Grand Rapids: Cool City. Furniture City.

There’s a man up in the Century Furniture Company factory that upholsters chairs and sofas 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. For the purposes of our story, he has no name. The year is 1903. The city, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Our faceless hero must work fast. He throws a bunch of tacks in his mouth and gets to work, spitting one out at time in the direction of his trusty magnetic hammer. There are, after all, quotas that must be met. Thwack, thwack, thwack, he nails the fabric to the wood chairs. A manager watches his every move from the corner of the room, the air heavy with sweat and dust.

But what if he swallows a tack? Conventional wisdom has it that in such instances, you eat a bit of stuffing to protect your innards. Yes, you read that right – they ate the stuffing.

homes1Typical homes in the historic core of Grand Rapids.

Of course, that doesn’t always work. On January 7, 1900, the New York Times ran a short blurb about one George Smith in Cromwell, Connecticut, reporting that he’d accidentally eaten a large brass-headed tack after sneezing, and  was likely to die. Who knows how many other similar incidents went unreported.

The Grand Rapids Herald certainly didn’t take much notice of the city’s less than ideal working conditions, writing in 1902:

“The labor unions are controlled by intelligence and good judgment. In all its history Grand Rapids has had but one important strike, and that was more than a decade ago. When disputes arise between capital and labor, employer and employe (sic) get together and the difficulty is adjusted without the use of force, and usually without calling in the assistance of outsiders.”

Little did the Herald know that in 1911, 9 short years later, Grand Rapids’ furniture workers would go on strike, shutting down the flagship industry of the self-proclaimed Furniture City for most of the spring and summer. No, the paper was busy extolling the virtues of the city’s many furniture stores, proclaiming the stores were “as much one of the sights in Grand Rapids as a view of the falls is to the visitor of Niagara.” With the city fast approaching a population of 100,000, it was easy to get caught up in the exuberance of the Progressive Era, the glamour of uncontrollable wealth.

reflect2Echoes of the past in modern Grand Rapids.

Not that the 1911 strike changed matters much. The Christian Reformed Church eventually issued an edict that declared union membership unholy, breaking the resolve of Grand Rapids’ Dutch majority and ending the strike with little accomplished. Employers made a few concessions, but labor arrangements largely continued as before.

Today, the factories that litter Grand River and the Marquette Rail and CSX Transportation lines produce little in the way of furniture. Most are converted lofts and office spaces – one even has its own Jimmy John’s. The remaining furniture companies – respected names like Steelcase, Herman Miller, and Kindel – have moved most production into modern facilities that automate most of the process. The days of swallowing tacks are long gone, like the extinct passenger pigeons that once choked the skies of western Michigan.

city2

Grand Rapids is something of a model city now, and with nearly 200,000 people, it’s also Michigan’s second largest. Strong eds and meds, more LEED certified buildings per capita than just about any major US city, art contests with hundreds of thousands in dollars in prizes, and a large convention center combine to make the city a urban lover’s wet dream. A package-free grocery store and a host of coffee and bicycle shops have opened, and all in all downtown Grand Rapids has a renewed sheen to it.

coffee1They believe in the coffee.

Where it ends, though, poverty rears its ugly head like so much rust, with bread lines on the aptly named Division Avenue. But there too is the sense that gentrification is slowly winning the battle, pushing the poor increasingly to the margins of the city as suburbanites move back in. The new economic model hasn’t been kind to the city’s working class, a diverse mixture of whites, blacks, and Hispanics, and the service sector can’t pick up the slack fast enough.

But if you squint hard enough, you can still see Will Howe Foote’s quaint, native Grand Rapids from the hills of the city. An early 20th century American painter of some note, his painting The Bridge hangs in the Grand Rapids Art Museum, the factories of the city hazy in the winter’s snow. The skyscrapers built since, modern constructions of steel and glass, don’t so much as interfere with the mirage but reflect it back at you, artists also in a sense.

Legend has it Foote destroyed any of his paintings that failed to meet his own exacting standards. Unfortunately for us, we can’t control reality so easily, try as we might. We have to accept what our eyes paint. We have no choice.

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2 thoughts on “Grand Rapids: Cool City. Furniture City.

  1. It’s good to know how to “protect my innards” if I ever swallow a tack, LOL – you’re always digging up little historical tidbits like that.

    Even more interesting is that eds and meds article. That dude’s way smarter than me, and I see his point, but off hand, it seems like there are plenty of examples to the contrary – Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, Madison, Wisconsin, Rochester, MN etc. Maybe it’s all in his distinction between a “solid job base” and “economic growth.” Thoughts?

    I’ve been to that Jimmy Johns many times, and Grand Rapids is indeed a very cool city. Not too big, not too small – safe enough, plenty to do, reasonable real estate prices.

  2. It’s definitely true that eds and meds have helped plenty of cities. However, such sectors have two definite limits.

    1. Education relies on government spending, and we’re clearly over-leveraged there. Already in Michigan, universities are complaining about cuts in funding. Meanwhile the medical field depends on the fat wallets and insurance policies of the Baby Boomers, and once they’re gone, who in America will take their place as medical cash cows? Medicaid can’t pick up the slack forever. You have to think the medical field is going to shrink over the long-term.

    2. Eds and meds don’t really have a means of organically creating jobs. As a sector it can’t support a broad middle class, but rather a small contingent of “chosen ones”. It’s hard to see how the average poor person in the inner city is going to economically benefit from eds and meds, aside from maybe a service industry job that tends to the needs of the eds and meds employees.

    If an individual city can horde enough public money it can very well revitalize its downtown, but how do you go from there? It’s really the entrepreneurial class that will save our cities, if anything.

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