Battle Creek

Battle Creek's Vice Mayor Kaytee Faris and family decide to relocate to Ithaca, New York

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

The onset of the pandemic followed a year of grief and heartbreak for Kaytee Faris, her husband Ken and their child.
 
Faris, Battle Creek’s Vice Mayor, underwent the birth at 20 weeks of a stillborn infant. Before that, her husband’s father died in January 2019. In the midst of these gut-wrenching events, the couple made a decision that will take them away from Battle Creek to a new place to call home -- Ithaca, N.Y.
 
“It was a lot,” she says of the losses she and her family endured in 2019. “It gives more credence to ‘Carpe Diem’ and gave us the motivation to make the most of our lives and take advantage of new opportunities and adventures.”
 
During the June 7, 2022 City Commission meeting, Faris officially resigned as Vice Mayor. Her term as Vice Mayor, which began in 2020, expires this year. Faris’ seat will be filled through a process approved by city commissioners at the meeting. It gives any city resident the opportunity to submit a letter of interest by end of business on June 21, the date of the City Commission’s next regular meeting. Commissioners will vote in a new commissioner to fill Faris’ seat at their July 5 meeting following interviews with those who submitted letters of interest.

Kaytee Faris, Battle Creek City Commission member and Vice Mayor, stands outside council chambers.In her remarks to fellow city commissioners and city residents at the meeting, Faris said, “This job has meant a lot to me and it’s more than a job.  Being able to serve this city has been a true honor and I wouldn’t have been able to do that without all of you.”

Mayor Mark Behnke read a proclamation honoring Faris for her years of dedicated service and commitment to the community.

Faris cited accomplishments that commissioners, along with residents and city staff, worked to achieve that include filling storefronts throughout the city and being good stewards of the city’s money and resources.

In an interview with “On the Ground” prior to Tuesday’s meeting, Faris says she would have liked to finish out her which would have expired in November, but the timing was such that she won’t be able to do that. A historic home on Fremont Street that she and her husband purchased in 2010 when they moved to Battle Creek sold within days of going on the market and they want to be in Ithaca before the start of the school year so that their child has time to adjust to a new school.
 
“We’ve got so many friends and family in Michigan and in Battle Creek and it’s going to be hard to leave these people, but it’s a good time to make a change if we’re going to,” Faris says. “Our child is in middle school. They are our only child and the time is going quickly for us to do the best we can for them. They will also have a lot more autonomy out there (Ithaca) and I hate to say it, but the crime rate is lower there than in Battle Creek. I would feel comfortable with them walking around the downtown there in the evening.”
 
Faris and her husband settled on Ithaca after making a visit there to visit close friends who live there and to purchase a glider for Ken Faris.  
 
Kaytee Faris, Battle Creek City Commission member and Vice Mayor, talks with mermbers of the public prior to recent meeting.“That was a big draw. My husband flies gliders and Elmira, which is less than one hour away from Ithaca, is the soaring capital of the Midwest, so he can go out there on weekends and do that with his glider,” she says. 
 
However, this is only one of several draws that attracted them to Ithaca, which Faris likens to Ann Arbor in terms of the overall vibe and progressive nature of the city of just over 32,000 residents. During a walk with their friends while in Ithaca, Faris says she was struck by the peace she felt while walking to a waterfall with them.
 
“There’s kind of a motto that ‘Ithaca is gorges’ because a river runs through the downtown and there are actual gorges there. We’re outdoorsy and these places are off the beaten path in a town that’s surrounded by state parks and outdoor activities,” she says.
 
Leaving her mark
 
With the closing on the sale of their current home completed, Faris says she and her family plan to make their move within the month, but not before taking some time to reflect on what brought them to Battle Creek 10 years ago.
 
Originally from Battle Creek, a “very pregnant” Faris and her husband moved back to be closer to family that included her father, grandmother, and a great-aunt. A short time after they got here, her father moved to Lansing, her great-aunt passed away, and her grandmother moved in with relatives who were not in Battle Creek.
 
The irony was not lost on the couple who then made up their minds to stay and contribute to the city. They found the Fremont Street house for sale online and Faris says her heart skipped a beat as the images began conjuring up memories of the Victorian homes she saw as a child.
 
“Having the opportunity to own one was a priority for me,” she says. “The house had been in the same family for a very long time. The previous owner was very elderly and a lot of things had been neglected. This was the first time it had been available for sale. Having that timing be right was pretty great.”
 
Kaytee Faris, Battle Creek City Commission member and Vice Mayor, talks prior to reading a proclamation at a recent meeting.The entirety of time spent in that house was filled with renovation work focused on restoring the house to its original grandeur because it “deserved to be saved,” Faris says. In saving the house, they hoped to stabilize the neighborhood, which at the time had a mix of houses where there was known drug and criminal activity was co-existing with homes being rehabbed for single-family use.
 
The corner occupied by the Faris’ home had a lot of “bad stuff” going on, Faris says, “and no one was really populating this corner because of the crime.”
 
Never ones to shy away from the hard work it can take to make positive change, the couple worked with their neighbors to get rid of the questionable houses, the majority of which were structurally unsound and beyond repair. They also started the Fremont Garden, a community garden.  Katie Faris also was an original board member with the Garden of Dreams childcare center on the grounds of First Congregational Church.
 
Faris says each of these efforts were “big accomplishments” for an area of the city that many people had written off. 
 
As a collective, she says, their work brought positive attention to a neighborhood that was frozen in time for many city residents.
 
“I don’t know anywhere else where you can live this close to downtown and see the stars and hear crickets,” Faris says.
 
Feeling the need to take a more official role in the community, Faris secured a seat with the city’s Historic Housing Commission with the belief that many of the problems in her neighborhood could be solved if there was a louder voice advocating for it. She says, “a lot of problems weren’t being taken care of because the neighborhood straddled Wards 2 and 3 with Fremont being the dividing line.”
 
Kaytee Faris, Battle Creek City Commission member and Vice Mayor, reads a proclamation at Juneteenth and Family Day at a recent meeting.Her advocacy and willingness to speak up galvanized support among friends who encouraged her to run for a seat on the City Commission during an election in 2013. She lost. But two years later she ran again, this time emerging with a win.
 
“That was kind of a natural progression,” she says of securing a spot on the commission. “I had been getting active in the neighborhood with the Neighborhood Planning Council and working with families in the neighborhood who were having problems. I was realizing that a lot of it was tied back to local ordinances that weren’t working the way they were supposed to.”
 
She sought re-election winning each time after that initial run. After the 2020 election, her fellow commissioners voted among themselves to make her Vice Mayor. She points to that election as a pivotal moment in the city’s history with the election of three Black women to the City Commission, the most ever to serve on the commission, as evidence of the forward momentum she worked to achieve as an elected official.
 
“It’s huge progress for this city to elect so many People of Color. They’re all really great servants to this community,” she says.
 
Although she and her family will be leaving the community they have called home for a decade, Faris says, “Battle Creek is still my hometown. I love the people here and I’ve loved serving them. I feel like I’m leaving it a better place and leaving it in good hands.”

Photos by John Grap. See more of his work here.

 

Read more articles by Jane Simons.

Jane Simons is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.