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Want to Relocate? Consider Downshifting to a Smaller City

What I gained after relocating from Chicagoland to Grand Rapids in my 60s

By Chuck Otto

The day I moved into my new apartment in Grand Rapids, Mich., Paul McCartney played the city’s big sports/entertainment arena. For some reason, Sir Paul’s arrival drew much more attention than mine. 

A decade prior, I’d briefly been a part-time resident, the landlord of a two-flat in a transitioning Grand Rapids neighborhood. This time, I was arriving from Evanston, Ill., just outside Chicago, determined to begin a new chapter in a smaller urban setting. I had made the decision to relocate in my 60s — for lots of reasons.

Mid-sized cities like Grand Rapids, many of them college towns or regional medical or technology hubs, are a good choice for older adults. They appeal to anyone fed up with traffic tie-ups, two-hour restaurant waits and the sheer crush of humanity of life in or near a big city but with an aversion to distant, charm-free exurbs or going full-on Green Acres and disappearing into deep country.

Before You Relocate, Some Considerations

If you’re considering relocating to a smaller city, it’s wise to do your homework.

For starters, spend some time in your chosen destination in advance. Talk to the locals. Walk neighborhoods of interest.

Look for the clubs and causes that matter to you. It certainly helps if you have family or friends nearby, but you can always find like-minded types by doing volunteer work and pursuing your interests.

Then weigh the good with the bad, and decide if the cost of living and local lifestyle agree with you.

Colors of Grand Rapids
Colors of Grand Rapids

A Calculated Risk

Grand Rapids was a calculated risk for me. I had a family member, a few friends and business contacts there. As the second-largest metropolitan area in Michigan outside of Detroit, I knew Grand Rapids had grown well beyond its days as a small town. The regional economy was healthy and diversifying. The city’s location provided easy access to Chicago, Detroit and northern Michigan, all important destinations for me. Plus, the cost of living was lower than where I'd been living, the pace of life less frantic.

The qualities I sought, and largely found, in Grand Rapids are those any older adult might want in departing a major urban area without surrendering big-city amenities:

  • Ample cultural and educational opportunities
  • Access to quality health care
  • Reliable public transit
  • Safe, walkable neighborhoods
  • A variety of shopping and dining options.

Grand Rapids draws the big national acts and shows, and is home to a first-rate symphony orchestra, museums and community theaters. A major medical and research center eliminates the need to seek specialized health care elsewhere. Bus routes crisscross the metro area, as do cabs and Uber drivers. I can quickly and safely walk downtown from my close-in neighborhood. The restaurant scene grows more interesting and varied every month, and there are plenty of places that serve a damn fine cup of coffee.

An Adjustment


Not that moving to Grand Rapids hasn’t been an adjustment.

I miss my friends and favorite Chicago haunts, the city lakefront and deep-dish pizza. West Michigan is considerably more conservative and less racially diverse than I’d prefer. Most of the locals are less obsessed with fitness and fashion than my old Evanston crowd, so cigarettes and camo-wear are more in evidence. And an over-abundance of NPR and so-called “Classic Rock” radio limits my local listening options. (Fortunately, technology gives me immediate access to my favorite Chicago stations.)

But Grand Rapids has its own charms.

I can drive great distances in 20 minutes that would take an hour in metro Chicago. Wait times are short for all but the most popular eateries. Gas is cheaper. People seem less stressed. There are abundant, forested hiking paths just minutes from downtown. Traffic jams pale next to Chicago’s. And, in the summer, Lake Michigan’s less-populated beaches are only 30 minutes away.

Find Your Tribe

Ultimately, we find our tribe, adapt and evolve.

I have connected with the local Transcendental Meditation community, a priority for me. I’ve joined Meetup groups for business networking and evening hikes. I volunteer for the symphony, and found two movie theaters that feature independent films. I’m nurturing friendships old and new.

Just recently, one of Chicago’s deep-dish pizza chains jumped across Lake Michigan and opened a joint nearby.

Suddenly, it’s beginning to feel a lot more like home around here.


Chuck Otto is a writer/editor and public relations professional who specializes in corporate social responsibility and sustainable business practices. He lives and works in Grand Rapids, Mich. Read More
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