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The tough decisions
of A2’s young and creative

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Illustration by Matthew Weatherston

Illustration by Matthew Weatherston

Story by Brian Short | Photos by Benjamin Weatherston

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to imagine you as you’re reading these words. Most of you are at home, I guess, watching snow gather along the tops of branches, asking the kids to keep it down so you can get through the first half of the paper before lunch. Maybe you’re alone at one of the two-seater tables in your favorite coffee shop, sipping a sea salt latte as you thumb through the Times — starting with Style or Week in Review, whatever your Sunday ritual is — before digging into the local business (which is what we’re doing together right now).

I’ve spent a lot of time imagining you because I don’t know whether you think Ann Arbor is already in trouble. In trouble, specifically, because it’s having difficulty keeping or attracting certain sectors of the “creative class,” especially musicians and filmmakers, painters and poets, the kind of creatives who generally trade the safety of lifelong employability for whatever they’re trading it for — glory, solitude, respect from their peers. They are entrepreneurs, also, but of a lower altitude than programmers, engineers and architects, who are also members of the traditional creative class but whose 401ks are in drastically better shape.

I don’t know if you sympathize with those artists. I’m not sure I fully sympathize with them, and I’m one of them. But whether you sympathize with them or not, this problem, if it’s real, will wind up affecting you.

Because without artists, many of the reasons that many people moved to Ann Arbor in the first place — for its vibrancy and dynamism and political nerve — will be gone, and the culture of the town will be so different that we — you and I, the two making this article together — won’t even recognize it.

Here are three stories about how people decided to leave — or not come to — Ann Arbor:

Delia DeCourcy walks her dog in Birmingham.

Delia DeCourcy walks her dog in Birmingham.

Better to have loved and lost?

Delia DeCourcy really wanted to live in Ann Arbor.

She came to town for graduate school, fell in love with the place, got her degree and moved back to North Carolina. When she got an offer to come back to Michigan to work as a professional development consultant for Oakland County school district, she jumped at the chance, bugging friends to tell her about the housing market in Ann Arbor. The news was shocking, and Delia needed to come up with a new plan.

“I talked to a Realtor I’ve known for a long time and I talked to some other people who were looking for houses in Ann Arbor,” Delia says. “And even for cheaper houses, you need a wad of cash to put down. It’s very competitive. Houses go fast. Without all that, I decided to live closer to work, in Birmingham.”

Now Delia lives in a three-bedroom house with a yard and a neighborhood park for $1,500 a month, with none of the delinquent landlord issues that she had in Ann Arbor. She still drives in to town on the weekends to see friends, but she admits feeling a bit cut off from things.

“The people that I meet (outside of Ann Arbor) are just of a different ilk,” Delia says. “They’re nice people. I can go have a drink with them, but I can count on one hand the number of people in the last two years who, on a night out with them, we talked about film or books. For me, that’s a quality of life issue. That matters.

“Living (in Birmingham) is isolating,” Delia says. “That’s how I talk about it. It’s very isolating.”

Lisa Waud, founder of Pot & Box, found what she was looking for in Detroit.

Lisa Waud, founder of Pot & Box, found what she was looking for in Detroit.

Wooed away by a rival suitor

Growing up in Petoskey, Lisa Waud had always wanted to live in a city. When she moved to Ann Arbor she thought she had found the place she was supposed to be.

Lisa worked, went to shows, participated generally in the cultural life of the city. Her passion for flowers and floral design grew and, eventually, she opened the Pot & Box flower shop and design studio on Felch Street in Water Hill. Opening a new business was scary but the community response to Lisa’s designs was tremendous. While the rent in Water Hill was high, the cost of having a storefront was a “marketing payment,” Lisa says, with the business expanding dramatically after it moved out of her garage and into a retail space. 

The business continued to thrive but after a few years living in Ann Arbor, Lisa found herself going to Detroit more and more often for shows and small business events. Ann Arbor began to not feel like the perfect fit it had been.

“I landed in Ann Arbor and I felt, this is great,” Lisa says. “I waited tables at Jerusalem Garden, I met a bunch of people, I was really busy doing cool things.

