At the risk of further infuriating those who see these reports of mine about long-time downtown Ann Arbor businesses going belly-up as “tired tirades,” I feel compelled to share that yet another Ann Arbor staple will soon be closing its doors as a result of rising downtown rents. According to my source, the owners of Raji Rani, which has been a part of the Ann Arbor landscape since the 70′s, have told their employees that they will be shutting down the storied Indian restaurant for good at the end of this month. So, if you’d like to hit the buffet one last time, you’d better go soon.
I’m sure some will say that, if they were more savvy, and provided better value, they would have been able to adjust to the rising rents. And maybe there’s some truth to that. I’m sure others will point to the fact that other good Indian restaurants exist in Ann Arbor, and seem to be doing well. And that’s true too. It’s also true that, for cities to remain healthy, they need to change, adapt and evolve. I get that. As we’ve discussed in the past, though, I do think it’s likely, if we don’t intervene in some substantive way, that there may come a time when local entrepreneurs can no longer afford to exist alongside the new upscale housing developments and chain restaurant that are so rapidly expanding through downtown.
I know I should’t complain, as this is likely good for Ypsilanti… The less unique and interesting Ann Arbor becomes, the more people will seek out authenticity elsewhere. I understand that, and I can see it happening already. (When Middle Earth announced their closing a month or so ago, my first thought was that it would be good for The Rocket.) At the same time, however, I can’t help but feel bad for Ann Arbor. It’s like when your once really interesting friend decides in middle school to start bleaching his hair, turning up his collar, and running around with a bunch of douche bags. It’s not that I don’t want Ann Arbor to change. It’s just that I feel as though authenticity is being sacrificed in return for slickness. And, I believe, in the long term, Ann Arbor will suffer for it. Yes, people can drive out on Plymouth Road and enjoy the food at Cardamom, where, admittedly, they’ve got a better handle on complex flavors, but I think we lose something when that old white house on Division goes away, only to be replaced by something like Ruth’s Chris Steak House. And it’s not just an issue of local versus non-local. It’s also slickness versus authenticity. While I think Babo is great, for instance, it’s just not the old Village Corner. It’s clean. It’s beautiful. And it could be anywhere. It’s rootless… Again, I know it’s a complex issue. I just want for us to be able to have an open, honest discussion about it.
As for the “tired tirades” quote at the top of the page, it comes from my friend Dug Song, in response to the last thing I posted here about long-standing Ann Arbor businesses calling it quits. Here are a few of his comments, followed by my responses. If you find our exchange at all interesting, I’d suggest checking out that post, and all of the comments that followed it. It covers a lot of ground.
Old hippie tschochke shops barely floating by closes up, owners retire, this all seem very normal and completely appropriate to me. Did any of you actually patronize these businesses in years? Do you feel as strongly about the cultural significance of the decrepit head shops that have been around for decades (vs. the new “vape” e-cig etc. ones that moved in)? Can we agree that the Wall of Bongs was actually not that impressive? Can we agree that some stuff should just fucking die, and it’s the natural order of things? Who wants to live in some antiques roadshow?
We’ve got new Asian tschotchke shops to replace them (you know, prayer flags and bowls and other incense) and tons of new, locally-owned restaurants/cafes/bars started by young (20-something!) Asian entrepreneurs in town (Lab, Tomukun Noodle Bar, Tomukun BBQ, Songbird Cafe, Belly Deli, No Thai, etc.), or young women (Iorio’s, Babo and Aventura, etc.), or young men (Last Word, the Bar at Braun Ct., Espresso Bar, etc.) – is none of that significant? You’re going to cry over some new age books and fountains? I mean, there’s even a new, legit stoner burrito joint on campus (Menna’s – “ROLL ME A FATTY”)! New skateboard companies (Flophouse!), and expanding skate shops (Launch, now also off Stadium!).
Nostalgia is fucking boring. I’m happy to see successful new businesses here, led by new, young founders. We could use more retail diversity, but what we really need are better businesses that can actually be successful competing downtown against restaurants for rent, and/or landlords who actually give a damn (kudos to Al Berriz for keeping blocks of Liberty St. local businesses, when Tim Horton’s and crap came calling). For instance, the Vault of Fucking Midnite!!! who are taking their brand of awesome-as-fuck to GR, Lansing, Detroit, etc.
Successful businesses that aren’t restaurants, cafes, or bars are certainly hard to do with these downtown rents, and retail is generally suffering everywhere (DK’s “give me convenience or give me death” might as well be Amazon’s slogan). If we actually BUILT UP, tech companies would pay ridiculous downtown rents on upper floors to subsidize everyone fighting for ground-floor white box retail.
Sucks about Woodruffs, but why can’t another Green Room happen? Ypsi’s got some creative, weird shit going on, and it’s awesome (even the nominally boring library shit in Ypsi is awesome, as I can attest to, having lined up after Mark for pony rides and soap carving). There’s a ton of opportunity, great properties available for handy and ambitious and people to try to do something. But is there enough vision? Will? Talent? Capital? People who care?
My next great hope (cos we got our skatepark DONE) is that Maynard Battery turns into our version of AS220 (like a legit, non-hovel Tech Center), and not some extension of the arts-and-crafts Art Center. Free culture for all. There are still some freaks in this town. We can shut down the streets with a circuit bending noisecore parade. Actually, that is a great idea, even if Leif Ritchie and Joe Bay and Nautical Almanac did it decades ago. Where’s our inspiration if not each other?
