So last week I called my oldest sister and asked her if I could come out for the weekend to spend a little time and have some fun. Of course, she was excited and we made plans for me to drive the ~2 hours out to her house; she lives on the west side of Michigan, near Lake Michigan.
And while I was excited just to spend the weekend with her and her husband, this gave me an excellent opportunity to spend some time in Grand Rapids, as I had to pass through it on the way to her house.
Grand Rapids is a beacon of economic strength and urban culture in West Michigan, and is home to the largest urban core in the state outside of Detroit. Fortunately, Grand Rapids is a wonderfully clean and healthy city, whereas Detroit is in a constant state of decline and decay.
So I’ll come out and admit that I’m a big fan of cities. It’s an admiration and love that goes slightly against some of my core goals of early retirement/financial independence, and I say that only because they’re typically more expensive than rural areas.
And while you might be able to rationalize living in a bigger, expensive city because you have a job that pays well and/or you’re able to circumvent the costs of owning an automobile through the use of public transportation, I probably won’t be able to claim such victories. If I’m able to continue writing for a living then I could do that anywhere. And it would be tough to forgo a car up here due to my family and friends being spread out across the state. I might be able to get by within a city with no car, but regular car rentals to go visit family would quickly eat up any savings I might see from not owning a vehicle.
Well, I left early Friday morning to allow myself time to detour through Grand Rapids. My sister doesn’t get home from work until 6:30 p.m., so I allowed myself about five hours of fun and exploration in GR.
And since I knew I’d have some time in the city and I also knew a fellow blogger, Kipp from Frankly Frugal Finance, lived in the area, I shot him an email to see if he’d like to meet up over lunch.
We met up at a local institution, Yesterdog, for hot dogs and a chat. I opted for one Ultradog – chili, cheese, ketchup, mustard, onions, and pickles. With a Pepsi to wash it down. Yum! It was no Detroit-style Coney Dog, but it definitely hit the spot.
Kipp and I chatted for a couple of hours about investing, frugality, and seeking freedom. It’s always wonderful to meet and chat with like-minded individuals. I even got lucky, because we stayed for quite a while. And I forgot about the parking meter. See, I’m not used to parking meters and paying for parking. Luckily, the meter I pulled up to had more than 50 minutes on the clock, so my parking was free. And it gets better: The meter had long expired by the time I got back to my car, yet I had no ticket waiting for me. Which was nice, because there was a parking enforcer roaming the lot just after I initially parked. Good timing on my part.
After Kipp and I went our separate ways I decided to do some urban exploring. I took my camera with me to get some shots of GR and give you all a feel for one of the best cities in Michigan. And I did this for selfish reasons as well. I’m still deciding where I’m going to settle down and complete my journey to financial independence. I’m renting a room from my sister right now, and while it’s wonderful it’s also temporary. I think my choice is really between two cities: Grand Rapids or Ann Arbor, as these are, in my opinion, by far the two best cities in Michigan with any type of urban core, walkability, and general high quality of life.
The great thing is that urban exploring like this is free. It costs nothing to walk the city, do some people watching, and admire the cityscape and architecture. I often mention that I naturally enjoy activities that are either free or low-cost, and this is a great example of spending an entire Friday afternoon for almost free (other than a small parking fee and the food and drink I purchased).
Today we’ll be looking at Grand Rapids through the lens of the pictures I took as I guide you guys through. I’ll be weighing the pros and cons of living here, and later will do the same with Ann Arbor once I have the chance to explore and take pictures in the same manner.
So after finding a parking spot downtown I had to contend with parking meters for the first time in quite a while. I had a few dimes left over as change from lunch, but not enough to buy myself enough meter time to explore the city. The good news is that there’s an automated phone number you can call to pay for parking via a credit card. The bad news is that it took 20 minutes to set an account up and it still didn’t work. So I found a parking garage across the street. Parked my car. Walked back to the parking meter area only to find parking enforcers bagging the meters because an event was going on in downtown, rendering parking free for the night. Back to my car I went, paid the $1.00 to exit the garage, and parked for free along the street. Score again!
