When I think about the kind of people we need more of in Ypsi, there are probably five or six distinct archetypes that come to mind. If I ever went to the trouble of naming them, one would certainly be called “The Kula” in honor of the man we’re talking to here tonight. Thomas moved to town in 2006, and hit the local scene with a slow-burning vengeance, getting involved in his new community at a level which most people who are born here never do. Among other things, he’s proven himself, at least to me, to be thoughtful, engaged, bright and willing to pitch in in order to make things in Ypsilanti better. Unfortunately, he’s also leaving town in a short while for New York City. Thomas was nice enough to answer the following questions, after I asked, “Why?”
THOMAS: Thomas Kula. Before I moved to Ypsilanti I lived in Ames, Iowa while at my last job at Iowa State University, and before that lived in Des Moines while attending Drake University. I grew up in rural eastern Iowa, where there are three pigs for every human.
MARK: If I’m not mistaken, you moved to the area to take a job at U-M, but yet you chose to make your home in Ypsilanti, instead of in Ann Arbor. Why is that?
THOMAS: That’s correct, I moved out here to take a job with U-M. I chose Ypsilanti for a variety of reasons, none of which have much of anything to do with what I really like about Ypsilanti (in fact, before I drove here the day I moved to Michigan, I had never been in Ypsilanti in my life): it looked moderately less expensive to rent in Ypsilanti than it did in Ann Arbor, and I found an apartment complex with a large parking lot that had no problem with me parking the moving pod thing I used to move in the lot for a few days while I unpacked it.
One of the big reasons, at least initially, that I moved to Ypsilanti is that it was far away from Michigan Stadium. Living for five years in Ames and near Iowa State, which is a Big 12 school, I knew how much of a pain in the ass being anywhere near the stadium on a football Saturday was (especially when Nebraska showed up). I knew it would be even worse in Ann Arbor (especially when Ohio State showed up), so I basically looked at a map and went “here’s the stadium and I’m going to live … way over here”.
I have a pretty strong rule about not going west of US-23 during football games (or during Art Fair, for that matter….)
MARK: Recently, you made a decision to leave Ypsilanti for New York. What was it about New York that attracted you?
THOMAS: The simplest answer is that I got bit by the bug.
I’ve always been a city kind of person, although until this past July I never thought I’d end up in New York City — I figured I’d perhaps end up in Chicago, or Minneapolis/Saint Paul. Those are big cities, but they are *Midwestern* big cities, and both with a good number of folks I know living there. But until I was there this summer for a conference, and then back there for vacation, I had never considered it.
It’s many things, I think. There’s excellent public transportation — I was there for six days on vacation and had absolutely no problem getting all over the place on public transit. There’s amazing food everywhere. There’s always stuff going on, and it’s an entire universe that I couldn’t even begin to explore entirely in a thousand lifetimes.
Really, though, it’s hard to find any one thing that I could definitely point to and say “that was it”. It grabbed me quick and it grabbed me hard, though.
MARK: What, if anything, will you miss about Ypsilanti?
THOMAS: Oh, man, where to even start. I’m going to miss an amazing amount of stuff about Ypsilanti. I have a lot of awesome friends here that I’m going to miss dearly. There’s a lot of interesting and creative stuff going on in the area. I love where I live, being five blocks from my favorite coffee shop, the Ugly Mug, and being a five or ten minute walk from downtown Ypsilanti or Depot Town or the Co-op. I love that a good number of places I’d go to or hang out at I could walk into and find someone I know — it feels like a solid neighborhood, really. You know people, you cross paths. That’s great. I love Ypsilanti dearly, and the people here. And it’s great that Ann Arbor is right next door, and Detroit is just down the road.
MARK: In the years that you were here, you got quite involved in number of different activities and initiatives. I’m sure I’ll leave a few out, but you served on the Co-op board, you helped with the planning of the Shadow Art Fair, you were one of the first people to move into Spur Studios, you were a constant presence at events like Elbow Deep, you played bike polo, were an active member of Bike Ypsi, and any number of other things. I think, as far as new transplants go, you’ve been one of the more engaged that I’ve come across. I was wondering what you learned in the process, both about yourself, and about the community.
