Quiet City

“Let’s go to Grand Rapids.”

“Um. OK.”

All I know about Grand Rapids is that the guy who created Amway, Dick de Voss, is from there. Also, everybody’s conservative and really, really Dutch. Oh, it also hosts ArtPrize, the world’s biggest art competition. This is no Art Fair such as one finds in dozens of cities around the U.S., including Ann Arbor, but a huge open air festival where artists from all over take over Grand Rapids and turn it into the American version of the Venice Biennale.

I wasn’t expecting Venice, of course. In fact, I wasn’t expecting much. So I was kind of amazed at what a lovely place it is.

But, as you can see, empty. It’s a mid-August Saturday and a perfect day. Maybe everyone went to the lake. Oh wait, there’s someone….why, IT’S ME!! Hello.

I’m standing just outside the Grand Rapids Art Museum, the GRAM. It’s a gorgeous building with a concise contemporary collection on the top floor and a holy smokes! temporary exhibit right now, Cities in Transition. The centerpiece is an extraordinary group of photographs of a nearly silent city, Detroit, by natural light photographer Andrew Moore. (Visit his site to be blown away by some of the picture from the exhibit, as well as shots of Russia, Cuba, Times Square, and other places in transition.) Fascinated by the movement of cities from one era into the next, Moore finds beauty in the ruins of the broken Motor City. Snow covers the floor of the great and abandoned central train station, built to evoke Roman architecture, which, ironically, it now does more than ever. A factory ceiling, collapsed under the weight of dozens of tires, serves as a visual elegy to the mighty and fallen industrial presence of Detroit. That old warhorse Ozymandius resonates like a funerary bell:

” `My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Yet there is hope, as well. Young artists are buying dilapidated houses for $100 and renovating them in anticipation of a community. In one of the most touching photographs, birch trees rise gracefully through the ceiling of a ruined library, decaying books providing the perfect ground for new growth. Can Detroit come back? In the film below, Moore mentions that the photos, shot in 2009, are already becoming somewhat outdated as Motown resurges. That, my friends, is a wonderful thing, and I truly hope the trend continues.

Anyway, please enjoy the movie at the bottom of this linked page, Moore’s introductory presentation (I won’t call it a lecture because it’s way more entertaining) to learn about this wonderful artist’s process and inspirations, and to see many, many beautiful shots.

After that, we walked around the city, still pretty empty but lovely. We stopped in the historic former Pantlind Hotel, now the Amway Plaza. It was like all those grand hotels you see in Chicago, lots of chandeliers and mirrors and restaurants that serve you things like Osso Buco in hushed tones. There are about 30 different names of people that start with “Vander” pretty much everywhere you look. We cut through the lobby to the back side and walked along the Grand River for a while. Then it was time to go to our B and B. We had to stay here because it’s the only place with a doorway taller than S. Then again, he is standing on the bottom step.

Inside was also pretty fancy schmancy. Check out that wallpaper, the original from the 19th century. They had a brochure from the Smithosonian that talked all about it; these big murals with “realistic” scenes on them were all the rage at the time.

It was kind of like being in Tara, except in western Michigan, so really not like that at all. But I did wish for a hoop skirt to flounce around that curve in the stairway. Who wouldn’t?

I believe the barometer of whether any place will survive to the next generation of iPad is the health, indeed, mere existence of its hipster quarter. If there is any truth to this, Grand Rapids has nothing to worry about. Easttown, within walking distance of our B and B (granted, I’m a former New Yorker and S has really long legs), has many fabulous places in which to get tasty coffee and wireless service, as well as some of the greatest antique stores outside of Northern Michigan, which has THE greatest antique stores of just about anywhere. Did we take photos? Alas, no. But we did remember to get out the camera for this serendipitous street crossing, which is exactly the way the Youngest makes me feel.

Home again. Our neighborhood, the Heritage Hill section, is porn for the old house obsessed. Home to timber barons and other plunderers who made This Great Country What It Is, the area features a gazillion amazing old domiciles. For instance, this Frank Lloyd Wright designed joint was just across the street.

There are scads of brightly colored and ornately painted Victorians; some of the paint jobs rival what you see in San Francisco. I was partial to this pretty yellow house; the color always reminds me of my mom, because it’s her favorite and it’s sunny, just like she is. Enjoy, GS!

This stunner can be appreciated better by checking out the detail shot underneath. Some terra cotta sculptor probably went a little nuts finishing all this. Terra Cotta Sculptor, your trip to the loony bin was not in vain! We salute you and your numb fingers.

“Um. Boss? We have a …kind of a … problem.”


“Well, remember Mr. Timber Baron wanted that big ass chimney?”


“It…sorta….got away from us.”


Boss: “You got any more of that gingerbread crap?”


“Yeah. Just kinda….put some up there. He’ll never notice.”

That’s just a sampling.

We ate at San Chez for tapas – great artichoke hearts – and then headed to Bar Divani, which has a 30 page wine list that we forewent because we had drunk what I believe is referred to as “a good amount” of Sangria at the tapas joint. But the French Press of locally roasted joe was darn good.

The city had perked up for the evening, and we had a grand old time walking around it. Should you be tempted to turn up your nose at a small city in the future, I offer you this parting shot. You can have a delightful time in Grand Rapids no matter how big of a city slicker you are. See you at ArtPrize.

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