Posted tagged ‘local character’

Jerusaleum Garden and the Character of Ann Arbor

July 11, 2009

A visit to the Ann Arbor Public Library coincided with a need for a lunch solution today, so I stopped in at Jerusaleum Garden for the first time in a while.  They seem to have a new menu and are generally looking spiffy.  I sat in the adjoining patio that they share with Earthen Jar (a vegetarian Indian restaurant that sells its food from steam tables by the pound).  It was a perfect summer day, just hot enough to make welcome a languid moment watching passersby while surrounded by diners and potted flowers.  I was also pleasantly impressed with lunch – for $15 we got a fully loaded lunch for two (leftovers will serve for a couple more days).  The tabbouli had a number of chopped vegetables, including carrots, cucumbers, and tomatoes in it, along with the required parsley in good proportion, and a light lemon dressing.  The falafel was not oily.  The yogurt salad was generously loaded with chopped cucumbers.  It was a perfect summer lunch in one of the places that gives Ann Arbor its special local character.  I hope that it is not endangered.

Think Local First has a really fun T-shirt that I first saw Steve Bean modeling at a Transition Ann Arbor meeting.  It says, “Keep Ann Arbor Funky”.  (Sadly, they were on sale at Shaman Drum, another special piece of Ann Arbor that just closed.)   I agree with the sentiment.  What is it?  “Funky” has gone through many meaning changes, including references to “funk” music.  But “characterized by originality and modishness; unconventional” or more simply, as another source gives it, “hip“, is what we are looking for here, along with an acknowledgment of a slightly down-at-the-heel character, as in the computing definition, where “(funky) is said of something that functions, but in a slightly strange, klugey way. It does the job and would be difficult to change, so its obvious non-optimality is left alone”.

Many of our beloved institutions (I’m thinking of eating places, but there are others) are like this – not always bright and shiny, but real originals that bring character to the town in a way that the newest “concept” can’t.  They are individual and irreplaceable, and they are being lost.  We have lost Red Hot Lovers (though it may re-emerge in another location).  We have lost Tios, though the restaurant has moved to McKinley’s Liberty Street complex.   Happily, Blimpy’s lives.

I can hear the boos and jeers now.   “Ann Arbor in Amber.”  (Jon Zemke of Concentrate pulled off a classic with his “amber NIMBY neighborhoods”).  Yet without anchors of its unique and personal character, Ann Arbor could be a moderately affluent suburb anywhere.   The Ann Arbor Chronicle has been finding a number of posts from other communities  (listed in their Old Media and New Media sections) where Ann Arbor is spoken of enviously.  Being called a living museum may not sound complimentary, but the artificial communities sometimes called lifestyle centers try to emulate it.  Other cities literally build theme parks trying to capture that sense of genuine character that we possess now.  (I was amused to note that Hyde Park,  the home of our current President, has Ann Arbor envy, though funkiness is not mentioned in the article.)

But can character stand up against the relentless press of development?  Look again at the picture of Zaragon Place looming over the hapless shell of Red Hot Lovers. The property has evidently become too valuable.  When the City Council begins to develop the Library Lot,  will Earthen Jar and Jerusalem Garden survive?  I hope so, else we will have lost a little bit of ourselves.

Why The City Should Support Project Grow

May 11, 2009

Ah, at last we have leadership for what counts in the White House.  Our president and his First Lady are getting their own hands dirty in the White House vegetable garden.  They are typifying the zeitgeist of an era where Michael Pollan is the prophet of eating fresh vegetables raised by one’s own hand and Alice Waters is the exemplar of their preparation.  Everywhere people are digging up vacant city blocks to enjoy the psychological and physical benefits of raising one’s own food.  So what does our city administration do?  It tries once again to cut off our very own community garden program.

On May 18, 2009, the City Council will either adopt a two-year budget, or the budget proposed by City Administrator Roger Fraser will take effect.  This convenient arrangement is apparently in the City Charter.  Fortunately, most years the Council has chosen to negotiate some changes to the administrator’s proposed budget.  Here’s hoping that restoring funding to Project Grow will be one of them this year.

As described in the Ann Arbor News article and a summary slide from the Townhall presentation, the upcoming year is budgeted at about $85 million in revenues, with the following year at about $82 million.  This puts the city into a deficit (expenditures exceed revenues by several million dollars).  So the administration plans to cut out the $7,000 only just restored to Project Grow.  I believe that the motivation for this and other cuts is to restrict the range of services offered to citizens to the bare minimum required by law.  It was also embarrassing to the administration last year when evidence surfaced that Project Grow had indeed requested funding, after it had been stated during budget discussions that they had not.

