I’ll share my experiences with the Mitten State (if you love Michigan you may want to skip this, but I am including things I wish I had knows before briefly moving there 25years ago) .
My family (both sides) settled in southcentral and southwest Michigan nearly 200 years ago and most of the clan is still there – my own family lived there when I was a small child, I spent most summers with grandparents and cousins there growing up after we moved to the East Coast and, as an adult, I moved back from 1996 to 2004 to take job in the Grand Rapids area.
The beaches and the lake are wonderful and I still regularly head there to visit cousins and enjoy the coast. But living there I found to be problematic. Housing was affordable with a lot of choices and low property taxes. Grocery selection was great especially fresh produce (SW Michigan has a lot of agriculture and food manufacturing). And there were some nice cultural features in Grand Rapids including the lovely Meijer Gardens botanical and sculpture gardens, a great indie radio station (WYCE) and a paved bike trail that I made much use of. A small but lively arts scene and it was on the tour route of some of my favorite performers but venues were rarely crowded and tickets were reasonable.
I did find little niches of friendship and pleasure during my stay there, but not enough to convince me to want to stay, even though I did love being 40 minutes from the lake. Actually less than 10 minutes to paddling since I lived in the Mulick Park section of Grand Rapids which is adjacent to East Grand Rapids (home base of former President Gerald Ford) which has Reeds Lake, a lovely multi-use recreational water feature that had some quiet natural corners where I could throw my kayak in after a work day.
But I found the place very provincial and uptight. Hard to make friends as an older single person – the culture revolves around young white Protestant families. Anyone not in that cohort is apt to feel somewhat isolated. A lot of xenophobia and class, racial, religious and ethnic bias. I had moved from Pittsburgh, PA, where even strangers are open and talkative. I was used to making random conversation with people but was viewed with puzzlement and even alarm when I spoke to strangers around West Michigan.
Friends who are still in the Grand Rapids area tell me it has improved quite a bit in the 18 years since I moved back to PA. The expansion of universities and health care and research has brought a wider variety of people to the area, many from out of state, so there is more diversity. There are now more restaurants and expanded cultural venues. And the Conservative Calvinist Republican grip of the Amway Corporation’s scions on the city has loosened, though they still dominate the Holland area.
And for a place that is surrounded by more volume of fresh water than any other on the planet, the state has a poor record of taking care of it. Pollution along the “Sunset Coast” is frequent and concerning, a lot of it biological from effluent from ill-regulated industries. I recall one year I lived there that the BilMar Mr. Turkey meat processing plant near Holland had over 3,000 citations for releasing contaminants into the Grand River and the Big Lake. Some years the beaches along the industry zone are closed to swimming more days than they are open. Paying the negligible fines was just a cost of doing business for them. I could not drink nor bathe in the public water in Grand Rapids. The local aquifers and river were so polluted that they had to shock it with so much chlorine that it made me ill to drink it unfiltered and it dried my hair and skin so badly that I had to replace my chlorine blocking shower filter every 3 months. In fact there was so much chlorine in the Grand Rapids suburb of Wyoming where I first lived that one of my coworkers said he could fill his hot tub and pool straight from the hose and his test kits would sometimes tell him he had put too much chlorine additive it! I wondered when I first moved there why all my dark laundry came out looking stonewashed.
And since I worked in the commercial electrical field I got to see how many projects we were requested to bid on that were for remediation of toxic contamination due to decades of lack of state regulation of industries. The number of small towns and even rural areas in Michigan where huge plumes of carcinogenic chemicals have spread out from dumping from factories and even dry cleaning plants was chilling. I would be working up bids from drawing showing several square miles of area sometimes with the detected plumes outlines – there were always residential water wells on those maps which were sited right in those contamination zones. In the early 2000’s Michigan had the largest number of un-remediated SuperFund sites of all the 50 states.
SW Michigan also has very high rates of cancer. This was one reason why the Van Andel research center was built in Grand Rapids.
Michigan also has a large number of right wing militia groups, most of them located in the semi-rural north central region above I-96. During the years my boyfriend and I tried to go camping and canoeing in the northern regions of the lower peninsula we had to be cautious about avoiding “training camps” and posted land. We learned to watch for tiny white crosses placed near driveway entrances in remoter areas (a sign to fellow extremists of “safe harbor”).
One challenge in finding affordable housing along the most southerly reaches of the Lake Michigan east Coast is the proximity to Chicago. Big money from Chicagoans buying or building vacation homes as far north as Ludington have affected the market. And the state has the largest ratio of any state of residents owning second homes, though most of them are small cottages or “huntin’ cabins”. That said, it is pretty easy to build there due to the flat terrain and sandy soil.
Like any place, plusses and minuses. But I think it is telling that my mother, who grew up in west Michigan (Muskegon) told me that when she and Dad married after he came home from WW II, they “fled” the area because they did not want to raise their children in such a socially suffocating atmosphere. And when I told her I was moving out there in 1996 for a job she said she was “horrified.”