Ypsi arts are ready
for their close-up
The blue-collar town embraces creativity to spark a rebirth
Story By Jud Branam | Photos by Benjamin Weatherston
On a recent sun-drenched Friday evening, the usual Michigan Avenue traffic whirred through downtown Ypsilanti as it has for decades, mostly without stopping or apparently even noticing what’s happening. But for residents and enthusiasts of the gritty urban enclave six miles east of Ann Arbor, the first Friday of each month has become a time for taking stock and rejoicing in the results.
That’s because the growth and momentum of creative and artistic businesses and initiatives in Ypsilanti are pulled to the forefront for each First Fridays program, a self-guided gallery walk through an ever-increasing roster of art and retail spots. Last December’s event included nine stops, this May had 22. And as businesses and momentum continue to grow, those who have made a bet on Ypsilanti feel rightfully proud of their town and themselves and they dare to push it even further.
After struggles with vacancy and underutilization that one native traces to the 1965 opening of Arborland Mall on the east side of Ann Arbor, it seems downtown Ypsilanti is on a bit of a hot streak.
“It’s the best kept secret in the county,” says Ed Penet, who owns and runs Mix, an eclectic fashion and arts boutique with locations in downtown Ypsilanti and Nickels Arcade in Ann Arbor. From clothing and crafts made by local artists to a small theater in the back, Mix is on everyone’s short list of bright spots in downtown Ypsi.
Indeed, the new players in the Ypsilanti economy show the long-struggling town of 20,000 moving beyond its blue-collar, heavy-industry past into a diverse jobs base that pulls from academia, urban agriculture and the arts. Community-generated events like the First Fridays walks, DIYpsi craft show and sale and Totally Awesome Fest of music and performance have become staples on the town calendar.
“I think the arts and creativity are as much as 30 to 40 percent (of the upswing),” Penet says. “The creative class has come in — young couples, single professionals, gay people, they’ve all had an impact. People come for all their own reasons, it’s all helping and, of course, the economy’s getting back on its feet as well.”
One of those initiatives is coming from Eastern Michigan University business Professor Diana Wong, who is renovating the former Pub 13 piano bar at 13 N. Washington St. into a co-working and meeting space.
Wong, who lives in Ann Arbor but has worked in Ypsilanti for 13 years, needs a home for her Sensei Change consulting practice, and is excited that her move creates more capacity for an area on the rise.
“There’s a lot more happening in this space than people realize,” she says. “It looks pretty quiet, but if you lift open the lid on the pot, there’s a lot of stuff brewing here.”
A focus on creativity
The city’s master plan has identified three emerging sectors for focus and nurturing: local food, arts/maker/small manufacturing, and green energy/sustainability. Mayor Amanda Edmonds, who took office last year, said the arts leg of that triangle “is really buzzing right now,” but she worries that too much of the current progress traces to “awesome individuals” to keep growing at its current pace.
“There’s a need for something, whether it’s an organization that incubates these projects or a facility or infrastructure, but something needs to emerge,” Edmonds says. “I don’t think it’s at a standstill, but there are some limiting factors to it going forward. Some level of propellant is needed.”
Edmonds recently convened meetings with city, EMU and Michigan Economic Development Corporation representatives to talk about the best way to sustain and grow the momentum. Talks centered on “technology transfer” approaches designed to keep creative young EMU graduates in town and working, either in affordable studio space or startup businesses. The MEDC was preparing to recognize Ypsilanti as a “Redevelopment Ready Community” as this article went to press.
Up Washington Street on the other side of Michigan Avenue, another project is happily fitting into the zeitgeist. Yen and Nick Azzaro opened Chin-Azzaro, a multifaceted art and marketing business, at 9 S. Washington St. Yen calls Washtenaw County a “seasonal” art-buying market, with that season being the late summer Ann Arbor Art Fairs. While that works for perennial fair artists, it doesn’t create a sustainable income for most.
“I’m trying to change that market because there’s no retail art market here,” said Azzaro, who has worked as an art-buying consultant and museum curator in Chicago. Her decision to locate in Ypsilanti came due to several factors, including cost and finding an ideal facility for the multi-pronged business she runs with her husband, Nick. “It had everything we needed,” she said of the gallery, office and classroom space in the rented building on Washington. “And things are definitely happening in this corridor.”
For Jennifer Goulet, an artistic renaissance in Ypsilanti is fulfilling on a couple of levels. Goulet is executive director of Creative Many Michigan, a statewide arts advocacy group that quantifies the impact of creative professions on the state and advocates to increase officials’ awareness of that contribution. Previously, she worked for a decade in Ypsilanti city government, including five years as the director of the city’s Downtown Development Authority.
“When I was working for the city and the DDA, having a strong and vibrant arts community centered downtown and in Depot Town were high priorities for the city,” Goulet says. “Statewide, we have seen a huge shift in the level to which communities and leaders value the arts and creativity. I don’t miss the days when you had to get past the rolling eyes, ‘Oh you arts people.’ Today that’s a very rare experience — the arts and creative sector have gained a tremendous amount of credibility as a key player in economic revitalization and growth.
