"Let's make this place awesome." How a Jackson couple changed minds about their hometown.
When people think of Michigan, a handful of places come to mind. Big cities like Detroit and Grand Rapids, tourist destinations like Traverse City, the political hub of Lansing. And that’s with good reason — all of those cities are deservedly beloved by those who live there and those who visit.
But what about the places that are often overlooked? That town you drive past every time you go on vacation, for instance, or a city that you’ve never been to but could probably find on a map.
And what better way to learn more about those places than to have the people who live there show it off.
People like Clay McAndrews and Leslie Youngdahl of Jackson, Michigan.
When the couple first met, Youngdahl says, “I was, like, a firm Jackson advocate. All in, let’s make this place awesome.”
Jackson, once a major industrial hub, is largely known to outsiders as the home of the first state prison. Located south of Lansing and west of Ann Arbor, Jackson is seen by some who live there as a place that you can’t wait to leave.
But McAndrews and Youngdahl want to change that.
“You’re able to make a difference here that you may not be able to in other communities,” says Youngdahl.
We asked the couple to show us five of their favorite places in Jackson to see what makes the city special. Along the way, we ran into a lot of residents who are just as excited about Jackson as our hosts.
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Falling Waters Trail
On the edge of the city, you’ll find a dirt parking lot adjacent to a busy two-lane road. Near the treeline, there’s a rack full of bikes to rent and ride. Once you pay and hop on, Falling Waters Trail is just around the corner.
The trail covers an abandoned span of the Michigan Central Railway from Jackson to Concord. As such, it’s a smooth, fairly level path that’s perfect for cyclists at all levels.
It’s a good little trip, says Youngdahl. “Lots of scenic views on the ride: marshes, lakes, trees. All sorts of birds and other wildlife. Very relaxing and fun.”
A few hundred feet from the road, the trail rolls into a quiet wooded area. We see a couple other cyclists, and some people walking dogs, but the area is still very peaceful. McAndrews says that’s one reason the trail is so special.
“Sure, there’s some cities that have great bike trails; this is a unique spot because on our trail, you can actually ride between two different lakes and it’s almost like you’re riding on a bridge through these two lakes. It’s a fun spot, very secluded, and you get to see a lot of nature and wildlife. It’s a little hidden gem in Jackson, Michigan.”
Shorty's Kibby Cobb Deli
After our bike ride, we drive down the road to a small strip of stores. McAndrews and Youngdahl lead us into what looks like an average liquor store — from the outside. This is Kibby Cobb Liquor and Deli: part liquor store, part Polish deli.
In the back of the liquor store, cases holding freshly made bagels and desserts are sandwiched (pun intended) between stacked boxes of beer. Large chalkboard menus list “sando” options, including the Chicky Salad, PretzelMania, and Shorty’s Reuben.
Adam “Shorty” Cyrocki has owned the deli part of the store for nine years. It’s a true local business: bagels are made daily in house, as are the corned beef and turkey, while breads and other meats are from local shops around town.
A lot of the recipes were developed by Cyrocki’s family, and as such, Kibby Cobb has become famous for some Polish specialties, including their golumpkis. Cyrocki says they make about 900 of the cabbage rolls every other week, and many more at Christmas.
“That was my great-grandma’s recipe,” he explains. “And my dad did them for a long time. He did them for the churches, mostly Fatima, where we belong, and he showed me how to do them before he passed, maybe about ten years ago.”
As it gets closer to noon, we sit to eat our sandwiches while a line forms at the deli counter. A family post-soccer practice sits down next to us, and some people pick up larger orders to take back home. Youngdahl and McAndrews chat with many of the people who come in — Kibby Cobb is clearly a weekend hotspot.
Stephanie and David Flak biked the Falling Waters Trail from their house to Concord and back, and stopped in Kibby Cobb for a post-ride sandwich. Like McAndrews and Youngdahl, the Flaks are excited about living in Jackson, and plan to stick around.
“There’s such a big increase in things to do, especially things for people our age,” says Stephanie Flak. “There’s a lot of really cool people to hang out with, and it’s nice because you get to kind of make all of these nice friends and network, and it’s good.”
Ella Sharp Museum & House
A large park with soccer nets and scattered pieces of art borders our next destination: the Ella Sharp Museum of Art and History. What was once a humble local museum has grown into a fairly sizeable institution, with exhibits covering everything from Jackson history to local art to clocks, the historic Ella Sharp house, and even a planetarium.
The namesake of the museum, Ella Sharp, was a land-owning woman who lived in Jackson until her death in 1912. A community leader and advocate for forestry, Sharp left her estate to the city when she died, so it could be used for the public good.
Katie Gigliotti is the Director of Learning and Engagement at the museum.
“We’ve existed for over 50 years now,” she says. “We’re a truly multidisciplinary museum. We do art, history, and now science; we operate the planetarium. We have seven different gallery spaces where we showcase different artists — local artists, and upcoming artists. And then we’re also the depository for Jackson history. So a lot of great things happened here, and we celebrate that here at the museum.”
Gigliotti shows us around the museum. A vintage Marion car sits in one room, surrounded by various inventions that came out of Jackson, all underneath the phrase, “The world takes what Jackson makes.”
The art exhibit, Side Quests, is by Ohio artist Timothy Gaewsky. Each piece is a different landscape painted in the style of 80s video games, making the room bright and colorful. The other permanent exhibit, Never Enough Time, can be heard from the next room, because it’s a collection of clocks — grandfather, cuckoo, and more.
