Grand Visions

One of the things that became very early on in our time here was that Grand Rapids was anything but grand, in the sense of big... It has a population of around 150,000 (about half the size of Belfast proper), and does not have many of the huge skyscrapers of most other big American cities. As someone said a few days ago, it is just big enough to retain a small town feel.

However, two areas it punches above its weight are its medical facilities and its civic spaces.

Medically, the city has what is known locally as "miracle mile;" a stretch of hospitals and clinics on the north side of downtown which is second to none in terms of facilities and expertise. Thankfully we haven't had to draw on it yet for ourselves, except for getting Owain's fracture checked and his cast removed, which was done seamlessly and speedily in a spotless clinic, but I have had a guided tour of the main hospital and have been in an out visiting a few church members. As a hospital chaplain myself I was madly jealous. But our hospitals are theoretically free at the point of need and these are not.

In terms of civic spaces, in recent days I have enjoyed the John Ball Park Zoo and the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park with my family and two members of Faith Church (Ruth Cannon and Mary Miller respectively), while Sally and has also previously visited the Public Museum with Owain and the Children's Museum with Ciaran, while I have been working... Honest!

All of these public facilites, as well as the medical ones, have been made possible through the vision and finance of local millionaires: the Meijers who are local supermarket millionaires, the De Vos family who are behind the Amway scam, sorry, business and the Bissell company, famous for their carpet sweepers, among many others...

Their vision, drive and cash have enabled Grand Rapids to assemble a range of wonderful facilities which would be the envy of any city in the world. Indeed the New York Times was green with envy when Fred Meijer funded the casting of two huge bronze horses created by sculptor Nina Akamu, based on Leonardo Da Vinci's original scale drawings for one he tried and failed to cast. One stands in the San Ciro Race Track near Milan, while the other stands in the beautiful setting of Grand Rapids' Meijer Sculpture Park: 140 acres of plants and top quality artwork. The Times sneered at such a huge (and vulgar) Da Vinci copy going to such a small, inconsequential city as Grand Rapids. But I think it is marvellous.

Belfast used to be the beneficiary of tremendous acts of philanthropy in the 1900's, but there is an extent to which the entrepreneurial spirit which has remained alive in the US for so long, and the philanthropy which often accompanies it, died out or was snuffed out long ago.

We've had a number of interesting items of public art installed along the Waterfront in recent years, including the big blue fish and what one friend calls the "Hoor with the Hoop", and a few inspiring public buildings including the Waterfront Hall and the Odyssey... But nothing with the grand visions of Grand Rapids...


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