In an email to a councilmember, Jayne Miller (the Community Services administrator) explained the administrative reasoning behind the cut:

First, and in our view, most important, is the financial status of Project Grow.  Their fund balance, at the close of 2008, is at $59,849 or 98.3% of their operating budget for 2008 ($60,871).  Their proposed budget for 2009 shows a $63,994 operating budget with a proposed ending fund balance of $60,914 (95.2% of operating budget).   For 2010 they show a projected operating budget of $66,072 with an ending fund balance of $61,996 (93.8% of operating budget).  Also, the history of that fund balance has been:  2005 – $54,943, 2006 –  $62,924, and 2007 – $62,948.

Second, there are other “garden” non-profits they could consider consolidating with which may assist in reducing overhead costs.  It is our understanding that Matthai Botanical Gardens approached Project Grow about consolidating their operations, but Project Grow decided not to merge with Matthai.  Growing Hope and Food Gatherers are other non-profits they could consider for a merger.

Third, we do not provide support to any other “garden” non-profit and do not do a competitive review of “garden” non-profits to determine who should be funded, if any.

This is the most classic “doesn’t get it” explanation that I have ever seen.  Note the meticulous detailing of the projected fund balance for each year, down to the dollar.  (That projected fund balance of $66,072 included the city grant of $7,000.)  Huge numbers there.  Then the suggestion that Project Grow should merge with another non-profit.  Growing Hope serves mostly Ypsilanti and Food Gatherers has a huge job doing what it does now to feed the hungry.  Adding on a responsibility like managing Ann Arbor community garden plots would stress those organizations, and they would need more money to do it.  It doesn’t make sense.  (I am not close to the Matthei Gardens question, but I gather that it was a mutual decision not to have Matthei attempt to absorb Project Grow.)

Finally,  the competitive review idea is pure bureaucratese.  Such competitive reviews do happen where there are established programs with dedicated revenue streams (i.e., outside funding or a designated allocation from the general fund), and agencies respond to an RFP.  Human services are often provided in this way.  But Project Grow is a unique program and is the service.

I don’t need this service for myself.  Happily, I have a large back yard and an ever-expanding vegetable garden in it.  But there are a lot of people living in Ann Arbor who don’t have a place to grow their own food.  This is what Project Grow offers.  It is not a “garden non-profit”.  It is our community garden program. (Nelson Meade’s early history of Project Grow tells of the long hard work community activists have put in to achieve this, starting in 1971.)

I was on the Project Grow board briefly in the 1980s.  At that time, the City of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County pretty much supported the entire program.  (Even now, some of the gardens are located outside the City of Ann Arbor.)  Since then, the organization has engaged in fundraising by holding events and asking for contributions from the general public, though the economic reality is that this will not be likely to pay for expenses.  About half their income (around $25,000)  is from rental fees for the plots, though they have reduced fees for lower-income gardeners.

So what does that huge budget go for?  About two-thirds ($40,00) is for salary and payroll taxes – for two part-time people.  Their jobs are mostly about maintaining and assigning garden plots, working with volunteers, and putting together newsletters and events.  (There is not much “overhead” to cut – these are worker bees.)  The rest is for garden maintenance expenses.  (The city charges them for the water used, for example.)  Most of the gardens are on property owned by the school system.  At one time there were gardens on land owned by non-profits and churches, but most of those were lost to development.  Recently Project Grow has been trying to put some community gardens into city parks, but this has been slow.

City council has often been put into a reactive position on these budget questions – with the question of “so what would you cut” when there is an attempt to add programs back in.  But that is a false equivalence.  The budget is not that  precise, and the question is never asked when an administrative initiative is being funded.  For small amounts like the allocation to Project Grow, it really will come out in the wash.  (Or, to be more explicit, out of the fund balance.)

Council needs to take leadership on this issue, not just for what might be perceived as a narrow constituency, but because it is the right thing for our city.  We are supposedly a forward-looking, environmentally motivated city, poised to offer a quality of life that includes all the best current sensibilities for healthy young people.  Well, folks, this is one of them.  Here are some reasons community gardens deserve support from our leaders.

1. It’s part of building a local food system where food can be produced without a huge carbon footprint, because the broccoli doesn’t have to travel thousands of miles.  (Environment – green – got it?)

2. It’s good for adults who can have access to fresh food, plus the exercise and psychological benefits of growing it. (So is a legitimate addition to the range of recreational choices offered by our parks system.)

