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In Anticipation of Tina Brown's GR Vacay...

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All the heated responses to Newsweek last week got me thinking: what would Tina Brown see if she picked up the gauntlet we as a city threw down last week and actually visited Grand Rapids? 

I tend more toward cynicism than blind optimism, so I suspect GR junkets for notoriously underwhelmed New York journos are far more likely to highlight areas for improvement than negate Census statistics. Based on my own experience as a transplant, and feedback from friends and family, I’d expect a visitor like Tina to notice our…

  • Under-developed public transit system
    For a city so committed to being green, it’s surprisingly difficult to live here without a car. When my friend from Berlin came to visit a few years back, he couldn’t believe the distances we drove to meet basic needs like buying groceries. After a week in Chicago hopping on and off the el, I agreed with him.

    When I attended and worked at GVSU, I took the bus downtown; it’s pretty much a straight shot on the 6 from East Hills. My attempts to integrate the bus system into my life since, however, have all failed. Taking the bus to my previous job at Ivanrest and 28th Street, for example, would have taken an hour and 15 minutes. Driving took about 12.

    I can’t really fault the Rapid. Expansion can’t happen without funding and increased demand. On the other hand, the more we tout quality of life and sustainability to the likes of Tina Brown, the more people will expect a robust public transit system.

  • Expensive and inconvenient airport
    It is pricey and time-consuming to fly in and out of Grand Rapids. Case in point: my last trip back from New York City. Connecting flights and protracted layovers turned a relatively short flight time into an epic journey of 14 hours. I literally could have driven back faster.

    This presents a real problem for any young professionals Grand Rapids manages to attract from other states that still have family elsewhere. I’m running about $1,200 a year visiting family. They don’t come here because, well, it takes forever to get here; they’d have to rent a car and drive all over the place if they did; and compared to the cities they live in—Orlando, Minneapolis, Chicago, New York, and D.C.—there’s not much they really want to do here anyway.

    I expect that after her 14-hour trip to Grand Rapids—especially that last leg from Chicago on an itty-bitty plane with no beverage service—Tina Brown is not going to be in any mood to recommend us to the world.
     
  • Lack of integrated diversity, particularly among the middle class
    My family thinks it’s weird that, in city that’s 20% black and 13% Latino, I have few friends who share my heritage. The reason is simple: I rarely meet any who live in the city and who share my interests and career trajectory.

    Though we comprise over one-third of the city’s population, blacks and Hispanics are conspicuously under-represented in GR’s middle class and professional workforce—a troubling fact only rarely mentioned in all these cool cities/creative class conversations.

    According to 2009 Census estimates, the median household income for whites in Grand Rapids was $44,258—51% and 34% more than blacks and Hispanics, respectively. Educational disparities are even more disheartening: the proportion of whites over 25 with a bachelor’s degree or higher (33%) triples that of blacks. Just 4.5% of Hispanics have attained this level of education. Urban social and professional segregation, the most visible sign of these disparities, is exacerbated by the intentional resettlement of immigrants and refugees outside our city center by social service organizations.

    The lack of meaningful multicultural experiences at home contributes to a widespread knowledge deficit our best and brightest aren’t even aware they have. For example, my world-traveler-now-med student friend thought the term “Hispanic” only referred to Mexicans. Upon learning that I’m Puerto Rican, people who should really know better often recommend their favorite taquería.
     

All this undermines our ability to attract and retain diverse new talent. Nothing seems more Podunk than when, during an interview, prospective employers ask a “tell me about a situation when…” diversity question that is clearly geared to non-minority candidates and/or obtrusively personal for a person who has experienced prejudice. My personal favorite is being asked to speak on behalf of Black People Everywhere during workplace diversity trainings by well-intentioned facilitators whose untrained eyes don’t see I’m (pretty obviously) mixed. Finally, unlike the city's Convention and Visitors Bureau, recent transplants will undoubtedly notice the lack of minority FM radio stations and the fact that major urban and Latino artists don’t headline the Van Andel.

Ironically, the core West Michigan values I’ve absorbed during my 10 years here, and that Grand Rapids projects to the world—sustainability, importance of family, and loving your heritage—actually decrease the likelihood that I will remain here long-term. 

For my friends who’ve lived in larger U.S. cities, and myself to some extent, the final nails in the coffin have been the relentless blind optimism and disregard for statistics that Grand Rapids publicly broadcasts.
 

West Michigan natives always seem to interpret scary stats like Michigan loses one household every 12 minutes or nearly half of public university grads move after graduation as problems with Flint and Detroit.
 

