Ypsilanti's historic Depot Town neighborhood has undergone multiple periods of reinvigoration over nearly two centuries, and it's now in the midst of yet another one.
During the mid- to late 1800s, Depot Town emerged as a small but bustling commercial district, with three hotels and one of the finest railroad stations between Detroit and Chicago. But the neighborhood eventually deteriorated with the decline of the railroad.
In the early 1970s, about 70 percent of Depot Town’s commercial property was vacant, with its buildings serving as more of a liability than an asset and contributing to the area's overall image of abandonment. However, that all changed in 1975, when a group of new business owners formed the Depot Town Association in an effort to reverse nearly 50 years of the neighborhood's deterioration.
Within a decade, the Depot Town Association was able to assist in improving much of the neighborhood's infrastructure, including parking lots, streets, sidewalks, and planters. The organization literally and metaphorically cleaned up the neighborhood by working to rid it of the motorcycle gangs that were notorious for violence and crime contributing to Depot Town's poor image in the '70s.
Linda French, owner of Sidetrack Bar and Grill at 56 E. Cross St., was part of the core group of business owners who comprised the Depot Town Association. She says they were proactive in keeping the neighborhood clean, safe, and attractive to visitors.
"We all banded together and we fought City Hall and we got more police down here, but basically we cleaned it up," she says. "We had our own patrols. We rallied the city to basically do some improvements down here, but the majority of it we did ourselves. We started fixing up our buildings and it was so much work because it was so neglected for so long."
Reinvestment and new investment
As Depot Town has again surged in recent years, Sidetrack has been one of several longtime businesses to reinvest in its operations. French says for the amount of money she’s put into renovations since opening her business in 1979, she would’ve been better off buying a new building somewhere else, but she wanted to invest in Ypsi.
The most recent round of work at Sidetrack, which started a couple of years ago, included the creation of new bathrooms, a new kitchen, and a new dining area. The next round will focus on a vacant floor above the restaurant where another bar for private events and loft apartments will be added.
Another one of Depot Town's staple restaurants, Aubree's Pizzeria and Grill at 39 E. Cross St., currently is undergoing renovations to freshen up the nearly 150-year-old building while still maintaining its historic character. The first phase has included work on the bathrooms, kitchen, and dining room, while the second phase will be a revamp of Sticks, the sports bar above Aubree's.
"People are doing well and as you do well, if you plan on being around, you need to continue to reinvest," says Andy French, owner of the Aubree's brand.
The neighborhood may see new development soon at the troubled Thompson Block property, located at 400 N. River St. A dilapidated building, which once served as a Civil War barracks and the headquarters for a buggy factory, has sat vacant on the site since it burned in a 2009 fire. Ypsilanti Downtown Development Authority (DDA) director Joe Meyers says some remediation work already has been done at the site and renovations should begin soon after the developer, Ann Arbor-based 2mission, obtains the proper permits. He says the current plan is to keep the building's facade in an effort to preserve its historic characteristics, but an entirely new structure will be built inside of it to house a restaurant and whiskey bar.
Causes of change
Linda French believes Depot Town has become more solidified over the years because now business owners are able to get grants from organizations like the DDA, as well as loans from banks, which wasn't possible back in the '70s because the neighborhood had been red-lined. In the past few years, the DDA has supplied grants to help fund renovations to the inside and outside of buildings for businesses including Hyperion Coffee Co. and the Ypsilanti Food Co-Op, according to Meyers.
Many of the neighborhood's businesses have been able to expand and evolve, or move into a different building when there's a vacancy. But Meyers points out there haven't been too many vacancies as of late because businesses typically try to stay in Depot Town if they're able to.
"There's been a lot of reinvestment [from] a lot of solid businesses that have been there for a while," Meyers says. "I feel like Depot Town is going very, very strong."
Mark and Danielle Teachout opened Cafe Ollie at the beginning of 2011 and decided to expand and rebrand as Ollie Food and Spirits in the spring of 2017. Mark Teachout describes Cafe Ollie as a "kitchen sink" business that sold various items like beer, wine, ice cream, sandwiches, and records over the years until he and his wife honed in on exactly what they wanted to do with the business. Now Ollie Food and Spirits, located at 42 E. Cross St., is more of a fine dining restaurant and the Teachouts' space next door, Cream and Crumb, handles the ice cream and coffee.
Teachout believes Depot Town has been a place where entrepreneurs are able to experiment due to fairly inexpensive rent. He says he was able to "throw mud at the walls" and see what worked and what didn't work in his earlier days as a new business owner.
"I think that if we hadn't been in the situation to really be able to be creative about stuff we wouldn’t have tried a lot of interesting things that we’ve done through the years," Mark Teachout says. "I’m proud of it."
Perspectives on a changing community
Since Depot Town has steadily become more of a destination, many business owners are pleased with the direction in which it's heading, but they would like to see additional retail or office spaces to bring more foot traffic, as well as more parking spaces to accommodate a larger amount of visitors. Some residents who live in the thick of things in Depot Town have similarly expressed frustration over lack of parking and noise from the neighborhood's bars. However, the neighborhood remains in high demand, with apartments at maximum occupancy and prospective tenants on waiting lists for a chance to move in.
Depot Town resident Greg McIntosh has lived in a house on River Street near Cultivate Coffee and Tap House for about two years. But he lived in an apartment above Cafe Ollie on Cross Street for a year before he moved into his current house. He found it somewhat difficult to live right on Cross Street because it could be loud at times, especially when he was trying to sleep as the bars closed at 2 a.m. But he likes living on River Street because he's "just a touch removed, but still close enough to catch everything that's going on."
"I get to sit on a porch and watch all of the people strolling down into Depot Town because the parking is all free on River [Street], so people tend to park here and then sort of walk down into Depot Town," McIntosh says.
Depot Town resident Jenn Wenzel has lived in a house on Oak Street, in between Sidetrack and Corner Brewery, for about five years. Before that she lived in an apartment in Depot Town for about six years. She thinks Depot Town has changed "terrifically" in the 11 years she's lived there because there are more locally owned businesses and restaurants, better business management, and increased safety, access, and activity in the nearby parks.
“I feel like a new guard is taking over right now, and new ideas are coming through," she says. "We are a quirky town and I think that’s a benefit to us not to stay so mainstream. I like that we’re staying away from chain restaurants and chain ideas.”
Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.
All photos by Doug Coombe.