concentrate on ypsilanti

They’re starting to run my posts on Concentrate. You can find the first one here. So far, there are no comments… which is maybe a good thing. And here’s what I had to say, for those of you unwilling to follow that last link:

Hello, my name is Mark and I’m an Ypsilantian…

I lived in Ann Arbor for a while. Then I moved.

I met my wife in Ypsilanti, at a bar that’s since been condemned. The place was called Cross Street Station, and my band, Prehensile Monkey-Tailed Skink, was playing there. Unlike everyone else, Linette didn’t run screaming. Linette’s her name. And that was more than 15 years ago now.

Before that night, I’d only been to Ypsilanti once. My friend Dave drove me out to Ypsi from Ann Arbor, where we were in college together. It pains me to say it, but our objective was to buy as much really crude porn as we could carry. Our roommate Jack’s parents were coming to visit, and we wanted to make a good impression.

I’m not proud of it, but that’s the truth.

Anyway, we headed out to Ypsi in search of inhumanly crude filth, and we weren’t disappointed. We found a bookstore with a dilapidated cardboard box full of “used” porn magazines for a few bucks a piece. Until I met Linette, that’s all I knew of Ypsi — porn and rock-n-roll. I’d heard there were drugs and prostitutes there too, but, as an Eagle Scout with a propensity for panic attacks, I wasn’t all that adventurous. Then, I met Linette in ’93, and the love affair with Ypsi began in earnest. The more I learned about the City’s rich and bizarre history, and the characters that called it home, the more I wanted to be a part of it.

I’ve now lived off and on in Ypsi for about a decade and a half. Linette and I tried to leave on a few occasions, but something always kept pulling us back. First, we tried Atlanta. I’d lived there for a few years as a kid and had fond memories of it, but, as a grown up, I found that it kind of sucked. We lasted there about two and a half years before coming back.

Then, after a short detour to DC, Linette and I moved to LA. We were there for about a year when we decided to pack our stuff, drive back across country, and settle for good in Ypsi. We were beginning to think seriously about houses and babies (actually, just one house, and one baby), and, when we thought about places we’d like to put down roots, the only place that came to mind was Ypsi.

There was something about Ypsi that just called to us. I can’t speak for Linette, but, for me, it was the authentic sense of community I got on Saturday mornings, sitting around the potbelly stove at the Freighthouse, drinking coffee and watching people of all ages and races, dancing around to the sounds of banjos and guitars. There was a real sense of family, and a feeling that we were all in it together. Maybe I’m a sap, but I fell for it.

I’m generally a “glass half empty” kind of guy. But, when it comes to Ypsi, I can’t do it. Where others see decay, I see a spirit of resilience. And I’m not alone. I know it puzzles some Ann Arborites to hear this, but there are quite a few of us who don’t live here because we have to, but because we want to. There’s a sense of community here that I’ve never felt elsewhere. People with ideas and energy are welcomed and encouraged. Maybe it’s because there’s little infrastructure, but there aren’t a lot of barriers to participation. If you have a good idea and you come to Ypsilanti, you’ll find people eager to join you.

I’m not anti-Ann Arbor. I like Ann Arbor. I lived there for several years, and I have quite a few friends who still do. I might give them a hard time over beers about the number of Starbucks that are downtown now, but I do like Ann Arbor. As the father of a three year old, I look at their school system with a great deal of envy. Ann Arbor, given the economic engine of the University of Michigan, has cultural assets that we in Ypsi could never hope to have. But, then again, because Ann Arbor is only a few miles away, we don’t necessarily need to.

And I would argue that Ann Arbor’s success hasn’t come without a price. The cost of doing business there is relatively high. And, as a result, there’s homogenization happening. Where there was once Drake’s sandwich shop, there’s now Jimmy Johns and Potbelly. And to add insult to injury, the Potbelly Sandwich Shop, stands where the once influential Discount Records used to. There’s no sign to mark it, or draw attention to the fact that Iggy Pop, the godfather of punk rock, and favorite son of Ypsilanti, once worked there, but that’s where it was.