THOMAS: I hinted at this earlier, but the thing that surprised me the most (pleasantly so!) when I moved out here is the number of people doing creative and interesting things here, and the amount of stuff going on here, not just in Ypsilanti but in Ann Arbor and Detroit and southeast Michigan in general. It’s a pretty common theme in most of the issues of my zine Late Night Thinking, trying to understand why that is, what drives people to it, why it’s happening here. Shadow Art Fair and Spur, the subject of my first two interviews in Late Night Thinking, are great examples of this — it’s just something that, to an outsider with a naive view of Ypsilanti, you just don’t expect. An awesome art fair, with real creative people (and not art-onna-stick), in an awesome brewery with awesome beer? SAF was one of the first things I did when I moved here and it helped clinch my love of the area. And Spur? Stuff like that’s been done elsewhere, but as successfully? Not a chance. I was incredibly impressed with the folks creating Spur Studios, how levelheaded and reasonable they were doing everything. It wasn’t some half-assed thing done on the sly, it was a real, genuine “here’s what we can do with the space. Here’s what we can’t do. We’re working with the building owner on this one, and if we can live in these limits, even if we can’t do everything we might want to there we can do a hell of a lot. Let’s do this, let’s do it right, and let’s not fuck up this amazing opportunity.”
Bike Ypsi and Elbow Deep are also two great examples of this. Bike Ypsi isn’t even a thing in any sense, it’s just a group of people who say “We’re Bike Ypsi”. It started years ago when the city passed the ordinance against riding bicycles on sidewalks in certain parts of downtown. A group of folks asked “Okay, so who is going to address *why* people think they need to ride on the sidewalk? Who’s going to teach folks the proper way to ride on the streets, how to find safe routes, how to ride properly?” And they took it upon themselves to do just that. I still remember our first Spring Ride, the scores of people we had show up to Recreation Park, the stuff we got donated so we could have a free bbq. I remember standing in awe watching 120 people pouring out of the park on the group ride — it was spectacular. I mean, we worked our asses off to make that happen, but we weren’t a huge organization, we didn’t have deep pockets, and still this giant group of people showed up and it went incredibly well.
And Elbow Deep. I think Elbow Deep might be my canonical example of quintessential Ypsi awesomeness. Just think about it: a monthly drag show at a bar in Ypsilanti. Again, if you had a naive outsiders view of Ypsi you’d never suspect that here — Ann Arbor, sure, or Detroit, but *Ypsi*? And it’s all solid Ypsi. The hosts, the House of Chanel, live here, and they’ve been busting their asses doing drag in southeast Michigan for over twenty years. Dave, the organizer, busts his ass every month to make it happen, get the place decorated, and Kurt the DJ is back every month, and they’re in Ypsi too. Andy and the gang at Woodruff’s make the bar such a great venue. And the best part is that it’s a very open and welcoming thing — too much stuff like that tends to get cliquish quickly, if you show up and you’re not one of ‘their group’ you just don’t feel welcome. Not so with Elbow Deep. I’ve been to every one except three of them (in 30 Elbow Deeps total) and every one of them has been very “we don’t care who you are, gay straight, whatever. Just come and have fun.” And nearly every month that place gets *packed*.
What have I learned about myself? Honestly, I don’t know, I don’t get introspective all that often. I can say that over the past several years I’ve been more myself, felt more comfortable with who I am and my place in life, than I’ve ever been in my life. That’s really the result of many things, but a good chunk of it I think comes from Ypsilanti and the people here.
MARK: Is Ypsi just too small?
THOMAS: Too small for what, really? I mean, I got bit by the glamour of the big city, and Ypsilanti will never be New York City, but if I got told tomorrow that I had to live the rest of my life in Ypsilanti I’d be pretty okay with that.
