Crafting a Reputation

Boosters in small cities developed a local approach to urban development that balanced a desire for power with modest realism. Recognizing their standing in the urban system behind large cities but ahead of towns and villages, they aimed for local and regional influence. Capital drove successful urban development and small cities like Grand Rapids wanted to attract investment. While earlier cities made grandiose claims of future greatness, following the Civil War Midwestern boosters were more careful to avoid language that would create speculative booms. Modesty became more attractive. Capital was not looking for the next great metropolis, but rather the next great tributary.

Not settling for a purely supportive role in the economy, many small cities developed niche industries, through which they were eventually able to gain national and even international reputations for select high-quality products. In these specialized areas, boosters ran wild, proclaiming national and even world greatness. When successful, small cities could rise to the top tier of economic influence, breaking rank and competing with the country’s greatest metropolises, even if only in one, specific category.

Central to this approach was a good reputation, which boosters recognized as vital for economic success. The Grand Rapids Association of Commerce contended that “Cities have character, like people” in one of its promotional pamphlets and stated that “a city that isn’t widely known” would have a very had time attracting new investment in another. While Grand Rapids positioned itself to achieve national recognition through its furniture industry, it was not the city's first attempt to carve out an identity. Grand Rapids's first successful branding was as the “Valley City,” the preeminent city of the Grand River’s valley. As such, Grand Rapids claimed economic, cultural, and social dominance over the region. Boosters explained the city led the state “in energy and ambition” as the metropolis of Western Michigan. The Board of Trade proclaimed the city’s leading status in a variety of industries to build the case for its status. The city was “the greatest railroad center in the state,” and “the financial and banking center for Northern and Western Michigan.” The Board of Trade wanted the city to act as “the headquarters of Western Michigan,” a place through which outside companies from places like Chicago had to go in order to distribute their wares.

A picture of Jefferson Avenue, a clean street, shaded by a series of neatly lined trees in front of well-kept lawns

Boosters also sought to distinguish Grand Rapids as “a city of homes.” Like a regional economic leader, “a city of homes” sought to establish Grand Rapids as the best middle ground between small town and big city. The Board of Trade played on a suburban ideal that mixed the moral purity of the countryside with the economic, social, and technological conveniences of the city. Grand Rapids lacked oppressive tenement buildings and greenery filled the city’s neighborhoods. Trees shaded streets and well-kept lawns guarded homes. Even the working-class built tastefully homes. Beautiful, safe neighborhoods comprised the city. Visitors walked the city without fear of suddenly finding themselves in a slum. The city’s spatial beauty also brought security as responsible, home-owning citizens observed “law and order” and, if working-class, avoided disrupting the city with labor conflict.

The city's success as the Valley City and a city of homes inspired dreams of industrial recognition beyond its status as regional hub. Seeking further fame, the city sampled a variety of identities. Some claimed “Convention City” because of the city's hotels. Others emphasized its place within the “Great Fruit Belt of Michigan” and its peach markets, which were “the best in the entire country.” Even as the furniture industry began to earn its reputation, a very early city historian touted the city’s more general woodworking prowess, noting Grand Rapids producers sold “clothes-pins, wash-boards and wooden bowls in Connecticut!” These encouraging facts lead him to speculate that this growing market would allow Grand Rapids to become famous for wooden products “as Pittsburgh is for its iron.”

The Biggest City of Its Size in the Country

Even as Grand Rapids embraced its identity as Furniture City, boosters recognized the need for economic balance. A well-rounded industrial base avoided the seasonal “ebb and flow of life and trade consequent." Furniture would be its “corner-stone industry,” but a foundation that could weather economic downturn required diversity." The need for stability and desire for success meant that the source of a reputation mattered less than having a positive one. Boosters received the ultimate endorsement of their city's industrial success when Republican leader James Blaine suggested Grand Rapids should be included as a principal manufacturing center at the Pan-American Conference because it was “the biggest city of its size in this country.” Blaine's comment recognized that the city had earned influence and power, while not venturing too far from its role in the urban hierarchy. Grand Rapids could not seek to become the next national metropolis, but it could distinguish itself as the national's preeminent middling city.

