Happy hibernation, SnowBuddy! Spring has sprung, and the volunteer-run sidewalk snowplow is sleeping away the warm weather in a garage on Cherry St.
Welcome, Water Hill Music Festival! On Sunday, May 3 (see Events), residents of the northwest-side Ann Arbor neighborhood will enjoy–or star in–seventy or so open-air concerts on front porches, lawns, and driveways. “The only requirement” to appear, says Paul Tinkerhess–who conceived of both SnowBuddy and Water Hill–“is that they live in the neighborhood.”
As usual, Paul, his wife, Claire, and friends will perform on the Tinkerhesses’ front porch on Miner St. (Paul plays banjo and guitar, Claire sings.) The rest of the day, the couple will enjoy other performances, and troubleshoot as needed. Though the festival attracts thousands of visitors, it’s organized entirely by volunteers, led by the Tinkerhesses, who fit it in around their work as owners of Fourth Ave. Birkenstock. Yet a few weeks before the festival, Paul seems completely relaxed. Perhaps he learned calm as a child in Des Moines picketing with his large family, protesting racial discrimination and the Vietnam War. Their local protests evolved into something larger when an older brother and sister, wearing black armbands to school, found themselves part of a legal battle that resulted in a historic Supreme Court ruling.
Paul’s father was a Methodist minister, and Paul recalls the family singing “We Shall Overcome” while picketing the federal building there. He says the music reinforced his sense of belonging to a community that was doing something important. Bringing his neighborhood closer is one reason he thought up the Water Hill festival. Another reason: “We have a lot of musical talent in this neighborhood.” Water Hill’s roster (online at waterhill.org) includes both professionals–Dick Siegel, the Chenille Sisters, Jazzistry’s Vincent York, pianist Waleed Howrani–and inspired amateurs like the Career Criminals, whose repertoire includes murder ballads; the Fumbling Tumbleweeds, who dress in cowboy clothes and specialize in western swing; and ten-year-old violinist Alex Cantu, who plays tunes from the Great American Songbook.
“It’s an event of shared music,” Claire says. Paul adds that he sees the visitors as “our invited guests.” Determined to keep it local, he insists the event not be promoted outside Ann Arbor.
Paul came up with the name “Water Hill” for the neighborhood bordered by Miller, Brooks, Sunset and the Ann Arbor Railroad. He says he was inspired partly by the neighborhood’s proximity to the city’s water treatment plant and partly by its watery street names: Fountain, Spring, and Brooks. Though its namesake festival is just four years old, it’s already so deeply rooted in the local landscape that last year, as an April Fool’s joke, radio station WEMU issued a mock press release announcing that banjo playing would be banned, eliciting mock dismay by Paul.
Paul, fifty-seven, and Claire, fifty-five, call their house the “Miner Miracle,” a reference to its dramatic move from Ashley twenty-three years ago. (The harrowing daylong trek was their neighbors’ first inkling that the Tinkerhess family might make interesting neighbors.) The living room is mellow and comfortable, with a Persian rug on the hardwood floor, a floral couch, a beat-up bronze bucket that belonged to Claire’s grandfather, and photos of the couple’s three grown sons. The case holding Paul’s banjo (autographed by folkie great Pete Seeger) rests in a corner.
Claire wears her light brown hair going gray to her shoulders; Paul’s hair, which waves over his broad forehead, is also age tinged. Both have easy smiles and sport casual, vividly colored clothes–and, of course, Birkenstocks. While raising the boys, Claire worked part-time at the store; today, she’s there as much as Paul. With a master’s degree in conflict resolution, she also does contract work with the post office, helping resolve workplace tensions.
There’s no visible reminder in the room of the Supreme Court case that put Paul’s family in the history books. In 1965, when Paul was eight, he and three older siblings–Hope, eleven, Mary Beth, thirteen, and John, fifteen–wore black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. John, Mary Beth, and sixteen-year-old Christopher Eckhardt, who joined the symbolic protest, were suspended.
The ACLU helped the teens file a First Amendment lawsuit against the Des Moines school district. Although two lower courts sided with the schools, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal. Paul recalls his excitement when, in the fall of 1968, the family went to Washington to hear the case argued.
The justices voted, seven to two, in favor of the teenagers. “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” wrote justice Abe Fortas. Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District is regarded as one of the court’s major decisions in the twentieth century, referred to particularly when questions of students’ rights come up.
Despite their elation, the Tinker family paid a price for their defiance. “We had numerous death threats,” recalls Paul, remembering, in particular, a day when Mary Beth was warned she would be killed if she went to school (she went anyway). Their father once took the children to the basement and pointed out a hiding place, in case their house was attacked. But “I don’t remember a feeling of fear,” Paul says. His parents, he explains, imbued in their children a sense that the protests were “our work … People were getting killed on both sides [in Vietnam]. We wanted to stop it.”
Eventually, his father, although still a Methodist minister, took a job working for the American Friends Service Committee–and the entire family began attending Quaker services. All the Tinker children, as adults, remained, to varying degrees, social activists; when Paul’s sister Bonnie died in a biking accident in 2009, the women’s shelter she had helped establish in Portland was renamed after her.