There’s still a hell of a lot of interesting stuff going on — don’t get me wrong — but I’d suggest that the momentum is headed in the opposite direction. Take for example the Tech Center. The Tech Center, which used to be home to dozens of Ann Arbor artists, was not so long ago bulldozed to make space for an upscale Y. I know people love the Y, but it didn’t come without a cost. Many of those artists, priced out of Ann Arbor, have left. And, I’d argue, that Ypsilanti, where many of them are landing, is coming out on top.

We may not have the Royal Shakespeare Company, but I’d argue that Ypsilanti has more to offer than the strippers and meth dealers that might first come to some of your minds. Ypsilanti isn’t just one thing. As my friend Caleb says, “It’s also quiet neighborhoods, homemade parade floats and crazy millionaires.” His theory is that Ypsilanti is odd because it’s stayed complex and layered while the Detroit metro region is full of places that are easily labeled as affluent or poor, urban or suburban, etc. Ypsilanti continues to defy labels. Virtually every demographic of Metro-Detroit’s 5 million person region can be found in the 4.5 square miles and 22,000 people of Ypsilanti.

I suspect he’s right, but what most appeals to me about Ypsi the indomitable will to create and shake things up. Ypsi churns out American iconoclasts like other towns crap out gated McMansion communities. Iggy Pop was raised here. Preston Tucker, the automotive maverick who took on the big guys in Detroit, was from here. Early animator Winsor McCay got his start here. Elijah McCoy, one of the most famous black inventors of the 20th Century, was from here. There’s a spirit of, “Fuck it, I can do it better,” in the air. It’s palpable. If you get out of your car, you can feel it.

Ypsi, in my opinion, by suffering financially since the end of World War II, has dodged a bullet. And it wasn’t by choice. Our downtown wasn’t overrun by national chains, not because we fought them, but because they didn’t want us. The question now is, how will we navigate what’s coming, because growth is clearly coming. How will we keep the unique character of our downtown? It’s occurred to me to fight the chains. I’m told there’s a town in Oregon that’s passed a law requiring local ownership of businesses. I think that’s probably a good thing in the long term. Locally-owned businesses put more money into their regional economies, and tend to stay when times get tough. They don’t, like Pfizer, pick up and leave when profits are down (in spite of all the economic incentives that have been given them over the years).

But, the tax base in Ypsilanti, where 25% of our population lives in poverty, is eroding. We need tax dollars to keep our police on the street, our fire engines running, and our public parks open. Given that reality, I’ve mellowed a bit. I wouldn’t be enthusiastic about a Starbucks on Michigan Avenue, but I doubt that I’d picket one. I’d just hope that it got people to stop their cars, feel that palpable sense of “Fuck it, I can do better” that’s in the air, and give one of our local stores a chance.

And, of course, I’d wish that it would go out of business quickly.

I’ll be here all week.

The editor at Concentrate said that I was the first to break the “fuck” barrier. I’m proud of that.

On a somewhat unrelated note, the Concentrate logo reminds me of a goatse. But maybe that’s just me. I tend to see goatse everywhere.

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  1. Mark H.
    Posted April 16, 2008 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more passionate or better reasoned description of Ypsilanti and its qualities than this, Mark. Thank you!

  2. Ol' E Cross
    Posted April 16, 2008 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    Pretty good. But in your list of American iconoclasts you forgot Mark Maynard, the blogger who first broke the “fuck” barrier.

  3. Paw
    Posted April 16, 2008 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    Bursting through the hymen of profanity.

    And it looks less like a goatse to me than a big, gaping asshole.

  4. Posted April 16, 2008 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    Nice write up. Just one quick note, the slide really started in the 70’s when many urban communities also started their decline.

    Ypsi continued to boom and grow after the the War and through the 60’s There were over 1,000 employees at Motor Wheel. Over three thousand at Ford. Today there are less than 500 at Ford/Visteon. There was a radio station, three gas stations, and the list goes on and on.

