GR no longer ranked as ‘Dying City’


The Grand River moves beneath the series of bridges in downtown Grand Rapids. Photo by Johnny Quirin

Who’s dying now, Newsweek?

In January 2011, the Daily Beast infamously ranked Grand Rapids 10th on its list of America’s Dying Cities.

Perhaps no one could have predicted then that within two years, the city on the Grand would rebound by setting not only two world records but a trend of A-listing ratings in some of the most coveted categories.

Although pronounced dead, the once nicknamed “Bland Rapids” has been resurrected, hitting a wave of lists ranking the city as not only alive but actually a top contender as one of the best cities in all of the United States.

Rob Bliss got the ball rolling that summer with his world-record-setting “Grand Rapids LipDub” video. With 5,000 people bopping to the beat of Don McLean's "American Pie” — a tongue-in-cheek tip of the hat to the “dying” reference — the city earned a spot in the “Guinness Book of World Records.”

In August that year, RelocateAmerica placed Grand Rapids No. 2 on its list of Top 10 Best Places to Live in the U.S.

The world didn’t come to an end in 2012, and neither did Grand Rapids, which kicked off last year by being named first on Forbes’ list of Best Cities For Raising Families. For many Grand Rapidians, that one felt especially good.

Another Guinness world record nod came last summer in the jiving form of Steve Zaagman’s Grand Rapids Original Swing Society, which finally received official recognition as the planet’s largest swing group when it hosted the largest swing dance in history.

2012 was also the year when the Grand Rapids beer industry expanded so much that media personality Zane Lamprey pegged the city at No. 22 on his list of Top 25 Best Beer Cities in the World.

What’s more, Grand Rapids and Asheville, N.C., were both crowned Beer City USA in a national poll, following a tidal wave of online support. The new title even launched a commemorative beverage: Beer City Ale.

Grand Rapids also was recently ranked as the eighth best economic comeback city in the U.S. by a Metro Monitor report from the nonprofit Brookings Institution. Brookings rated Grand Rapids 13th in employment, third in unemployment, 12th in output (GDP) and 50th in housing prices.

The calendar year changed, but the accolades kept coming. Last week, reported that popular broadcast journalist Bill Moyers placed Grand Rapids on his national list of Cities Leading the Way in Sustainability.

And then, later in the week, Forbes published a list of The Happiest and Unhappiest Cities To Work In, based on CareerBliss’s compilation of 36,000 employee reviews. Grand Rapids was ranked as the country’s seventh happiest city in which to work.

Thus, the city labeled as dying just two years ago now is recognized as the comeback-making home to some of the most economically sustainable, happiest working, family-friendly, swing-dancing, beer-loving people in the Midwest.

“Lists are great — that is, if you appear on the list,” said Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell. “Taken together, they begin to paint a picture of a city that is progressive and that is forward-looking. That describes Grand Rapids to a tee.”

Maybe Newsweek, which ceased its print publications in December, should be grateful Grand Rapids never countered with a list of dying magazines.

To be fair, Newsweek did respond via Facebook, heaping love not only on the lip dub video but on the very city it labeled as dying, saying true blame lay with the website that figured the figures. The numbers, although true, did not fully explain the identity of a dying city.

“We want you to know it was done by a website called — not by Newsweek (it was unfortunately picked up on the Newsweek website as part of a content-sharing deal) — and it uses a methodology that our current editorial team doesn't endorse and wouldn't have employed,” the Newsweek post read. “It certainly doesn't reflect our view of Grand Rapids.”

Grand Rapids forgave, but must not have forgotten, because the admittedly inaccurate “dying city” branding triggered something of a revolution to reclaim the city’s identity as a contending force among national rankings.

Maybe “dying” is one of the best things that ever happened to Grand Rapids.

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