Thursday, July 01, 2004

TRAVEL LOG: Is Grand Rapids Acquiring a Coolness Quotient? The Initial Signs Say Yes.

Her name is Gillian. She wears custom-made furry boots. She is tall, has dyed blond hair and recently was strutting her stuff in a short pink dress. Gillian is sort of a cross between TV’s Jenna Elfman and Marilyn Monroe, where funky ridiculousness meets mystique.

And every Sunday, you can find her at Billy’s (1437 Wealthy St. SE) at the Eastown bar’s popular ‘80s night. And she stands out from the packed end-of-the-weekend crowd.

Packed? Sunday night? In Grand Rapids? Growing up in western Michigan, Sunday has always been reserved for family, not libertinism. And here I was, home on vacation discovering something I never know existed in Calvinist River City: Drunken contrarian hipsters (some wearing authentic trucker hats) dancing to The Smiths, having a good time knowing full well that work awaits them the next morning.

The fact that there is a Sunday night ‘80s night in Grand Rapids violates everything the Protestant work ethic stands for. And it may be the best news for Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s Michigan Cool Cities initiative.

In order to keep twentysomethings in the state, the governor has gathered key players in cities across the state to come up with ways to keep intellectual and youth capital from fleeing off the peninsulas. Can Grand Rapids be cool? I had initial trouble grappling that concept, but after visiting home, it seems that Michigan’s second largest city is feeling more and more comfortable being “cool,” depending on the definition you may use.

On the Cusp of Cool, or Post-Cool, Depending How You Look at It. Back at Billy’s, some of the Sunday diehards have been complaining about their fallen angel: their beloved dance night has been inundated by undesireables.

The Calvinist contrarians blame, well, the Calvinist elements (many who don’t go out Saturday nights because of church the next morning, so I’m told) in the crowd for diluting their special place. Others say the music quality has declined. But most of all, it was the Grand Rapidians themselves making the night a popular novelty that has tarnished the dance party’s past authenticity.

“When the local news came by, bye, bye, cool night,” a Billy’s Sunday night diehard told me.

She was referring to when the local ABC affiliate stopped by to profile ‘80s night earlier this spring as part of its “Real Life, Real People” segment. Gillian was used as the B-roll girl for the profile of the coolness factor at Billy’s. She was the symbol of what Grand Rapids isn’t. And it created a buzz. Soon the line to get into ‘80s night stretched down the block. And to some extent, Billy’s lost its authenticity, the diehards say.

But yet, they stay. Part of the reason why they stay is because Billy's is still actually a cool place. But they also stay because there isn’t another place where they can go to find the lost authenticity. This hipster quandary – the recognition that your favorite place has become too cool – is the first sign, dare I say, that Grand Rapids has a coolness quotient and that it is developing urban self-consciousness.

This isn’t necessarily something new. The bar buzz downtown near the Van Andel Arena has hopped from place to place the past five years. The anchor is the Big Old Building, a former railroad warehouse that has been converted to a multi-level, multi-bar, multi-restaurant venture. The streets surrounding the arena, like Ottawa and Ionia avenues, are home to many establishments whose crowds are often tied to arena events.

There is even a new Tiny Bikini’s bar at the corner of Oakes Street and South Division Avenue. It is hard to predict whether a place like Tiny Bikini’s will last in what is still a fairly reserved city, but it’s there, with its bikini girls on the Division Avenue sidewalk wearing sandwich boards to promote their new bar.

But away from the downtown area, the true health of the city’s coolness quotient is measured by the vibrancy of some of the neighborhoods. In Grand Rapids, there is a collection of “midtown” neighborhoods along Fulton, Cherry and Wealthy streets. Eastown, long the heart and soul of Grand Rapids’ small and sedate bohemian community is the main attraction, centered on the intersection of Wealthy Street and Lake Drive. But one local told me that the lack of interesting retail has become an issue for the neighborhood.

“It could be a much better place, but it is what it is and we like it,” the recent college graduate said.

Then north of downtown is a collection of old furniture warehouses along Monroe Avenue. This North Monroe district, along the Grand River, is an emerging neighborhood developmentally-speaking. The 19th century building stock has been converted for loft apartments and new businesses. (Please note that in Washington, we must first build fake warehouses in order to develop loft apartments, e.g. the Lofts in Adams Morgan.) And more is on the way. Then a father-son development team is putting in a residential and commercial tower, adding to neighborhood’s architectural diversity.

What Grand Rapids Has Done Right.
Despite being in a state with high unemployment and in a local area that has been particularly hard hit by the economic downturn, the city keeps remaking itself. A new art museum is being built on a Maya Lin-designed central plaza. A new and architecturally innovative convention center has taken up a prominent riverside position. The city’s 19th century building stock is being revamped.

And in its neighborhoods, Grand Rapids has beautified countless streetscapes and has helped property owners improve façades and encouraged new businesses to move into once-depressed corridors. It’s a slow process, but street by street, Grand Rapids has been reshaping itself, giving its residents reason to feel good about their city.

It’s odd growing up in a place and not getting to know its new self after you move away. Grand Rapids’ inherent modesty will keep its profile perpetually off the national radar screen, but River City is nonetheless an interesting study of urban redevelopment and evolving civic consciousness.


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