Feeling as though I needed to post an awesome Ypsi Immigration Interview to counterbalance last week’s depressing Exit Interview with my friend Melissa, I started going through my email archive, looking for letters from people who had written to me over the past year, telling me that they were thinking of moving to Ypsilanti, hoping that maybe someone had actually followed through on the threat. Well, I found an exchange with a fellow from New Jersey, who, at the time, was house hunting remotely, and dropped him a line, asking if he’d found a place, and made the move. And, guess what? He had… Here’s our official Immigration Interview.
Please join me in welcoming Scott Straley.
MARK: You first wrote to me in March. I believe, at the time, you were living in New Jersey with your partner, searching online for a home to buy in Ypsi. Well, now that a few months have passed, I thought that I’d check in and ask how things went. Did you buy a home and make the move?
SCOTT: Ah. Yes. March. When it was cold and not raining. I remember those days. Our online search was indeed successful. We did lots of online touring of Ypsilanti. In fact, we were committed to Ypsi even before we had stepped foot within the city. We found a great two bedroom ranch just south of Michigan Avenue, near Growing Hope. We moved in the first week of June. And it hasn’t stopped raining since… I feel somewhat responsible.
MARK: How are you finding Ypsi so far? Is it what you expected, given that most of your research was done online?
SCOTT: We really like the city. I wish more of the residents had a stronger sense of community… but those that do seem to make up for their less committed neighbors.
It’s interesting, however. After spending a couple months Google Mapping around the city, it seems smaller in person. And that’s both good and bad.
It’s good, because it really feels like a place where ordinary citizens can contribute without upsetting the bureaucratic hierarchy. And, the smallness also makes people feel as if they should do something. I think some people, in more sprawling cities, like Ann Arbor, don’t feel as connected to the places where they live.
But, being a smaller city, the opportunities often are presented as larger obstacles, like the squabbling over the Water Street property. Sometimes the choice is just between two less than favorable options. But, I’m hopeful that Ypsilanti will see its way through this process. Look at the Rutherford Pool. That took three years of negotiations, fund raising, and naysayers, and, then, this amazing thing happened. And, I see the same thing happening around the Parkridge Community Center: people with vision stepping up and motivating people to get things done.
So, to answer your question, Ypsi is more than what I expected – and mostly better. I heard a lot of pejorative comments about the city from folks who live outside its borders – mostly related to the perception of crime. But, looking at the crime data told a different, more nuanced story. Sure, there are some struggling neighborhoods in Ypsilanti. But, there are many neighborhoods which have lower crime statistics than those in the utopian city to our west.
MARK: As you’re a man with a husband, I’m assuming that you’re gay. I’ve always thought that Ypsi could use a gay bar (and an Indian restaurant… not necessarily combined, but I suppose that could be interesting)… Would you agree?
SCOTT: LOL. Yes. My husband and I were married in California in 2008, when we lived there, days prior to the passing of Proposition 8. It’s funny, Will, my husband, and I were talking about the lack of gay bar options in the region a few weeks ago when comparing and contrasting the three commercial districts in Ypsilanti. (While neither of us really are bar-going, it’s nice to have a place that in some stereotypical way defines our community.) I’m thinking the up-and-coming food/theater/fashion Downtown district would be the best location for both. And, with the Color Run traipsing through there, you get both the rainbowic assault of colors and the Indian Holi celebration. I see a three-way marketing opportunity for the right person.
MARK: I spent grades 5 through 12 in New Jersey, in a little town called Andover, about 45 minutes outside of New York, in what locals referred to as “God’s country”. Whereabouts in Jersey were you living, and did you grow up there?
SCOTT: Well, New Jersey is sort of laid out the same way as Michigan – just on a smaller scale. You have the rust belt urban infrastructure of Newark and the cities just over the river from New York, with some very nice pockets, surrounded by blight and neglect. Next, you have the suburban sprawl that not too many years ago was forest and farms. And, then you have the forest and farms. It’s just all of this is condensed into a 50-mile wide state.
We were living in a small city on the western edge of the suburban sprawl called Morristown. I grew up in New Jersey, spent a brief stint in Pennsylvania, then dozen or so years in California, before one more quick lap through New York and New Jersey, eventually ending up in Michigan.
It all made sense at the time.
MARK: What brought you to Ypsi? As I recall, it had something to do with you being transferred by your company to a satellite office in Ann Arbor, or something, right?
SCOTT: Yes. I lead the web development team for an automotive magazine. We decided to transition our development from New York City to Ann Arbor, and build a new team gradually out here. It makes sense because our editorial was out here, but also because I think that there’s an untapped pool of talent here that lives here because they choose to make Michigan their home.