We just can’t be scared, and we have to want it, and we have to work for it. Old ones (due respect) had their time. But as Nas said, the world is yours.
Great points, Dug. And I agree with a lot of what you say. I’m not crying over Falling Water closing, and I actually think it may be a good thing that Middle Earth is closing as it might drive more business east of 23, to The Rocket. My point wasn’t that we should lock everything down in amber, and resist change. My point was that the environment in Ann Arbor is changing and smaller businesses are being forced out due to rising rents. As Curtis Sullivan told us here not too long ago, the reason Vault of Midnight can stay downtown is that their building’s owner believes in them, and didn’t push them out make room for the next 7-Eleven or Starbucks. I think that you can lose the sense of a place. I think that’s a very real danger. I don’t disagree that some interesting things are happening around the fringe, but I’d argue that the bigger trend is toward homogenization. Ann Arbor is losing its sense of place. Yeah, there’s a skateboard park a few miles out of town, which is awesome, and some stoners are selling burritos, but you can’t deny that market rates are pushing the unique out in favor of chains.
You apparently, literally, don’t think anything of the local entrepreneurs that indeed started all of these businesses in the last 5 years, at escalating market rates, successfully competing against chains like Tim Horton’s and Big Boy trying to come in (often supported by landlords taking the long view). They are an existence proof against your tired tirade. There have been more new local successes than chain-based franchises. And there have always been franchises, including local ones.
It’s hard, yes, and only some of them are good enough to succeed, but all of them are brave enough to try. Where chains like Big Boy’s @burger failed, Tomukun has flourished. You’d be more correct in calling out homogenization of Asian restaurants and cafes than local vs. chains. We lost some franchise record stores, but support the local ones (including Ypsi graduates Underground Sounds). We got new head shops bookstores, sex shops, tattoo parlors, clothing stores, etc. May not be what you want or care about, but they all happened in downtown Ann Arbor.
I have a lot more concerns about the loss of any live music venue in Ypsi, and the increasingly.limited options in Ann Arbor. That sucks, and for some crappy Mexican food is just insult to injury. What are you guys doing over there???
“You apparently, literally, don’t think anything of the local entrepreneurs that indeed started all of these businesses in the last 5 years, at escalating market rates.”
Not true. I think quite highly of them. And, in fact, I interview them often on this site. (You should read through the archive sometime, Dug.) To name a few, over the past few years I’ve interviewed Curtis Sullivan (Vault of Midnight), Lisa Waud (Pot & Box), Helen Harding (Eat), Bill Brinkhoffer (Argus Farm Stop), Phillis Engelbert (Lunch Room), Paul Saginaw (Zingerman’s) and Tanya Veilleux (Safety Girl) at length. And there are numerous people that I’ve reached out to over the years who I’d like to interview, but the stars just haven’t aligned.
So, with all due respect, when you say that I “don’t think anything” of the local entrepreneurs doing things right now, you’re wrong. I love you. But you’re wrong.
Also, as I’ve said before, I don’t want to see Ann Arbor trapped in amber. I like change. I like evolution. So please stop telling me that I suffer from nostalgia, and that I’m just upset because some of my favorite stores are closing. That’s not it at all. I never shopped at Falling Water and I never bought a guitar at Herb David. This has nothing to do with nostalgia, or the fact that I don’t like development. So do me a favor and stop trying to lump me in with those old hippies who don’t want density in Ann Arbor. Density is good. But it comes as a cost. And all I’m suggesting is that we have an open, honest conversation about the change that’s happening, and possible solutions that would make it easier for locally-owned, independent businesses to have a presence downtown. The rates are rising, the small local players are getting squeezed, and it’s having an effect on the personality of the city. It just is. Your locally-owned startup can’t pay the $60 a square foot that Pot Belly does. It’s just math.
And I’m sorry if you find this a “tired tirade,” but I find it worth discussing. And, based on the response that this post continues to get after over a year, others do too.
My point is really simple. Ann Arbor is getting to be too expensive for small, not-tech entrepreneurs. And before you submit another list of successful businesses, I’ll agree with you that some folks are still making it. Yes, there are examples of local businesses that can make it in this environment. I never argued that there weren’t. What I argued was that things are trending in a dangerous direction. Sure, people will push back, and some will be successful. But the trend is still toward homogeneity, where there’s less and less room for the weird, the unusual and the quirky. Sure, one day a year we can bring our giant puppets out, and shut down a few streets, but it doesn’t change the fact that Ann Arbor is becoming a less unique city, one in which the poor and the creative are being pushed out. (Over the past month I’ve had conversations with two downtown Ann Arbor business owners who anticipate that, within the year, they’ll be priced out of the City.)
But, yes, it’s awesome that food carts are making inroads. It’s awesome that Pot and Box opened. It’s awesome that Vault of Midnight exists. That doesn’t demonstrate a trend, though. If anything, it helps make my point. The food carts are happening in response to the fact that restaurants can’t be opened. Vault of Midnight exists in part because they found a building owned by good people who wanted to see a bookstore there. And Pot and Box isn’t technically in downtown. Sure, bright people will find a way. It’s just getting harder. And we need to realize that.
I agree with you about Woodruff’s, though. We desperately need another live music venue. And I’ve been trying, to the best of my ability, to coerce Hassan into making it happen.
Now let’s see if we can lure Raja Rani to downtown Ypsi.