Ypsilanti Immigration Interview: Erika Jost and Ben Connor Barrie


Still trying to unravel the mystery of why people would choose, of their own free will, to move to Ypsilanti, I reached out to new homeowners Erika Jost and Ben Connor Barrie, and demanded that they submit to a formal Ypsilanti Immigration Interview. Here are the results.

MARK: Was Ypsilanti just the most affordable choice, or were there other factors that motivated your choice to abandon Ann Arbor and settle in Ypsi?

BEN: I’d say the main reason we’re living in Ypsi is because Erika and I both really like it. Every time we came here for a show at the New Theater Project, or for dinner at Sidetrack, or for drinks at Corner Brewery, we always left remarking how much we enjoyed it here.

ERIKA: I lived in downtown Flint for a year, and we both loved being there: there’s something exciting about being in these old industrial downtowns as they redefine themselves. Granted, Ypsilanti is farther along that road than Flint.

BEN: The second reason we moved here was practicality. Erika works in downtown Detroit, and I still have three years left on my dissertation at U of M. Affordability was icing on the cake. We were actually planning on renting an apartment here until we took a drive around the city and saw some of the houses that were for sale.

ERIKA: Full disclosure: I completely lost it on the first day of “just looking around” when we saw a beautiful pinkish brick home for sale on Grove Street. The House of Dreams. We found out it was under contract. Of course it was: it is a House of Dreams. Thus began our hunt.

MARK: As some folks may know, you, Ben, run a popular Ann Arbor-based blog called Damn Arbor… I’m curious as to how your Ann Arbor readers will take the news that you no longer live among them. Have you gotten any feedback from folks?

BEN: We haven’t exactly gone public with that yet. I wanted to break the news in a good way… I’ve neglected the blog a bit this summer, with the wedding and our moving, and I haven’t been able to dedicate the time I would have wanted to writing. That said, I don’t expect I’ll get too much backlash. Our audience seems very interested in exploring Ypsilanti and learning what’s going on here.

MARK: Let’s keep talking blogs for a minute… Why do you do it?

BEN: I grew up here. Left for undergrad. Spent two years teaching (for America!) in Chicago, and moved back for grad school. When I moved back, I was surprised that there was no blog or website that catered to the large number of young adults in the area. I started the blog with some friends (including Erika) as I was rediscovering Ann Arbor as an adult. There was a convenient void in the media landscape and I’m a little narcissistic. So that’s why I do it.

MARK: How has the blog changed since you started it?

BEN: Some of the writers who started Damn Arbor with me have moved on, so I’ve had to figure out how to recruit new folks. Also, within the last year, I think people have started taking us a bit more seriously as a media outlet. We get more press releases from local businesses and we have been invited to review restaurants and plays.

MARK: Wait a second… You get free food and tickets to actually go and do things?

BEN: Yes. We’ve been invited to some media events at restaurants. Whenever that happens, though, we disclose it in the article. And we get press tickets to review plays as well. I really appreciate the opportunity that has afforded us to expand our local theater coverage.

MARK: I guess I must be doing something wrong. Or maybe it’s just because I blog in Ypsi and you blog in Ann Arbor. I don’t want to make you sad, but I’m wondering if the offers might start drying up now that you’re on the wrong side of the tracks…. Back to the interview, though, for those folks who don’t know you, what can you tell us about yourselves?

BEN: I’m 29, born in Ann Arbor, studying forest ecology, licensed pesticide applicator, I can identify most trees in Michigan based on their twig/bud morphology.

MARK: How does one become a licensed pesticide applicator? Does a master pesticide applicator have to follow you around and watch you apply poison to various kinds of bugs? Is there a property somewhere that they keep infested just for these examinations? And what’s your favorite pesticide to apply?

BEN: There’s a state exam you need to pass. I took it while I was a caretaker living in the Arboretum. One of my duties was removing invasive species, which sometimes requires targeted application of herbicides. My favorite pesticide is glyphosate (generic Roundup). I get the thrill of doing something bad every time I use it… To be clear, I don’t really relish using pesticides and only do so when it’s a necessary part of an ecological restoration.

MARK: Is living in the Arboretum awesome? Or is is kind of creepy?

