High on Ann Arbor

In a previous post, I noted that Ann Arbor’s downtown neighborhoods had suffered as a result of  suburban sprawl and shopping malls. For another take on how the downtown neighborhoods survived, what follows is an account by Steve Cain, former reporter for “The Ann Arbor News,” now re-branded as “The Ann Arbor News.” — JL 

With the opening of Briarwood Mall, a downtown devoted to traditional retailing began what in most cities would have been a death spiral. Ann Arbor’s downtown took a pretty big hit before it re-emerged as a vibrant center of restaurants, bars, and mostly upscale specialty shops.

Joan credits the Downtown Development Authority with leveraging the turnaround both through creating parking and other activities. I think there is no question that it would not have happened without the DDA. But I believe there were two other factors in the mix, the most important being the wealth associated with the University of Michigan. In addition, I would suggest that downtown investments from the city’s drug underground were an important bridge during the transition period.

I grew up in Ann Arbor, was a reporter for old Ypsilanti Press and then Detroit News before joining The Ann Arbor News in 1983. At various times I covered the DDA, the city, the University of Michigan, the criminal justice system, and worked special projects.

During this time, the Federal Bureau of Investigation had been granted concurrent jurisdiction with the Drug Enforcement Administration, but the for most part Ann Arbor wasn’t on the DEA’s map. In the late 1980s and 1990s, the FBI took down Ned and Fred Shure’s marijuana network, which had been one of the largest in the country, a second fairly good sized pot conspiracy, and a couple of cocaine distribution networks.

From informants, defendants who talked, wire taps, and a close relationship with the Ann Arbor Police, the feds learned of others who had burned out or had the good sense to take their profits and abandon the life. They were jammed with active cases, and there wasn’t much profit in going after folks who had seemingly gone straight.

I had good sources in both law enforcement and in the illicit world (although the Shures had no use for me). I was aware of a number of bars and restaurants purchased or founded by former dealers or dealers who were transitioning out of the drug business. And I spent scores of hours at the Washtenaw County Register of Deeds tracking downtown properties that had been rehabbed by those folks.

But there was a vast gulf between what I was pretty sure I knew and what I could prove on the record. It would have been a great story, but a proper journalist doesn’t name names without proof.

But just to shake the trees to see what fell out or perhaps because I have a mordant sense of humor, I passed the word that I was working on a story tentatively titled “How the Dopers Saved Ann Arbor.”

One evening I took my wife out to dinner at a quite nice restaurant owned by one of those fellows. We had never met, but he had recognized me when my wife and I walked in the door. He was bouncing from foot to foot, like a cat on a hot tin roof. As he showed us to our table, he made sure we were separated by at east one table length so I couldn’t initiate casual conversation.

This was two decades ago. The people I knew about have mostly passed from the scene. But the DDA remains, and it still has work to do because no city can afford to take a vibrant downtown for granted.