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Growing into Grand Rapids

A personal essay about growing up in Grand Rapids and learning to love it.
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City pride was easy to grasp in my formative years. My northeast side elementary classmates and I didn't dream of life in the Big Easy, we didn't want to cut our teeth on a Big Apple. Our more pressing concerns were saving our quarters to go swimming at Briggs Park, getting home when the street lights came on, and learning our zip code by heart, 4-9-5-0-5. When I was seven, I wrote a play featuring Juliet Dragos from WZZM as a character, assuming her national stardom. I didn't have the frame of reference to criticize my hometown, not just yet.

During high school, I became cynical about the possibility of my adult life unfolding in Grand Rapids. I remember hearing the city as a example of urban decay while dozing off during history class. I didn't want decay; I wanted to flourish. I dreamed of moving to a gorgeous Manhattan apartment, funding it with a combination of my poet, songwriter and novelist incomes, respectively. I was way too metropolitan to follow in my parents' footsteps.

My parents, both 1972 graduates of Creston High School, have stayed within the metro area of Grand Rapids their whole lives, only moving out to Rockford from the Northeast side in the early 90's. My grandparents were high school sweethearts from the now defunct South High School. My great-grandfather owned a dress shop and furrier, LeBaron's, which was located on Monroe Mall next to the old Steketee's. My family history was woven into the city's history as far back as living history could tell me, which I didn't find impressive.

I couldn't understand why there wasn't anyone in my family with any wanderlust or sense of adventure. I had seen photos of them in their unrecognizable youths, seemingly carefree, but yet, still here. This was a total mystery to my teenage self.

Adding insult to injury, my parents didn't just live here- they were proud of their town. They drove my siblings and I to tears of boredom with what became known as the "Kelsey Street" talks. The talks, which took place during Sunday dinners, consisted of a thorough dissection any going-ons from their old neighborhood: people who had died, businesses that closed, what their old friends and their old friends' children were doing. This invariably led to full on glory days nostalgia and exchanged eye rolls between me and my siblings.

The "Kelsey Street" talks went on the road occasionally. While in the car, my parents drove us through their old stomping grounds, giving tours and pointing out highlights. The most awkward occasion of this tour occured when my younger brother and I moved into an apartment together in the East Hills neighborhood.  My dad came over to check out the place, and stood staring into my new bedroom. After a few seconds, he said, "You know, I've been here before. My friends and I used to party with some girls that lived here." This didn't sit great with me, not only because of its obvious icky implications but also because I couldn't seem to get off my parents' path.

After graduation, I didn't quite make it to my deluxe Manhattan apartment in the sky. Instead, I reluctantly stayed in the area to attend Grand Rapids Community College, at my parents' urging. Through college and beyond, I watched jealously as my  friends and classmates moved onward to bigger cities and better opportunities.

I was swiftly becoming my greatest fear at that time: the small fish in the small pond, the dreaded townie. Townies are those people who stay in their hometowns, either by choice or circumstance. Being a townie is not inherently negative, but I considered it a trap.

Lamenting to my mom was no help, not for lack of trying on her part. She didn't get the whole George Bailey wanting to "shake the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and see the world" thing. After a frustrating period of my complaining about living here, she sent me a magnet in the mail which read, "Bloom where you're planted." It might has well have been written in Russian: I just didn't get that concept. My mom had been to New York City before and dismissed it as "dirty;" she went to London and had no interest in returning. 

Maybe it was coincidence or some subconscious level of rebellion, but I did visit those two major cities as soon as I could. While I found them both to be beautiful and fascinating, I could see why they weren't for my mother. She can't seem to go anywhere in Grand Rapids without running into someone she knows, she knows every side street and short cut, she's seen businesses come and go: her life is here. These huge cities can be isolating and indifferent. I was a stranger in them; I had no frame of reference, which was strangely upsetting.

Grand Rapids wisely ended up taking my mom's advice. It bloomed when I wasn't looking. Restaurants, bars, and events cropped up all around me. People started moving here from other cities, and they wanted to stay and shared their positive views of the city. Some of my own friends came back on their own accord, and were surprised to see the new side of their hometown. Citizen love of Grand Rapids started coming out of the closet. They started to push back against negativity, refusing to have their city declared dead.

Grand Rapids didn't change for me in any one of these moments, but in a cumulative process that carries on. All the stories of my life have this same common thread, the same backdrop. Driving through the city now, I see myself in it.  I’m a 15 year old gripping the wheel on the S curve; I’m six watching fireworks from my dad’s shoulders; I’m 22 teetering down Ionia street at 3 a.m.; I'm 18 walking across the stage at the DeltaPlex, diploma in hand.

Grand Rapids and I seem to still be coming of age together. We’re taking our chances, making our mistakes, gaining confidence. We’re striving to be vibrant, wanting to get noticed. We’re in it together, making names for ourselves.

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My dad lived on Kelsey Street... I heard Kelsey Street talks. Maybe they were friends. Maybe we should be friends. I have also lived in apartments where my parents (and various other relatives, including Grandma) partied. 

Is it strange that this made me emotional? I'm not even a Grand Rapids native, but I love this city.  What a well-written article! Thanks!

Had the same effect on me-and I'm also a transplant. For anyone that feels connected to this community, they'll probably also feel a connection to Samantha's story.

Love the images-both the photo and the word pictures.  Anyone who has lived in an area for a long while certainly will relate to the outgrown-sweater itchiness that you describe so well. 

I couldn't relate more to this piece.  I have lived in Grand Rapids since the day I was born at Butterworth in 1981.  I have been torn on so many occasions as whether to stay or go.  Most of my friends live in bigger cities now: Chicago, Seattle, Portland, Phoenix, NYC.  I realized a short time ago that I love this place.  I can call my mother and meet her for dinner.  I can watch my city blossom. I can camp on the beach. 

Thank you again for this, I too got a bit emotional while reading.  Cheers to you, fellow townie.