Paul Tinker attended the Quaker-affiliated Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, where he met Claire Hess. “He was bagging figs at the co-op, and he gave me a fig to taste,” she recalls. Each was intrigued that the other was also the child of a Methodist minister. They later transferred to Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington, drawn by its freewheeling curriculum. When they married in a Quaker ceremony in 1982 they combined their names.
The same year, they moved to East Lansing to do peace education work with Michigan State’s ecumenical campus ministry. They visited Ann Arbor and fell in love with the city, drawn to what Paul describes as a “critical mass” of people who shared their social concerns. They moved here in 1985.
Both were fans of Birkenstocks, the sturdy German sandals, so Claire took a job at Footprints, then the city’s only Birkenstock store. After trying a venture making and selling wooden toys, Paul joined her there. Then, in 1989, with two young sons, the couple decided to roll the dice and opened their own store.
Fourth Ave. Birkenstock, across the street from the People’s Food Co-op, did well, and they later expanded to sell high-quality mattresses, too. (“We may be the only shoe and mattress store in the country,” says Paul.) Their newest addition is clothing; Claire recently returned from a dress-buying expedition out west.
In his college years, Paul tried briefly to break into the folk music scene in New York, but says, “I came twenty years too late.” Though it’s not glamorous, the couple’s livelihood suits them. Paul remarks wryly that it’s “humbling” to bend down each day and help customers on and off with their shoes.
Running a small store is never easy, and the Internet has added to the challenge. People sometimes come in, camera phones in hand, to look at shoes in the store, then buy online. The Tinkerhesses tell the calculating customers that the store is not a franchise, is locally owned, and plows the money earned back into the community. Some, abashed, stop bargain hunting and buy there.
Both Tinkerhesses acknowledge that working together can have its tense moments. But the family business also builds customer loyalty, reflected in the store’s chatty Facebook page. One post: “How fun to hear from our friend, Summer, 10 months into her Peace Corps assignment in Zambia, that she’s adapting well to no water or electricity and that the sandals Paul re-soled for her are holding up fine.”
The success of Water Hill helped convince neighbors to gamble with the more expensive venture of SnowBuddy (though Claire, feeling she had enough stress, chose not to participate). The group quickly organized as a nonprofit and raised $20,000 to buy a $42,000 plow that volunteers use to clear neighborhood sidewalks (they’re paying off the balance over four years).
Paul hopes that the much publicized initiative will encourage the city to provide sidewalk snow plowing in all neighborhoods. “Like with the Music Fest, it’s a project that gives people the opportunity to be generous with one another,” he says. One SnowBuddy driver’s devotion is such, he says, that his wife told their puzzled daughter, “Daddy has found his church.”
Problems arose during SnowBuddy’s first winter–the plow needed repairs, there was a shortage of drivers, and there were disagreements over when to start plowing–but director of operations Jeff Ogden says Paul’s diplomacy and determination kept the project together. “He’s got a contagious enthusiasm … I don’t believe any of this could have happened without him.”
Paul and Claire were delighted recently when their second son, Martin, a medical student at Wayne State, announced his engagement. Their oldest, Miller, works in computer game design near Seattle; Eric is studying cello at the Paris Conservatory.
Their empty-nester parents, meanwhile, are getting ready for their festival performance. “Every year we try to learn a new song,” says Claire. The two also are thinking of performing a small play in their store, based on their “meaningful, funny, and poignant” interactions with their customers, some who’ve become friends and confidants. They’ve never done a play, but, points out Claire, “lack of experience has never stopped us.”
The Water Hill Boom
“Water Hill! Need I say more?” begins an ad for a two-bedroom house on Miner St., asking price $229,000. “With the 5th annual Water Hill Music Fest coming up, use of a Snow Buddy, The Big City Bakery … what more could you ask for?”
The neighborhood Paul Tinkerhess impishly christened “Water Hill” is undergoing what resident Jacqui Hinchey calls its “regentrification.” Says Realtor Alex Milshteyn, “We are at a point where Water Hill is getting the highest price it’s ever gotten, even before the recession.”
Until the mid-1960s, it was almost impossible for black Ann Arborites to buy homes west of Brooks St. The neighborhood to the east, now Water Hill, was racially mixed and largely working class. After the passage of city and federal open housing laws, black families began moving out and middle-class whites moved in, drawn by affordable prices, an eclectic housing stock, big backyards, and proximity to downtown.
“It’s the new Old West Side,” says veteran Realtor Ed Surovell. While the catchy name alone didn’t make Water Hill hot, it did raise its profile elsewhere in the city. Says resident Jeff Ogden, “It certainly gave the neighborhood an identity.”
Not all residents enjoy the attention. “The glare is too much on it,” says Hinchey, who worries that Water Hill’s trendiness will increase rents. “Some of us are wondering if people like us can afford to move here” in the future, says retired teacher Lisa Lava-Kellar.
But like many residents, Lava-Kellar is enjoying the fruit of Paul and Claire Tinkerhess’s labor: come May 3 she’ll set up her electronic keyboard on her porch and perform as a member of a once-a-year trio, Front Porch Swing.