At the same time, Grand Rapids-specific realities like our non-existent minority middle class, or the fact that data show we need to add 35,000 young professional households to achieve the same proportion of young talent as our regional competitors, seem to be brushed under the rug.
 

Though perhaps not indicators of imminent death, these issues, against the backdrop of population decline, are enough to keep Grand Rapids off my Alive and Thriving City’s list. They probably won’t win us any points with Tina Brown either.


Ruth

Ruth works as a freelance writer and nonprofit fundraising consultant. Residing in the delightful East Hills neighborhood, Ruth loves cooking, crafting, DIY decorating, and those really long BBC mini-series... She has very curly hair.

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Comments

I appreciate your honestly and the facts/stats presented in this piece. You bring to light some very serious issues, especially about diversity and inclusion. Thanks.

@Roberta King: Thank you so much for reading and for your comment. I definitely don't want to downplay the cool things happening here. But I think the downside of our strong work ethic and hope for the future is a tendency to downplay some of these larger infrastructure issues that will take substantially more than ArtPrize and LEED certification to change. 

Ruth, this is such a great, honest commentary. Newsweek's listicle was clumsily written, but it had a grain of truth. Many people struggle to get by in this community and many others are hanging on by a thread. We should be trying to help those people instead of depending on parochial cheerleading about Grand Rapids.

always love seeing the word "Podunk". 

I am a recent transplant from NYC and have for the most part been surprised and thrilled by all the good things that are happening in Grand Rapids. But the thing I miss most is the diversity that you write about. After 12 years in an extremely racially and economically mixed neighborhood, I wonder often about whether I can feel comfortable raising my children in such a segregated place, where they are unlikely to have peers from backgrounds unlike their own. And if they don't have that, what will it mean for who they are as adults and how they will participate in the much more diverse world outside GR?

Sarah, I think you can encourage diverse childhood relationships through the top-notch public schools that exist in the area or through arts and sports programs. It just takes effort. 

Yes, my other disappointment about moving to GR has been that the schools situation is no easier to figure out than it was in NYC. Suggestions for districts to look at for school of choice or for schools within GRPS that might offer this kind of diverse community as well as strong education would be great! I keep hoping to come across some sort of neighborhood schools movement here.

Sarah, I have no other way to respond to you directly. Feel free to send an email to depolo@gmail.com and I would be happy to have you over to the house and we can talk about the Montessori schools in Grand Rapids. 

 @Sarah: Kudos to you for giving this serious thought. I spent the first 12 years of myself living in two very diverse areas and I very much value those experiences. After travelling internationally quite a bit, I've concluded that traveling is not a substitute for meaningful, interaction with diverse groups at home.

I personally am not planning on kids, but if I did, I would want their experience to be like mine, which involved: hanging out with my parents' Indian, Italian-American, Puerto-Rican, and Greek friends; regular exposure to Japanese food, as well as cheesecake, bagels, and pizza that didn't suck; and interacting with children my own age from Africa, Norway, and all over the U.S. 

Cranky and specific, my preferred Rapidian house style!

Having worked at Newsweek and FOR Tina Brown (at the much unbeloved, ill-fated, not-remembered Talk Magazine), I feel like she's copying what HuffPost already does: regularly rank and opine about specific cities/colleges/sports teams to provoke readers into actually *reading* the magazine. it's one of the few things magazines can claim uniquely as part of their editorial mission: the charticle.

But the substance of Ruth's response is right on, from public transport to integration. As a fellow newcomer to GR (hey Sarah!), and living in Eastown, I noticed quickly  the missing swath of a minority middle-class here. I don't know who is to "blame" for that, but it helps explain, I think, the segregation.

Honestly, if I could remake the city for the 21st century, I'd raize the riverside area of downtown and reconceive. I think the city planners made the biggest mistake by nullifying the riverside, condoning it off with concrete. There's nothing beautiful about downtown GR, no place but Rosa Parks Cicle to hang out and just people watch, which will always make it an unremarkable.

 @Austin: Cranky and specific are my specialty! So glad you approve. Oh my gosh... I totally remember an ad for Talk that were on DVDs as a preview. I totally forgot about that... 