3. It’s good for the young.  The Agrarian Adventure is one example of a nationwide effort to make children understand where food comes from and how to eat a more healthful diet, by growing and cooking their own food.  But that needs to be available to all the city’s children. Project Grow has special programs devoted to teaching the young.

4. It’s important for self-sufficiency and social equity.  Our residents who are lower-income (and yes, folks, we still have them) should have a place they can grow their own food.  It can be an important part of the diet for someone on a limited income.

5. Project Grow has made an outreach to persons with disabilities so that they too can garden.

6. It is part of the authentic community spirit of Ann Arbor, as shown by its history (see the Meade account), and it is also a great community-building activity.

7. It is the latest greatest thing, and your President would approve.

8. It is so very little money.  Please.

How Can Our Downtown Succeed?

May 1, 2009

A recent article in the Ann Arbor Business Review describes an increase in retail and commercial vacancies, with a drop in asking prices for rents.  This is good an indication as any that business is not doing very well downtown.  But what are the causes and cures?

There was some slight interest in the question of downtown’s retail success at the time that Ann Arbor was walking through the Calthorpe exercise (predecessor of the A2D2 process).  The organizers invited Robert Gibbs, a specialist in developing retail centers, to speak.  His talk was inspiring and enlightening – and as far as I can tell, his recommendations were ignored.  As I reported in an article at the time, Gibbs made the point that what really determines the success of retail businesses is—parking.  What do customers want?  They want to be able to park in front of the place they are going, or failing that, not too far away.  But parking is a contentious issue right now.  The DDA has been doing an outstanding job of building and maintaining parking structures, but this is expensive.  There is a strong push to discourage the use of the automobile to reach downtown.  This makes sense for commuters, who are coming to downtown presumably for the whole day, and the estimable GetDowntown program is there to encourage the use of bicycles and the AATA.  But it won’t help to bring shoppers.

Another factor that has been affecting our downtown retailers has been the surge in property prices and rents. We’ve seen a number of local stores that provided a good basic service leave or close partly because of rents.  With rents now falling, perhaps we will keep some of the remaining ones.  My belief is that the bubble in real estate speculation that characterized the whole country has affected our downtown by pushing up rents and the value of property that might yield a quick development buck.  Newcombe Clark is quoted in the Business Review article as saying, “One result of the falling rents is that downtown buildings will lose their value…Another is that new construction will become economically impossible because the rental rates won’t support the costs of building”.  Yes. Exactly.

The problem is that the business of downtown has become only the business of development.  The Ann Arbor Chamber of Commerce (who surely should be looking after the interests of  business) recently issued a policy statement that, if adopted, would expand the built environment of downtown by developing it intensively up and out.  They are still trying for taller buildings and they are frustrated with all those troublesome historic districts.  And while we are at it, let’s make the area where we can build these big buildings bigger (goodbye, Central Area Plan).  But will this really make our downtown healthier?  I say no.  The opportunity to make money from development downtown has blinded us as a community to what makes the downtown valuable to begin with.  That is its character.  Alter the character too much, and no one will want to visit it.

Look at the images shown on the Main Street Association site.  What makes it attractive?  The old (aka historic) buildings.  Its wide walkable sidewalks, somewhat impeded by outdoor seating (European!), and nice trees help.  But the human scale of the buildings and their charming facades are what really distinguish it.

Last summer, the economic development specialist Donovan Rypkema (who specializes in commercial district revitalization and the reuse of historic structures) gave a talk in which the take-home message was very simple: if you want to develop a successful upscale community, historic preservation is an important tool because the young professionals you are trying to attract want that authentic ambiance.  I think I’m not stretching his point too much to say that this authenticity will also bring in customers.

Of course, it is also key that downtown should offer services that we want.   One of my favorite places to visit is Downtown Home and Garden, where I can buy stuff I actually need for gardening and cooking.   Now look at this business.  It is in a historic building.  It’s fun to go in there (even if the cat is not on duty).  And you can drive your car right into the building (or park in the adjacent privately owned parking lot).  Put that together with a good business sense of providing things people want to buy, and you have a successful downtown business.

Knights’ ‘Hood

April 22, 2009

For a truly townie experience, do what we did last weekend and go to Knight’s.  It has been an occasional habit to stop by on Saturday for lunch and have one of their excellent hamburgers, often preceded by a cup of soup made on the premises.  My eye caught a modest notice on the door that this weekend (Sunday, April 26), there would be a 25th anniversary celebration of the restaurant from 2:00 to 5:00 with “complimentary hors d’oeuvres and cash bar”.

