Three Blocks Of Innovation, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship
Verdant is not the first thought that comes to mind about Ypsilanti, but the three blocks of Oak Street, between River Street and Prospect Park, are leafy and green, even in a summer of drought. But Oak Street has more than just trees taking root. Creativity can be found in abundance. Could it be something in the water?
Michigan's second oldest city, established in 1823, Ypsilanti has something Ann Arbor doesn't have: modest house prices. Perhaps that's the explanation for the plethora of entrepreneurs and artists who live and work on Oak Street.
Rachel Blistein thinks it might be the large lots and detached garages behind many Oak Street homes. That was one of the attractions when she and her husband, Paul Alexander, bought their house eight years ago. Blistein, a landscape architect, moved her first calling to a back burner when Original Moxie
, her three-year-old line of natural hair care products, gained success.
The confluence of creative people in the area is surprising, she says. She jokingly agreed there may be something magical in the water on Oak Street.
"Every other house seems to have an inventor or business owner! Maybe it's feng shui. We love our neighbors. We liked the older houses. Our house is big and has a huge detached garage. The neighborhood is a nice mixture of ages - people with kids, people who have raised their kids," she observes.
"The lots are very generous on our side of the street - extra space, a lot of room for storage … business owners wind up bringing a lot of stuff home. It's much harder to do in a house with no basement or garage."
The houses on Oak Street have character - from modest mid-19th century Greek Revivals to 20th century bungalows. A few even newer houses nestle among the Federal-style homes and tiny gingerbread cottages. Michigan's second largest historic district - including Oak Street - is in Ypsilanti, encompassing about 20 percent of the city's 4.4 square miles.
"I've always liked Ypsi and felt really comfortable here - it's a really nice community," Blistein says. "Ann Arbor feels much more centered around the university. Ypsi is a town that doesn't fluctuate when students move in and out."
The next wave of Ypsilantians represents a new demographic, according to Barry LaRue, an Ypsilanti native. He's a 12-year resident of Oak Street with his wife, Kim Clarke. A proponent of historic preservation, he has brought several historic Ypsilanti homes back from the brink.
"There's really been a huge resurgence in Ypsilanti. It's doing remarkably well," LaRue says, pointing to new restaurants such as Beezy's
and Red Rock Downtown Barbecue
"I see a demographic I wouldn't have associated with Ypsilanti a few years ago - nose rings, very creative people, engaged people, in their 20s and 30s. [Before] it seemed like [there was] a vacuum of enthusiasm. Now whenever I look at Facebook, seems like somebody's doing something creative and cool at the Corner Brewery."
On Oak Street, the houses look good, he says. Some haven't received much attention; a few have been tweaked out. "That's what attracted me to the street. I would love to see the removal of artificial siding [from homes that have it] but that isn't everything. We love living on the street, we love our house," he says.
Neighbors like "Solar Dave" Strenski are also a plus.
"He'll talk your ear off about alternate energy sources. He also comes around and plants trees - oak saplings. He says, ‘This is Oak Street - mind if I plant this in the margin?' And then he comes around and waters it. That's an indication of the neighbors on Oak Street," LaRue says.
Strenski confesses: "I've been covertly planting oaks on Oak Street. If you're Oak Street, you should have oaks."
He has a stash of oak saplings in his back yard and when the spirit moves him, he plants one in a neighbor's extension. There, the young oaks join their magnificent older siblings.
Strenski enjoys the strong bond between the neighbors on the street. He's lived there since 1995. A programmer by day, he's the founder of Solar Ypsi
, a project dedicated to bringing solar power to town, perhaps creating a solar power tourism destination, as well.
"If we could have 100 solar sites in Ypsilanti, essentially so you could walk between them all, people would come to Ypsilanti," Strenski says.
"It's not really a business - it's an extended hobby, my after-hours job. Google made a two-minute commercial
, next thing I know, I'm getting calls from across the country," he adds.
Strenski describes Solar Ypsi
as just a loose group of friends, a very friendly group.
"I can't imagine doing anything like that in Ann Arbor. Here, you just do things. There are lots of cool little places here - and we need more. The more we can make Ypsi shine, especially in the shadow of Ann Arbor, the more we can do cool projects," he says.
To artist Bill Knudstrup
, the east side of Ypsilanti is a special place, especially Oak Street. "It may have something to do with the older, more individualistic homes - ours was built in 1850 - or the family atmosphere with large shade trees, slow traffic, nearness to Adams School," he says.
"The lots are large … to grow and nurture gardens. And the neighborhood is close to the lively business area of Depot Town. The property costs are reasonable."
In 32 years on the street with his wife, Regina, a newly retired teacher, he's seen a lot of changes.
"Depot Town, when we first moved in, was just starting with the change from biker hangout to what it is now. Downtown had really been going downhill, now it's coming up," Knudstrup says.
Downtown is home to two interesting new places: Mix
, a retail store and gallery with both new and vintage women's clothing. Its styles suit a variety of body types and include some marvelous origami inspired separates. Across the street, Bona Sera
offers a delicious and eclectic menu of lunch and dinner dishes from equally eclectic chef/owners.
"Now that young people are noticing the city, it's starting to snowball. The art studios, Spur Studios
- there are lot of young artists with studios there," Knudstrup says.
Oak Street has good vibrations in more ways than one for Rachel and Tarek Kanaan, the owners of Unity Vibration Kombucha Tea
. Tarek Kanaan moved to Oak Street eight years ago. Rachel joined him six years ago. They've been there since except for a brief foray in Santa Barbara.
Oak Street became the base for their business, which sells kombucha, a naturally carbonated sweet-tart drink. The Kanaans recently moved their business out of their home, into a factory, also in Ypsilanti, part of a big push to take the business national. Tarek Kanaan says he was drawn to Oak Street over Ann Arbor's Argo Park, another potential neighborhood, because of Depot Town.
"It's a destination with historic homes. I felt like it was up and coming. Ann Arbor is getting too expensive for a lot of people, especially creative types. I'm a musician and artist. Rachel is also an artist and massage therapist. We still don't see a lot of houses for sale here," he says.
"It's becoming quite the hip spot … the beer culture and the musicians. Everybody here is some form of artist. Ypsilanti has a bohemian feel starting to brew, mixed in with history which is very interesting to me. Ypsi has always been an eccentric, interesting town. Now it's turning into a destination."
Want to join the party? Oak Street is typical of many Ypsilanti neighborhoods, with mature trees, little traffic and proximity to the city's increasingly lively downtown.
If you're a creative type looking for a place to call home near others of your kind, there's a house for sale on Oak Street at the corner of River Street. The price tag: a mere $125,000.
Constance Crump is Concentrate's Senior Writer. She's also an Ann Arbor-based writer whose work has appeared in Crain's Detroit Business, The Ann Arbor News, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard Magazine.
All photos by Doug Coombe