Although the city’s population declined almost 5% since 2000, downtown Grand Rapids, unlike almost any other part of Michigan, is a growing place. Within the last 15 years, nearly all of the downtown area has undergone extensive renovation and expansion, almost the inverse effect of what is happening to downtown Detroit. Although the most noticeable changes to the skyline are the additions of the River House and J.W. Marriott (with its glowing blue center) skyscrapers, the most significant addition is the complete retooling of Michigan Street into a 10-storey wall of brand new medical facilities.
Two names run rampant throughout the city, Van Andel and DeVos, the names of the families who started Amway. Never short of notoriety or influence in Grand Rapids, these names seem to be attached a good portion of business and buildings throughout the area. Rick DeVos is also the sponsor and founder of one of the most popular new free-for-all festivals, ArtPrize. Unfortunately, I’ve never been in Grand Rapids during the two times ArtPrize has occurred.
The best way to become acclimated to the downtown area of Grand Rapids, and almost any city I think, is to walk it. With the entire downtown contained to about 2 square kilometers (the worthwhile boundaries being Michigan to the north, the Grand River to the west, Cherry to the south, and Lafayette to the east) it is very accommodating to walkers, with the park and mall of small stores and restaurants along Monroe Center being the highlight.
The river itself is not a spot to be missed on a nice day, either. Although the Grand River itself does not have the greatest reputation among locals for its pristine cleanliness, with the area where it enters Lake Michigan affectionately referred to as the “scum line”, the stretch of the river through downtown Grand Rapids has been almost entirely converted into a scenic recreation area.
Just north of the US 131/I-196 interchange on either side of the river exist parks which are popular for wading out and fishing. Running south from these parks are nearly 2 kilometers of river walk and parks on both sides, with bridges (both car and pedestrian) to cross over.
Though it may be less practical and more of a novelty, Grand Rapids has a stretch of Skywalk connecting several hotels with the DeVos Place and Van Andel Arena (ex.) the two main entertainment venues in the city. The concourse provides an interesting 10 -15 minute walk through the interiors of some of the downtown buildings most people wouldn’t otherwise see walking around on the street.
Van Andel Arena and DeVos Place are easily the two largest hosts of entertainment in the city. Before these two, the Grand Center existed where DeVos Place is now. It was home to any concert or play or sporting event that came to town.
Then, the Van Andel Arena opened on Fulton, essentially taking over the Grand Center’s role for concerts and bringing new sporting franchises like the Rampage and Griffins to town.
The Grand Center was eventually completely rebuilt as DeVos Place and is now home to most of the exhibition shows and conventions that come to Grand Rapids.
There are a number of other good smaller venues around town, the most prominent being the Intersection and the Orbit Room. Both host an amazing setup, huge names coming in and out of them, and a fun lounge area off to the side if you happen to get sick of one of those lousy opening bands they have playing.
One local act to check out, if you can manage to coincide their schedule with your own, is the Super Happy Funtime Burlesque Show. More of a risqué comedy show than anything else and hosted by the flamboyant character, Mr. Happy Pants, this show began a few years ago at Sazerac Lounge. Three friends and I went to one of their first shows, which at the time involved many audience participation acts, such as a cucumber relay or a sword thrower’s act while a participant (namely me) laid on the stage.
Though the most outlandishly interesting had to be when my friend, Todd, was called on stage to do a clothes change relay with a burlesque dancer against another pair. This prompted him to whisper into Mr. Happy Pants’ ear that he was not currently sporting undergarments. In all the shows I’ve seen since then, I think this is the one time I’ve seen Mr. Happy Pants flustered. Still, the act proceeded as planned.
“Isn’t it a testament to the arts
that we can be completely vulgar
using only air?”
– Mr. Happy Pants
As their shows grew more popular, it soon became standing room only at Sazerac, and had outgrown the venue not long after that. Super Happy Funtime has since made Wealthy Theater their home, and have spent a good deal of time touring around the country and other Michigan venues outside of Grand Rapids.
This change has impacted the show in a few notable ways. Because of the size of the new venue and audience, there is almost no audience involvement anymore, which means more rehearsed acts, which means fewer shows than there used to be at Sazerac. Rather than the 1 (sometimes 2) shows per month they would do at the beginning, there is sometimes 1 Grand Rapids show every couple to three months now. Still, it remains a clever and immensely entertaining show to attend.