BEN: It was pretty awesome, though surprisingly isolating at times. It did help me conquer my fear of walking alone in the woods in the dark. Living in the woods, or in the semi-manicured woods, allowed me to see a lot of cool wildlife. I saw a pair of coyotes hunting deer one night, heard their pups in the spring when they were emerging from their den, saw a red-tailed hawk teaching its children how to hunt in the field. I saw a lot of really amazing things while I was living there. And I got to learn how to chainsaw.

MARK: And how about you, Erika? What should we know about you? And do you have a favorite pesticide?

ERIKA: No. I know that if your plants have aphids, you should wash them with soapy water. Both Ben and my Oma have told me that, so it must be true. I do not, of my own volition, own either aphids or plants.

I was born at St. John in east Detroit and grew up in Grosse Pointe. My entire extended family lives in the eastern suburbs, save one aunt and her family in Rochester. (This may not be a meaningful context for much of your audience, so allow me to illustrate with a brief anecdote: I was recently in east Detroit with one of my bosses, who grew up on the eastside but now lives in West Bloomfield. At some point during our meeting, he misplaced his cell phone and we were both retracing our steps looking for it. A woman walked up to him on the sidewalk and asked what was wrong. When he told her, she responded, “My husband is always doing stupid shit like that,” and then walked away. I wouldn’t have thought twice about the interaction, except that my boss laughed and said, “You know you’re back on the eastside when a cranky woman you don’t know yells at you in the street.” I had never thought about it before, but I don’t find his characterization of the place to be inaccurate.)

Sometimes I write book reviews for the blog, and I love learning about Michigan authors and novels.

MARK: Is it odd, do you think, for a woman who chooses to own no plants, to marry a man who professes to be an expert in the field of “twig/bud morphology”? Do you think that your relationship might be doomed… that he may, one day, try to bring a plant home, and that you’ll break up over it? And is Oma a character from one of the Oz books?

ERIKA: Yes, probably. We’re way past the “try to bring a plant home” scenario. Just the other night, I came home to a kitchen counter covered in plants from the backyard: Ben had brought them in because he said it was going to be too cold for them that night. Ben is also a terrible speller, and I have won numerous bees in my spelling career. We persevere. I think the spelling thing is going to get us before the plant thing. “Oma” is my grandmother. She is the person who tried to make me care about gardening before I met Ben.

MARK: So, do you have any plans for Ypsilanti now that you’re here… either online, or in the real world? Do you, for instance, have any plans to incorporate more Ypsi coverage into the mix on Damn Arbor? Or, better yet, start a Damnsilanti spin-off? And what are the chances that we might interest you, Ben, in getting involved in our Water Street Commons project? Given your background in native plants, we could really use you.

BEN: We’ve always had a good deal of Ypsilanti coverage on Damn Arbor. One thing I like about moving here is that it gives me a small opportunity to reinforce the mutualism between the two cities… I’d love to work on the Water Street Commons project, or any other native ecosystem restoration projects in the City. Does Ypsi have any group like Ann Arbor’s NAP? Shall we, say, discuss it over a beer? I have a lot of ideas.

MARK: If there’s a group like NAP in Ypsi, I haven’t come across it. We did, however, get quite a bit of input early on from people associated with Ann Arbor’s Native Plant Nursery, Mason’s Wildtype, Ann Arbor’s Wild Ones chapter, the Michigan Botanical Club, the Michigan Native Plant Producers Association and the MSU Extension Service. And, Jason Tallant, who used to handle native plants for the City of Ann Arbor… and also happens to be a friend and neighbor… was involved throughout the process. But, yes, I’d love to discuss things over beer. Just let me know when you’re free and we’ll set up a pub crawl that ends with a tour of the Commons.

BEN: How about next Tuesday?

MARK: Next Tuesday it is… And how about you, Erika? Do you have any time or interest in becoming active in the community? If you need help finding something to do, just let me know.

ERIKA: I am very interested. Right now I volunteer with an adult literacy program run by the Detroit Public Library, and I would like to become involved in a similar organization locally. I’ve heard there are group bike rides around the city on Sunday mornings, and we’ve been planning to join in on that. I’ve also been a dancer since I was young and I taught at the Ann Arbor YMCA during law school. I have not been able to plug into the ballet/jazz/tap scene around here, so any help you can offer in the arena would be appreciated.

