Peter Rinehart sold his car two years ago. He bikes to the grocery store and walks five blocks from his house to work at Bombadills Café in downtown Ypsilanti. He grew up in Ann Arbor but made Ypsi his home seven years ago when he moved back from Colorado with his wife.
"We found a house that we really could afford and that is going to grow with us. We have two little girls," Rinehart says. "And that's why I came here...[We thought] let's invest at the baseline, rather than waiting for Ann Arbor to hit its 12 on a scale of one to 10."
Since Rinehart opened Bombadills in 2004, he's watched downtown Ypsilanti jump from a "3" to a "6 or 7." The building next door was derelict when Bombadills moved in. Now, it's the SPARK East incubator. After the coffee shop's first year in business, the adult book shop across the street closed. Now it's Fast Eddie's Music, a used music store.
"When I moved in, there was 50 percent vacancy on this block. Half of the buildings were empty," Rinehart says. "Now it's almost all remodeled and full."
And most of the places that Rinehart takes his wife and two daughters – a 3-year-old and one-month-old – have opened since he laid down roots in Ypsi.
"My little girl talks about The Rocket," says Rinehart, referring to the bulk candy and fun gadget shop that opened in 2006. "She talks about the library. The library was renovated just a year before we opened. It's all old school new stuff."
Merchants and coffee houses run by young entrepreneurs like James Marks of VGKids and Bee Mayhew of Beezy's Cafe thrive on a hipster vibe and cater to the trend of millennials, creatives, and professionals drawn to a downtown lifestyle. Everything from smoke-free restaurants and cafes to new second- and third-story lofts above the businesses are changing the identity of a town once synonymous with smoky bars and greasy diners. In short, downtown Ypsi has become a small-business mecca where old standbys and new hip ventures mingle together.
People of all age groups and backgrounds are buying up foreclosed houses and renting lofts, but 25- to 35-year-olds are definitely a demographic setting down roots, says Richard Murphy, an Ypsilanti city planner. It's not the only group that the city wants to attract, but it could be a plus for the city if national hype about "millenials" and the "creative class" rings true.
"People who are 25 to 35 have decades to contribute to the community," Murphy says. "I think it's a good thing if Ypsi appeals to person or family…They're opening businesses here, buying houses here, being a part of neighborhood associations, sending kids to school here and contributing to the community."
Some residents, like Murphy, were attracted to the affordable housing that's comparable to Ann Arbor rents. Other newcomers seek a personal connection with a community that's walkable and has a semi-urban appeal. And then, of course, there's its growing reputation as a haven for starving artists. Whatever it is, new residents moving to Ypsi's downtown are part of a national trend.
"People miss the connectivity of standing at a bus stop with somebody," Rinehart says. "Yes, you can drive your car to work, but all you end up doing on your drive to work is flipping off the guy who cut you off in traffic. And that sucks. Why don't you wave at the guy that's across the street at the bus stop."
Artists have also been flocking to Ypsilanti. The growing community has become more visible with the biannual The Shadow Art Fair and the soon-to-open SPUR Studios, low-rent spaces for artists and musicians championed by James Marks.
David Austin and his wife, Leslie, owners of What is That art gallery, moved to Ypsilanti about three and a half years ago from Petoskey to be closer to their clients. Ypsi's diverse community was a plus.
"[It's] a little more artsy, a little bit more eclectic, maybe a little bit more raw, if you will," Austin says. "It hasn't really been smoothed over, yet, and that's appealing."
Austin says that the arts community is helping the downtown gentrify. Formerly depressed areas like Chelsea, New York emerged as vibrant communities after artists moved in and set up businesses and galleries.
"People follow because they want to be in the creative atmosphere and restaurants to service them are following along with other businesses – so you see it's this thing happening organically," Austin says. "Now a lot of us in town are aware of that so we're trying to guide that process and make it happen quicker."
Necessity is the mother of invention
But times are tough, and the downtown is still working towards economic sustainability. Ypsi's old stigma lingers, and getting locals to see the changes with their own eyes is a challenge.
The Downtown Development Association in Ypsilanti has been working with businesses to boost the downtown's vitality through promotional events like the Crossroads Music Festival. And the Friday-night open-air summer concert on Washington Street has brought people who haven't visited in decades.
"If people are driving down Michigan Avenue and they're seeing all these people they go, ‘Let's stop and see what's going on,'" says David Curtis, brainchild behind the festival and owner of Pub 13, J. Neil's Mongolian Grill and Club Divine. "People draw people… and that's important for the survival of the retail stores and restaurants."
Businesses also hope to draw long-time locals and staff from Eastern Michigan University to shop, eat and, more importantly, become more involved in the community.
"Don't make it a point to come, make it a habit to come," Rinehart says. "There's a bunch of really creative, very energetic people who are trying really hard to make people understand that what we have here is something different, something unique and very much something worth supporting."
And businesses tapping into subtle and creative ways to promote one another help generate the cross-pollination necessary for the downtown to prosper. Austin regularly tells his customers to check out his paintings hanging in Curtis' Keystone Bar – sending What is That customers to Keystone, and vice versa.
"That old way of thinking in Ypsilanti of: ‘You have your own business and I have mine. I hope you don't take my business' – that's an old way of thinking," Curtis says. "It's all about us working together."
But there needs to be more of this, and maybe a few more family-friendly establishments, if the downtown wants to attract a more substantial pre-drinking crowd.
So what's next?
Most can't help but compare Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti – even more so now with similar density issues. But, even going back 20 or 30 years ago when Ann Arbor was having its own economic difficulties, Rinehart says Ann Arbor's issues compare to Ypsi's only "in the broadest strokes."
Ann Arbor debates density on the scale of 10-story loft apartments, Ypsi's definition of density exists on a three- to four-story scale. So it's hard to say whether Ypsi is following a path similar to Ann Arbor's. And some residents would rather Ypsi keep its own identity.
"Folks always talk about Royal Oak and Ferndale, don't you want to be the next – hell no! I don't want to be Royal Oak. I don't want to be Ferndale," Rinehart says.
But density does seem like the next step for the downtown. Austin and Curtis would like to see more lofts developed, and "Water Street" – a 38-acre, City-owned parcel of land adjacent to the downtown – is a catch phrase for new density on Rinehart's and other business owners' lips.
For now, Rinehart contents himself with acknowledging the small steps made in the microcosm of his family and group of friends.
"We're entering round two of children…And there's a half a dozen of our friends that are having round two," Rinehart says. "So that speaks to me of the success that we're having because people are actually staying to raise a family. And people are doing things outside of the typical American suburban dream."
Julianne Mattera is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer. Her previous article for Concentrate was Reinventing The Fruit StandPhotos:
David Austin-Owner of What Is That? Gallery
Peter Rinehart-Owner of Bombadils
The New Spark East
J Neil's Mongolian Grille
What Is That? Gallery
Crossroads Music Festival
Downtown YpsiAll Photos by Dave Lewinski
Dave Lewinski is Concentrate's Managing Photographer. He likes Ypsi but also doesn't find a problem with Ferndale.