The hardest part about the minority middle class issue is that there's not a whole lot that can be done about it, at least not at the individual level. I can make things better for the next generation by, say, being a mentor to inner city youth and encouraging them to go to college. But I can't create a social network of peers for myself. I can't start museums like El Museo del Barrio or Studio Museum in Harlem or bus in people like my Dad (black PhD in Communications) or Uncle Bill (actor, successful nonprofit arts consultant). And--while I'm on my soapbox here--I'm not calling anyone prejudiced, but people do tend to date within their race, and the pool of single men here is already quite small. Unfortunately, practicality will probably win out over altruism in the next few years.

...you mentioned how long it takes to fly in and out of GR. Soon, I'll be on a plane home to the West Coast for the first time in a year, and it's quite the pain. Neither of my parents have ever been to GR, and a few months ago, they were planning on a visit from the West Coast. When they saw how long it would take, they backed out. The kicker: They're both retired.

Ruth,

So many excellent observations. Moving here form San Francisco Bay area, I certainly have seen a lack of integrated diversity. This is a huge issue to me.

And public transportation is a real problem (as much in attitude, as infrastructure).

I don't know if the case made for air travel. In reality, Tina Brown would have at least 2 airlines that offer nonstop service between GRR and New York City (average time 2.5 hours). Comparing GR flight services to places like DC, Chicago and Minneapolis? These are BIG cities (Minneapolis nearly 400k and 3.5 million in the metro area).  There are many mid-size cities (more in line with the size of GR)  that require mostly connecting flights. In many cases getting to the airport can take an hour or two and parking costs 3x as much. And no Amtrak service, either. 

We have nonstop service from GRR to Washington DC and to Denver. When Southwest arrives, I hope it will get a bit better. But the reality is I am no fan of air travel and have to deal with the midwest-west coast struggle fairly regularly. Air travel is a mess everywhere...expensive, inconvenient, and a royal pain no matter where you're coming from or going to. I just don't think that when compared to similar cities, it rises to become one of our most significant issues. My 2 cents.

Thanks again for this thought-provoking article.

 

 @Laurie: Thanks for the comment. You are correct that we do offer more direct flights than before. My last flight to Minneapolis was direct, and it was sheer joy. I love flying! 

It was a bit more expensive than the flights with a Chicago connection. But let's fact facts, Tina Brown can probably spring for 1st class direct.

You're also right that this isn't really a top priority issue for the city. Mostly, it ended up in my article because I'm still annoyed by the 14-hour Thanksgiving debacle ;-) 

I'm probably expecting a little too much from my air travel experience anyway; I grew up spoiled by O'Hare. GR does have free wifi, which is a plus.

Ruth-


I work at The Rapid, and definitely appreciate your article. We're taking steps to try to address exactly some of the issues you talk about. Voters in the six cities served by The Rapid (GR, EGR, Kentwood, Wyoming, Walker, Grandville) will be asked to renew and increase our operating millage on May 3. If approved, we can start implementing Phase 1 of our new Transit Master Plan (www.rapidtmp.org). Please check it out. The initial improvements are focused on increasing and enhancing existing services to run more buses on our busiest routes, increase frequency across the entire system, and run routes later at night and more on the weekend (among other items).


 


You (or anyone else reading) can contact me with questions, concerns, thoughts, etc. at bkirk@ridetherapid.org.


 


I'd be curious to see if the Phase 1 improvements would make it possible for you to take The Rapid to work again :)


 


Thanks again for the thoughtful article-

 @Bill: Thanks for reading. I certainly appreciate the Rapid's willingness to consider changes like this. I really liked taking the bus to GVSU and to CC when I had a class there, but those tickets were free and reduced, respectively. For me to consider paying for bus service, it would have to be drastically more convenient than driving, since I'll probably still have my car.

My public transit wish-list: 

1. A non-stop Meijer shuttle for a few locations.

2. Run the #5 and #6 (and the #4?) until 2:30 on Friday and Saturday. I would SOOOO take the bus instead of driving or taking a cab. Seriously, schlepping yuppie partyers around will pay for itself in no time :) 

3. A summer jitney to the lake (wait... do we already have a lake shuttle?)

I actually work from home now, but I can still test the theory for you when the time comes :)

Lake/Wealthy to 28th St/Ivanrest is doable in 47 minutes but only if the bus is on time. There's just a 2 minute window handing off from #10 southbound to #28 westbound at 28th St/Clyde Park.  Rapid schedulers may want to consider a larger cushion.