After seeing the museum, we head to Ella Sharp’s house: a beautiful 19th century farmhouse that has been maintained and staged to fit the period. Unlike some historic homes, you can wander freely through every part of the farmhouse. The original wood floors creak as we walk along, and room after room reveals amazing antique furniture, drapery, and art.
Clay McAndrews tells a ghost story, and jokes the house is haunted.
“Maybe haunted, maybe not…” he says.
“Everyone will just have to come see for themselves!” adds Leslie Youngdahl.
Jackson has a lot of festivals: a Juneteenth celebration, the Art, Beer, and Wine Festival, a hot air balloon festival, and monthly vintage car shows.
But the newest festival to hit Jackson was actually started by McAndrews and Youngdahl themselves: Bright Walls is a mural festival the couple started in 2018.
“It has been a passion project for Clay and me for a long time, probably the entirety of our relationship,” says Youngdahl. “We would travel around to different cities and purposefully take photos in front of painted murals. And Clay proposed to me in front of a mural in Boston that said ‘Love’ really big.”
The creator of that Boston mural, Cey Adams, was one of the many big names in street art who ended up painting original work for Bright Walls. In all, 14 artists from around the world participated in the 2018 festival, and 15 are set to attend the 2019 festival.
The murals cover the walls of businesses within a small area downtown, making it easy to walk around and see each one. The styles and colors vary greatly, but they all have something in common: they are great backgrounds for photos.
As McAndrews and Youngdahl show us around, we spot a family taking pictures of their young kids in front of giant flowers painted by the Detroit artist Ouizi, some tourists stopping in front of a Dutch artist’s giant pigeon, and a teenage couple dressed up for prom pose in front of a steampunk wolverine by a Brazilian artist.
Getting Bright Walls off the ground was an ambitious challenge, says McAndrews.
“We initially had to get the city’s buy-in. We were very strategic. We got the businesses on board with it, and we had artists on board. We put together a whole pitch proposal together, went in front of the city manager and city directors and said, ‘We want to host this mural festival in Jackson. What do you think?’ And they liked it; it was great.”
Business owners like George Webster were excited to participate. He’s owned the downtown bike shop since 1983, and says he was really excited when McAndrews approached him about Bright Walls. Now, he sees people visiting the murals daily.
“We see them every day. I swear, every day. And I do the same thing, ‘Which one’s your favorite?’ And they’re from everywhere! It’s amazing.”
And which mural is Webster's favorite? The one on his shop, of course.
“It’s the best one. Don’t you think? That bird’s cool.”
Grand River Brewery
Our final stop of the day was a massive building that also happened to feature two of the Bright Walls murals. The 85-year old building has evolved over the years from a bus repair garage to an indoor farmers market to a mini mall and Secretary of State office.
Now, it’s home to the Grand River Brewery. Founder and owner John Burtka says after the state left the building, the rest of the shops quickly didn’t have enough sustainable business. So from the late 80s until the brewery opened in 2013, the building just stood abandoned.
“It looked totally different than this.” Burtka gestures to the large windows. “Had no windows. The outside was covered in billboards. So we bought it and renovated the outside, and then we totally put new floors, new windows, new interior, new everything. Furnace, electrical; we just totally rebuilt the building.”
Grand River has become a Jackson staple — for good reason, according to Youngdahl and McAndrews.
“They have good food, and good craft beer,” says Youngdahl. “They make their own vodka, and rum. There are many options to keep your palate satisfied.”
The food isn’t your typical burger and fries bar food. Burtka brings out samples of reuben fritters, poutine, schnitzel, and wood-fired pizza.
The brewery and restaurant calls itself “farm-to-table, grain-to-glass.” Burtka says that means they use as many local ingredients as possible, from hops to fish to eggs.
“There’s a lot of different things we do to try and stay local,” he says. “We really try to support all of the events that go on in Jackson. We’re really proud to be a part of the catalyst for Jackson’s rebirth.”
That rebirth goes beyond restaurants and bars. Burtka explains that new roads and grocery stores are crucial investments that will hopefully bring people downtown.
"The goal is for everybody to say, ‘We’re going to downtown Jackson.’ And people say, ‘Well, where’re you going?’ And the ideal answer is, ‘I don’t know! We’ll figure it out when we get there,’” says Burtka.
In the meantime, Grand River Brewery is the place to be in downtown Jackson.
“Grand River Brewery is a destination downtown for people who are looking for good cuisine,” says McAndrews. “It’s great because you can come down here, typically, and run into someone you know.”
Which, as we’re about to leave the restaurant, is exactly what happens. Youngdahl and McAndrews’ neighbors Matt Curfman and Jason Cure sit down at a table nearby and stop to chat.
The couple both grew up in Jackson, and Curfman says he’s happy that they chose to stay.
“Jackson has been really good to me. I believe that the community that raised you up, if you can give back to it, rather than people just leaving because they think the grass is greener somewhere else,” he says.
They say it’s important for people to change their minds about Jackson — to stop complaining about what the city lacks, and instead find the good, or make the changes they wish to see.
That’s certainly the mindset shared by McAndrews, Youngdahl, and many of the people living in Jackson. And if the city continues down the direction it’s headed, some day maybe no one will be looking to leave.
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