Just over a year ago, my wife and I bought our first house, here in Ypsilanti. Why Ypsi? Well, it was sort of a compromise location, actually. I would have liked Boston or Minneapolis; she was more looking to southern California. So, compromise. We'd already moved back in-state for me to go to grad school, and our families were here, and the Boston / San Diego question just wasn't resolving itself, so, Michigan.
But where in Michigan? Mostly, it had to be walkable. "Within walking distance of the library," was her major criterion, and "within walking or transit distance of enough potential jobs that one of us doesn't have to drive to work," was mine. We looked around in Ann Arbor, but a life of indentured servitude to the mortgage company wasn't our style; Ypsi, Ferndale, and Hamtramck were more our speed. Notably absent from consideration were the types of places where we grew up: surrounded by farmland outside of Chelsea, in my case, and a wooded tract on 30-some Mile Road in hers.
Our parents grew up in Detroit, then moved out to the middle of nowhere as soon as they could; I see my generation turning that around and moving into smaller homes with smaller yards (or none whatsoever), in traditional neighborhoods and downtowns rather than getting away from things, we want easy access to urban amenities. (And not just our generation, even my parents are planning to sell their house and downsize into town soon.)
Ypsilanti ended up being our pick for being closest to the jobs we already had, and we're pretty ecstatic with our choice. I walk or bike to work, and come home for lunch; I can do most of our grocery shopping on the way home, spread over the farmers' markets (there are two), Ypsilanti Food Co-op, and a new Mexican grocery. Walking distance of the library? Yes and yes again: within a short walk we've got not just the public library, but Eastern Michigan University's library, which offers library cards to all Ypsi residents. Within a two block radius of our house, we've got a coffee shop, Chinese, Mexican, and Lebanese restaurants, both cheap pizza and great pizza, by a book store, and three bus lines. Just a little further, both Depot Town and downtown Ypsilanti, with their restaurants, venues, stores, bars, etc.
Even more important than the raw geography, though, are the people we end up finding in our neighborhood. We're not the only people attracted to places that have a real sense of place, after all. I really can't go anywhere without running into neighbors who own businesses, do interesting academic research, run non-profits, are artists or musicians who are all of the above. Really, I think I'm probably the least interesting person I've met around here. (Here I have to encourage you to "Buy Indie in Ypsi" at this Saturday's Shadow Art Fair ) here in Ypsi, where several of those more interesting friends and a few dozen other craftsters will be offering up clothes, music, photography, zines, and whatever else they've come up with lately.) It's also important to note that lots of these people have kids. My observations are hardly limited to fresh-out-of-college singles who are going to be moving to some shiny distant subdivision in a few years.
Now, a government sponsored "cool cities" brand is certainly not the coolest thing in the world, but there's certainly some credence to the "creative class" idea that it's based on. People doing interesting things want to be close to other people doing interesting things, want to be able to run into each other at the coffee shop or bar or wander over and strike up front porch conversations about our last projects, half-planned events, or ideas for new businesses. Unfortunately, Michigan is pretty deep in the shadows of New York, Chicago, Portland, Austin, and a dozen other cities when people start thinking of vibrant, interesting, creative places. Pulling out of our boring rust belt image is going to be important to making post-manufacturing Michigan a good place to live. And, sure, I've got some ideas on how to do that.
Check back tomorrow to read about some of those ideas.