A few things to consider: The statistics you state are only looking at the city of GR, instead of the entire region. Granted, there is much slack to account for, but there are also other factors involved including people that have done well move away from areas that are perceived as ghettos into areas that are perceived as successful. Unfortunately, as people make more money they are more likey to move away from the city limits, skewing the statistics for the city proper. The term "Hispanic" refers to a lineage from Spain, which is very different than much of the racial make-up of the southern portion of the western hemisphere, which would be more appropriately dubbed "Latino." It is interesting that you bring in the issue of public transit into the equation. One of the problems of public transit in GR is that they ar trying to serve a percieved need instead of the actual need, primarly based on the idea that states of poverty are the purpose of public transit instead of it being a mainstay of a healty city.

@Mark: I reported Grand Rapids city numbers 1) to remain consistent with the Newsweek article, and 2) because I ran the numbers for our metropolitan statistical area, and sadly that made things worse. Admittedly, there were some holes in the data for Holland.


Tommy Allen also advocated for using a “regional area” in last week’s G-sync. Not sure what region y’all think will put West Michigan in a better light. The Census most commonly defines GR's metropolitan statistical area as GR-Holland-Muskegon, though I have seen GR-Wyoming for some data sets (no idea why). Any measure that includes Muskegon is not going to do Grand Rapids any statistical favors.

Potentially, you could look at the County, which might change the figure for population decline, but, unless there’s a secret cadre of minority professionals somewhere, adding cities like Ada into the mix are just going to make us look less diverse, and with larger income differentials.

 

You could come up with your own definition for the New West Michigan. For that I’d plan on excluding Muskegon and including Saugutuck-Douglas. Unfortunately, adding more people will most likely nullify municipal distinctions based on capita, like number of LEED buildings. Sorry! Can’t have it both ways.

The Michigan Future report where I pulled the “adding 35,000 new young pros to GR” focuses on Detroit, Ann Arbor, and Grand Rapids only. Their data did not come from the Census, so I couldn’t run those numbers regionally. Moving on…

The term Hispanic comes from “Hispania”, from the Latin Hispanus—the former name of the Iberian Peninsula, which includes Portugal and Spain. It’s not really a nationality or race categorization; it is an ethnicity and/or self-identifier that relates to language than place. Thus, it may be used to describe anyone descended from a country in which a Hispanic language is spoken, including Brazil.

Hispanic and Latino are used interchangeably by the Census—actually they’re one category, “Hispanic or Latino”—though some prefer one or the other. Nuyoricans, have been referring to themselves as “Hispanos” since the 60s. I tend to identify myself as Hispanic, a group of Hispanics that includes Mexicans as Latino (I have no idea why), and Latino/a to describe an individual person, especially regarding attractiveness. E.g. “Wow. She is one hot Latina!”
 

And, or course, the term “spic”, which seems to relate more to Hispanic than Latino, is used broadly to describe Mexicans and Puerto Ricans and Cubans alike. It’s an equal opportunity epithet ;-) Hmm… I’m not sure whether this supports my point or yours…

Thanks for reading and commenting!

 

 

I think running numbers on the county could yield interesting results.

 I'll let someone else pick up the torch with that ;-) 

Not sure the American Community Survey has county level data, though.

You are correct in your assessment, the numbers tell a story that most people in GR do not want to hear. Many of the people that are on the GR bandwagon, including myself, often take the default position of trying to figure out the positive spin. It is buried in the belief that we can change the city into something better. Maybe to get to better we need to be more open to honest critique of our city. 

@Mark: Thanks for reading and for such an honest response. In my mind, taking ownership of the areas we need to improve, being the first to highlight our own deficiencies, and then telling people what we're doing to make those areas better, or even asking them for help, is far more likely to win long-term allies. I'd rather put that stuff out there than only focus on the positive and have someone call me out on it later. I definitely fall into the "what can they say about me that I haven't already said about myself and probably joked about" camp. 

 

Hi Ruth,

Really timely article - frankly those of us who have spent way too much time here tolerate a lot of these things without thinking ...

We covered this topic on our show (Radio in Black and White) last week and would love to have you weigh in this week.

 

Would you be available at 11:30 am EST to do a call in interview?

Call me to confirm

RICK WILSON

616-204-7362

 Hi Rick, 

Sorry for the delay in responding to you. Can you email me with more details about the program and what day you wanted to conduct the interview. If you private message me through the Rapidian, it will reach my personal email. Thanks for your interest!

Ruth 

Hi Ruth,

Sorry I did not mention the day - this Monday February 14 at 11:30 am EST.  Context is your article - details re: the show are here (Radio in Black and White). Would take about 10-12 minutes.

Please call with questions if you need to ...

204-7362

TX

RICK