According to Wikipedia, "Gangnam Style" is a “South Korean neologism that refers to a lifestyle associated with the Gangnam District of Seoul, where people are trendy, hip and exude a certain supposed class." Korean popstar, Psy, released his blockbuster “Gangnam Style” music video in 2012. While that trend has passed, Grand Rapids’ Sister Cities program still tops the local charts as it introduces area residents, students and businesses to cultures, commonalities, and humanitarian efforts that would otherwise be a world away. The Gangnam District of Seoul became the newest Sister City to broaden local horizons.
“Sister Cities break down barriers, preconceived ideas and stereotypes,” says Leonardo Tombelli, president of Grand Rapids Sister Cities International (GRSCI). “They open our eyes to the similarities we have. Oftentimes, at the table with another sharing a meal, we find great hospitality and enjoyment, discovery of how friendly people can be — how much we have in common. Our commonalities are greater than our differences. That’s a very important benefit of engaging with sister city relationships.”
While Tombelli, Mayor Rosalyn Bliss, and City Manager Mark Washington won’t likely be galloping down Monroe Center to K-pop any time soon, the new Sister Cities’ connection will foster opportunities for all interested Grand Rapids metro area residents to build and grow cultural, commercial, and artistic relationships with folks living in a comparable urban environment on the other side of the globe.
“Engaging with folks in a different Sister City helps us look at our own challenges from a different point of view,” Tombelli says. “Looking at how other cities and industries have solved their challenges is very beneficial and is one of the benefits of the organization.”
Committees of volunteers for each of Grand Rapids’ Sister Cities are composed of business leaders, community and non-profit leaders, Grand Valley State University, Calvin University and Aquinas College and city officials.
“One of the communities, Perugia, Italy, offers college students scholarships … tuition and a stipend to study in Italy for one month between spring and fall. The Perugia Sister City committee coordinates that and offers the recipients of the scholarship additional funds to travel to Perugia. We have offered over 50 scholarships to local Kent County college students,” Tombelli says.
President Eisenhower introduced the Sister Cities concept after the Second World War as a way for Americans to get to know and understand people from other cultures. Gangnam District is Grand Rapids’ sixth Sister City. The other five are Omihachiman, Japan; Bielsko-Biala, Poland; Ga District, Ghana; Perugia, Italy and Zapopan, Mexico. The Grand Rapids City commission approved the Sister City designation on July 27. Mayors of both cities are expected to sign the formal declaration soon.
Like Grand Rapids, Gangnam’s name references a river that runs through it — and both share a past that includes furniture manufacturing and a current focus on breweries, distilleries and health care. It gets better. Grand Rapids’ ArtPrize event has inspired an ArtPrize Gangnam in South Korea.
“We have expanded our outreach to the community, especially the business community,” Tombelli says. “We recently became a member of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce and we’ve also been a member of ArtPrize.”
Some of the volunteers involved on each of the six Sister City committees want to maintain a link to their heritage or family. Others are simply intrigued with having an international connection. Businesses take part to foster relationships that advance their products or services. A variety of student, individual, family and corporate memberships are open to all residents of the greater Grand Rapids area.
“We encourage the public to partner with us or to join the organization,” Tombelli says. “We welcome people from all walks of life.”
Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor
Photo courtesy Grand Rapids Sister Cities International