I walked along the street to take a picture of La Grande Vitesse, but since there was an aforementioned event going on with signups located around the sculpture, the pictures unfortunately did not turn out well.
I continued on and found myself near the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM to locals), the world’s first LEED certified art museum.
It’s a really beautiful building located right behind (or in front of, depending on your point of view) Rosa Parks Circle, which is a small plaza that hosts concerts in the summer and ice skating in the winter.
I continued on and walked one of the bridges that crosses the Grand River, where there was once a set of rapids (which the city is named after). I found the Grand Rapids Public Museum, which has some really great exhibits along with a planetarium.
I then crossed all the way across to the other side of the river to get a great shot of the skyline from Ah-Nab-Awen Park, which resulted in the picture you see at the beginning of the article. I personally think the skyline of Grand Rapids is by far the best in all of Michigan.
Swinging back across the bridge, I decided to get out of the hot summer sun and duck into the library. Now, no self-respecting frugalist would not know where the library is, so I had already located it before I set off across town. It was then just a matter of finding the streets and getting inside once I was back across the river.
That picture doesn’t actually do it justice, as it’s really quite big inside; it’s one of the biggest libraries I’ve ever been in. In addition, it’s really beautiful inside and out, from all angles. I was pleased to see they had multiple copies of some of my favorite books, like “The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life”. For anyone not in the know, that’s Warren Buffett’s biography. I’ve recommended it for reading for those just starting out. It’s a long, but wonderful read.
I spent probably an hour in here perusing their selection of books and getting the lay of the land. I generally find myself quite comfortable in a library, and this was a highlight of the late afternoon.
After exiting refreshed and less sweaty I realized the Grand Rapids Civic Theater was located just a block away.
This is a really beautiful theater, and it appears that after checking their schedule and some reviews they put on some really fantastic performances. I haven’t been to live theater since my college days, but I’d love to go again at some point. There’s something really magical and visceral about it, in my opinion. Not a particularly frugal night on the town as some of the shows can be moderately expensive, but an occasional splurge is okay.
After leaving this area and hitting one of the main east-west cross streets, Fulton Street, I found myself sitting across the block from Van Andel Arena, which is where the Grand Rapids Griffins, a professional hockey team in the AHL, play. They also routinely host events and concerts. It has the capacity for up to just over 13,000 people.
The great thing about going to a Griffins game – I’ve been to a few – is that the tickets and food are way cheaper than going to a Red Wings game in Detroit. And the entertainment is just about the same, as the team is an affiliate to the Wings. I find the value proposition much better with watching pro affiliate teams, like the West Michigan Whitecaps, a baseball team that’s an affiliate to the Detroit Tigers. They also play in the area.
I took one last picture before leaving downtown for good, just to give you readers an idea of the architecture within downtown. The following is a shot of Ionia Ave SW, looking south.
The architecture is really just beautiful, and I guess I just have an appreciation for that kind of stuff. What’s really amazing to me is how clean the downtown area is kept. I don’t think I encountered one iota of trash anywhere on the streets. In addition, the entire area was bustling with people all over. The pictures may make it look like the town is dead, but I purposely timed my pictures to avoid capturing any unsuspecting faces.
I actually hopped just a block over from Ionia to grab a pretty decent sandwich from Two Beards Deli. I ate it too fast to take a picture, though. Urban exploring makes me hungry!
So there you have it. A small piece of Grand Rapids viewed through the camera lens of an afternoon of urban exploration. It should be noted, however, that Grand Rapids is a pretty big city, and is also quite spread out. The downtown core is large, urban, and vibrant. However, it’s just a small part of an otherwise fairly large city.
Some vital stats:
- Population: 188,040 as of 2010
- Size: 45.27 square miles
- Average high in January: 30.7 degrees Fahrenheit
- Average high in July: 82.8 degrees Fahrenheit
Looking at the city through the lens of someone who’s aiming to become financially independent by 40, and as such appreciates frugality to a strong degree, there are numerous pros and cons to the city. I’ll try to be brief and lay out what I think are the most compelling cases both for and against living here from my perspective:
- Dense urban core suitable for walkability/bicycling. Average citywide walkscore of 48. Central downtown score of 97.