“Then I realized (Ann Arbor) is actually a small town with a giant university supporting it. I guess I don’t know what the difference is between that and a city city, but whatever it is, I wanted it.”

In Detroit, friends of Lisa’s at the Open City small business forum began wooing her to bring Pot & Box to the city, a process that Lisa describes as “very much like a courtship. Like a bolt of lightning,” Lisa says she knew she wanted to be in Detroit.

Her rent on Felch Street jumped from $900 to $1,200 a month, adding pressure. Lisa eventually decided to move the Ann Arbor business across town to a more affordable space, and to move herself to Detroit, where she now lives above her new studio.

While Detroit sometimes feels like a small town, Lisa says, especially among the small business owner community, it still has the big-city feel she had always wanted.

“I don’t know what it is, but Detroit does it for me,” Lisa says. “It’s not like I thought of Ann Arbor and said, let’s go somewhere else, anywhere else. I love Detroit. I wanted to be a part of what’s happening there.”

Joe Bertoletti knew from the beginning he wouldn’t be able to afford Ann Arbor housing. He’s happy in Ypsilanti.

Joe Bertoletti knew from the beginning he wouldn’t be able to afford Ann Arbor housing. He’s happy in Ypsilanti.

Maybe he’s just not that into you

Joe Bertoletti didn’t even consider Ann Arbor.

He and his wife came to the area to get their master’s degrees in social work at the University of Michigan. They knew from the beginning that Ann Arbor wouldn’t work, but they were happy with what they found in Ypsilanti.

“It’s so cliché to say — we couldn’t afford Ann Arbor,” Joe says. “But as soon as we started looking over here (in Ypsilanti), we thought, oh yeah, this is where we want to be.”

Now Joe works in the education field, directing field services for the High Scope Education Research Foundation. He and his wife come to Ann Arbor to dine out and see shows, but most of what they need is so close by that they don’t leave Ypsi too often. Joe admires the vibrancy of Ann Arbor — sometimes, on his walk to work through Ypsilanti, Joe will only see one or two other people — but living in Ypsi has allowed him to shrink his “work-sleep-shop triangle.”

Joe read about the triangle in an article, and the concept is based on Harvard political science Professor Robert Putnam’s research on commuters and unhappiness which basically says, the longer your commute in the morning, the more unhappy you’ll be.

And Joe’s triangle right now is pretty sweet. If Joe leaves his job at 5 p.m. he can be at the Ypsilanti Food Coop in 15 minutes to buy groceries. He does 15 minutes of shopping, say, and then walks 10 minutes home. He’s in the front door by around 5:40. If he worked in Ann Arbor and lived in Ypsilanti, he might still be in his car at 6 p.m.

Joe also plays with his band, Black Jake and the Carnies, which tours together once every few years. Meaningful work, rad music, an awesome family and a 15-minute walking commute all add up to a pretty amazing life, one that Joe is very happy with. It’s probably not surprising that when Joe and his family did move, they moved six houses down the street.

• • •

Three anecdotes. Three people who aren’t your neighbors, but were, or could have been.

I’m not telling you these stories to bum you out. But we all have these stories, stories of friends and colleagues who we wish would have come, would have stayed, and didn’t. Ann Arbor has been a haven for lost souls and a way station onto bigger careers on the coasts, and that dual nature causes the city to have a special place and meaning for a lot of its residents. But it isn’t necessarily the case that Ann Arbor will stay that way forever. And the end may have already begun.

culture_drain_breakoutTo those members of the creative class that I mentioned at the beginning of the article — for the novelists, poets, filmmakers, musicians, painters, designers and other artists who have remained in Ann Arbor while friends have fled in search of cheaper housing or career advancement — these stories aren’t singular events.

Taken together, they make up a larger story of loss. You hear tales of “how it used to be,” of packed concerts all over town, of SRO jazz shows that were so good that, when they ended, the entire crowd got up and went to another jazz show because they couldn’t get enough. More than empty concert seats, the loss of Ann Arbor’s creative class could impact the quality of life for everyone in the city.