“Ypsilanti is a great example of a smaller city that over the years has been facing economic challenges and has smartly and strategically employed arts and creativity as one of its strategies for revitalizing the community and the local economy. You’ve got a lot of really creative people who want to be part of making a difference.”
Rise in status
Creative Many distilled Michigan employment data to show some 74,000 jobs and $3 billion in annual payroll in creative professions like advertising, design, performance and film. Washtenaw ranked the fourth largest county in the state in terms of creative jobs and economic boon, with 462 establishments paying $181 million in wages to employees in creative pursuits. Goulet cites the ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, the Flint Public Art Project, the Traverse City Film Festival and related arts businesses as major bright spots in the state’s creative economy.
While Ann Arbor remains the hub of Washtenaw County’s arts economy, and its economy in general, the affordability and less stratified feel of Ypsilanti are drawing creative energy eastward.
Tracing the roots of the Ypsilanti art scene, Mark Maynard thinks back to a summer evening in 2003 when a crowd gathered on Washington Street in Ann Arbor to watch firefighters spray water on a blaze that consumed much of the soon-to-be demolished Ann Arbor Tech Center.
That rundown factory had housed dozens of artist studios, band-practice spaces and a small theater, but was slated for demolition to make way for the new Ann Arbor YMCA.
“In my head, that’s a definite moment,” says Maynard, a blogger, radio host and community organizer in Ypsilanti. “That being bulldozed and replaced by an upscale Y — that kind of signified the arts scene being over in Ann Arbor.”
After graduating from the University of Michigan and moving to Ypsilanti, Maynard helped create the Shadow Art Fair, an event designed to offer an alternative and a jab to the massiveness and commercialism of the Ann Arbor fairs. “I lived in Ann Arbor for a bunch of years and I always hated the art fair and resented it,” he says. “Artists need to make a living, but it’s easy to parody that whole art-on-a-stick thing.”
Whether the Ann Arbor arts scene is over is open to debate, but no one questions that Ypsilanti is the new kid on the arts block.
The Shadow Art Fair was successful, but it folded after several organizers left town and logistics became more complex. Nonetheless, Maynard says, the event planted seeds. “For a little guy like Ypsi to fight something as big as Ann Arbor — a David and Goliath thing — it’s a way to make a point,” Maynard says. And now, “Certain things that are happening in Ypsi that are positive, like the First Fridays events, trace back to Shadow Art Fair and that energy. It created a kind of community that hadn’t existed before.”
Now, employees from Beezy’s Café book musical acts who appear on Maynard’s radio show and have portraits taken by local photographers during their visit. “It’s all very incestuous and complex,” Maynard says. “It takes a long time to build these things, and now we’ve got it. It’s in the air and people are just sort of up for these kinds of things.”
At Bona Sera, at Red Rock, at Beezy’s, “there are a bunch of musicians and artists working at these places,” Maynard says. “They’re not dissimilar.”
Mayor Edmonds adds that the local ownership, control and character of the new wave of businesses allows for such cooperation and innovation.
“There’s a synergy among the locals,” Edmonds says. “It’s not Jimmy John’s hanging local artwork on the walls. We’re all just in it for the community, for the good of the place.”
Across Washtenaw County, “We kind of run the gamut of it, and the authenticity of how each of these communities define themselves through their creative sector is really cool,” says Deb Polich, president and CEO of the Washtenaw County Arts Alliance.
“Ypsilanti finds itself in a position where there is real estate and location that is wonderful but underutilized. Arts and creativity tend to move into situations like that, and now that the organic movement has started, more people are pursuing alternatives and looking at investing and getting involved.“
‘Lots of freaks’
The current scene is a good mix of community-based efforts and do-it-yourselfers, says Barry LaRue, former city councilman who has served for a decade as board member at the city’s Riverside Arts Center theater and gallery.
The center “is one piece of the puzzle,” says LaRue, who works in the performing arts as senior house technician for the University of Michigan’s University Productions. “There are a lot of artists who don’t cling to doing work in a traditional setting. We have a theater, a gallery, and some people are good with that, others are more drawn to an old auto garage or factory and doing the pop-up thing. It’s great to have both.”
LaRue, a lifelong Ypsilanti resident, says he appreciates the bohemian vibe from the new scene.
“I think it’s pretty cool,” he says. “Lots of people in their twenties and thirties — the demographic has changed quite a bit. Lots of freaks — in a good way — people I would have called ‘counterculture’ a while back who seem quite mainstream.”
And unlike the many who have lived in Ypsilanti for cost reasons while pining to live in Ann Arbor, LaRue says, “They like Ypsi expressly because it’s not Ann Arbor. I don’t think that’s anti-Ann Arbor, they’re just happy to be in a place they can forge their own thing without someone’s preconceived notion. And it’s still really affordable.”
