Know Y: Pure Washtenaw

If Michigan can keep up with Crocodile Dundee, we stand a good chance of attracting and retaining young talent. This revelation hit me after learning that the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s ‘Pure Michigan’ campaign had been ranked by Forbes as one of the best tourism campaigns of all time. Catch that? Of. All. Time. We’re talking right up there with What Happens In Vegas Stays In Vegas, Jamaica’s Once You Go, You Know, and none other than The Paul Hogan (formerly Crocodile Dundee) promoting travel to his Aussie roots.

If you’ve never seen the "Pure Michigan" spots, I encourage you to check them out. There’s something about the music (‘Main Titles’ borrowed from The Cider House Rules), the soothing timbre of Tim Allen’s voiceover, and the spectacular imagery that gets me goosebumping like a menopausal woman watching Lifetime. It’s an exquisitely crafted campaign that is showing real results. David Lorenz is the Managing Director behind Travel Michigan. When I attended his presentation to the Ann Arbor Ad Club several weeks ago, he highlighted that, for each dollar Michigan spent on out-of-state advertising from 2004 through 2008, we had a return of $40 worth of spending at local businesses from new visitors.

It got me thinking – if the objective of the "Pure Michigan" campaign is to inspire travel to our state, what if we built a similar ad campaign to inspire Gen-Yers to live and work here? What would we feature in a "Pure Washtenaw" ad? If Gen-Yers in the area were to spotlight the places and experiences that define Ann Arbor/Ypsi to them, what would they choose? Or – better yet - what's missing that other cities flaunt?

In this barrage of questions, there’s another one lurking that I’ve been keen to get to the bottom of. That question is, “What are the ‘Third places’ of my generation in this area?” ‘Third place’ is a relatively new idea in urban development. First place represents where you live, second place is where you work, and your ‘Third place’ is this ‘X’ other spot where you spend the rest of your time. Your third place typically says a lot about who you are, what you’re interested in, and most importantly – what’s available in your surroundings. Maybe the reason so many young professionals are attracted to cities outside Michigan is because our state is lacking the ‘Third places’ they crave.

So, I went to the masses. And by ‘masses’ I mean that I started asking a handful of friends. Question my sample size (if you must) and methodology (you’ll find none), but a taste of their ‘Third place’ lists and rationale are below.

  • Sidetracks...  “Not necessarily because I like the beer, but these places make me feel like I'm at home and are frequented by great people who I've come to know over the college years and beyond. It of course doesn't hurt that they also have amazing food and beer selections.” – Jason Fahlstrom, 29
  • Arbor Brewing Company
  • Elks Lodge
  • Nichols Arboretum
  • Planet Rock
  • Corner Brewery
  • Wazoo Records... “The classic independent record store. Entrance involves climbing just enough stairs to make you wonder if you're actually at the right place the first time you visit (i.e. is this someone's apartment?). It’s okay if you don't find what you want because you can spend hours browsing new and used music and usually find some pretty sweet deals on albums you forgot you wanted but definitely must have.” – Sarah Braunstein, 25
  • Hollerfest
  • Ted Belding’s quarterly parties “A great private venue [Author’s note: Sorry Ted, no longer private] at his loft that are typically open to anyone in most of the meetup groups. I've met so many great people at his parties and made some really good friends.” – Andrew Ballnik, 25
  • Gallup Park/Argo Livery/The Huron/city parks scattered throughout neighborhoods
  • Alley Bar/8 Ball/dive bars in general
  • Shadow Art Fair
  • Kerrytown/Farmer’s Market/Zingerman’s ... “The Farmer's Market on Saturday encapsulates the sense of community Ann Arbor fosters. In proportion to the size of the city, the market is actually quite large. It is a place that bustles with energy as chefs, townies, college students, and families mingle to purchase the best in locally-grown, fresh produce from a plethora of farms.” - Jon Alexander, 27
  • Eve Restaurant
  • Midnight movies at the State Theater
  • Yellow Barn... “It hosts amazing artist events and some fantastic dance parties. Their mission statement: The Yellow Barn Project encourages healing and the development of the visual, performing, and literary arts. Of particular interest is work which crosses boundaries, encouraging social connections and diverse dialogues.” – Elyse Guilfoyle, 25
Several people preferred to choose experiences, rather than physical locations, in what defines the area to them. Included on these lists were things like co-ed kickball, the Man Who Dances To Michael Jackson Songs In The Michigan Theater Alleyway, or the way you’re just as likely to see a one-man band on Main Street as you are to trip over an aging hippie -- which, to be fair, is often one and the same.

Shaunna Cahill, 27, pointed out another of these unique, defining experiences. “People are out walking around, even on weeknights, until midnight! That doesn't happen everywhere. It makes me feel part of something, part of the city, when I'm strolling around at night with friends between bars, movies, restaurants, etc. and pass plenty of people out having a good time themselves. It's the presence of good energy (this place has stuff going on!) and the lack of bad (this place is sad, it's failing).”