In the October issue of this magazine, artist Jeremy Wheeler wrote and drew a sequential art essay about the future of Ann Arbor (he even invented his own typeface to do it!). The lines are bold and the panels are sharp and funny, but the questions Jeremy asks about where Ann Arbor is going, what it’s turning into, aren’t funny at all. One claim in particular caught many readers’ attention, about the so-called “culture drain” happening in Ann Arbor.

The story goes like this: A young, creative type graduates from college or high school and decides to make a go of it, to find a job that lets her (or him) do what she loves and will pay her enough to rent, save money and later maybe buy a two-bedroom home where she can raise an artsy kid with her partner, dyeing the kid’s hair purple and trotting him around the farmers’ market.

In Ann Arbor, though, the rent and the groceries are expensive and the young artist leaves after school because she can’t afford to live here. She settles in Ypsilanti or Detroit, becomes a member of that community and, held taut by her friendships and relationships there, doesn’t remember to consider Ann Arbor as a place to live later.

This young artist meets other young artists and they all hang out together in Not Ann Arbor and those places keep improving, becoming more interesting and developing economically, powered by an entrepreneurial spirit that embraces experimentation because people can afford to fail a few times before they get it right.

Meanwhile, Ann Arbor gets older (see the April 2014 issue about the graying of Ann Arbor) and everyone’s tattoos begin to sag, and they put in an Apple Store where the Blind Pig used to be. And the war, if that’s what it was, is declared to finally be over.

That’s the story. But here’s the part where I say, “It’s not quite that simple.”

It’s not quite that simple.

• • •

There is no way to claim that Ann Arbor lacks culture, or has a culture problem, or doesn’t have things to do. Let’s make that clear.

Off the top of my head: There’s the Penny Stamps Speaker Series, the University Musical Society, the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra, shows at Hill and The Ark and the Blind Pig; there’s programming at the Michigan and State theaters; there’s the Ann Arbor Film Festival and now the Cinetopia Film Festival; there are readings at Literati and, if you can make it out of downtown, at Nicola’s; there’s Tiny Expo and Top of the Park and Nerd Nite and Ignite Ann Arbor; there’s dancing at the Elks Lodge and the Bang! and storytelling at the Ann Arbor Moth Storyslam (disclosure alert, I used to produce the Moth); there’s Comet and The Last Word and 40 million restaurants. I’m sure I’m offending somebody — maybe you — by what I’ve left out, but the point is that there’s no way to make an exhaustive list of all of the cultural events and opportunities in Ann Arbor, not in an article this short, and this article isn’t short (insert joke about my last name HERE). So what, exactly, are we talking about when we talk about “culture drain”?

Some creatives find themselves pushed to towns like Birmingham, where rents are more manageable.

Some creatives find themselves pushed to towns like Birmingham, where rents are more manageable.

I think we’re talking about people leaving Ann Arbor due to a lack of space dedicated to the work of local and regional artists. A significant part of the above-mentioned cultural attractions involve global and national — as opposed to homegrown — art and artists. Part of the problem is the cost of renting space downtown (we’ll get to this later), so that locals who would like a place to perform either do it in Ypsilanti or Detroit or they don’t do it at all. Another problem is that many local performers, especially musicians, complain about long-term decreases in show attendance. That makes performance spaces that serve those musicians and audiences even less economically viable than they might be otherwise.

When I ask friends why attendance at concerts is down, they point to things like increasing cell phone use, the public smoking ban and the Great Recession. Whatever the cause, the solution somewhat exceeds the purview of this article except for a general “Gather ye rosebuds” admonition to go do something you wouldn’t have done otherwise in Ann Arbor every once in awhile. See a show. Stop into a gallery. Spend one weekend a month just walking around downtown, listening for the noisiest ruckus and finding its cause. In short: Live a more diverse life.

Increased attendance will help those spaces that support art and artists, but if you want a more supportive atmosphere for artists in the long term, you must look at housing prices.

The consensus, unsurprisingly, is that housing in Ann Arbor is expensive. What might surprise you, though, is that it isn’t just expensive, it’s unaffordable for many, if not most.

[Download czb’s Housing Affordability and Economic Equity — Analysis, (pdf), prepared for Washtenaw County’s Office of Community and Economic Development.]