    As far as national chains there was a Sears and a Kresge downtown. Many other nationals all had stores in Ypsi. MichCon sold appliances and Detroit Edison gave away free light bulbs.

    Downtown was full of stores, both locals and chains, and it was packed with shoppers every Saturday.


    – Steve

  5. Tommy
    Posted April 16, 2008 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    I’m officially calling this Mark’s Manifesto! And you’re right about ‘our’ town. I was in Ypsi for over 20 years, and always felt as though there was a something different – something genuine – about the place and the people. You’ve summed it up well and I also share your concerns of what’s next. The fact that Ypsi has not turned into Flint after losing almost it’s entire manufacturing base is, to me, a hopeful sign.

  6. Kevin Dole 2
    Posted April 16, 2008 at 1:32 pm | Permalink


    A single tear is slowly running down my cheek.

  7. Black Jake
    Posted April 16, 2008 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    That’s a tasty meatball, but I think we can trade a civic-minded volunteer Ypsilanti Light Guard civilian militia for the cops and thus still afford to keep out the Starbucks. Fuck ’em. We can do better.

  8. egpenet
    Posted April 16, 2008 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    That’s why the chicken crossed US 23 … to get back to Ypsi.

    (Two threads with one comment! Hee, hee!)

  9. Posted April 16, 2008 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    Bravo, sir. Excellent article. Since moving here a bit more than a year ago I can not believe how much I love this city and the people in it.

    But I don’t want to fall to boosterism. I’m going to have to think of something positive to do.

  10. karen m
    Posted April 16, 2008 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for the candid insight into the City of Ypsilanti and it’s people. I agree completely with all your insights, perhaps I wouldn’t have use the “f” word, but it worked for you. I really think that the more aware we can make people of all of the positives in Ypsilanti the better our town will be. Maurer Management is committed to making the Downtown a destination place and I see that progress being made everyday. You have no idea the amount of calls I receive every day from Ann Arborites and all other places (I rented a unit from New Jersey and I just signed a lease with a foriegn exchange student (from U of M) studying in Japan via email) looking for a loft in Ypsilanti. Keep up the good work, I am impressed and am glad to have you on the 2020!

  11. mar on Forest
    Posted April 16, 2008 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    I feel the same way about Ypsi. I just can’t say it as well as you’ve done.

    And I love to read your blog-your writing is compelling and attracts some other fascinating writers, so it’s become a nightly ritual at our house.

    Hey, you could add my attempt, to get folks together at the CB for beer and collage at the end of april, as another example of the “why not try it and see if it works” attitude that runs rampant in our town.

  12. Posted April 16, 2008 at 11:19 pm | Permalink

    I’m going to keep working on my insightfulness until I can get quoted like Caleb. He’s my newest hero. Slaps hisself real good in an awesome band too.

    Mark, it was a nice article. Keep us up to date on the rest as they come.

    By the way, from the first year we arrived in Ypsilanti 16 years ago, right through this last year, the one thing that I find most compelling and defining of Ypsilanti’s community spirit and identity is the Heritage Festival. The participating entries in the parade are diverse and, I’d dare say, fairly comprehensively representative of our town. Not that Caleb isn’t right about how varied and layered Ypsi is, because he is right about that; but, in terms of visibility, the Heritage Festival is the one event that has YPSILANTI written all over it.

    Or wait!? Maybe it’s the Farmers Market WITH an open freight house. OR New Years Jubilee? Elvis Fest. Thursday Night Cruise In’s?

    Also, don’t forget to dedicate an installment in Concentrate to our very own Yspikrat.

