I grew up in the small, lakeside town of Bridgman, Michigan and, while I had heard of Niles, the city was certainly not on my radar. While in high school, I knew it as one of those towns that my school sport teams would play at the games I never attended. At the age of 19, Niles was only for my comic book collection; the home of two shops, one where I purchased my new titles and the other, full of messy, wonderful archives where I would dig for those long desired, rarely found issues. Even then, I can barely remember looking around the city streets beyond the short walk between comic stores that no longer exist. I never expected I would find myself living in and loving the city of Niles.
I was going somewhere, anywhere, far from where I grew up. I wasn’t exactly sure where I would go. Maybe a large city with plenty of live music. Perhaps somewhere out west with hiking and rock climbing. It could have been Tempe, Arizona, the home of The Refreshments, Dead Hot Workshop, and Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers. I even considered somewhere outside of the country.
I ended up in Niles through a series of random chances and short and long term decisions. Auditing a college course led me to a trip to Key West where new friendships were bred on the raucous path of Duval Street. The Great Recession anchored the value of my recently purchased first-home, which was also timed uncomfortably with the loss of my job. Finally, the aforementioned friendships came to the rescue with an employment option in Niles.
I recall an instant connection with the city. While crashing in the spare bedroom of my Niles employers to avoid the wintery commute to Bridgman, I started sharing breakfast with the regulars at the counter in the original location of the Hob Nob Bistro. I found myself in the bars, stores, and restaurants in the city. I made numerous friends and even met my wife, finally realizing that this place had become my home.
As I walked the streets during the recent Small Business Saturday, I saw constant activity, smiling faces, and encountered friends at every stop. I experienced the fruits of the collective labor of entrepreneurs, volunteers, and city officials transforming the once quiet streets into a bustling downtown. I passed buildings once empty and broken, now renewed, and stopped through businesses delivering unique ideas and quality products.
I have been lucky enough to travel through much of our country and a handful of places outside our borders. I have spent a fair amount of time in the large cities I once thought would be my home. I still make my regular journeys to catch a traveling band or hike some far off wilderness. After each trip, though, I always return gladly to Niles, Michigan. This city on the river is my home and I am forever grateful for it.