Detroit and Grand Rapids: What Can These Major Michigan Cities Teach Each Other?

Grand Rapids or Detroit…Which is Better?

Born in a hip little tourist town (Bend, OR) and growing up in Portland, OR (“where young people go to retire”) – my family is now smack dab in the middle of Michigan, between lovely Grand Rapids and blooming Detroit.

Even though Lansing has its own vibe and fun, having landed in this smaller city may seem unbearable to many. Growing accustomed to such fun, innovative, and booming cities like Portland, OR, Detroit, and Grand Rapids, creates a desire in a soul that most times can not be quenched unless plopped right back in such abundance of culture and art.

Is Grand Rapids Better Than Detroit

But I can assure you, living in Lansing right between these two amazing cities is quite the opposite. We get to experience both “GR” and “The D” with just an hour car ride!

For seven years my husband and I have been trying to decide which city we could end up choosing long-term for our family. Detroit or Grand Rapids?

So, which city is better?

Grand Rapids Skyline during Art Prize 9.

Let’s Stop Asking “Which is Better?”

Let’s start with the facts. It may help to know that Detroit is 3 times the size of Grand Rapids. Did you know that during the ’80s Detroit was at a population of just over ONE MILLION people?

And that in the last twenty years has dropped almost half in size?

They are now at just over 600,000 residents while Grand Rapids’ population is 196,000 and counting. Even after losing almost half of their population, Detroit is still 3 times the size of Grand Rapids.

Both cities started similarly – manufacturing.

Detroit, in a nutshell, changed the world, not only in the car industry but music as well. To a fault, this massive rise of a city leaned heavily on one industry.

On the other hand, Grand Rapids is known for being more economically diverse, relying on furniture manufacturing in the beginning and then branching off into many fields and industries. This solidified GR’s staying power through the inevitable tough times.

With such a vast difference in amount of people living in these Metro Cities and different histories, what if we stop asking which is better and instead propose an alternative question:

What can Grand Rapids and Detroit Learn From Each Other?

Is Detroit Better Than Grand Rapids
GM Renaissance Center Downtown Detroit Riverfront.

What Can Grand Rapids and Detroit Learn From Each Other?

As a Lansing bystander/long term tourist, GR and The D both have their many charms. Some charms are the same and others in different ways.

Both cities are extremely kid-friendly, thanks to GRKIDS and Detroit Riverfront Conservancy. In different ways both cities are stunningly beautiful. Both cities are drawing people to invest and to find homes among their grids.

In an attempt to answer our new question “What can Grand Rapids and Detroit learn from each other?” I asked a few residents how each city could start thinking of each other more as siblings? Siblings that get along, learn from each other, call each other’s bluffs, and help build each other up, to live long, and last strong into the future.

Dawn Bender and her children at Detroit Waldorf School.

In Detroit, Communities are Like Family

Jacob and Dawn Bender

(Pastors at Courage Church and Residents of Southwest Detroit)


Jacob and Dawn Bender’s daughter playing street hockey in front of the Mexican-Town Bakery.

Jacob and Dawn have a unique perspective on Detroit, having lived on both the east coast (NY) and west coast (LA). And what they love about Detroit is that everyone is family. There’s a sense that everyone does life together, which is a sentiment that many newcomers to Grand Rapids say is missing.

Grand Rapids is a friendly place, but new residents to GR say they feel like surface friendliness could go deeper.

Its a much friendlier place than it gets credit for… Detroit, at least in my experience, is a community that takes care of each other. I will drop my kids off at school, and will stop at the near by coffee shop. The owner of another shop is almost always there getting his morning coffee before heading to his own shop. Often, I notice that when one shop is low on employees, another will send one of theirs.

Our neighbors are the same way. We were talking to our next door neighbor about how we needed to cut down a tree that was wedged between our fence and house. Then one day, when we got home, he said “I cut that tree down for you.” He tells me all the time, “if you need anything, just take it.”

Students on an Art Prize tour in front of the Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. building.

In Grand Rapids, Small Business Helps Form Community

Jessica Hilzey

(Esthetician/Model/Personal Cook and Resident of Grand Rapids)

Jessica Hilzey with her daughter strolling the streets of Grand Rapids.

Jessica is a vibrant working mom in Grand Rapids. Creating meals for all different types of families and needs has given her a glimpse into many worlds residing in GR. She has found that Grand Rapids’ “small city” landscape with a “big city” vibe has helped her business and other businesses in the community.

City planners recognize that although these businesses are small, they still play a big role in what’s happening in the city as a whole.  Many say this is an area where Detroit has an opportunity to continue this format of cultivating and encouraging small business ideas.

“Something GR can learn from Detroit would be embracing diversity in lots of ways. Culturally, but also diversity in things like food style, restaurants, choices, etc. What I’m most proud of about GR is that it’s small enough for businesses to be a part of a community instead of in complete competition with one another. We really value our relationships here and I think that’s shown even in business, which is a big deal.”

Julia Weston at The Belt Z Lot in Detroit.

In Detroit, There is Room to be “You”

In Detroit, There is Room to be “You”

Jacob and Julia Weston

(Artist/Musicians, Stylist and Lansing Residents)

Jacob and Julia Weston with their daughter Selah.

