Text: R.J. Weick
A three-part series
Each year—beyond the brick-and-mortar, glass-and-steel skyline—the streets of Grand Rapids has come alive with richly spiced and candied aromas, strains of electric guitars, the rhythm of drums, and sounds of trumpets. Parks and alleyways have become bright with shouts of laughter and conversation, the flash of bold fabrics as dancers turn in choreographed motion, and the speed of power and the flow of grace as martial artists captivate in demonstration.
There is a spirit of community—a joie de vivre of heritage, memory, and celebration—that has breathed throughout the city of neighborhoods; welcoming those to partake in cultural tradition, connect with neighbors, and delight in a feast of senses. It is a city of festivals as much as it is of neighborhoods, where anywhere from 10 to 250,000 people gather to unite in celebration throughout the year.
“Events are important, because it really helps foster a sense of belonging so people really feel engaged and connected with their communities,” said Evette Pittman, Office of Special Events Supervisor for the City of Grand Rapids in Michigan.
The Office of Special Events, which works with planners, organizers, and residents to permit events that take place on public property. The department also produces its own activities to activate public spaces, overseeing more than 400 events in 2019 from WinterWest at Richmond Park in January through New Year’s Eve Ball Drop on Monroe Avenue in December.
“It was 444, exactly, events that occurred within the city of Grand Rapids,” Pittman said. “We do have more events that occur anywhere from April or May through October, but we truly have become a four-season city in Grand Rapids.”
The City of Grand Rapids’ Office of Special Events also partners with other local organizations like Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, Experience Grand Rapids, West Michigan Urban League, Grand Rapids Public Schools, and neighborhood and business associations. Its mission is to elevate quality of life through city services and has a vision for the city to be a nationally recognized destination that is equitable, welcoming, innovative, and collaborative.
“One of the strategic priorities of the city is an engaged and connected city. That means we look through an equity lens when we are doing anything and that includes events. We are very open and receptive and welcoming, and we encourage any event planner to come to our office. Our motto is we always want to get to ‘yes,’” Pittman said.
“We want that event to happen, we want that unique activity to be here in Grand Rapids, because that is what helps other people who don’t know anything about Grand Rapids come to know about us. Once they visit, I think they will fall in love just as all of us are in love with Grand Rapids,” Pittman added.
From organized walks and runs, and general events, to festivals, the special events that take place in Grand Rapids are a reflection of a compilation of cultures and people that make up the larger city community.Familiar landmarks, like the Blue Bridge, Calder Plaza, and Rosa Parks Circle, as well as hidden pocket parks, alleyways, and neighborhood streets, if city-owned, can become destinations that both activate and engage people and space.
“We are hoping that it says Grand Rapids is a destination city,” Pittman said. “We want people to see Grand Rapids as a great place to work, play, and live; and we want to be a part of that conversation when people are thinking about, ‘what do you want to do this weekend?’ or ‘what do we want to do on a Tuesday or Wednesday night? Well, there is swing dancing, it’s open and it’s free, come on out.”
For both the resident and the visitor alike, the number and variety of events tell a deeper story about Grand Rapids. There is often cultural significance, remembrance, and celebration, and an opportunity to lend a voice to the narrative that continues to be told on downtown street corners, in front of small shops, and on sidewalks in neighborhoods. While the outreach to areas of the city remains an intentional one, Pittman noted communities within the city are often quite welcoming and warm to new ideas and open to working with the city through the community notification portion built into the up-to-70-day permitting process—even when it comes to street closures.
“Most of the time, these event planners live in those communities, so the residents and business owners see it as one of their own doing something to activate their community,” Pittman said.
“If there is an event occurring in those neighborhood parks, like Garfield Park, we will make sure that the neighborhood association is aware of that event and many times they all come alongside that event, so it is a nice boost for the event planner. They have the full weight of that neighborhood association behind them getting the word out,” Pittman added.
The Grand Rapids story told through special events and festivals is a constantly evolving one, as new ideas and activities are brought to the Office of Special Events throughout the year. Behind the scenes, those who live and work—and play—in the city approach the task with enthusiasm to find a location and to meet access, logistical, and outdoor amenity needs for events that ultimately bring people together.
“What excites me is having people excited about the community that they live in, having people excited about being a part of the city of Grand Rapids and feeling ownership of the city of Grand Rapids,” Pittman said. “That sense of belonging is part of what makes your quality of life and that is part of our mission here at the City, to elevate our residents’ quality of life and that is in every service we provide, including events.”
Though the form—what, where, how, and when—of events and festivals may change to meet future needs or in response to them, there is an element that remains: their ability to bring people together in shared moments, joyful remembrance, and community celebration.
Photography: M-Buck Studio