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West Michigan Rising: A Grander Grand Rapids and Saugatuck Untucked

by Dan Allen
Wednesday Oct 9, 2019
Blue Bridge lit for Grand Rapids Pride Festival
Blue Bridge lit for Grand Rapids Pride Festival  (Source:Experience Grand Rapids)

I'd been away from Grand Rapids for 20 years — so as excited as I was to return to my leafy Midwestern hometown after all this time, I honestly wasn't sure what I'd find. I'd heard about how the city had blossomed, and that it was now way more than just the Furniture Capital of the World and the site of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. But would reality live up to the growing hype?

I'm thrilled to say that my homecoming week in West Michigan proved more exciting, artistic, cool and downright fun than I could've possibly imagined. Also, way more gay. As Michigan's second-biggest city (now with nearly 200,000 people), Grand Rapids has long had an LGBTQ scene — but when I moved away, it didn't even have a Pride.

These days, Grand Rapids' mid-June Pride is one of the largest one-day events in the city, and rainbow flags can be seen across the city, especially in the hip East Hills and Eastown neighborhoods. And in a world where gay bars are struggling to survive, Grand Rapids' two main queer watering holes — The Apartment, the oldest continually operating LGBTQ bar in Michigan; and Rumors, which in its previous life as Club 67 was actually the very first gay bar I ever set my baby gay feet in — are absolutely thriving.


An Emerging Midwestern Creative Hub

An Emerging Midwestern Creative Hub

Grand Rapids is also now much more of a creative hub than it's ever been, thanks to a vibrant arts and theater community, including ArtPrize, the competition and festival that put the city on the national art map when it debuted in 2009. Biennial as of last year, the contest now alternates years with a public art series simply called Project, which in its first incarnation as Project 1 recently garnered international LGBTQ attention by presenting the debut American appearance of controversial London-based performance troupe Drag Syndrome.


Also new since my Grand Rapids youth: Meijer Gardens, the massive 158-acre botanical garden and outdoor sculpture park just east of the city, borne out of the private sculpture collection of local grocery store magnates Frederik and Lena Meijer. With an impressive and ever-growing collection of works by everyone from Rodin and Miro to Louise Bourgeois, Keith Haring, and Ai Weiwei, Meijer Gardens is now the second-most visited attraction in the entire state. Every summer the gardens present a wildly popular outdoor concert series, which this year included the likes of Sarah McLachlan and the B-52s.

One of the city's other top attractions these days is far from new, but when I was a kid it wasn't open to the public, much less in the exquisite shape it is now. In 1908, Grand Rapids clothing store owner Meyer May commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design a house for his family in the city's upscale Heritage Hill neighborhood. The resulting Meyer May House was (and still is) a starkly modern contrast to the mostly Victorian homes surrounding it and a beautiful example of Wright's Prairie School period. After Mayer died in 1936, the house gradually fell into disrepair, until local furniture company Steelcase acquired and painstakingly restored the house in the 1980s, opening it to the public for free tours ever since.

Grand Rapids' dining scene has improved dramatically since my day, thanks in no small part to the fact that the city is now home to one of the top culinary schools in the country, the Secchia Institute for Culinary Education. Skilled and adventurous local chefs make ample use of the fertile farms surrounding the city, helping to put it on a growing number of "undiscovered foodie destination" lists. Grand Rapids has also been dubbed Beer City USA for its robust lineup of more than 40 craft breweries — be sure to stop in at Belgian/French-inspired Brewery Vivant (with its fun pub set in a former funeral home) for a tour and obligatory Big Red Coq.


Saugatuck
Saugatuck

Also absolutely obligatory for any visit to West Michigan: a couple of days in Saugatuck, the exceedingly LGBTQ-friendly resort town on the shores of Lake Michigan, just a 45-minute drive from Grand Rapids. Long a gay resort destination for Midwesterners (and often called "the Provincetown of the Midwest"), Saugatuck is now gaining national queer attention, consistently cropping up on must-visit lists like Orbitz's 10 Hottest Gay Destinations for 2019 and Airbnb's "Small Towns, Big Pride" list.

Saugatuck began its life as a lakeside arts colony in the late 19th century and has had an arty aesthetic and laid back vibe ever since, despite being adjacent to an area that's traditionally been quite conservative. Even that's changing now though, spurred on in part by the burgeoning and unexpectedly excellent winery scene in nearby Fennville, led by the unlikely-named Crane's Pie Pantry Restaurant & Winery and hip cider makers Virtue Cider.

The center of Saugatuck gay life is, as it's been in one form or another for decades, the sprawling and top-rated Dunes Resort. Over the past 20 years, current owners Danny, Greg and Mike have transformed what was in my day known as Douglas Dunes into one of the largest and most visited LGBTQ entertainment complexes in the Midwest, bringing in nationally-known performers for packed weekend shows. It also presents one of the area's most popular annual LGBTQ events, the Halloween Bash, an after-party for the Nighttime Halloween Parade for Adults in downtown Douglas, Saugatuck's sister (and equally adorable and gay-forward) town just across the bridge over the Kalamazoo River.


Despite having fewer than 1,000 full-time residents, Saugatuck is home to a mightily-impressive 140+ LGBTQ-owned businesses, including a few that have gained national acclaim, like coffee-shop-cum-small-batch-specialty-roasters Uncommon Coffee Roasters. Beyond its resort-town-appropriate array of adorable shops and art galleries, Saugatuck also boasts a fantastic dining scene, including superb and stylish newcomers Pennyroyal Cafe & Provisions (by executive chef and "Chopped" winner Missy Corey) and Coast 236. And in summertime (though it's open year-round), one of the biggest draws to Saugatuck is its gay-friendly Oval Beach, often pegged as one of the best freshwater beaches in the country.

With so much to offer queer tourists, perhaps the only thing preventing West Michigan from being overrun with hoards of them is a common misconception about logistics.

Direct flights connect Grand Rapids to many of the biggest cities across the country (including Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Denver, and Phoenix), and it's only a three-hour drive from Chicago or Detroit. You'll need a car (or a $45-ish Uber ride) to get from Grand Rapids to Saugatuck, but once you're there, getting around couldn't be easier, nor cheaper — the city's amazing Interurban Bus service will pick you up and drop you off wherever you want to go for just a dollar.


Dan Allen covers travel and gay culture for numerous outlets around the world including NBC Out, the Los Angeles Blade, the New York Post, Passport and Fodor's.


Autumn 2019

This story is part of our special report titled "Autumn 2019." Want to read more? Here's the full list.


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