That was all the notice that anyone is likely to get.  Unless, maybe, you were already signed up as a “friend” on their website.  Even the website doesn’t have information about the open house and I’m pretty sure Knight’s has never, never advertised.  In fact, they don’t even have a sign.  If you don’t realize that the building on Dexter Avenue across from Veteran’s Park is a restaurant and not a private club, you might never enter. The only information you are given is the large image of a chess knight outside.

There really are Knights.  It is a family business and the patriarch, Ray Knight, is supposed to be at the festivities on Sunday.  His son Don Knight runs the restaurant now, while his brother Bob runs the market.

Oh, yes, the market.  It is another mysterious building with only chess knights to tell its story. Whenever I stop by for some of their excellent ground beef, I’m likely to run into someone I know (it is at Spring and Miller,  in my ‘hood).  I’m told that the business started with the market, where real attention was paid to the meat.  Then in 1984 the restaurant was opened.  They are still about the meat.  I interviewed Mr. Knight for an article I wrote on local food and learned that he brings in sides of prime beef that are cut on the spot.  The meat that doesn’t go to the restaurant is meticulously tailored into familiar cuts and laid out in an open cooler near the front of the store.  They also buy Amish chickens from a Michigan producer and cut them up themselves.  (If you ask nicely, they’ll save you the backs for making soup.)  You won’t find many inexpensive cuts there, but the few times we bought steak for special occasions, it justified the hype.  They also have bulk bacon and sausages in the cooler. You can request special cuts if you give them a couple of days.  Otherwise, it is much like a well-stocked convenience store except that they carry a few local items like Ann Arbor Tortilla Factory chips, Angelo’s raisin bread, and Knight’s own brownies.

As for the restaurant (which may be called Knight’s Steakhouse or Knight’s Bar/Restaurant, depending on where you look), it is solid good food, confidently prepared and deftly served.  The prices are reasonable for the quality and the drinks are a good value.  Going there for dinner is like shrugging into a comfortable garment, if you are able to avoid the smoke successfully.  (There are non-smoking areas and some nights they limit smoking to the bar.) Though beef is the main attraction, they usually have some very decent fish dishes, and those are usually what I select.  I’ve now discovered that the specials are posted on the website.  This caused me some grief when I read that they had the pork schnitzel with pierogi and red cabbage the other night.  Maybe next time.

By the way, don’t plan to go on Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, or any really special day.  Even weekday evenings there is usually a wait.  And be prepared to run into someone you know.  If you’ve lived here long enough.

UPDATE: According to the May 2009 Ann Arbor Observer, the market is now being managed by Sherry Knight Bedolla.  She is introducing some modernizations including more prepared food.  I’ve been noticing more fresh produce and other touches, but apparently more is underway.  The meat is staying.

UPDATE: We went because the appetizer special was the pork schnitzel plus the pierogies.  Wish they’ d make this a dinner special, with a red cabbage side.

UPDATE:   October 2011: I doubt that the Knights were reading this blog post, but they did put the pork schnitzel with pierogies and red cabbage on the regular menu!   (To see the Knight’s night’s specials, see their online menu , usually posted mid-afternoon.)  If you want a classic steak dinner or the other solid standards on their menu, you are in good hands.  Often my husband simply orders one of their hamburgers for dinner, with a side of salad and/or a cup of soup.  (Did I mention that their soups are superlative?)  They clearly have a chef working for them.  In addition to the rotating offers on the specials of the classic pot roast, roast chicken, turkey dinner, and meatloaf, there are often innovative or even daring specials, often with an Italian or Cajun twist.  Tonight the menu also includes the classics Shrimp Scampi and Trout Amandine.

Since the state smoking ban, Knight’s is crowded almost every night (Mon-Sat) that they are open.  A hint:  you can call ahead to put your name on the waiting list.  No, you’ll have to look up the number yourself.
Meanwhile, the market has also been undergoing upgrades, including a new automatic front door and a new meat cooler with expanded choices.  There are more and more local products and special fresh baked goods.

The thrilling news is that they are attempting to put a bakery in next to the market.  This is requiring a rezoning. From ETrakit:

“A proposal to rezone 306, 308, 310 Spring from R2A (Two-Family Dwelling District) to C1 (Local Business) to allow the residential dwelling at 306 Spring to be converted to a bakery use. No new floor area or additional parking is proposed.”

Please, Planning Commissioners, grant us this boon.  Think of how much those of us in the ‘hood will treasure having a Knight’s bakery within walking distance.  Please?

