Tucked away in one of the oldest areas in the city, 10 blocks of unique Victorian buildings and homes make up Old Town Lansing, the city’s hidden gem. Thanks to community members, the district has been revived over the past 20 or 30 years and within the last two years, has made great strides in bringing back its original 1840s splendor. Old Town now has countless art galleries, shops and eateries that are a perfect fit for young people looking for a cultural vibe, and yet the area has remained somewhat unfamiliar to the MSU community.
“It’s got amazing little shops that you can’t find anywhere in East Lansing,” said Shannon Rolley, an advertising senior and intern for the Old Town Commercial Association (OTCA). “I feel like students don’t really go out of the East Lansing bubble, which is unfortunate. And I was one of them until I got this internship and realized all that Lansing and Old Town have to offer.”
As a result of her internship, Rolley has fallen in love with Old Town. She works directly under the executive director for the association, Jamie Schriner-Hooper. OTCA puts on events, shows, galleries and does publicity throughout the Greater Lansing Area to promote Old Town happenings. “[The] biggest thing we do to promote Old Town as a whole is put on special events,\” Schriner-Hooper said. \”And those events draw thousands of people down to the area.”
Old Town, New Festivals
Old Town hosts events year-round to bring life to the city. This past October saw the first-ever Old Town Oktoberfest, a full day of folk music and bar specials. In February, the first Anti-Valentine’s Day event took place, in which several of the area businesses threw parties, had singles specials and even “tear-up-a-picture-of-your-ex” specials at the bar.
On April 1, the OTCA will put on an event called “Old Town on Ice,” a progressive sampler where people can pay a fee to visit all the area restaurants. Each restaurant in the area has a unique type of food they give out to taste-testers. “You actually walk around and go into the different places,” Schriner-Hooper said. “Vernadine\’s is a soul food restaurant. Pablo’s is the best Mexican food I\’ve ever had, hands down. Relish is a culinary boutique. Papa Leo\’s is a pizza place. Sir Pizza Grand Cafe [is] a pizza place as well. The Old Town Diner is a great diner and there\’s an organic restaurant that\’s opening in next door. The Rendezvous is a bar that has really good sandwiches and pub food.”
Old Town has numerous summer activities for those looking to enjoy the warm weather in a fun atmosphere. “At the end of June, we have the Festival of the Moon and the Festival of the Sun,” Schriner-Hooper said. “The Festival of the Moon is a beer tent with live music. The Festival of the Sun is a huge beer and wine tasting event. They’re just great fun. The Festival of the Sun is what initially introduced me to Old Town, and that was about eight years ago.” The end of the summer also brings the Lansing JazzFest and the Lansing Blues Festival, both held on the streets of Old Town.
Graduate physics student, Josh Veazey, mainly heads down to Old Town for the summer festivals. He has visited the jazz and blues festivals the past two summers. “The blues fest is probably my favorite. It’s probably just my taste of music. All the festivals down there are good,” Veazey said.
Although enjoying Old Town doesn’t have an age stamp, having a bar-ready I.D. does have its benefits. “You don’t have to be 21 to come down, but it does help,” Schriner-Hooper said. “It’s a little more fun if you are.”
Galleries & Grub
Old Town has more to offer students than live music festivals and beer sampling. The everyday life in Old Town can give students an ethnic eating experience, boutiques with unique-to-Lansing items, and art galleries featuring up-and-coming artists. Victorian buildings house these establishments, adding to the aesthetics in the area. The buildings are constantly being restored both on the storefronts and within the walls.
The Old Town shopping atmosphere is very relaxed, and it’s not unusual for the owner to be working behind the register. Getting offered a cup of coffee and some friendly conversation is the norm. The most important thing to the shop owners is not gaining a large profit, but retaining good relations with their clientele and hoping they come back. “It’s a family down here definitely, which is really neat,” said Summer Schriner, owner of the newly-opened clothing boutique, Grace. “It is my friends and family, and they’re all down here. It’s fun because it’s primarily a group of young people who are really just getting started in their professional lives and it’s really neat to be a part of it.”
Schriner and Schriner-Hooper are sisters who have been living in Old Town for about 10 years. In the past two years, they have become extremely involved in the community, with Schriner-Hooper serving as executive director of the OTCA and Schriner opening her boutique. Schriner has nothing but respect and admiration for her sister and what she’s done with Old Town. “I think it’s absolutely incredible,” she said. “It’s just amazing. More and more often, people will approach me and say that ‘Old Town is really making a comeback and it’s really beautiful down here these days.’ And I think it’s just Jamie. She’s worked really hard and it’s obviously really paid off.”
