Farewell to Zanzibar

In which the fate of Zanzibar is linked to the success of our downtown, with some history.

I always wanted to like Zanzibar (the Ann Arbor restaurant) more than I did.  The place that it occupied in my mind was idealized and dreamy, starting with the name. Zzzzanzibar.  Remember the Bill Harley song?,

Zanzibar is very far,

You can’t get there in a car.

The place seems so unreachable and unknowable that it typifies the exotic ideal, though some people have made it.  Ann Arbor’s Zanzibar played on this beautifully, with its gorgeous mural, its colorful fabric hangings suspended overhead, and its promise of “pan-tropical cuisine”.  I liked the idea of warm exotic food and fruit from Latin America, Africa, Asia – all along the equator, like a world trip just by stepping in the door.

Unfortunately, my dining experiences there were uneven, not so much unsatisfactory as not achieving expectations, and in latter years, we often stopped and read the menu outside, then moved on. The descriptions (meals had moved from complex dishes to variously seasoned meat entrees)  didn’t promise quite enough delight to merit the prices.  Then there was the final disappointment, on a cold rainy evening when it seemed the ideal spot to eat before a run across campus to see the Royal Shakespeare Company.  We joined a number of unhappy would-be diners who sat or stood in the entryway for half an hour before being told that we definitely could not be seated without a reservation.  Most of the restaurant was not in service.  It was a weekday evening and apparently they didn’t expect much business, so didn’t bring in the workers.  We finally escaped into the cold for a quick bowl of soup at Ashley’s.

And now it comes to an end.  Even in mid-June there was some hope that it might survive, but it closed on June 18.   The story is more complex than just another restaurant that didn’t make it during the recession.  It is integral to the story of how Ann Arbor’s downtown is developing, and how current development trends affect its success.

As I indicated in an earlier post, our downtown is showing signs of strain.  Or I could say that “Downtown is in trouble.”  But what does that mean and how can anyone make a pronouncement about the health of downtown?  This might be said to be a question of metrics.  How we measure the health of downtown probably depends on the place where we stand in terms of our expectations of it.  Vacancies are a symptom anyone can recognize.  There are too many downtowns across the nation where a sad progression of empty storefronts finally leads to urban renewal or simply abandonment.  We’re not likely to get there, but even a few vacancies on a street can lead to an unfortunate “gap tooth” effect that makes pedestrians less eager to visit the area.  Another related metric is rental rates (the problem reported earlier).   And ultimately, this will also rebound upon property values, both of which affect people who have an investment in downtown’s real estate.

But I’m more concerned with a qualitative measure: the types of retail establishments and their success. For those of us who live in Ann Arbor and want to visit and enjoy the downtown, having vigorous successful local businesses that fulfill real needs (even if they are only entertainment and dining) is important.  And State Street has been stressed in this regard for some time.   As early as 2001, it was noticed that local businesses, with their often unique characters, were being lost while chain restaurants were moving in.  State Street’s proximity to the UM campus has always made it a natural location for student-oriented businesses, but it used to hold its own as a place the general population would want to visit.  I remember when we would walk from our home (then on the east side) to State Street to spend an evening browsing in the old Borders (for those under the age of 100, Borders used to be a wonderful independent bookstore) and strolling the street, delighting in the storefronts and perhaps ending up in one of the restaurants like Thano’s Lamplighter (served pizza and Greek food) for dinner. Actually, State Street was an important book destination.  In addition to Borders, there were Shaman Drum, Books in General (a second-floor walkup with a great selection of used books, including technical ones), and the quirky Kaleidoscope, with some collectibles and paperbacks in certain genres.  Of course Dawn Treader was and happily is just a few steps down Liberty.  I heard anecdotes and  read interviews from international scholar-visitors who said that they loved to come to Ann Arbor for the books. Now all are gone, except for Dawn Treader (Kaleidoscope has moved to North Fourth and Borders is a struggling outpost of a national corporation, not the beloved local bookstore of earlier days.)

