There's no question Ypsilanti, with its longstanding blue-collar reputation, has sat too long in the shadow of its better-known neighbor, Ann Arbor. Though it's home to its own highly regarded state university (Eastern, 'natch) and a storied automotive past, the city, named after Demetrius Ypsilanti, it has struggled to compete with the rabid loyalty of "Go Blue" alumni, U-M's international fame and A2's soaring tax base. In the past it wasn't uncommon to hear Ypsi locals fib to out-of-towners that they actually lived in Ann Arbor.
But as Bob Dylan once sang, "The times, they are a–changin'… ." Area transplants and U-M refugees alike are starting to tune into Ypsilanti's down-to-earth, authentic vibe as more and more musicians, artists, bloggers and other creative types start proudly calling the city home. Blessed with a core of caring, active people who work hard to make it a good place to live and work, this community of nearly 50,000 people is becoming, as one local calls it "the Brooklyn to Ann Arbor's Manhattan."
And certainly, many are discovering the city's diamond-in-the-rough virtues, not the least of which includes reasonable housing costs, a downtown free of big retail chains and neighborhood after neighborhood of unique homes. In the Historic District that surrounds the city's downtown, beautifully preserved houses feature Italianate, Queen Anne, and Richardson Romanesque styles, among others.
Getting down to business
With nary a Starbucks in sight, Ypsilanti's two main business districts –its downtown and vintage Depot Town-- boast picturesque storefronts and a budding downtown style. Every month another cool new restaurant, shop or cafe seems to sprout up, catering to an increasingly hip clientele.
Richard Murphy, a city planner who also writes the popular blog Common Monkeyflower, points to the supportive nature of the city' small business owners as a reason so many cool little places are popping up. "There are a lot of people who identify with Ypsilanti and want it to do well," he says. "It's not a place where a business is just going to be on its own with no one looking out for it -- when a new place opens up people know about it."
Surrounded by quaint neighborhoods, Depot Town in particular has become a flashpoint for both retail and residential redevelopment. The Thompson Block project, being developed by Stewart Beal, aims to renovate Civil War barracks into 16 loft-style apartments, with retail space on the first floor. Broughton Music, which specializes in woodwinds and other musical instruments, signed a long-term lease for a quarter of the space this fall.
In the city's downtown, Eric Maurer converted an old Kresge store dating from the 1880s into a dozen lofts and more retail space, to be occupied by a martini bar and a Mongolian-style grill. He's doing the same up the street at a building once occupied by an old Cunningham's drugstore, with five apartments in the building. All have taken off quickly and are fully leased.
Unlike other downtowns whose business communities are aimed squarely at the moneyed hipster -- or those hoping to be viewed that way -- Ypsilanti's downtown and Depot Town offerings fit in well with their more grounded clientele. Paul Balcom opened up the Rocket with Eli Morrissey a little more than year ago, and has found an audience for his store's creative, well-priced merchandise mix. One wall is filled with tempting bins of various bulk candy; the other three and the backrooms feature witty gifts and funky, craft-y accessories. It's the kind of place you can find exactly what you didn't know you needed, or a gift for that impossible-to-buy for friend.
Because rents are lower, it’s a good place to take risks with interesting businesses instead of succumbing to corporatized test marketing. "There's more synergy in the downtown," Balcom says. "In talking to other business owners, we've noticed an increase in traffic."
It's not all retail either – knowledge economy businesses are finding a home in Ypsilanti as well. Jacobsen/Danniels Associates, an airport and land-use planning firm, bought a Pearl Street building near Depot Town and Frog Island Park just 18 months ago. Managing partner Bradley Jacobsen says that while they could have located anywhere, they were drawn to the fact they'd be able to have a big impact on the city. "It's worked out fairly well for the most part," Jacobsen says, pointing out how the company's younger employees enjoy the nightlife and festivals right outside their office doors.
For Jacobsen's part, he's been impressed by the loyalty and welcoming spirit the locals have shown and sees lots of potential. "There are tremendous opportunities to do things here," he says. "It's one of the locations artists can afford to live, and when you combine that with the fierce sense of community, that loyal sense of community, it's really neat."
Out of the shadows
Ypsilanti's creative community plays a huge role in making it so attractive.
"We would rather carve out a place as being the younger, more innovative, more able to take risks (city)," says Mark Maynard, one of the founders of the Shadow Art Fairs and also a well-known blogger. "It’s a place you can come for good music that's not programmed by Clear Channel. We can use it to our advantage that we're not Ann Arbor."
The Shadow Art Fairs began two years ago and have quickly boomed into a must-do event for art lovers in Washtenaw County and beyond. Held at Arbor Brewing Company's Corner Brewery, the event features 50 artists and creative crafters of all types, from traditional visual artists to Dreamland Theater's puppets. One fair is held in the summer, one in the winter.
It began as a refuge from the crowds and craziness of the Ann Arbor art fairs, and has caught on quickly, Maynard says. And the flowing beer at the Corner Brewery adds to the atmosphere, he added. "We figured even if no one came, we'd at least sit around and talk and have beer," he says.
The Corner Brewery is itself an interesting story. Back in 1995 when owners Matt and Rene Greff were starting their business, their investors were very nervous about launching in Ypsilanti, so they opened Arbor's 150-seat restaurant in Ann Arbor. Now that they have a dozen years of critical and commercial success behind them they've been able to open the Corner Brewery in their hometown. The brewery is the production facility for the company’s beers as well as a public tasting room, and has become a gathering spot for the creative community.
Risks and rewards
Ypsilanti works hard to attract business without losing its sense of place. Unlike many so-called "cool cities," you can still get your taxes done or a prescription filled downtown, or buy food at the Ypsilanti Food Co-Op in Depot Town. While both business districts are full of interesting restaurants and shops, they haven't crowded out the useful if unglamorous places that make a city feel like a place to live instead of just a place to party.
"There was a time I found it very frustrating living here," said Rene Greff, "None of the restaurants kept regular hours; nobody took credit cards and a lot of the cool restaurants didn’t have liquor licenses. (Now) both business districts have made an effort to standardize hours. These are things we can do that don't make us corporate and big-box, without taking it too far and losing what we are about."
There are challenges, locals say amid the successes. Like many older cities, the tax base is eroding so residents pay higher taxes for fewer city services. Eastern Michigan University, which takes up a large amount of the land in the city, doesn’t pay into the tax base. And like most large cities poverty remains a problem.
But with all those challenges come great opportunity. Over and over again, people making an impact in Ypsilanti say the same thing: a person with a good idea and the energy and creativity to pull it off can come in and have the room to make a real impact.
"More people are making a conscious choice to live here," Maynard said. "They want to live in a town have where they have some agency to actually do something and make a difference. It's not hard to break into the city and be a part of something and start something."
Be sure to check out metromode's Ypsilanti City Guide and this week's video on the Shadow Art Fair!
Detroit freelancer Amy Kuras has written about local schools – among a host of other topics –for more than a decade. Her last article for metromode was Finding Balance: Work Vs. Life
depot town and the huron river - ypsilanti
turn of the century home on s. washington - ypsilanti
downtown depot town - ypsilanti
paul balcom - the rocket - ypsilanti
mark maynard - founder of the shadow art fairs -ypsilanti
matt and rene greff - corner brewery - ypsilanti
Photographs by Marvin Shaouni