For some families, expensive housing is a tradeoff for quality of life: You come to or stay in Ann Arbor for the schools, for a walkable downtown with tons of kid-friendly events, for a farmers’ market just small enough that you’re guaranteed to run into someone you know (if you’re into that kind of thing). For creatives in the middle of their career, those starting or considering a family, Ann Arbor has a lot to offer. For artists at the beginning of their career, though, those high housing costs are good reasons to move.

The two most-cited options for improving life for creatives in Ann Arbor are an increasing number of mixed-use spaces and zoning for “additional dwelling units.”

Mixed-use spaces melt away some of the zoning restrictions between residential and retail spaces, opening up neighborhood industry and commerce options. This creates more of a big-city feeling in neighborhoods where you can buy your coffee, bagels and/or groceries from the shop down the street. In Ann Arbor, this applies to people lucky enough to live near Knight’s Market, Argus Farm Stop, Jefferson Market, Juicy Kitchen, etc. More mixed-used spaces would give both early-career artists and more established ones the opportunity to start a small business in Ann Arbor, which might keep them here when they could go elsewhere, or might increase the likelihood that they’d come back from New York, L.A. or wherever they’ve been living to build their dream store and live above the shop or down the street.

ADUs, sometimes called “in-law units,” are additional housing structures which allow homeowners to monetize part of their property and give more options for in-town renters. The competition would theoretically drive rents down while increasing population density near downtown without the need for more high-rise buildings, providing places for younger, less-established artists to live while being a part of the city’s cultural life. This, combined with increasing numbers of mixed-use spaces, could provide both places to live and spaces to experiment for artists.

But either or both of these changes would require significant alterations to Ann Arbor zoning laws. While these issues have been talked about and written about for years already, no concrete plans for implementation have been set. And while I don’t know what it would take to pass these changes, I do know that by doing nothing, we don’t just risk losing younger artists who can’t afford Ann Arbor rents. We could also see a drop in the number of mid-career creatives who actually can afford to buy a house here, but who might choose a more vibrant art community elsewhere in southeast Michigan.

• • •

Nick Collins left, and Nick Collins came back. Nick studied jazz at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York before playing professionally as a jazz drummer in the city. To a lot of musicians, it’s a dream, making your living doing what you love in New York City, and for Nick that’s how it felt. For awhile.

But money became a constant worry and that anxiety began to affect his playing. Simultaneously, Nick began considering that maybe he didn’t want to be a full-time musician, that he could or should do something else with his days and save music for his nights, if then. As soon as he realized that was what he wanted, Nick knew he wanted to leave New York.

He moved back to Ann Arbor, got a second bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and enrolled in a graduate program at U-M. He took some time off from music, but his friend Dan Bennett convinced him to start playing and performing again in 2010. Plugging back into the jazz community in Ann Arbor was easy. Nick still knew a lot of musicians and the vibe was more laid back than it was in New York.

“Right now, people I like call me to play with them,” Nick says. “And even if I say no, they still call me. That wouldn’t happen in other places.”

For Nick and a lot of the creatives who come back, the number one reason — more important than fun stuff for kids or walkability or even the schools — seems to be family; Nick’s mother and stepfather live in Ann Arbor and he has extended family in Toledo.

But even with family in town, it wasn’t a done deal that Nick would stay in Ann Arbor, or even in Michigan. There were other places he thought seriously about moving to, including a lot of places that don’t have to worry about polar vortices.

“I do a lot better in the sun,” Nick says, laughing. “My mood is a lot better. I take better care of myself. I go outside more.”

Nick considered California, Portland, Seattle, North Carolina, Austin and other places. But he wanted to live in Ann Arbor, to be near his family, to play music with his friends, and this time, for this artist, the situation worked out. He got a job in Michigan, a good one, and a bid that he and his wife put in on a house was recently accepted. As long as the inspection — knock on wood — works out, Nick will become an Ann Arbor homeowner.

For many artists, this is the tradeoff they make to live in Ann Arbor. During the day, they work. Maybe they love their job, maybe they don’t. But after work they get to spend time with their families. Maybe they get a sitter and go see Elvis Costello or “The Interview” and in the spare minutes between diaper changes and work emails, they find time to work on their own art, carving out a night every once in a long while to do a show or give a reading or call galleries, to do the work that never feels like work.