The job of keeping State Street vital fell in part to the State Street Area Association.  (Visit the “Our Neighborhood” tab; it has a great history by Grace Shackman, with pictures.)  Two active members were Roger Hewitt, a partner in the management of Red Hawk and Zanzibar restaurants, and Karl Pohrt, the owner of the respected Shaman Drum Bookshop. Both were concerned about the issue early.  Both of them conceived of the idea that the solution was to bring more residents downtown, thus creating a stable customer base.  As I wrote in an article published in 2006,

“Karl Pohrt, the owner of Shaman Drum Bookshop, was recently quoted in Business Review as saying that downtown is like an ecosystem and that housing downtown is important to its survival. And at a Democratic Party meeting in March, State Street restaurateur Roger Hewitt argued that building more housing is the ‘only way’ to save weak downtown retailers.”

Both Pohrt and Hewitt have been on the Downtown Development Authority board.  (Hewitt has recently been its chair, and served as its spokesman.)  Both have been active in politics. (Pohrt once ran for City Council, and Hewitt has been an active contributor to local campaigns.)  In his more recent service on DDA, Hewitt has been a strong proponent of downtown residential development. Along with a strong push from council for affordable housing (which was thought to follow naturally with increased supply),  Hewitt’s advocacy has been significant in bringing more high-rise development to the downtown.  He has been in a position to make a difference as a member of the A2D2 and adhoc Downtown Steering Committees.

But has the advent of major development downtown, and the State Street area in particular, been good for our home-grown retail businesses? (Of course, not every plan submitted has been built.) The evidence, whichever metric you might chose, seems to indicate not.  One of the earliest new developments was Corner House Apartments, right on State Street. At DDA meetings later, Hewitt was heard to comment that what was needed was long-term residents downtown.  But student-oriented developments like Corner House seem to be the most supportable from a development viewpoint.  They haven’t brought success to local businesses on State Street.  And now, sadly, both Zanzibar and Shaman Drum are, literally, history.  In an article about the changes on State Street, Newcombe Clark is quoted as saying, “it would take a conscious effort on the part of landlords and brokers to steer State Street away from the fate of South University, which has seen a stagnant retail scene and deferred maintenance on many buildings”.  Unsaid is that this has been an effect of a predominantly student-oriented customer base.  Hewitt himself is quoted in the same article as acknowledging that “It was a shopping destination for the whole community…It appealed to a broader section of the whole community than it does now.”

It is eerily appropriate that Hewitt’s next venture will be to open a carryout sandwich shop and convenience store in the Zaragon high-rise near South University.  And unfortunately, the dream of Zanzibar, as well as our old local-friendly State Street, is very far.

UPDATE: The space once occupied by Zanzibar is now occupied by Sava’s Café.  My one visit was not as positive as that of the reviewer on AnnArbor.com.  Probably I was still suffering from the loss of the mural.  My lunch companion was happy with his hamburger (Knight’s ground beef).  But my tomato bisque was overly thick and salty and the tuna salad I ordered seemed to be solid tuna with just a little mayonnaise mixed in.   The server was nearly stymied by my request for crackers to go with it. (I didn’t finish either one.) Overall, it will probably not be a destination restaurant, but may serve the visitors to State Street for other reasons adequately.

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2 Comments on “Farewell to Zanzibar”

  1. Like you, I was never a huge fan of Zanzibar, although I really wanted to like it. I love the Red Hawk and Casey’s. I’m sorry about the loss of yet another local business, but isn’t another local restaurant that was across the street moving into that space? I’m also happy that Tio’s is not far from State. I hope we can retain at least the local businesses that are there currently, and I’m most hoping that the Nickels Arcade will retain its unique feel.

  2. TeacherPatti Says:

    Another not-fan here! I tried and tried, but it was rather expensive (to me at least) and nothing ever really struck me. Likewise though, I am always sorry to see a small business go.

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