MARK: Will you look back fondly on your time here?
THOMAS: Absolutely. There’s no way for me to say yes hard enough to this question.
MARK: Do you think you might miss being a part of a small community? I’m not trying to talk you out of the move. Hopefully it doesn’t come across like that. I think everyone should experience a big city. I’m just wondering if there’s any concern on your part about moving into a more establish community, where it may not be as easy to get involved… Or, do you think that I’m wrong, and that it might in fact be easier to get involved in things in New York? I’m curious to hear your thoughts. It’s just always seemed to me that it was relatively easy to do things in Ypsi because there was so little infrastructure in they way, and such a hunger for people with new energy and ideas.
THOMAS: Well, I think I will certainly miss being part of a small community. And I think you’re right, it is easy for folks to do things in Ypsi because there isn’t much in the way, although for slightly different reasons than you mentioned. I think there is a hunger for people with new energy and ideas here, but more importantly I think there’s a solid pragmatic optimist streak in the community here, a solid “just do things” ethos — “you want something to happen, make it happen,” and people are supportive of that. If you’ve got a healthy amount of gumption to make something happen here, it’s pretty easy to do so (although its not without its difficulties). I think we’re also blessed, in a weird way, with people *not* expecting that kind of thing here. In many respects, at least when it comes to the creative folks here, we don’t have a lot of “Well, I did that thirty years ago” or “We tried that in 1973 and it failed, I don’t know why you think you can do that.”
As for if it will be harder to do that in a big city, or easier, I don’t know. Ask me in a year. On one hand, New York City is a huge city, with millions of people, so even if you’re interested in not just underwater basket weaving but 14th century upper Scandinavian underwater basket weaving you’ll probably find scores of people also interested in that very same thing — so finding like minded folks for many things I think will be much easier there than here, just because of the scope of population. On the other hand, it also means that there’s gonna be the 20 people who are *really* *into* 14th century upper Scandinavian underwater basket weaving, who let that be the focus of their entire life, and how can someone like me, who likes to dabble into a whole bunch of interesting things and maybe dive a bit deeper into a couple things, compete with that?
As a short answer, I think it will be easier to find people interested in just about anything I’m interested in, but I think it will be more difficult to have as much impact on stuff as I have here. Unless I become focused on just one thing, which, right now at least, I don’t think I’d do. But again, ask me in a year what happened.
MARK: Do you think you’ll find what you’re looking for in New York?
THOMAS: Hell, I don’t even know what I’m looking for in New York. I’ll admit, this entire plan is a harebrained scheme, but when I get one that gives me this much gumption to look for a new job, I gotta run with it. I’m looking forward to exploring a new city, but then again, I had the exact same thing when I moved to Ypsilanti and had just as much joy from it. I’m a pretty simple guy in many respects, so the fact that I’ll have a chance to ride a train to work every day and have ready access to bagels so good I’d stab a kitten for one makes me far happier than I probably should be.
MARK: Do you want to talk about gay stuff? I don’t know that you and I have ever talked about the local gay scene, have we? Assuming you do want to talk about it in this format, I’d like to know your thoughts. Is the SE Michigan gay scene vibrant enough to hold the interest of single young professionals such as yourself? And it’s not just a gay question, by the way. I think most people we loose in your age range are due to the size of the dating pool. A lot of people, no doubt, head to Chicago for the promise of better jobs, but I think more probably go because they feel the odds of finding love are higher.
THOMAS: Well, in some respects I think I’m a poor person to ask this question of because many days I feel like I’m one of the least gay gay guys out there, at least when it comes to the stereotypical gay guy things. Although, amusingly, I think that’s changed a lot in the nearly five years I’ve lived here.