MARK: 826, from what I understand, has moved their Ypsi-based after-school 8-18 tutoring activites over to Beezy’s, and I’m sure they could use some help. As for the community biking group you’re referring to, it’s likely Bike Ypsi. I’ll send you emails for both. Sadly, I don’t know much about the local tap scene. I did, however, interview a local girl not too long ago named Nicasia Marie Solano-Reed who moved to New York to join the Joffrey Ballet. She might have some suggestions for you. Nothing specific comes to mind right now, but I seem to recall that there might also be a non-profit in the area that’s doing movement related work with kids. If I’m right about that, I’m sure someone will leave a comment.

ERIKA: That’s awesome! I can’t wait to read the comments! I know a lot of dancers in the area who struggle to find advanced classes for adults. But there is a growing arts community in Southeast Michigan in general, I think. One more question: what’s the new/used bookstore situation like in Ypsi? I see a lot of stores for textbooks, but luckily I don’t need to buy those anymore!

BenAndErikaBreenMARK: Used book stores come and go. Over the last decade or so, we’ve had them in Depot Town, and on Michigan Avenue. The only one to stay, though, is the Cross Street Book Shop (523 West Cross). The selection is odd, the hours are irregular, and I’m sure that, one day, someone will die beneath an avalanche of dusty volumes, but it’s also kind of magical, if you can get beyond the claustrophobia. Also, the downtown library is pretty great. The librarians are very much community-minded, and they’ll work their asses off to get you what you need.

ERIKA: The library looks very pretty. I wish it were open Sundays! My favorite library in the area is the Detroit Main Branch because the artwork is so beautiful. Now, though, I’m paranoid that the bankruptcy hawks circling the DIA will look across the street and come for the books. I don’t know how rational a fear that is – I’ve heard there’s not much money in books. Upshot: Ben and I have yet to get our library cards, but I am excited to belong to a library whose city is not in bankruptcy.

MARK: What was the process like finding a place to live in Ypsi? I know I met with you the better part of a year ago, and discussed the possibility of your moving here, so this is something you’ve clearly been thinking about for a while. Given that, I’m curious as to why it’s taken this long? Weren’t you finding good places? Were the asking prices too high? Did deals fall through?

BEN: Well, this being our first house purchase, there was a bit of a learning curve. Once we figured things out, in late winter, the market really started to pick up. That, combined with a low inventory, made things a little nerve-racking. Before we entered into the contract on the house we ended up buying, we were over-bid on a couple of others, a few times in cash, and we were under contract briefly on a house that would need repairs that we were not in a position to commit to. I guess we were also pretty picky – we wanted a nice house, near Downtown or Depot Town, near a bus line, for under 100k. In March, good houses were going under contract within two days of being on the market, so that really made things hectic.

We finally entered into contract for our house in April. It was a foreclosure and there were some really frustrating delays on the part of the seller: fixing a pipe in the basement due to improper winterization, the Colorado (why Colorado?!?!) title company not having the proper paperwork, etc. (Those interested in more detailed real estate griping can contact me personally. I have a lot of it and will name names.) We finally closed on July 18.

ERIKA: One nice thing about our house search was working with Tyler Weston, our buyer’s agent. He works for Howard Hanna and drives an ostentatious (in a good way) yellow-green car around town. He talked me down from the ledge a couple of times during our prolonged search, and he gave us Ypsi-themed care packages when we moved in: t-shirts, magnets, candy, all from The Rocket.

MARK: In another of these Immigration Interviews, I asked the person the following, and she refused to answer it. I’m curious if you’re up to the task… “If you had an opportunity to meet your favorite historical figure, but could only say ten words, what would they be?”

ERIKA: My favorite historical figure (perhaps you believe I interpret the term loosely; I disagree) is Lucy Maud Montgomery, Canadian author of the beloved children’s series Anne of Green Gables, as well as other books. I would say: “Why did you make adult Anne so boring? It’s depressing.”

BEN: Aldo Leopold. I would say “Tell your grandsons to bring their brewery back to town.”

MARK: So, any surprises thus far, either with the house, or with the community?

ERIKA: Our neighbors are really nice! Not really a surprise, but worth mentioning. One neighbor brought us homemade chocolate chip cookies and brownies when we first moved in, and another lent us a lawn mower this past weekend. (Hint, hint to us.) The Ypsi Food Co-op is very affordable. I was pleasantly surprised to see an old friend from college selling vegetables at the Farmer’s Market last Saturday, too. She recently bought a farm in Jackson County, and we made a caprese salad from her heirloom tomatoes.

