Grand Rapids, Michigan, is that state’s second largest city. It has been around since before Michigan itself was even a state. Located on the banks of the Grand River, Grand Rapids started out as a trading post for fur trappers and other hardscrabble frontier merchants back in the 1830s. But the state’s copious supply of timber meant that the city would soon explode as a lumbering center. The first sawmills were built in the 1830s, and Grand Rapids quickly established itself as one of the key sources of lumber for the entire country within the next few years.
By the 1850s, all of the cheap and high-quality wood that was being produced in the city gave rise to a new industry, furniture manufacturing. Throughout the second half of the 19th century, Grand Rapids became known as the furniture capital of the world, supplying the vast majority of the high-end furniture that would ultimately fill the many thousands of towns that represented the gradual closing of the American frontier.
The furniture industry thrived for over 70 years, taking the city from a tiny trading post in the wilderness into a major Midwestern industrial center. But by the 1920s, the timber industry throughout the state was in sharp decline. Most of the original growth forests had been decimated through irresponsible forestry. The bounteous supply of high-quality timber was coming to a permanent end.
Luckily, however, it was just at this time that the Detroit auto industry began taking off. Grand Rapids quickly retooled its industrial might to serve as a major supply hub for the Detroit auto manufacturers. But by the 1980s, this industry was also in decline. Increasingly, Grand Rapids suffered from block after block of abandoned industrial buildings. The city began experiencing sharp upticks in violent crime and a generalized flight of the productive classes to the outlying suburbs. The city was quickly spiraling towards the same abyss that had consumed its sister cities of Flint and Detroit.
At the time, Dick Devos was one of the city’s most prominent businessmen. He saw the writing on the wall and knew that something needed to be done. Along with some other prominent business leaders, he formed the Grand Action Committee, an organization dedicated to the reinvestment and revitalization of the Downtown Grand Rapids area.
His plan was a success. As a result, today, Grand Rapids frequently ranks among the best places in the country in which to live, play and work.
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