Having carefully read and considered the recent string of posts by former City Commissioners Mike Andrzejak and Chuck Semchena, and related commentary by some Patch readers, the same thought keeps entering my mind: We can’t be living in the same city. Because the city described by Messrs. Andrzejak and Semchena is not the Royal Oak I know and love. The city they depict is an almost post-apocalyptic Atlantic City – a city overrun, 24-hours a day, 7-days a week by drugs and alcohol; a city nobody would ever want to move to, much less visit, shop or eat at, or locate their business in. Reading their columns, it’s a wonder our city remains standing at all and that we haven’t turned into the burned-out, run-down town depicted in the movie Robocop (though based on the commentary of our former city commissioners, surely if we allow one more BBQ place to open that serves alcohol, or one more steakhouse that may want to allow their patrons to have wine with their prime rib, we’re certainly going to meet that fate. Maybe it’s a good thing the Robocop franchise is being reborn so a new generation can see what reality these former commissioners believe awaits us in just a few short years).
Of course, our city isn’t the second coming HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. It’s in many ways thriving. And I should know – I have lived in the downtown since late 2007, when I bought my home on Main Street just past 11 Mile, or, in an area our former commissioners recently described as a “hotspot.” I think they meant to use the term pejoratively, but I take it as a compliment. The Emagine Theater, a beautiful, successful, welcome addition to our downtown is certainly a “hotspot” and, as I predicted it would when I defended it against the unsubstantiated claims of these same former city commissioners, it is attracting new businesses to our city while not creating any of the alcohol, parking, or traffic concerns so many used as scare tactics when the theater was first proposed.
Now, before I continue, let me answer a question I’m sure many may wonder. “Of course this guy supports bringing more bars to our city – he’s 28-years-old – it’s him and his friends that are part of the problem and causing our downtown to be overrun with drunks.” Surely that would be one of my first reactions upon reading this column. But, like so many of the other arguments lobbed by the former City Commissioners and their supporters, the caricature is just that. Truth is, you probably won’t find many 28-year-olds more intolerant of loud, obnoxious drunk people causing problems in our downtown than me. I don’t drink alcohol, never have, and I can count the times I’ve been to Blackfinn on one hand (okay – maybe two – it’s a decent place to watch a game). My point isn’t to denigrate Blackfinn, which itself gets unfairly caricatured, but to say this: As a homeowner in our downtown, and as a person who far from stumbling home at 2:00 a.m. is someone who would rather not be brought out of bed by hollering and yelling from Main Street below (which I overlook), I have no interest in seeing Main Street transform into Bourbon Street (though, I will say, I did visit downtown New Orleans for the first time this past January and found it to be a wonderful, engaging, and hospitable city). But I also know that the Royal Oak I live in, the downtown I live in, is not the booze-filled, crime-infested city I have seen the former commissioners and some of their supports describe it as. And it’s about time more people stood up for our city, and the downtown, instead of running it down and chasing new families, businesses, restaurants, and visitors to neighboring municipalities. (And here I have to credit both Clyde Esbri and Mike Ripinski for their thoughtful takes on this issue and for standing up for our downtown).
Reading the columns from our former commissioners and the comments attached to those posts, you would literally be afraid to walk downtown at night, or any other time of the day for that matter. But that’s not the Royal Oak I see on a daily basis. I see a downtown filled with people of all ages and backgrounds; seniors and families; young professionals grabbing dinner at Gemmayze, desert at Estoria, and yes, maybe a drink at Blackfinn or Fifth Avenue (God forbid). Teenagers buying videogames at Gamestop, getting a new phone at Verizon wireless, and maybe a drink at Goldfish Tea or Caribou Coffee. I don’t see a bar on every corner; I see ice cream shops and clothing stores; cupcake factories and pizza joints. I see a place to grab a bagel, a place to grab a hamburger, and a place to grab my mom a Mother’s Day present. I see law offices and yoga studios, Stagecrafters and Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle, and yes, I see 526 Tequila Blue and Goodnight Gracie’s.
