Lifestyle Editor Tommy Allen reflects on a couple's comments at the start of summer and finds something beautiful that ends with the launch of a Silver Line. Along the way, he wonders if the word "progressive" has come to mean something new as the city moves forward.
Earlier this summer at the launch of The Spoke Folks' Kickstand Kickoff, I met a couple who had relocated their young family to Grand Rapids after spending many years in Chicago.
In the past, this introduction scenario of a couple fleeing the big city to settle in the area might have evoked internal eye rolls after the couple revealed their choice of neighborhood. Because while some chose the city, Grand Rapids urban dwellers have for many years been treated to stories shared by transplants that ranged from outright unfamiliarity with our region to suburban-biased realtors who generally offered little insights during the relocation.
Almost all initially claim a form of blindness to our region's vast neighborhood offerings, later asking over cocktail conversations with a touch of remorse how much is that home they spotted on the way here and if you knew the owner.
Sure, the old stereotypes that only the suburbs are a good, safe investment are being challenged daily as city neighborhoods all over the country are enjoying a resurgence in popularity (and a scarcity of available housing stock, like our very hot Cherry Hill neighborhood in East Hills).
While our city has always been full of families of all shapes and sizes, the well-worn path to adulthood has often gone like this: play in the city when young, depart once in the family way for the suburbs (or EGR), and then return to the city later in life as an empty nester with a new home or condo space much smaller -- and thus unable to house a young millennial offspring returning to the nest.
But this former Chicago couple was refreshingly different, evoking a more modern viewpoint of our changing city: the new urban family on a mission to become more involved with all that the city has to offer.
When I pressed them as to why they had bucked convention, they gave an unexpected answer that even had me taking a step backward.
"When we got here we really loved the size of this city and how the community so often comes together to make it a better place," he said. "In fact, my wife and I vote in every election now, since, unlike in Chicago, it feels like our vote really does matter and makes a difference."
To that end (and unlike what I had become accustomed in the past), this couple revealed many fascinating aspects of our city that I think we often take for granted. They shared the way they're following the development of the East Hills-based Grand Rapid Public Schools' Congress Elementary stories as well as the reasons they voted in the affirmative for every local millage that's been presented since they moved here.
This young millennial family views voting as an opportunity for our community to converse around a topic. They say what they're affirming at the ballot box is that our community is empowered to apply positive steps to the critical issues of urban living, from the creation and sustaining of our parks to ensuring our streets were safe and in fine working order.
The Grand Rapids area has seen many new voices enter the region over the years and with each one you can really feel the current changing, with more and more people creating new stories that send the old stereotypes to the curb.
That is not to say the city is perfect; far from it. For every positive point, there are those challenges that have baffled even the most educated and gifted urbanist. In short, no place is perfect: urban, suburban, rural. All have their pros and cons, and it comes down to what works for you and your family.
But the city is where I am focused. And being in the service to her (our city), we are then in the business of serving the people … and not just those who are elected to serve us. We all have a stake in this future.
Moving forward to the end of summer, I was blown away by a reply from a friend who was answering my text asking if he would be attending a popular event in the city.
"Won't be attending – too many 'progressives," read the text.
I pondered that comment all weekend long, trying to parse that statement, and came to the conclusion it was delivered in jest. But all good humor has a kernel of truth buried within.
In my discovery, I had to ask myself what "progressive" means or looks like on the surface. Sure, at this event there would be those who are viewed as the more modern political definition of the type we used to call 'liberal.' But as I looked around the room, I saw many faces that I knew from past conversations would be quite put off by this narrow definition.
Could it be that Grand Rapids is becoming much more than just an incubator region for new business and testing new models of solving society's ills? Could we be seeing a positive example of bipartisanship progress on the things that really matter to cities? I believe that is what is fueling this new definition of "progressive" – a genuine desire to progress.
And just like that moment from earlier this summer when the couple volunteered the reasons why they voted in the affirmative to make this city better, the folks who attended this end-of-summer gala were also voting in the affirmative for programs and policies that make Grand Rapids a beautiful city of which we can all be proud.
On Monday we began a new era in making our city better by being the first city in the state to roll out a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) service called the Silver Line.
As I rode the bus on Monday with others who sat in the seats for the first time, a new chapter began. And I loved how people conversed with one another (those who did not engage were often caught eavesdropping, as a slight smile would emerge, giving away their hidden giddiness).
At the Central Station launch of the Silver Line, Michigan Department of Transportation's Director Kirk Steudle shared that being first comes with many eyes watching what we do here, while we're hoping to replicate the successes of other cities in the U.S. who have seen a positive benefit as a result of the BRT lines.
Steudle gave examples: Cleveland's BRT system has contributed to the development investment of $5.8 billion since 2008, while in Pittsburgh an astonishing new $350 million was generated within 150 feet of its new BRT stations.
We got our first look at that ability to inspire a community to be bold as the Grand Rapids Brewing Company launched (also on Monday) their classic Silver Foam lager (a local legacy brew recipe) in a special-edition Silver Line bottle for sale and for collecting.
Even ArtPrize was on the platform at Monday's Silver Line dedication because of their dedication to embracing The Rapid as a viable option for people to experience its internationally recognized annual arts event.
Many local projects, from ArtPrize to The Rapid's Silver Line to the Grand Rapids Whitewater Project, have captured the national imagination regarding what it's possible to create here.
In a few months the novelty of the new Silver Line will wear off for many, but not the need for us to be "progressive" in advancing solutions to keep moving our city forward. Access to quality public transportation is just the start of many new advances to emerge here.
More and more stereotypes will also have to fall away as the demand for a new way of life emerges in our area. The unification of the urban with the suburban -- and even the rural, which supplies both talented people and ingredients for our restaurants -- will create new and important partnerships that will make the need for such polarizing arguments to fall away.
We still have a way to go but now the ride is clearly faster.
As I wrote at the start of the summer, we are BetaCity now. So enjoy our roads, our commitment to public education, our new rapid transit options, and our parks, but most of all, enjoy that you are a part of making this rich new chapter in Grand Rapids so exciting with progressive opportunities for all.
The Future Needs All of Us…because the people are the city.
If anyone says that nothing cool happens here, introduce them to G-Sync Events: Let's Do This!
Editor's note: If you would like to know more about Congress Elementary, I recommend a listen to Michigan Public Radio's Dustin Dwyer's stories. Here is one of the most recent ones that conveys the complexities within public education in an urban setting. http://stateofopportunity.michiganradio.org/post/big-test-six-weeks-one-third-grade-class-low-scoring-elementary-school