  13. Posted April 17, 2008 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    I love you.

  14. mark
    Posted April 17, 2008 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    Thank you all for the kind words, and Steve for the correction. I was, of course, aware that the “Kresge building” once held a Kresge. I didn’t mean to imply that we were chain virgins. We’re not. Right now, we’ve got a KFC, a Jimmy Johns, a bunch of bottom-feeding tax prep franchises, and who knows what all else. And it probably goes all the way back to the beginning. The fur traders were probably set up in a franchise kind of arrangement. And the train depot, I suppose, may have been owned by the railroad. There’s a long history of off-site ownership. My point was that, all things considered, we are still relatively untouched. Go walk around downtown Plymouth and I think you’ll see what I’m talking about. No offense to the good people of that fine town, but, in my opinion, they don’t have a real downtown. They have a mall. And some people, I’m sure, see that as a success. I don’t. I think it will work against them in the long run as people begin to value authenticity and community again. And, it’s coming.

  15. Posted April 17, 2008 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

    Good piece Mark. I appreciate that you continue to spread the word about the economic impact of local businesses and that you continue to penetrate the fuck barriers all over the place.

  16. mark
    Posted April 17, 2008 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    Which reminds me, I should probably put a link in this thread to the shop local campaign we initiated last holiday season. Most of the information is still good.

  17. Posted April 18, 2008 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    I have been reading your blog for a few months now, and I just have to write now and disagree with you and maybe vent a little.
    I think you left out a lot about Ypsilanti and it’s character. You left out the hardworking African American’s that have been the foundation of this city. But, that has been the problem with Ypsilanti for years, you don’t want the African American businesses downtown, so the buildings stay empty. You also don’t embrace great businessmen and women like “Red” and his wife from Puffer Red’s (one of the longest running downtown businesses) and other businesses, like Avenue Jewelers (10+ years) and restaurants, like Abe’s. Abe’s might not be the Earle…but it’s been there forever! Ypsilanti also has a great affordable University with great departments like Theatre, Education and Business…its called Eastern Michigan University, maybe you’ve heard of it…You didn’t mention that either.

    I also want to add that if Ypsilanti is so great, why after all these years doesn’t someone pony up the money for the freight house so we can all move onto more important issues! I am serious, I lived here for 10 yrs., moved to another county in 2003, moved back a few months ago and I couldn’t believe that the Freight house was still looking for money blah blah blah. Maybe if you went to the African American community/churches and asked for their help and their input help it would be over and done with by now.

    I love Ypsilanti, but what I don’t love is how Ypsi always seems to have a pocket full of people deciding on what “the issues” are instead of branching out to the entire community and asking the real citizens what they want. News flash, Ypsi citizens want t businesses that sell things they want to buy! Ypsi will never be a downtown Chelsea or Saline because the demographics of the area don’t want to shop at those types of businesses! But, the “pocket full of people” in Ypsi decided that downtown should be “lovely little shops”. And they have had that agenda for years, bringing in more people to drink the kool aid…while weeds grow in the “water front development”, and the freight house gets dustier and dustier, and downtown is pretty empty. Meanwhile, the building department is a mess, most landlords get away with murder (while the city COULD be fining them and MAKING some MONEY…oh ya!…the courts want to make money, so they love bad landlords and the “stupid” tenants that put up with them), while other landlords work damn hard to have great rentals.
    Ypsi needs to serve the interest majority of the people of the community, and those are college students, African Americans, and middle class autoworkers. Downtown is a drive-thru, and we can never change that…US 12 isn’t moving! We need hip shops or shops that support hobbies or leisure activities, not flowers and interior design! But, no…that would bring to many “African Americans”, “Nascar lovers”, and “hippies” to downtown! It needs to step up it’s code enforcement and beautify the city that way!
    I feel like I never moved away…No wait, there are MORE EMPTY buildings and lots since I first moved here in 1993…. so I guess I DO feel like I moved away….