Grace carries hard-to-find quality professional clothing from brand names like BCBG Max Azria, Spanx, Cole Haan and Charles David. Schriner’s store is adorned with simple yet modern fixtures that hold blouses, purses, skirts and accessories. She also has a glass room filled with just one thing – shoes. “I think the shoes and accessories here cater to college [women],” Schriner said. “Especially the shoes. None of us can really resist a cute pair of shoes. We’ve got a whole room full of them here.”
Art gallery and gift boutique October Moon provides unique gifts for people looking to share something with someone else or splurge on themselves. They carry everything from soaps to bath oils to soft hand towels to purses. “There’s nothing in my store that you can find anywhere else,” owner Aura Ozburn said. “We always try to work with local artists, then statewide, then national. We’re also a local independent business, which, unfortunately, East Lansing is pulling away from. It didn’t used to be that way.”
Just across the street sits Relish, a gourmet culinary boutique that sells items that are hard or nearly impossible to find in the Lansing area. Owner John Kodeski makes sure his shelves are lined with food, wine and culinary tools from all over the world. “I have hard-to-find gourmet food products,” he said. “I carry Owen Company – olive oils and vinegars and tapenades. I’m actually the only store in Michigan that carries it. There’s that niche that I fill–just having a place that’s a little more eclectic than your average retail distributor. I have a lot of things that you won’t find anywhere else.”
Kodeski said he is currently in transition, trying to figure out what sells while still keeping the store unique. “As soon as I find something somewhere else, I pull it off the shelves,” he said. “I also carry wine and beer – I’m the only one who carries upper-end wine.”
Old Town has something for everyone, although some boutiques may be a better fit for older undergraduate students, graduate students and young professors. “I have a large population of students, not so much undergrad, but graduate students that come in here and fall all over this stuff,” Kodeski said. “A lot of times they’re from larger cities or places that will have more things than Lansing has to offer. So they’re very pleased with what I have to offer. I have a lot of professors that come in here, too. It’s neat, especially the ones that come from another country – It’s more of a European-style relaxed shopping atmosphere. They don’t have to buy anything. They just come in and see something. They can just sometimes connect with me.”
The area offers a greater selection of unique eateries than most places in the Lansing region. Whether your craving soul food or pizza, an eating experience in Old Town is distinctive. “There’s a Mexican bakery that I like. And there’s another place. It’s a Sir Pizza, but they serve coffee and beer and wine. It’s like a coffee shop setting. It’s nice if you want a quiet night,” Veazey said.
For You, MSU
Aside from the great shoes at Grace, Old Town has a lot to offer students. However, since the closing of Old Town’s biggest MSU attraction this fall, many students have turned their heads away from the area. “Unfortunately, the Temple Club isn’t here anymore which I know is a reason that a lot of students came down,” Rolley said. “But the Creole [Gallery] has amazing shows all the time. They have a lot of jazz performances and a lot of local performers that come down here and it’s just a unique area.”
Spiral Video Dance bar has an eclectic clientele and caters to an 18-and-up crowd. They’re open Wednesday – Sunday every week and have drink specials and guest DJs on Fridays and Saturdays. “We’re trying to get more nightlife down here,” Schriner-Hooper said. “We’re trying to get a great destination restaurant, but that\’s something we\’ve struggled with for a while.”
Perhaps the biggest turnoff students find is the difficulty of transportation. Riding two CATA buses, one of which only loops every 40 minutes, can definitely put a damper on students’ plans. For students with cars, Old Town has plenty of parking, but car-less students may now be in luck. “One of the things that the city of Lansing has been working on is …a trolley that runs on Fridays and Saturdays, called the Entertainment Express,” Schriner-Hooper said. “And the trolley just goes straight down Michigan Avenue right now, but within a year, it’s supposed to come down to Old Town. That will make things a lot easier.”
Students who stay in town for the summer will find that Old Town is a hotspot for activity, even between festivals. From June to October, starting at 6 p.m. every Thursday, there are amateur musicians who flock to Old Town to play music in the park. “Acoustic musicians come here and it’s essentially like a big jam session,” Schriner-Hooper said. “People bring picnics and listen. We get some really good musicians; they split off into different groups. We’ll have one group playing blues and one group playing rock.”