BEN: I saw some cedar waxwings while I was running on the Tridge. That was really cool.

MARK: I saw a man receiving oral sex on the Tridge one night. Not nearly so cool… Completely unrelated, I think I might already know this, as I believe we discussed it that night, over beers, when I was encouraging you to move here, but where did the two of you meet? Were you both at U of M?

ERIKA: We were both doing postgraduate work at UM at the same time, but we met before that, when we were attending Kalamazoo College. The first time we met was in 2006, when we both signed up for “Thriller,” a large group dance for our student-run dance company’s annual show. (I don’t remember if we had a conversation at that time.) We met again in 2007 when I was considering participating in Teach for America, and the organization arranged for applicants to visit Ben’s high school biology class on the southside of Chicago. Ten minutes into his class, I decided Teach for America was not for me. We met again right after Thanksgiving in 2008, when I was in law school and Ben moved back home to Ann Arbor to figure out if he wanted to pursue grad school. Our mutual friend, also named Ben, invited us both out for beer at Ashley’s. We started dating the following March.

BEN: In my defense, she saw my seventh period class on a bad day. Also, I think we started dating in late February, not March. But yes, Erika’s statement is more or less accurate.

MARK: Should I be preparing for an all-out turf war for Ypsi blog supremacy?

BEN: Yes? I think you should really prepare yourself for more creepy, stalker-esque “presents” from the two of us.

MARK: If you’re talking about what I think you’re talking about, that’s just gross. Linette insisted that it was the work of a giant dog, like a mastiff, but I told her it was the work of at least two people, working in tandem. I am, of course, pissed that it happened, but the joy of being proven right outweighs it. Thank you for that.

ERIKA: THAT present was only from Ben.

[Still wondering why people want to make Ypsilanti their home? Check out the rest of our Ypsilanti Immigration Interviews.]

note: The image at the top of the post comes courtesy of Aubrey Parker. The second photo comes courtesy Darren Breen.

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  1. West Side
    Posted August 16, 2013 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    Conspiring to lure Ann Arbor’s most beloved blogger to Ypsilanti? Now you have gone to far, Mr. Maynard.

  2. double anonymous
    Posted August 16, 2013 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    This is a huge mistake. Once we’ve allowed the first twig morphologist into the city, the second won’t be too far behind. Then comes the flood. This is the beginning of the end. Soon they’ll be everywhere. You’ll have to shoo them out of your yard. You’ll look out your window in the morning and there they’ll be, wearing khaji pants, examining your twigs and buds.

  3. H
    Posted August 16, 2013 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    I happen to know that they moved here because they heard about the new downtown dollar store. Good work, City Council!

  4. Posted August 16, 2013 at 9:16 am | Permalink


    I’m curious, as you talked about moving to Ypsi, how many times did people raise each of the following concerns to you, and to what extent did they affect your thinking: Crime, taxes, schools. (Obviously, you weren’t scared away by any of these; I just like tracking outside impressions vs. the assumptions we here have about those outside impressions.)

  5. Marketing 101
    Posted August 16, 2013 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    If you were smart, you would have titled this piece, “Ben Connor Barrie, publisher of Damn Arbor, moves to Ypsilanti after saturating Arb in pesticide.”

  6. Posted August 16, 2013 at 9:49 am | Permalink


    People mentioned crime, taxes, schools as things to be aware of, but not necessarily as things to be worried about.

    In terms of crime, Erika lived in and worked in Flint for a year and I lived and worked on the Southside of Chicago for two years. We’re both aware of crime, but not too worried.

    We’ve never paid property taxes before. So the fact that people were telling us the taxes were high didn’t really factor into the decision. High taxes aren’t too bad when they are combined with low assessed values.

    Schools really didn’t factor into the decision because we don’t have any kids. Also, having been a high school teacher, I’m (unrealistically) confident that I can teach our hypothetical children anything they need to know.

  7. site admin
    Posted August 16, 2013 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Mr. Barrie is fessing up on his one site now.

