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Perception vs reality: More on the Grand Rapids dating scene

All the single ladies (and the single men, too) in Grand Rapids, listen up: Kara McNabb has asked - and West Michigan's locals have answered - what it's really like to be dating these days. Read on for an honest peek into the ups and downs of the local dating scene in part two of a series.
“What’s a great guy like you still doing single?” You've heard it. Maybe you've asked it. Messages like this reinforce that being part of a pair is superior, if not an expectation—and put the pressure on to find that better half. In the first installment of this series, we looked at some offbeat local venues that make a great date destination. This week, several locals explore how Grand Rapids’ identity impacts the dating scene and share advice on how to meet others in the area.
Describing Grand Rapids
For Linda Tellis, 28 and engaged, moving to Grand Rapids a few years ago has been life changing. “You have the opportunity to make an impact here.” Tellis glows as she discusses empowering others through music, environment and education. She describes Grand Rapids as progressive. “One day it’s an idea. The next it’s reality,” says the former resident of Georgia, West Virginia and Ohio.
When asked to characterize Grand Rapids, a sense of pride accompanies her descriptions of community-oriented, entrepreneurial and kind West Michiganders. Tellis says, “The most sincere people I’ve ever met in my life live here.”
For others, the descriptor most mentioned is "conservative." Go to college, get married, start a family—growing up, that’s how Carola Carassa, 25 and single, imagined her early 20s would pan out. Perhaps as a result of the region's conservative label, others expressed the same expectation, so that by continuing to explore their options while pursuing other goals, some local singles feel they're defying traditional norms.
Hailing from the east side of Michigan, Mike Schmid, 30 and fresh off the market, notices stark differences in religious values between the west side and east side of Michigan: “Here, people are more proudly devout, whereas there, faith was quieter and more personal.” Calling himself “spiritual, but not religious,” Schmid says it’s not too difficult to find others with similar values.
Schmid suggests a shift in the area’s perceived culture of conservatism, noting the frequency of women open to polyamory, according to their online dating profiles. (Monogamy is his style.) A general sense of commitment and trust, however, persists in Grand Rapids, perhaps rooted in those historically conservative values.
When it comes to finding a significant other, newcomers and boomerangs agree: it’s easier to meet people in bigger cities, but it’s harder to keep them, because there’s always the next best thing. Here, they said, it may be harder to meet people, but it’s easier to keep them.
Raised in Washington D.C. and a former Baltimore and Seattle resident, Henian Newsome, 29 and in a relationship, knew Grand Rapids was going to be different when he moved here more than a year ago. “There were no hip-hop stations, no professional sports teams. The minority young professional community is small,” he says. He acknowledges that dating would have been hard, had he focused solely on that. “But Grand Rapids opens up possibilities and forces you to get to know different perspectives and people for who they are versus their physical appearance. In other cities, it’s easier to stick with what’s comfortable,” says Newsome.
Growing multicultural diversity is a recognized issue that has Grand Rapids talking and taking action. As the population grows, the infusion of diversity challenges traditional ways of thinking and will no doubt propel a new norm. Tellis, an African American and lesbian, says she’s experienced discrimination in other parts of the country, but has never felt uncomfortable in Grand Rapids.
“Grand Rapids is a big small city,” says Ellen Jones*, 46 and single. Now divorced, Jones met her husband in the grocery store checkout lane. Stocking up on many bottles of liquor and cigarettes, the holiday office party supplies sparked conversation that revealed similarities, mutual friends and led to 17 years of marriage.
While the small town vibe decreases anonymity around town and across social circles, it may lend itself to the culture of trust. Like it did for Jones, minimal degrees of separation might just spark a first date, or provide a validation of character.
Is Grand Rapids the culprit?
“What’s dating like in Grand Rapids?” The question generally induces sighs and a few smirks.
“I’m surrounded by married people,” says single 31-year-old Jana Green* who lived in Chicago and Washington D.C., among other places, before returning to West Michigan. On finding someone fit for the long haul, she says, “In other cities, people may have a bigger world view, but they’re often jaded. Here, the people are generally kind, thoughtful and chivalrous.”
Despite an immediate negative perception that generally surrounds the subject of dating in Grand Rapids, each individual proceeded to tell dating tales that indicate little trouble meeting people.
So what’s all the complaining about? Is Grand Rapids’ reputation of singles far-and-few still reality—or is it time to shed the negative mentality? Is the arduous pursuit of a plus-one confined to local geography, or is it a generational or universal dilemma?
Millennials across the U.S. are breaking their parents’ norms and shedding the stigma of being single, evident in the shift of marrying age trending into late 20s. Instead, twenty-somethings are focused on achieving goals, career-related or otherwise, and further developing identity in the decade after high school, rather than pursuing the M.R.S. degree.
The shelves of Grand Rapids Public Library’s Main Campus are telling, too. Stocked floor-to-ceiling in multiple sections are books on dating and love. “How to Meet Your Soulmate” lists splash the covers of national magazines targeted at men and women of all ages, indicative of a social dilemma that doesn’t discriminate based on geography.
How to meet people in Grand Rapids
Survey says: the best way to meet people is through friends. But what happens when you’re new to town and the friend pool is limited? Thanks to online dating sites, like OKCupid, Match and eHarmony, the possibilities immediately expand. Suddenly, you’re surrounded by like-minded people who are also single and looking for companionship.
“I’m more comfortable having a friend with me to enter most social settings, like a bar. But with online dating sites, I can essentially meet people without relying on other people,” says Carassa. For Schmid, online dating allows him to identify important shared values and red flags sooner.
In a city known for its culture of innovation and community, there’s no shortage of projects to get involved with. There’s Grand Rapids Young Professionals, BL2END, GR Sport and Social Club, countless philanthropic organizations, and a lengthy list of interest-based communities thanks to platforms like MeetUp and EventBrite. Here, you can find groups that meet regularly based on a common interest, like food, biking, urban farming or atheism.
Jones suggests to simply let people know you’re looking to date and are open to introductions. This method has kept her in the dating game nearly every week since January 2013.
Or if you’re attracted to someone in the supermarket or brewery, but don’t feel comfortable striking up conversation, it’s ok to feign recognition. “You’re Taylor, right?” works well.
Above all, be yourself, be confident, and be open.
While a long-term companion is the ultimate ideal for most, don’t let “single” define you. Next time that ugly thought “There must be something wrong with me, because I’m 30 and single” creeps its way into your conscious, squash the age-old societal norms by embracing who you are (independent, self-aware, etc) and what you have (freedom, flexibility, space). Have faith in the age-old wisdom: you’ll meet someone when you least expect it. And, remember, you're not alone.
*Name changed to protect dating secrets
Kara McNabb is a West Michigan native who begrudgingly moved back to Grand Rapids a few years ago. Much to her surprise, she fell head-over-heels in love with the city that feeds her affinity for design, music, food and inspiring people. Kara is a communications professional, writer, editor and blogger.

Photography by Adam Bird

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