Old Town: Old to Now
Old Town hasn’t always been the growing community it is today. In fact, it has only been in the last 20 or 30 years things have started to pick up. The community has been coming together, and the area has become relatively safer. In the heart of Lansing, Old Town is really a diamond in the rough. “In the 1840s when things started down here, things were great,” Schriner-Hooper said. “This was the original downtown, all the buildings were erected. The area was thriving. That continued over the turn of the century. Then after [World War II], in the ’50s and ’60s, people started moving out to the suburbs. That was the trend: to get out of the cities and move to the suburbs. So as people moved, out it became a ghost town down here.”
After years of failing businesses and a poor reputation, Old Town became home to a group of artists in the 1970s and early 1980s that saw the area’s potential and began the revival. “They were like our Old Town pioneers,” Schriner-Hooper said. “They started buying up buildings and rehabbing buildings and they put in a couple of art galleries. They decided to give the impression that all kinds of things were happening even though they weren’t necessarily going on. They started putting on festivals. And those festivals gave at least the perception that all this cool stuff was going on. After having those first few festivals, then really cool stuff did start going on.”
Although the festivals seemed to bring in the occasional crowd, the community decided it wasn’t enough to continue the rehabilitation of the area on the scale necessary to make it a thriving community. They took it to the next step by forming the Old Town Business and Art Development Association (OTBADA). Making the area a National Mainstreet Program required the area to meet many new guidelines. “The people from OTBADA decided that was too much for them and they decided they just wanted to keep going with their volunteer stuff, so they created the Old Town Commercial Association,” Schriner-Hooper said.
“So that’s where we came from. We picked up from there. We do the more formal things. We work with the city. Over the course of the last 10 years, things have really stepped up. Even in the past two years things have picked up even more. We had Old Town designated as a Michigan Main Street Program and a Cool City under Governor Granholm’s Cool Cities initiative.”
It has been Schriner-Hooper who has taken the past two years to keep the community on track and thriving. The business-owners in the area praise her and her determination to save Old Town. “OTCA has gone through a lot of changes in just who’s running, as well as because it is a non-profit and it’s run by a board,” Ozburn said. “It’s very reflective of the people that are on the board as well as who they hire as a director. Since Jamie Schriner-Hooper has been there, she’s done great. No one has even come close to doing what she has done in a short amount of time. She’s spectacular. I mean, she’s like Lansing’s next mayor. She’s doing this because she loves it.”
Things are Looking Up for Lansing’s Original Downtown
Certainly Schriner-Hooper has had a major impact on the area because buildings are being redone and remodeled everyday. New businesses open all the time and the community continues to grow and change. “In September we did a ribbon-cutting for eight new businesses and we’re planning one in March,” Schriner-Hooper said. “We had about a half-dozen business that either have opened in the past two months or will be opening in the next couple of months. We now have larger organizations coming down here. The governor’s council and physical fitness is coming down here and they\’re all about creating walkable and bikable communities. We have a new photography studio going in and we just had a new women’s clothing boutique open up, and we had a furniture store open up. We have a graphic design company going in a building on the river. Things are just popping up all over.”
Not only is Old Town a thriving area for small businesses and organizations, but above almost every building, new modern loft-style apartments are available. They are the perfect space for people who don’t mind paying a little extra to have their own room. “[The lofts] are really cool. They have about a 16- or 17-foot ceiling, exposed brick walls and original advertising murals on the walls and then hard wood floors, and people love living in an urban environment,” Schriner-Hooper said.
The area no longer has the reputation it once had of a harsh high-crime area in the center of Lansing. Now the streets are alive with trees and brand-new storefronts and customers shopping in the boutiques. “It’s very safe down here,” Kodeski said. “It’s a great community. Everyone knows each other. Everyone knows my kids. So that’s why I’m down here.”
The friendships the businesses and residents build by being a part of the OTCA is very strong. “It’s hard to almost explain,” Ozburn said. “You’re in a city, but you feel like you’re in a small town. We’re sort of hokey in that respect. We have town meetings once a month. But it’s great, you break bread with your neighbors, and I love Old Town. It’s run down to a certain level, but it has heart. I guess it’s like when you look at an old house and you see what it’s going to look like eventually. It has love toward it. That to me, is what Old Town is about.”
The Big Green staff sends our deepest condolences to the family and friends of Robert Busby, a key player in the Old Town revival. He will be missed.