Seriously, though, I think it comes back again to the simple matter of population. There’s an LGBTQ scene in Ypsi, even, because I know LGBTQ folks here, but really, there’s not a huge visible “this is the gay stuff”. Elbow Deep every month, the stuff going on at Qzone at the Ozone House in town, that’s about it here in town. Ann Arbor has like the gay sub-block maybe, and folks like HARC are doing great things in HIV/AIDS education and prevention, which gets closely associated with LGBTQ scenes, and there’s the student associations at EMU and U-M. Even Detroit, well, Motor City Pride each year and there’s some bars spread out around town and the suburbs. I know I’m missing some things, but not *much*. It’s not like there’s whole damn villages like there are in large cities. I mean, the closest we have to anything like that is Ferndale, maybe, and even that pales in comparison to neighborhoods in Chicago or New York City. But, that’s just a matter of scale again — in a city of 8 million people that 10% number that gets thrown about a lot means 800K LGBTQ folks wandering around, and the population density just means it’s easier for those clumps to form. Here in Ypsilanti that 22K population means there’s 220 of us LGBTQ folks wandering around, and we’ve got five times less population density, so we’re all spread out.
As for it being easier to find love — okay, I’d be lying if I said the thought “Man, it’s gonna be easier to get laid there” didn’t go through my head, but really, that’s at *most* 10% of the reason I’m moving. And finding love, I think, is really just one part of “there’s just a larger population of people around my age”, which, again, comes with the scale of larger cities like Chicago or New York, or even Detroit. And for those things that are broadly more age-centric, it means that with a larger population there’s more of a chance there’s going to be places to go where I’ll be able to see bands I like, or bars to hang out with people I’d like to hang out with, or coffee shops to sit at, or entertainment options that appeal to me.
If you want to talk about the gay scene, let’s talk about LGBTQ rights. Again, this isn’t something where I woke up one morning and went “I can’t get married here, I’m moving!”, but man, let me tell you, it’s gonna feel good to get out of a state where prejudice is enshrined in the fucking *state* *constitution*. The People of the State of Michigan are so damn afraid of me getting married that they passed a constitutional amendment forbidding me from doing so. The State Legislature is doing its damnedest now to squash even domestic partner health benefits for state workers. Now look at the state I’m moving to, where the law legalizing same-sex marriage had to make it through a *Republican* controlled state senate. New York State is by no means an idyllic gay paradise, but the fact that a pretty fundamental right made it through that speaks volumes, I think.
MARK: What could Ypsi do better?
THOMAS: If I were named Dictator of Ypsilanti I would do but one thing: find every one of those damn “Hip Historic Hipsilanti” signs and burn every one of the fuckers in a big barrel. We could close off the streets around the Water Tower and do it under the gaze of General Demetrius Ypsilanti and have a big party. Because, seriously, if you have to *say* you’re a cool city, you’re not a cool city. You’re a cool city by *doing*, not by *saying*.
Really, though, I think the single most crucial problem Ypsilanti needs to solve is the all to prevalent and entrenched pissed-offness that appears between groups of people in important matters going on in the city. It seems to pop up too much: dealing with Water Street or the Thompson Block, over the whole Ypsitucky Jamboree hoopla, with whatever’s happening with the DDA or whatever it is this month, etc. I still feel that, after five years, I still don’t have enough history to understand where it comes from. And, in many cases, both sides of an issue have done something at least to deserve some pissed-offness. But we’ve got to move past that if the city is going to survive. We’ve got enough issues to deal with in an industrial city in a post-industrial state, with an ever-shrinking tax base, and sometimes at least I feel people are pissed of with each other simply because they’ve always
been pissed off with each other instead of having a real reason to be so. It won’t ever go away completely, and I’m not naive enough to believe that if we could just get a bunch of reasonable people to sit around the table we’d solve all of our problems, because it just isn’t going to happen. But we’ve got far more important battles to fight than fighting battles between ourselves.
MARK: Thanks, Thomas. And, if I didn’t say it before, I’ll miss your presence here in town.
THOMAS: Thank you very much. I’m gonna miss this place, and more importantly, the people here, more than I’ll ever be able to say properly.