As musicians and a hair stylist, these two encounter many instances where being “you” is vital.

From encouraging clients in their true beauty to sharing a newly written song, both require being vulnerable and honest. Jacob and Julia both expressed some of their biggest sources of inspiration from Detroit have been from those that are truly authentic. Being accepted for exactly who you are is something all of humanity can relate to. Some GR residents and visitors express this to be something GR has room to grow in.

“Detroit is an inspiring city to be your true self without anyone’s help [persuasion]. Detroit has so much history in some of our country’s defining moments. It has an attitude/style of never giving up and an “authentic cool” that can not be touched. [It has learned] how to fall and get back up [without fear of judgment].

Something Detroit can learn from Grand Rapids would be to diversify its assets. [Discovering new aspects of what they have to offer]. 

Matthew Duncan with students teaching the true meaning of Hip Hop culture.

Grand Rapids and Detroit Both Have an Opportunity to Tackle the Disparity Between Whites and Minorities

Jessica and Matthew Duncan

(AOTA GR Director and Resident of Grand Rapids)

Matthew and Jessica Duncan with their daughter.

Matthew and Jessica both grew up in Grand Rapids and attended Grand Rapids Public Schools. After a stretch of time living in Florida, Grand Rapids has become their home again. Matthew now runs an AOTA-Hip Hop after-school program at Ottawa Hills HS. He has the priceless opportunity of becoming a part of these young people’s life experiences. Proximity is something many say is necessary to even start the conversation of unity.

“(Grand Rapids) has moved in the direction of becoming a diversified destination city with a vibrant art scene that is learning to embrace diversity in culture, and of course, beer.  While we have more options for food and fun, we now need to tackle some of the tougher issues involving the high numbers of economic disparity between whites and minorities.

“I am proud of the attitude shift of the new faces in Grand Rapids that are bringing fresh new ideas to business, art, community engagement, and government. Grand Rapids has changed so much in the last 20 years. Now, GR has a table with appealing chairs. The table needs to get bigger but that is what we as new leaders are working to do.” – Richard Jewell, Actor/Film Director, Detroit resident

Richard Jewell and his wife enjoying the view on the Detroit Riverfront.

Richard Jewell has the unique privilege of being non-bias to either city as he was born in Grand Rapids and resided in Detroit until 2016.

While in Detroit, junior-high students attended Richard’s workshops in Creative Writing and Short-Film Directing.

There they learned to find and share their voices about the issues facing Detroit youth. Many express that truly being heard is another stepping stone on the journey to tackling the gap of disparity in our nation.

Richard is honest about his observations about these two great cities and beautifully describes their differences.

“Grand Rapids and Detroit : one blessed with economic vibrancy and a renaissance, the other struggling, benign, and (in) the cast of historic racism.

“Each city has its own heartbeat and cadence,” continues Richard. “One lived by the whistle of the factory and the green book. The other by the green of the fields and timber born of the woods.  One the hub of all industry and transportation of goods– a port, a mine, a river, a lake — a means to prosperity. The other built on the tenants of hardened faith, thrift, and tenacity.”

And yet, despite these cultural differences (isn’t it funny that two cities in the same state could be so different culturally?), there is much to be gained.

“If ever there could be a meeting of the minds between these opposites, I believe they would find a common bond in their citizens drive, intensity, fortitude, will, and dreams,” says Richard.

But we must overcome one thing, first. And that is each city’s leeriness of the other, rooted in racism. How many times have you heard people say that they’re afraid to travel to Detroit? Or that Grand Rapids is a little too whitewashed for them?  These stereotypes can keep people from seeing each city in an honest light.

“The scrim of racism and its generational effect on the conscious and subconscious has left each (city) leery of the other,” says Richard. “In one a simmering resentment, and the other, an aloof bourgeoisie dismissal.

“What can each learn from the other?” he asks.

I ask what must each do to be heard by the other and to hear the other. “

I can only imagine the powerhouse that we could create if everyone became a cheerleader for both cities, fighting to break down the walls of racism and to build up cultural centers that complement one another.  To make tourists conflicted about which city to visit, as each is an impressive destination of its own.

So, What’s The Point?

Interactive art piece at Art Prize 9 on the Grand Rapids Riverfront.

Michigan’s cities offer so many fun adventures to be had. Countless great ideas were born here. Even as it trudges through its struggles, Michigan continues to be innovative, creative, and start new trends that impact the World.

Watching Selena under the stars at Heartside Park, dragging shovels through the sand as we gaze on the Renaissance Center from Belle Isle , taking a night run across two separate walking bridges in the GR skyline, hair flowing in the wind as we fly along the De’Quindre Cut to land at the splash pad and Carousel, taking in the walking tour that is Art Prize, and the list goes on and on and on. In a fun fluke, my family and I were able to experience all the above-listed joys within the same month and we don’t even live in either town!

So, maybe the question shouldn’t be a question at all, but instead be a statement we start shouting from the Mitten.

“Look world! We have something amazing to share with you no matter where you choose to live.”

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