The decentralized, organic way Ypsilanti has been developing may be fortuitous. Architecture critic and consultant James Russell posed some interesting questions in a recent blog post, positing that the community-driven processes typically associated with placemaking simply don’t measure up to the public places “… created by insightful designers who happen to be good listeners, good observers, and are capable of stirring together the sometimes-conflicting wishes of clients and citizens into a transcendent result none could have anticipated.”
Many are hoping that will be the result for the Water Street property, 38 acres of prime downtown property the city bought and cleared in 1999 for a large residential development that never happened. The property houses only a Family Dollar store and some do-it-yourself gardens and sculptures, and three acres are slated for an affordable housing development. The bulk is uncommitted and waiting for “transcendence.”
Two blocks from the eastern edge of the Water Street land, another quiet turnaround is revitalizing South Street. “I’ve heard a few legends from people who lived here earlier,” says Jim Roll, who owns Backseat Studio in Ann Arbor. Roll moved into a formerly foreclosed home in Ypsilanti for several personal reasons — his young kids needed more space, his wife owns Beezy’s Cafe downtown and doesn’t drive, credit options for entrepreneurs are few — and finds himself on the tip of the comeback story.
“I heard it used to be a crack circle where people would just drive through. I feel a bit of almost Southern, post-industrial vibe. When you’re living in houses that were abandoned and then came back to life, there’s a laid back vibe to it.”
Roll recalled playing shows at the Elbow Room bar in Ypsi years ago and he’s still in a band with Ypsilanti stalwarts Misty Lyn and Matt Jones, but he considers his current address more happy coincidence than good planning. “I’m always improvising,” Roll says. “I just kind of improvised my way into Ypsilanti and I like it.”
Help from a neighbor
Another source of inspired, creative residents for the city is EMU’s art program.
“There’s a great energy,” says Colin Blakely, who heads the program. “We’re training people in the visual arts, which includes creative problem solving, thinking outside the box and being comfortable with ambiguity. Artists can’t help but bring these skills to whatever they’re involved in.”
Blakely says his department has increased its presence in the community in recent years, working to display work from area high school artists and to expose EMU students to design clients from area businesses and nonprofits. Overall, he says, there’s a new spirit in Ypsilanti over the past five years or so, adding that the newly expanding array of studios and galleries is giving that energy a great outlet.
“Ann Arbor has always had more of the blue-chip arts venues,” he says, “but in terms of people being willing to take experimental views of artistic endeavors, there’s some really interesting things going on in Ypsilanti.”
As an EMU art student, “We fell in love with Ypsi,” says Elize Jekabson, who volunteers coordinating First Fridays and works at Bona Sera. She’s also working with friends on a bold idea: Converting a currently vacant building into 40,000 square feet of shared art studio space. “If we can’t make it work here, we’re going toward Detroit,” she said.
Among her friends, the Dexter native says, “Everyone I know who moved to Ann Arbor and hangs out in Ypsi is kicking themselves. I heard one person call Ann Arbor ‘Ypsi West.’”
Annette Weathers, co-owner of Bona Sera, says, “I think Ypsi’s a lot like Ann Arbor used to be.” Her business partner launched First Fridays after gazing out the front window in hopes of seeing more customers walking by.
“That’s what we enjoy about Ypsi,” Weathers says. “If you can think of something you can probably do it.”
And you can probably find someone who wants to help out. After sizing up the community, Nick Azzaro of Chen-Azzaro has taken a collaborative approach to his photography work, shooting neighbor businesses as pieces of a larger marketing effort for the city, rather than treating them as individual clients.
“We want to market (Ypsilanti) the way we’d work with any commercial client,” he says. “We’re becoming a go-to place for a lot of this stuff — it’s a different business approach.”
Penet feels the cooperative approach will be best as the city continues to develop. He also pointed out the role that longstanding businesses like Puffer Red’s have as anchors for the new energy. “It’s that quiet magnet of people, they just do what they do.
“During the day, there isn’t a lot of pedestrian traffic because everyone’s working (elsewhere). We miss the good old days with the Ford plant and GM, but those are never going to come back. If we can get more people working down here in online businesses or whatever, that will keep a lot more traffic down here.”
In addition to the more than 20 businesses and galleries at May’s First Fridays event, there was a children’s play tent and an open rehearsal for “The Women of Lockerbie” at the Riverside Arts Center.
Jim Spencer, longtime area musician with the RFD Boys who had followed his wife’s career to the South, bought 21 North Huron with his wife as an “up North” retirement abode. While her job keeps her in Louisville, he’s splitting time and using the space for everything from art gallery to concert space to meeting facility. He’s also launching a mobile music recording business from there.
“It’s all about people, not just arts,” Spencer says. “If you do things that attract people then the whole thing can work and grow together.”
The long shadow of Ann Arbor is ever visible — Totally Awesome Fest began there, as did Bona Sera and many other Ypsi traditions — yet the town retains a healthy sense of defiant independence.
“We need Ann Arbor,” Jekabson says. “We just don’t want to be Ann Arbor.”