I just moved back to Grand Rapids. I haven’t lived in this city for nearly four years, since the time I graduated college. In those intervening years I’ve lived in three different states and one country, but I’ve also lived in Michigan at my parent’s place in Zeeland as well. Though I’ve been back to Grand Rapids on many occasions for visits, I’ve never had the reason to call the city home again. Now, after a length of time away exploring other places, I’m back where I started—the same location I was as a fresh college grad looking to get out and explore the world.
Coming back to Grand Rapids wasn’t all that unexpected. I grew up, after all, in the far-flung suburban town of Zeeland. In between grad school, jobs, and travel, I’d always make it back to the small town my family calls home, and then immediately I’d make plans to visit the big city. To me, there’s a big difference between living in the town I grew up in and living in the town where I came of age. In reality, the physical distance between Zeeland and Grand Rapids isn’t very great—I have, more than once, biked between the two cities. Instead, it’s my personal associations with the two cities that constitute the realm of difference. Zeeland, to me, recounts a place of dependence, of conservatism, of childishness. Grand Rapids is where I went to college—the location of my coming of age, of my emergence into adulthood. Grand Rapids was the geographical context in which I began to understand myself and to shape myself as an individual, breaking from the mold in which I was raised. As a result, my perceived intellectual gulf between Zeeland and Grand Rapids is now as wide as it was back in high school—when I believed Grand Rapids was so far away that it required an overnight stay to visit.
Though I am back living in Grand Rapids for the moment, I’m not back in town indefinitely. I’m even hesitant to say that my projected tenure in the city—a mere two months—really even constitutes moving back. Very soon I’ll be leaving town again for the latest stage in life exploration. But even though this current move is rather fleeting, it came with an intentional purpose: I had to get back to the environment where I found I have thrived.
Is it just the physical geography of the city that lures me back? Is it that I know the landscape, the street patterns, the stores, and the bus routes? Is it that my social network is still based primarily out of this city? That I still have friends and connections living here? Could it be my associations with the past that continually draw me back in? That I have become educated, made lifelong friends, and found my independence here?
Undoubtedly, it’s a little of all of these things. Michigan, my birth state, is the place I’m most familiar with. But the most formative years of young adulthood took place in a city different than where I grew up. On a psychological level, familiarity breeds liking. And it’s no doubt I cherish Michigan and Grand Rapids simply because I’ve spent so much time here. But my connection to the city is so much more than that.
In the years I’ve been gone from the city, life for its inhabitants has gone on like it necessarily does. The relics of my time here have largely been consumed in the metabolism of the city. New people inhabit the house I lived in. Different patrons frequent the spots I hung out in. Grand Rapids has continued to grow and change, and though the culture remains largely the same, the city I left upon graduation has drifted ever so imperceptibly in character. Friends that I had in the city have either moved away—or moved on. I myself—I can’t deny that I’ve changed as well. So much time travelling and having new experiences has shaped who I am. Though I’m returning, it’s a different person coming back to the city as well.
Despite all the differences, things are enough of the same. I still know my way around this city. I can still find the nearest grocery store and I can still make a living. I still even know a little bit about cultural events that go on here. And though I lament all those who have moved away and changed, I still have many friends in the city. I still have those residual social connections that I formed when I used to live here—connections formed from investments in the past. It’s a network found only here that I really just don’t have anywhere else.
Moving back to Grand Rapids temporarily as I am, I’m here to see returns on investments I’ve already made in the city. Unlike my past few years of constantly moving to new places where I have no connections made at all, I’m looking forward to living in a place where I have networks already in place. This was a conscious decision, after all. I needed to move back to a place where I wasn’t a stranger. I needed to be where I could see the benefits of my past involvements and also know that time spent is not spent in vain.
There’s something about the old wisdom that in order to realize how much you love a place, you need to leave it and return again. After my years away, I’ve found, as I suspected when I left, that someday I’d want to return again to Grand Rapids. And though my stay this time is only temporary, I rightly suspect that I’ll keep coming back to this city many times. To come, as it may be, back to where I started.