Modest Boosters

During the city's expansion in the nineteenth century as well as its period as a significant economic force in the early twentieth century, the Grand Rapids booster ethos struck a modest tone when highlighting the city's economic power. Early publications purposely avoided the outlandish claims of western boosters. Charles Richard Tuttle’s 1874 History of Grand Rapids with Biographical Sketches discusses the growth of Grand Rapids over the preceding decades. From the city's early successes, he thought it easy to project “her future greatness,” by which he meant Grand Rapids would solidify itself as Michigan’s second city behind Detroit. While a realistic goal, reaching secondary status in the state is a rather uninspiring definition of greatness. The Board of Trade likewise vowed to make “no extravagant claims” or “wild speculative prophecies as to the future greatness of Grand Rapids.” They promised the city experienced “healthy, vigorous growth” that would be “permanent, substantial and fully warranted by the circumstance.” While boosters emphasized that they were not creating a “fictitious enhancement of value,” they certainly bent the truth. One Board of Trade publication briefly mentioned a temporary boom in property values during the mid-1880s, an event that the cautious boosters would seek to avoid. Even in the twentieth century, the Grand Rapids Association of Commerce seized on the steady increase in population, claiming “healthy normal growth,” avoiding boom and bust, stagnation and excess.

Wealth But Not Snobbishness

Balancing ambition with modesty was key to demonstrate the “steady and remarkably uniform growth” that allowed the city to navigate the national economic panics and depressions with limited negative effects. While abandoning the dream of becoming a national metropolis seems like a step down, the Board of Trade played up the advantages of being a small city. The people in Grand Rapids could enjoy all the benefits of big city, except for perhaps a “few extraordinary, frequently unnecessary” benefits of the largest urban areas living while forgoing “the thousand and one disadvantages.” Citizens enjoyed health, morality, and wealth, “life nearest to perfection.” Grand Rapids may not have been the best in a given category, but it provided stable growth, quality of life, and industrial opportunity.

A picture of Sheldon Avenue, another clean street, shaded by a series of neatly lined trees in front of well-kept lawns with a rather large house visible down the block.

Promotional materials that highlighted the city’s quality of life emphasized features like the affordability of homes, quality of schools, and moral and physical cleanliness of the city. Outlining the economy of Grand Rapuids, Robert H. Baker noted that the city's average death rate was less than half that of many “chief cities of the country” Writing in 1875, Jackson D. Dillenback likewise explained that “none leave [Grand Rapids] in search of health except those whose delicate constitutions cannot brook the winters of this latitude." The Board of Trade highlighted the fact that the “mostly peaceable, industrious, thrifty, pious, home-loving Hollanders” rejected unionization efforts. The railroad workers, whose violent outbursts during labor conflict are still a defining feature of the late nineteenth century, were “a valuable addition” to the city. Even traveling salesmen who worked for companies based in other cities chose to live in Grand Rapids.

Decades later this modest boosterism remained intact. In the 1910s, the Association of Commerce similarly emphasized the above-average health of its children, excellent school system (“pronounced by experts to be the best ever seen”) and absent vice district. They produced promotional pamphlets that, in addition to banking and industry metrics, included quality of life statistics like school enrollment, library size and usage, home ownership, death rates, and prices for water and gas. The use of statistics was a clear effort to support the fact that these boosters’ claims were not unreasonable.

The Healthiest City East of the Mississippi

By focusing on the city’s quality of life and economic opportunity made Grand Rapids a “good city” in which to live and do business. While larger cities to the East may have had more industrial strength, Grand Rapids was “the healthiest city east of the Mississippi." It was also free from the “old fogies” of eastern cities that restricted economic expansion. Businessmen in Grand Rapids were “lavish in their expenditures to build up the city." Later, the Association of Commerce further established itself as a middle ground between East and West, claiming that western cities were “very similar to an all year around summer resort where people go to spend money and not earn it." Recognizing that Grand Rapids could not outshine its rivals in any one area, it advertised itself as a jack of all trades. Grand Rapids may not have been the best in any one category, but it possessed all the necessary elements for a successful city.

Though Grand Rapids pursued this strategy of modest boosterism, it could still make room for a small degree of fame. As a young city, rhetoric focused on potential and growth in courting suitors as “one of the most flourishing cities in the Union." The city grew to stake its claim as a world leader in many regards including quality furniture and gypsum mining. It also touted the fact that it housed several of the largest factories in the world. Not the largest producers of goods in any one industry, but the largest in terms of producing specific, specialized products, including asphalt shingles, carpet sweepers, folding paper boxes, refrigerators, sticky flypaper, and window-sash pulleys. Small cities like Grand Rapids used their position between metropolis and small town to their advantage, emphasizing their ability to be economic players and even world leaders, while maintaining their morality and quality of life.

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