And what have we learned from this, children? Well, if the bars and restaurants on the list have caught your attention and you’re thinking Gen-Yers are all a bunch of foodie alcoholics, then you’ve missed the point.

Discovery #1: It’s the community of the bars/restaurants mentioned that make them special. They create a feeling of ‘scene’ and togetherness. And notice which places were favored. The pubs that are rooted in their local identity. Also take the way the bars above were described - people used words like ‘home’, ‘gathering’, ‘non-judgmental’, and ‘kick back’. Granted, there were also words like ‘dingy’, ‘sticky floors’, and ‘smarmy’, but they were all mentioned in an endearing way.

Discovery #2: We like our access to nature. For as many unique spots that were listed, it was Ma Nature who found herself the recipient of praise across the board. As much as we’re interested in the latest hot spot, build it on top of Gallup Park and we’ll have your head.

Discovery #3: There’s not a chain store or eatery on the list. Ann Arbor, Ypsi, Chelsea, Dexter…all these places have done their best to fight off the vanilla big box look of other parts of the country. Keep it local and you keep the character.

Alright, so we could make a pretty good "Pure Washtenaw" ad out of that list. And if we could get Jeff Daniels to narrate it, then we’d be in great shape. What? Oh. Already doing this for the MEDC? Damn. Well, then maybe Mayor Hieftje. I hear he’s classically trained, too.

Let’s revisit the real concern here. If we’ve got all these terrific ‘Third places’, then why are people still leaving for greener pastures? Oh yes, it’s because we don’t have it all and what we do have is limited. Along with asking for the ‘Third places’ people loved and cherished, I also asked about what was on their wishlist. What's missing that other cities flaunt? Here are a few they cited:

  • A subway system to rival Boston’s (but an express bus between A2 and Ypsi that runs weekend nights would sure be swell. And how about an evening-friendly line into Detroit?)
  • A healthy mix of people from all age brackets (but really, we need more people our age)
  • Bars that stay open until 5 a.m.
  • Coffee shops that don't all look like Starbucks... or Sweetwaters... or, well, you get the idea
  • Vibrant historic district like Old Montreal
  • Arts scene like in NY’s emerging neighborhoods (translation: cool cultural happenings that can be discovered and aren't sanctioned by some 'esteemed' local arts organization)
Discovery #1: Most people who’ve chosen to stay find the ‘bright lights of the city’ overrated. I was shocked that folks didn’t have more things they felt they needed in the area. Or, for example, they just didn’t see how we could transplant something like Chicago’s ‘Chinatown’ to an environment like Ann Arbor. So maybe it was unfair to place Washtenaw on par with the big dogs, but I think we need to ditch this Midwestern humility and think bigger about what’s possible in our own communities. We can do better in fostering variety in our community, whether it's cafes or arts venues.

Discovery #2: Everybody likes the Farmer’s Market. Everyone knows it’s a special place. But if I’d gone and asked 20 friends in the Bay Area to come to a consensus about the best gathering place in SF, it would be civil war. They’re spoilt for choice. The overlap in people’s lists indicates just how limited their options are. We could do a lot more to diversify what's on offer in our community.

Sarah Braunstein, quoted above on Wazoo Records, hit the nail on the head when she summarized what’s missing from the area. “I think A2 is seriously lacking in providing its residents with a sense of a "found" place -- there aren't any places to stumble upon because everything is discovered. In every other city that I've spent significant periods of time in, I've been able to "discover" shops or cafes or restaurants or music scenes that are new to me and everyone else in my social circle, and they often become some of my favorite places.”

Discovery #3 (and conclusion): We are the young and the restless. Why are people my age leaving the state? I present to the jury the gnat-like attention-span of your typical Gen-Yer, leaping at shiny objects in our Odyssey-like quest towards true adulthood. We are constantly thirsting for new experiences and creative/social outlets.

Exhibit A: Washtenaw has some terrific ‘Third places’ on tap.

Exhibit B: It can also become stale as an Oberon you find at the back of your fridge in February. You still drink it, but you can’t shake the feeling that there’s gotta be something more.

Still, in the end, it’s Pure Washtenaw. And Crocodile Dundee can bring it.

Kate Rose is an MSU grad and native Michigander. Her day job is at Google; her views here are her own. Her previous article for Concentrate was Know Y: A Place For Us?. Send feedback here.


Andrew Ballnik on the Kickball Field-Ann Arbor

Sarah Braunstein at Wazoo Records- Ann Arbor

Jason Fahlstrom at Arbor Brewing Company-Ann Arbor

Sarah Braunstein in the Arcade-Ann Arbor

Elyse Guilfoyle at the Elks Club in Ann Arbor

Andrew Ballnik on the Kickball Field#2-Ann Arbor

Jason Fahlstrom at Arbor Brewing Company#2-Ann Arbor

Elyse Guilfoyle at the Elks Club in Ann Arbor#2

All Photos by Dave Lewinski

Dave Lewinski
is Concentrate's Managing Photographer.  He's Pure Dave.  No Doubt About It.

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