You see this trend in a lot of the web technology industries – a move back out of the more expensive urban centers. It improves people’s quality of life, you’re able to attract and retain better and happier talent, and you reduce all of the costs associated with the centralization of infrastructure.
MARK: When did you first come across this site, and was it at all useful to you when making your decision as to where you’d buy your home and settle down?
SCOTT: I found it early in March sometime – just before I wrote you. It was very helpful – partially to dispel some of the negative impressions I was first given about Ypsilanti, and partially to help set the tone for the city of Ypsilanti. (You didn’t know you had that power, did you?)
MARK: Now that you’re here, do you think that I oversold Ypsilanti at all? I try, as best that I can, to be objective, but I know that, on occasion, I can be a bit of a cheerleader. I’m always concerned that, one day, someone will move here, in part due to the ongoing narrative that I share here, be horribly disappointed to the point of anger – like our old friend Christine Schultz – hunt me down, and slap me in the face… And feel free to be totally honest.
SCOTT: Hmmm… I tend to be a cynic when it comes to online opinion. So, I balanced what I read on markmaynard.com with what I saw in crime data, news articles, city notices, etc.
That all said, I think cheerleaders are important. So, to that end, you helped lift my view of the city and cancel out so much of the negative. To see things like the Seed Bombing really helped me understand that there was a core of people here who loved their city. That speaks volumes.
And, I guess I’m used to being part of the online narrative about a community. When I lived in California, I used to run a local news/chat/opinion website for the mountain communities near San Bernardino. They had a tendency to keep catching on fire, or having mudslides, or blizzards, or bark beetles, or Starbucks closings, or any number of other disasters. And, I think a community that can connect online is stronger. So, I know the balance between being an observer/reporter of a community, and the passion of wanting to see it become something wonderful.
MARK: Do you have any thoughts as to how you might want to contribute, here, now that you’re a part of this community?
SCOTT: Will and are committed to the city we now call home. Ypsilanti is the first place where we own a home together.
And, now that we’re settled in a place for a while, we’ve resumed our plans to adopt. We’re looking to adopt older children domestically. There are 14,000 children in Michigan in the foster care system. While nearly half of those will be returned to their family or extended family, the remainder will often go through multiple placements until they turn 18 or they’re adopted. And, most foster children over the age of 8 will never be adopted.
We’ve started going through the required adoption training and certification process. While the certification and placement process is very accepting of same-sex couples – the state is not. Only one of us will able to be the legal adoptive parents in Michigan, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, since it punishes the adoptive children by not providing them with a legally recognized backup in case something were to happen to one of us. And the last thing these children need is yet another obstacle to being a permanent part of a family.
So, first and foremost, we’re looking to build a safe, nurturing, home for our children. And, as an extension to that, to lend our voices to changing the laws in Michigan to protect families like ours. We also want Ypsilanti to be a great place to raise a family. We’re thrilled with the Rutherford Pool. We are encouraged with the plans for the Parkridge Community Center. And, we’re cautiously optimistic about the new Ypsilanti Community Schools district.
Will is also exploring opening a business in Ypsilanti. He graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York last year and has spent several years in fashion retail. He’d like to open a personal styling business and perhaps a showroom and design studio in Ypsilanti.
MARK: Do you have any photos that you’d be comfortable sharing?
SCOTT: It’s remarkably hard to find photos of us together since, usually, one of us is holding the camera. We have an inordinate amount of photos of our dog, Katie, and and our cats, Lilo and Stitch. But, I was able to pull the following photos off of Facebook, One is at a family Easter celebration in New Jersey. And the other is when my left arm was maliciously gnawed off by emus in California. Hopefully you can decipher which is which. [editor’s note: Scott is the one on the left in each of the photos. The fellow on the right is Will.]
MARK: I just looked at your first email to me, and you said the following… “We want to be part of a community that’s in the process of ‘becoming” something.” Do you still have that sense? Assuming so, what do you see as the potential before us… What’s the best case scenario?
SCOTT: Well, we’re now entrenched in our Ypsilanti experiment and I’m still getting my bearings. But, I see a lot of potential here.
One of the city’s best assets is its river. Having a river running through the center of the city provides a focal point for recreation. And, having that river bounded by retail businesses is a bonus. So many cities in Michigan bury their rivers in industrial areas. I do think that after the Water Street issues are ironed out and with increased investment in downtown and Depot Town, Ypsilanti has the real potential of becoming a destination city.