UPDATE January 2012

If you call ahead for a booth, it can be a very cozy place on a winter’s night.

UPDATE: Knight’s Market has finished a renovation.  Here is the new front door:

They have a new meat cooler, too.

UPDATE September 2012

As reported here by, Knight’s has received final approval of zoning changes that will permit renovation of the market and a new bakery and food prep area in the existing house on the property.  Great things anticipated.

UPDATE  February 2013 reports that Ray Knight, the founder of Knight’s and of a successful clan of Knights, died on February 16.  The article has a nice picture of the five Knight siblings who now run the operation, plus some good interviews with them.

UPDATE June 2013

A stunning move by the Knight family will lead to a downtown restaurant in the old Borders Building.  We don’t know details of the name, or the menu.

UPDATE October 2013

Chitchat with various family members and staff indicate that the bakery on Spring is on hold until the new restaurant downtown is established.

UPDATE January 2014

The Knights have now launched a website for the Liberty restaurant.   They are now scheduling interviews for new hires and forecasting a March opening.  They’ll be open on Sundays downtown.   Looks as though the name will be “Knight’s”.  (If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.)


Why Should We Care About Tios?

April 15, 2009

I’ll be following a long-term custom in our family tonight.  Whenever both of us have late-night commitments, I usually stop by Tios on the way home and pick up an order of chicken enchiladas and a couple of beef tacos for dinner.   It may not be the most authentic Mexican food we’ve ever had, but it is generous and satisfying— real comfort food—and they are open really late.

But this comfortable routine is coming to an end soon.  On July 7, 2008, the City Council voted to buy the building in which Tios is housed.  The item was not on the published agenda and was added at the last minute. The purchase price, which was $615,000 including the closing costs, was paid for from the General Fund Balance.    That is the same fund balance which staff estimates will show a 10% operating deficit in the next couple of years.  Because it was a capital acquisition, the item required an 8-vote margin, which is exactly what it had.  Councilmembers Anglin, Briere and Suarez voted against it.  Though not stated in the resolution, the presumed purpose was to clear the way for some use relating to the new city hall expansion.

This was quite a shock to Tios’ owners, Tim and Harriet Seaver, who spoke bitterly to Council about their business and the way the City had essentially yanked it out from under them.  They also mounted a campaign, still underway, to raise money necessary for the move.  (A worker at the restaurant said today that contributions can be mailed to Tios at 333 E. Huron,Ann Arbor 48104.)

So why should we care?  Restaurants come and go.  The Old German, Bill Knapps, and Steve’s Lunch are all history, and even the recently opened Mexican-themed chain Salsarita’s in the McKinley complex on Liberty has closed.

We should care partly because of the roughness with which a long-time business was handled by our city government.  But also because Tios has been an institution, a part of the fabric of our city.  Its particular distinctiveness (if slightly funky in nature) has added to the richness of the Ann Arbor experience in a way that new chain restaurants will never do.  As expressed by Gordon Bigelow in an Other Voices recently,  it is a form of cultural sterilization.  Without the local character that unique operations like Tios provide, downtown Ann Arbor could become interchangeable with any affluent city.  Let’s hope that the City will leave Le Dog alone!

But the story is apparently taking a not-too-bad turn.  I was told today that Tios is relocating to the Liberty Street location formerly occupied by Salsarita’s.  That will presumably come with Salsarita’s liquor license.  So the business will survive (if they can raise enough money to make the move) and maybe even expand its menu.  But it will certainly be different, and the parking is likely to be a problem (no more stopping by after meetings to pick up enchiladas).    I’ll miss that magnificent mural.

UPDATE: According to the Ann Arbor News,  City Council waived some costs to Tios in its final months.  The News also reported that the building will likely be demolished.  It still looks as though the mural is toast. And Tios will have to apply for that liquor license – Council withdrew it from the old Salsarita’s space.

SECOND UPDATE: Alas, the old building and the mural are now history.

THIRD UPDATE:  The Newshawks midsummer news report also has a picture of the old restaurant.  Alas, the reported takeover by Tios of the Ann Arbor News building did not pan out.

FOURTH UPDATE: According to a story on (March 14, 2010), business is doing well in the new location. Tios secured the liquor license, which means bigger tabs.  They also secured favorable terms for the remainder of Salsarita’s lease.  But their carryout business is down, including mine.  Hard to stop by a restaurant on busy Liberty.  It sounds as though it is a different restaurant in many ways, more upscale and with an expanded menu.