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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 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.