  18. mark
    Posted April 18, 2008 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    I wrote a big, long response to you, Kate. I’m not going to post it, though. I come across as defensive and angry in it. Basically, I said, “You don’t know me,” and “What have you done for the City,” over and over again. It wasn’t pretty. Instead, I’d just ask you to read through the posts here on the site. If you do, I think you’ll see that I spend a fair amount of time championing the stores of African Americans and urging my fellow Ypsilantians to shop in them. I organized last December’s Buy Local campaign in Ypsi, and the recent downtown forum of business. Both included the minority businesses of Ypsi. So, while I welcome your comments, I have to point out that you have no idea what you’re talking about when you say that I don’t support African American businesses and imply that I want our downtown to be like Chelsea. With all due respect, you haven’t heard a word that I’ve said. And, not to be snide, but I’m wondering what you’ve done to help these businesses.

    Putting the anger aside for a moment, I do very much like your idea of getting black churches involved in the Freighthouse cause. While I’ve reached out to the traditionally black churches in the past for various projects, it hadn’t occurred to me to seek their help with regard to the Freighthouse. I think it’s a great idea, and, if you’d like to pursue it, I’d be happy to help you.

  19. karen m
    Posted April 18, 2008 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

    What exactly are you talking about??? You say that downtown is empty- have you walked downtown lately? I moved here in 1992 and at that time downtown was a ghosttown, but in the past few years it has really taken off. We have a better occupancy rate downtown Ypsilanti than in downtown Ann Arbor, where are all these buildings that you say are empty? We have 160 merchants with a small vacancy rate under 10%. Also, there are many African American merchants downtown and if you take the time you can find that out for yourself. Do you know that all the hair salons are run by African Americans (at least 6), as well as the Simply Devine card shop, the boutique next to VG Kids, Biggies, Puffer reds, the 2 new printing shops Glemps and USBS and 2 food markets. I know there are many more if anyone else wants to add. Everyone is welcome downtown and I am sick of hearing that it is empty and non welcome to minorities because that is so far from the truth that it makes me really mad. I have been involved in the downtown for that past 7 years and proud of it’s growth. If you want to say bad things, please do your research first. If you want more facts I’ll be glad to provide that too.

  20. egpenet
    Posted April 18, 2008 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

    Kate, even the NAACP is in downtown Ypsi.

    And, Mark, the black community is very involved in the Farmer’s Market. Have been from the beginning. Several black farmers, crafters and many black volunteers have been involved over the years.

    As far as the Churches go … be great if they’d actively support the buy local and help offer good food buying and balanced diet
    classes to parishoners who want to learn how to eat better. Get them to actively support growing hope, the community gardens, and the farmer’s markets, plus the better stuff carried by vons, dos hermanos, and coleman’s.

  21. mark
    Posted April 19, 2008 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    I never said that the black community wasn’t involved in the Farmer’s Market, Ed. I’m not sure where you got that idea…. All I said was, it never occurred to me to get the African American churches involved in the fundraising for the Freighthouse. I think that’s a great idea.

  22. mark
    Posted April 19, 2008 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    And thanks for the occupancy information, Karen.

  23. Posted April 21, 2008 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    If I understood the situation, Mark is submitting a series of articles or posts(not a series of epic novels). It would be obnoxious to the reader if the first article became a marathon test of reader endurance, which would happen if mm sat at his keyboard and wrote every single thing he could think of about Ypsi in the first article. And why have a second article if everything was covered in the first?

    Many of your comments were offensive to me, personally. I live in Ypsi and work with the Ypsilanti public in a service/edutainment field. In my workplace, the needs of all Ypsilantians are addressed. The groups you have neglected to recognize are just as important, and just as “present” as your “college students, African Americans, and middle class autoworkers”. No one in my ypsi family fits into your 3 narrow groups, for example.

    I know very little about blogging etiquette, but I’m sure that basic consideration and a civil tone applies nearly everywhere. If you wanted to retract some of your previous words after reading responses to your post, it would be ok, wouldn’t it, mm? There is nothing wrong with changing an opinion after learning more about the subject, and several people have made some good observations for your edification. Have some integrity, and respond civilly to those who have taken the time to address your angery remarks.

    And, learn to count to 10 (or 367) before hitting send.

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