Things worked out so that Nick can stay in town but they easily could have gone another way, and the question is whether we — the city and its citizens — can make things less of a gamble for middle-class Ann Arborites, whether they’re part of the creative class or not.

Right now, Ann Arbor can still compete for those mid-career artists thinking about moving back. I can think of a dozen friends living in Ann Arbor who either grew up here or did their undergraduate degree at U-M and then left. I’ll bet you know some, too. The people I know are in their late 20s through late 40s and were sick of the rat race in New York or California, sick of the housing costs in Red Hook or Walnut Creek, compared to which Ann Arbor’s home prices look relatively sane.

But if Ann Arbor’s housing situation doesn’t change and younger members of the creative class leave for other places — again, I’m thinking of Ypsilanti and Detroit — then those places become the magnets, the places that seem like they’re constantly getting bigger and better, as many imagine Ann Arbor does, or did. And those young culture creators won’t want to come back to Ann Arbor because they never will have come to Ann Arbor in the first place, making the city a walled garden, a high-end Pottersville. (“You were never there to give Pot & Box a space to rent because you were never born, George.”)

This whole problem won’t affect us, you and me, not today. It’s probably hard to think about problems right now, anyway. The sun is higher in the sky now, and the snow melt and the sunlight combine to give the street outside of your house that Hollywood glow. Maybe you’ve got five bucks in your pocket, so instead of looking up your City Council representative’s name, you buy yourself a lemon ginger scone for the road. Its surface is freckled with powdered sugar and the whole thing looks so good you can’t even wait to get in the car before you snap off a corner and take a bite. It’s Sunday. You’re reading a magazine that came inside a newspaper. It’s probably hard to feel like any of this is really a problem.

And these problems are hard to see. The data isn’t as clear as it could be. These changes happen slowly, incrementally, and because of that they’re hard to notice. But we might want to start thinking about it sometime, because eventually somebody is going to want to put in an Apple store, and gosh darn it if the Blind Pig doesn’t just have the perfect layout.

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2 Comments

  1. S Martin

    February 20, 2015 at 12:48 am

    We moved here from Wellington, FL. We had done comparables on the Ann Arbor area before we moved. What we found after the move was shocking. The housing is comparable, some elementary schools are almost comparable but the wages are nowhere near what they “looked” to be. The price of living in Ann Arbor is $17+/hr. This, we’ve found, is an extremely rare offer for employment in Ann Arbor not to mention the lack of employment. We made twice that amount per hour in FL and now have settled for lower wages to be near family. Truly, I’m not sure how long we will be able to stay due to the unnecessary struggle.

  2. Walid Yassir

    February 22, 2015 at 1:17 pm

    Interesting analysis but what about the market forces? Rents are driven by demand and hard dollars have to back that up. There certainly seems to be plenty of creative class left in Ann Arbor, with new businesses starting all the time. The housing issue is being addressed with more downtown density but the market for existing homes is white hot. It’s true that a lot of empty nesters are sucking up downtown housing, but there’s still a bright side in that the burgeoning population spends money that keeps the many businesses alive and provides increasing insulation from the lean summer months that plague any university town. Progress is being made on affordable housing as well. It is natural, almost mandatory that Detroit pull creatives from Ann Arbor but for now, creatives with children aren’t going to send their kids to the DPS. If the regional transit plan gets going, then they won’t necessarily have to choose. It’s a great topic but I think you overstate both the risks of losing creatives and the reasons that people choose to live in Ann Arbor. Being a university town offers big town culture in a small town, and offers that culture to all the citizens, university affiliated or not. Without suggesting that Ann Arbor qualifies as more than a neighborhood in New York City, very few cities have seen more gentrification than NYC, and yet the creative class endures, even while a subset has defected, even to Detroit. I can’t imagine a more sterile environment for creatives than Birmingham (having lived there for a few months). Yes the writers and artists will struggle, but Ypsi is right next door and I for one don’t view it as so separate from Ann Arbor. The two towns will likely grow closer together as the whole region grows closer to Detroit (I suggest with no evidence!)

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