- Plenty of free activities, including parks, sightseeing, occasional free museum days, biking, farmers’ markets, the library, and the fantastic ArtPrize.
- Lots of activities that aren’t free, but fun and generally low cost, including a zoo, a comedy club, sporting events, theater, museums, symphony, Frederik Meijer Gardens, and a plethora of excellent unique dining choices.
- Housing is cheap. Decent starter single-family homes in acceptable areas start around $60,000. You can buy a downtown condo for $120k and up. Since I’m comparing to Ann Arbor, acceptable SFHs start at around $125,000 and downtown condos run ~$250k and up in A2. From my research, housing is on average about 50% cheaper in Grand Rapids, which seems to jive well with a number of calculators out there that compare cost of living between cities. However, the spread seems to be a bit more narrow when comparing apples-to-apples rentals. Two bedroom apartments in nice areas of GR near downtown can be had for $700 and up, whereas A2 two bedroom rentals anywhere near the city core seem to be closer to $1,000 and up. It’s tough to get an exact comparison, though, as it seems A2 apartments are generally smaller. But smaller can be a good thing.
- Close to the fantastic beaches along Lake Michigan and some of the great beach towns, like Grand Haven.
- Plenty of reasonably priced loft apartments and condos downtown, which is a dream housing situation for me. These usually feature huge windows, concrete and/or wood flooring, exposed beams and ducts, and industrial features. Many were originally furniture factories, as that was a huge industry for this city many years ago. These actually aren’t as common as you would think up here in Michigan, and in most cities are very expensive.
- Lonely Planet’s #1 US travel destination for 2014.
- The city is growing and becoming better every single day. There’s a lot of private funding in the city, and the community pride is obvious.
- Multiple colleges located in the city, which provides an influx of young, talented people.
- City tax of 1.5%. Yuck. This is applicable to residents of the city. Non-residents who work in the city are taxed at ½ that rate.
- Far from family. GR is approximately 1.5 hours from most of my family; however it’s close to my oldest sister who lives along Lake Michigan. Ann Arbor, on the other hand, is approximately an hour and ten minutes from most of my family, but further away from my oldest sister. Most of my family lives in very rural areas.
- A car is necessary. Though it’s possible to get around the downtown area without a car with no problem, GR is spread out. In addition, I moved back to Michigan to spend time with family more often. So if I didn’t own a car I’d have to rent one so often that it would be cost-prohibitive. My 2006 Corolla would be far cheaper to just keep than try to get around by bike, foot, and bus, and then finagle a way to see family. But this con is probably unfair as it’s applicable to just about anywhere in Michigan.
- Crime. From a number of sources I’ve used, Grand Rapids is significantly more dangerous than Ann Arbor. You can view Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor crime stats using information supplied from city-data.com. You’ll notice that GR sees about four times as much violent crime as A2. Of course, it seems that the majority of this crime is concentrated in one particular area of the city, south and west of downtown. In my opinion, this is a major drawback.
- Sprawl. Though the center of the city, which includes the downtown core, is fairly dense, much of the city is sprawled out across more than 40 square miles.
- Grand Rapids experiences a strong dose of lake-effect snow, as it’s located approximately 80 miles to the east of Lake Michigan. GR averages almost 75 inches of snow per year, compared to approximately 58 inches for Ann Arbor.
I personally think the pros outweigh the cons, but the city income tax is a bummer. However, the cost of living adjustment compared to Ann Arbor would more than compensate for this, at least until my income rises significantly. The crime rate is kind of shocking, though. But I think, as in any city, being aware of your surroundings goes a long way. I grew up in a pretty rough area of Detroit, so I’m familiar with avoiding trouble.
I hope to put a similar article on Ann Arbor together at some point in the future, but I have to find time to spend 5-6 hours around the city exploring and taking pictures.
What do you think of Grand Rapids? Seem like a nice place to live? For anyone who lives in the area, was my description accurate?
Thanks for reading.
Photo Credits: Moi