    “It is a struggle, at times, deciding the extent to which I should share details of my personal life on Damn Arbor. Gentle readers, I do love you, but I also realize you don’t want to know about every minute detail of my life. That said, there has been a recent development in my life that you may find interesting. After getting married in June, EJ and I bought a house in the Normal Park Neighborhood in Ypsilanti. That’s right, we’re no longer living in Ann Arbor. In fact, MarkMaynard.com just interviewed me and EJ about our immigration to Ypsilanti. You should totally check it out.”


  8. Erika
    Posted August 16, 2013 at 10:14 am | Permalink


    Crime was a factor insofar as we looked in Ypsilanti neighborhoods that have low crime rates. I have a hard time when entire cities are labeled as “dangerous”–I know people who don’t like coming to Grosse Pointe because they think it’s too close to the city. Detroit and Flint consistently rank as two of the most violent cities in the country: having lived and/or worked in both, I have learned this is a neighborhood-by-neighborhood assessment. So we talked to Mark, we talked to other people we know who live here, and we checked out our prospective neighborhoods at night. I get a crime map email once a week. Like living in any city, it’s about being informed.

    Our property taxes totaled less than I expected. The fact was that we were able to afford a larger house in a safe neighborhood for less money than it would have cost us in other places we would have wanted to live. So while the rate is on the high end, we’re being taxed on a lesser amount. We did toy with the idea of looking a couple blocks over in the township: all the benefits of downtown Ypsi without paying for it. Property taxes are the price we can afford to feel morally superior. (That is a joke.) Property taxes or no, we’re still more publicly subsidized than we were when we were renting. (Thank you, mortgage interest tax deduction.) Short answer: I don’t think the question starts and ends with the rate of taxes.

    Schools are a big unknown. We’re a couple years out from having kids still, and we honestly don’t know if we’re forever Michiganders yet. We both had the benefit of two of the best public school systems in the state (Ann Arbor and Grosse Pointe, though I attended Catholic school for a while as well), and Ypsilanti looks a little weak in comparison. This bit is not yet sorted.

  9. Posted August 16, 2013 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    Ben, I had no idea that you did Teach for America. I tend to rip on that program (sorry)…let’s discuss it sometime! I’d like to hear about it face to face instead of just reading about it from disgruntled former employees. Also, I went to Adrian College in the early 90s (while you were probably still in grade school…oh the pain) and we hated K-College kids because had chandeliers in your dining rooms :)

    Congrats to you both!!!

  10. anonymous
    Posted August 16, 2013 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    As I understand it, there are still a few bees left on earth. How do we destroy them?

  11. Ben Connor Barrie
    Posted August 16, 2013 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    @TeacherPatti I rip on TFA too from time to time. The program is not without it’s flaws.

    @anon, a plan to kill all the bees:

    1) transfect the Bt (pesticide producing) gene into a wide range of plants.

    2) allow these plants to reproduce with wild type plants so the Bt gene is expressed in a large proportion of plants.

    3) when the bees come and forage for pollen and nectar, they will be poisoning themselves.

    4) the bee problem is solved.

  12. Bee Watcher
    Posted August 16, 2013 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    So that’s how you did it!

  13. Posted August 16, 2013 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    “Erika: …I have won numerous bees…”

    “Ben: …a plan to kill all the bees….”

    I hope y’all discussed this before getting married? Otherwise, could be awkward…

  14. Eel
    Posted August 16, 2013 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    OK, smart guy.

    Identify this!


  15. Ben Connor Barrie
    Posted August 16, 2013 at 9:27 pm | Permalink


    Black walnut (Juglans nigra, Fagales: juglandaceae). Cut open the twig and it should have a chambered pith. Also the buds will smell aromatic if you rub them.

  16. Posted August 19, 2013 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    Congratulations, guys, you know you’ve hit the big time when you land an MM interview ;-)

    Also congratulations on getting married and buying a home! Sounds like it’s been an eventful year.

  17. Eel
    Posted August 19, 2013 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    Juglans major, or Arizona Walnut, to be exact. You were really close, though.

  18. Neb
    Posted August 21, 2013 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    Ben is already contributing mightily to raising the level of local discourse.


  19. T.
    Posted August 22, 2013 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    Says: “One thing I like about moving here is that it gives me a small opportunity to reinforce the mutualism between the two cities.”

    First post: “Someone shat on the toilet seat at Heritage Festival.”

    (If I knew how to make it a graphic, I would.)

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