Broad Overview and a bit of Geography
Grand Rapids is Michigan's second-most populous city, with a population around 200,000 people, and it's growing, as opposed to Detroit, Michigan's most populous city, which is losing people due to a decline in the automotive industry that was once the city's chief source of employment.
Grand Rapids used to pride itself on having big city conveniences and a certain small town friendliness. Then along came a minor league baseball team, The West Michigan White Caps; a hockey team, The Grand Rapids Griffins; and an arena-league footbal team, The Grand Rapids Rampage; and it became indistinguishable from any other mid-size city in the midwest.1
It's towards the west coast of Michigan's Lower Peninsula, but is still at least a half-hour drive from one of the actual lakeshore cities, like Holland or Grand Haven. What is the significane of that? When you're on a peninsula, you tend to define your location by the nearest big body of water. Since Grand Rapids is closer to the Lower Peninsula's west coast than to its east coast or north coast, Grand Rapids residents consider themselves to be in West Michigan.
Speaking of bodies of water, there is a rather impressive river running through parts of Grand Rapids, known as the Grand. It played a rather important role in the early settlement and development of Grand Rapids becasue a river was a reliable way to get around before high ways and airplanes.
A Bit of History
The first permanent white resident of Grand Rapids was a Baptist minister named Isaac McCoy, who settled there in 1825. A year later, a French trapper named Louis Campau set up a trading post there. Of course the real first residents were the Native Americans, specifically the Hopewell tribe 2000 years ago, and then the Ottawa, Pottawatomi, and Chippewa.
Grand Rapids used to be known as furniture city because its chief industry was furniture. Makes sense, right? Now that most of the native forests are gone, the furniture industry is in a bit of a decline. Steel Case, an office furniture company still has Grand Rapids factories, but they've been doing rather a lot of downsizing.
Grand Rapids is the first US city to add flouride to its drinking water. This was done back in the fifties. There's even a small monument downtown celebrating this glorious event.
For further information on the glorious history of flouridation check this out.
Places to Go: Tourist Junk
Some of The Major attractions of Grand Rapids include: The Gerald R. Ford Museum, a museum of Presidential history, named after Gerry Ford2
; Van Andel Arena, where the Griffins and Rampage play, named after Amway 3
founder Jay Van Andel; and the Van Andel Museum, a more general history and science museum, with a very large and boring exhibit celebrating Grand Rapids's history as furniture city, also named after Jay Van Andel, who spread around the money he bilked out of people to get the city to name stuff after him, a practice known as philanthropy.
Further Proof That Grand Rapids is The Land of Amway: Besides the Van Andel Arena and Van Andel Museum there's also Devos Hall, the city's big performance hall for musicals and so on, although when the big rock bands come through, they usually perform at the Van Adnel Arena. Another big landmark is the Amway Grand Plaza hotel, the city's most expensive, and therefor best, hotel.
Places To Go: Things that are actually worthwhile
One place of interest is the neighborhood of East Town. East Town must not be confused with East Grand Rapids. East Grand Rapids is a rich suburb that split off the main city. East Town is a cool neighborhood of Grand Rapids. The main streets that define the East Town neighborhood are Lake Drive and Wealthy.
What is there to see in East Town? A good first stop is Argos Book shop. It's on a side street called Robinson, just off of Lake Drive and easily visible from Lake Drive. Argos is Grand Rapids's one stop shop for geeks. It's primarily a used book store but it is also a comics shop with good back issue boxes and also a decent selection of RPG materials including reasonably priced used material.
Besides Argos, East Town also has Spirit Dreams, a new age shop where you can buy incense, pretty rocks and crystals, buddha statues, bumper stickers declaring your left of the middle hippy values, desktop fountains, and books on new age subjects; Bombay Cuisine, an Indian restaurant;4 and Magnum Opus, a store specializing in manga and anime.
The East Town Business Association is a good source for further information.
What else does Grand Rapids have to offer besides East Town? Most of the West Side is a bit slummy until going so far west as to almost be in the suburbs. The North East side is a pleasantly bland residential area. Downtown is where all the above-mentioned tourist junk is located.
Most of the major retail shopping is in the various suburbs. In fact, a lot of the Grand Rapids area's important components are in the suburbs rather than Grand Rapids proper, such as Woodland Mall and Centerpointe Mall, the Grand Rapids area's major shopping malls.