am-3pm, but get there early for the best selection. This year I am a little early for some of the family’s favorites (like yellow beans) and we also got stock from Boris’s plantings, so I decided to venture to the Downtown Market.
The Downtown Market features indoor permanent stores and an outside covered market. You get 90 minutes of free parking with a charge after that. The outside area featured local vendor products with plants being the favorite. I found some wonderful succulents artfully displayed. Only wish I could get these home, but mom got some wonderful gifts. Inside, I made a stop for caramel popcorn, a favorite of my uncle’s. It got some wonderful spices; I bought the small jars which can be refilled at a discount price on future visits. Perhaps my favorite is the Black Truffle Salt. There was also a wonderful seafood market and at another stall I got some very tasty pear jam.
And there is so much more to see in this city….