And then, there is this tremendous groundswell of interest in making Ypsilanti unique – and differentiating it from Ann Arbor. We need to make sure that we’re not just being different to be different. Our proximity to Ann Arbor has protected our city during the worst of the recession. We need to find ways to work together more.
We also need a City leadership that has long-term vision. Right now, we’re shuffling debt around and hiding it in each successive year’s budget. Our city’s financial problems are not going to go away without pulling in reach vision and development. The ShapeYpsi efforts are very good – but they’ll only really be helpful if what they produce is comprehensive, consistent, and followed.
I attended a City Council meeting after initially moving here. And, I do recommend it for those who haven’t gone. It’s part The Office and part Parks and Recreation — some of the best community theater in our City. They were debating the Water Street plans and the Dollar Store, and the topic of discussion focused on parking. The urban planners, architects, and ShapeYpsi guidance all suggested that the business be aligned with the street and sidewalk and parking be placed in the rear. But, a couple of the councilmembers wanted a parking lot in front of the store and for it to be set back from the street. They claimed that they would not feel safe parking behind a business in Ypsilanti. So, instead of working to build a vibrant integrated downtown – one that would lower crime and bring further economic recovery to the City – they want to turn downtown Ypsilanti into a strip mall. Have they seen how many vacant strip malls there are in the region? People who lack vision should not be in City government.
MARK: What do you most miss about New Jersey?
SCOTT: Friends and family, mostly. Sure there were familiar things, restaurants, shops, etc. But, we’re building a new familiarity here. And, we’re making new friends. (Not that new friends deprecate our old friendships.)
MARK: How did you stumble onto Ypsi? As your job is in Ann Arbor, I’m assuming you started your search there, and, in the process, came to know about Ypsi… perhaps because the prices in Ann Arbor were too steep. Is that what happened? Were home prices what originally led you to consider this as your home?
SCOTT: Exactly. We were looking at renting a place in Ann Arbor. We were seeing single family homes renting for around $1,500 to $2,000. Then, we found homes in the $30,000s in Ypsilanti. It was a no-brainer. For what we paid for our home here, we would have paid that in rent in Ann Arbor in 24 to 36 months.
MARK: Thanks for the kind words on the seed bombing. I find that it’s difficult sometimes to explain to the powers-that-be why things like that are important. Now I can just point to your Immigration Interview and say, “Here’s a guy who said he moved here, in part, because of what this conveyed about our community.” My guess, and I admit that I could be wrong about this, is that, when all is said and done, the Water Street Commons that we’re creating (the aread where the seed bombing occurred) will have contributed more to the economic viability of Ypsilanti than the Water Street dollar store we’re told is in our future, but my sense is that others aren’t seeing it that way. They’re just seeing the $30,000 in annual tax revenue that we’ll be getting from Family Dollar. They aren’t thinking about people like you, who might be choosing to live in this community, not because of our density of dollar stores, but because things like this are happening.
SCOTT: You’re welcome. There are very few people who stick their neck out as far as you do (online) in promoting Ypsilanti.
MARK: Putting aside the fact that we live in a fucked up state, governed by homophobes, how does Ypsi stack up on the “gay friendly” continuum?
SCOTT: It’s a great city. In fact, we’ve faced more negative reactions to being gay in California and New York than we have in Michigan – even when we’ve wandered outside of the Ypsi-Arbor bubble.
MARK: Do you have questions about Ypsi that either my readers or I could answer? Is there anything that you’ve come across that you just don’t understand? Are there any local customs that just don’t make sense?
SCOTT: Will and I don’t have a long term perspective like many of our neighbors do. Over the past 5, 10, 15 years, how has Ypsi fared? I get the impression that the late 90s were very bad for the city. Also, is it normal for squirrels to tap on one’s back door and beg for peanuts?
MARK: They aren’t begging. They’re bringing you messages. That’s how we communicate here in Ypsi. Just look in their cheeks for the notes. They’re generally scratched into wax paper… You mentioned to me previously that you’ve read other interviews in this series, and I’m wondering if there are questions that you feel as though I should be asking new Ypsilantians that I’m not? And, assuming there are, please pose them to yourself and answer them.
SCOTT: Wow. Well, you’ve been very thorough with this. It would be interesting to have a roundtable discussion of sorts — maybe even a podcast — discussing the city and the direction. But, I really can’t think of any additional questions, unless you wanted to know what we named our visitor squirrel. We named her Peanut. We haven’t yet named the groundhog, skunk, raccoon, rabbit, or countless birds that also live in our backyard.
[If you like this, check out our other Ypsi Immigration Interview, and then start looking for a house… If you need a hand, just let me know. I can help.]