When I look at the Downtown Development Authority webpage, and the businesses it lists there, I see 10 “clubs and bars”, 2 “breweries”, a “cocktail lounge”, a “comedy club”, 4 “theaters”, 8 “coffee and tea houses”, 56 “restaurants”, 7 “sweet and pastry” shops, 8 “alternative and vintage clothing” stores, six “antique and collectable” stores, six “art galleries”, 16 “clothing” stores, 4 “children, infant & maternity clothing” stores, 3 “fitness” gyms, six “footwear & accessories” stores, 7 “gifts, cards, and books” stores, 8 “grocery and specialty foods” stores, 6 “home furnishings and decorations” stores, 4 “jewelry” stores, 19 “salons, spas, barbers, & beauty product” stores, and 8 “specialty stores.”
I also see a busy downtown business and office presence. According to the DDA’s website, the downtown is home to 6 “accounting, booking, & tax preparation services”, 15 “advertising & marketing services”, 8 “architectural services”, 2 “automotive sales & services”, 5 “banks & credit unions”, a chiropractor, 3 churches, 6 ‘”civic & nonprofit organizations”, two dentists, 3 schools, 3 “engineering services,” 4 “entertainment” services, 2 “family services”, 6 “fitness” services, a funeral home, 8 “graphic, branding & website design services,” 12 “information technology services,” 2 insurance offices, 3 interior design businesses, 6 “investment & financial services,” 23 law firms and law offices, 3 “medical services”, 12 “mental health services,” 4 “mortgage services”, 6 “public services,” 15 “publishing, production & media services,” 10 “real estate agents, brokers & property management” services, 2 “transportation services”, and 11 “miscellaneous businesses/services.” Plus, there are over 1,000 residents whom, like me, live in the downtown either in one of the numerous condo developments that did not exist a decade ago or at senior residences like Barton Tower and the Royal Oak Manor.
Now, that may read as a laundry list, and to be fair, Commissioners Andrzejak and Semchena would almost certainly classify some of the “restaurants” as “bars” (though, according to their own most recent definition, a “true” restaurant in their words is one that serves at least 80% food, and that anything short of that is merely a bar that serves “some” food – a classification Andimo’s would surely be stunned to learn, given that its plan of operation calls for a 70/30 food-to-alcohol ratio. Lilly’s Seafood similarly fails this test (65/35 food-to-alcohol ratio); as does Town Tavern (70/30), Oak City Grille (70/30), and even Katana’s steakhouse (75/25). I could go on, but this column is already at 1,200 words). In short, one can hardly dispute our downtown has a healthy mix of retail, businesses, restaurants, and yes, bars.
Reading through the crime reports each week, I don’t feel scared of living downtown – or walking around downtown at night (and, let’s also be honest, while Messrs. Andrzejak and Semchena would have you believe that every bar is overcrowded with drunk patrons every night of the week, as much as the pocketbooks of some local owners may wish that were the case, most every weeknight, the downtown is pretty quiet) but I do worry about my younger sister, who moved to Royal Oak last year. She lives near one of our local gyms, and while our former commissioners would have you focus on the isolated incidents at our local bars, the vast majority of the weekly police blotter is not taken up by incidents at downtown, but is theft from homes and vehicles, including repeated incidents at L.A. Fitness. Indeed, what would really take a bite out of crime is not shutting down our bars and restaurants, but if we started encouraging residents to stop leaving their cars and homes unlocked, and discouraged people from leaving valuables like computers, GPS devices, cell phones, and purses on the front seat of their cars, in easy reach of would-be predators. I am far more afraid, and with good reason, that my sister may be the victim of crime at the gym than when she comes to have dinner in our downtown.
There’s far more to say about the downtown – and I hope to discuss some of these points in future blog entries. But what I most want is to remind people that Royal Oak, including our downtown, is a city to be proud of. While many want to tear it down, we remain a community where businesses want to locate, parents want to raise their children, and where many seek to retire. Do not let a vocal minority of doomsayers scare you from trying a Taste Love Cupcake, grabbling a late-night snack at Estoria, or having dinner on a Friday or Saturday night at Mongolian BBQ or even Blackfinn (they even have steaks, pork chops, and salmon on the menu). Show off our city to your out-of-town neighbors – I know I do (and it’s even gotten some of them to move here themselves, a better testament to our city and downtown I know not).