More than Rust: The Story of Ypsilanti

Tuesday, April 5, 2016 - 9:35pm

Shops on Cross St. are shown in the popular area of Ypsilanti known as Depot Town. Depot Town has now assumed the role of the popular downtown destination

Shops on Cross St. are shown in the popular area of Ypsilanti known as Depot Town. Depot Town has now assumed the role of the popular downtown destination Buy this photo
Zoey Holmstrom/ Daily

About a month ago, my friend Derek stopped by my apartment for the first time in our more than three-year relationship. I had slept on the tiny couch in Derek’s Ann Arbor living room several times, yet last month was the first time he had ever seen my front door. I gave him a quick tour of my apartment and then took him on a walk through the city.

Derek studied the beautifully restored historical buildings and the diverse groups of people milling about the streets near the railroad tracks. Neatly displayed business fronts greeted us with cheery windows and welcoming signs.

“I didn’t realize Ypsi was so big,” he said as we passed Depot Town, heading south on River Street toward Michigan Avenue.

I launched into the story of Ypsilanti’s two main commercial districts, separated by the Huron River, as we came closer to Michigan Ave.

“Depot Town is definitely the more hipstery district,” I said, pointing out how nearly every building is occupied by a local business. “There’s a lot of unique business models that cater to the local clientele. But it also seems a little more white and gentrified than the rest of the city.”

While many local businesses, City Hall and the Ypsilanti library call Michigan Avenue their home, Derek immediately detected the difference between the two downtowns. There are vacant buildings, an empty field and several franchised businesses, all of which are absent in Depot Town. 

We finished our tour, passing the notorious adult entertainment club Deja Vu, and headed back to my apartment near Depot Town.

“So, that’s basically it,” I concluded. “Obviously, there are residential areas and businesses located on the outskirts of the city, but we pretty much saw everything within walking distance.”

Heading toward his car, Derek replied, “Ypsi seems pretty cool.”

In the almost three years that I have lived here, only a handful of my Ann Arbor friends have witnessed Ypsilanti as I see it every day. There are many reasons: Ann Arbor is a bigger city that has a lot to offer; you have to commute to Ypsilanti and traffic is nearly always a hassle; I already spend a lot of my time in Ann Arbor with work and school; everybody else lives in Ann Arbor.

But sometimes I wonder if it’s the perception of Ann Arbor as better than Ypsilanti that deters my friends from visiting.

A banner near Michigan Ave. reads, “Ypsi Real.” This is a recent branding movement started to connect businesses, people and government in the city.

A banner near Michigan Ave. reads, “Ypsi Real.” This is a recent branding movement started to connect businesses, people and government in the city. Buy this photo
Zoey Holmstrom/ Daily

University students in Ypsilanti

According to University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald, 599 students currently list an Ypsilanti zip code as either their permanent or local address. Of those nearly 600 addresses, only 196 are undergraduate students. For many, cost is a motivating factor for the move to Ypsilanti.

One of those students is Chris James, an LSA senior and the Mass Communications chair for the Black Student Union. James lived in Ypsilanti for two years during his undergraduate career. Motivated by the affordable housing options, he felt comfortable moving to Ypsilanti after spending his first two years in the dorms.

“I had no perceptions,” James wrote in an e-mail interview about his feelings prior to the move. “I figured it was a regular city with more people who look like me.”

James, a Black student from Flint, wrote that he was not worried about the negative stereotypes that often depict Ypsilanti as “the hood” or “the ghetto.”

It was nowhere near what I had come from and, in fact, it was a very nice place to stay,” James continued. “I actually enjoyed staying out there more than I enjoyed living on (the University’s) campus at times.”

LSA junior Hannah Klemkow also lived in Ypsilanti last summer while commuting to Ann Arbor for work. Klemkow, a Flint native as well, enjoyed the four brief months she spent in the city. Similar to James, she missed the city after returning to Ann Arbor.

“After I moved back to Ann Arbor, I actually missed living in Ypsi often,” Klemkow wrote in an e-mail interview. “It is smaller so there is a bit of a small town comfort in the downtown area. I also kind of missed being able to be a part of both the Ann Arbor and the Ypsi community (sic).”

Miranda Ojeda, a 2015 alum, lived in Ypsilanti during her junior year of college. She echoed the nostalgia for Ypsilanti after moving away from the city.

“When I moved back to campus my senior year, I would always say I missed living in Ypsilanti and wish I would’ve stayed another year,” Ojeda said. “But everyone was against living off campus and in Ypsi.”

Celina Flegal, a 2015 LSA alum, lived in Ypsilanti during all four years of college with her now-husband who attended Eastern Michigan University. Before moving there, Flegal had only visited Ypsilanti a couple times. The first time she drove down Huron River Drive — a road that passes Interstate 94 and runs parallel to the railroad tracks — Flegal wrote in an email interview that she thought to herself, “This looks pretty run-down.”

But after passing into the residential area behind EMU and witnessing more of the city, Flegal was struck by the beauty of the landscape.

“After living there for four years, I still think Ypsilanti is a great city,” she wrote. “It has its problems like any other, but there are really beautiful parts of it that make it a great place to live, especially if you are a student.”

However, though there are less than ten miles between the two cities, many of the University student also mentioned the struggles of commuting from Ypsilanti.

“The biggest challenge was without a doubt the traffic, which was a lot worse than I expected,” wrote Alejandro Zuniga Sacks, a 2015 LSA alum and former Michigan Daily sports editor, who lived in Ypsilanti for almost a year after graduating.

“Finding a parking spot in Ann Arbor has become one of the most challenging things ever,” James confirmed. “I’m not sure why the city insists on such lack of parking near the University but that was another game that needed to be played.”

Flegal noted the commute often created problems in social situations:

I also didn’t have the luxury of just inviting my friends over to hang out or study together,” she wrote. “They never really wanted to take the hour bus ride to my apartment, so most of the time I would have to plan to see them while I was on campus.”

Ojeda agreed that maintaining friendships required more work while living in Ypsilanti.

“Since all my friends lived in Ann Arbor, I would always have to drive to see them,” she said.

A Historical City

Crookedly winding down the southeastern portion of Michigan’s lower peninsula, the Huron River irrevocably altered the trajectory of human populations in the state. In the 18th century, Native Americans established a trail that crossed the river in the area that is now Ypsilanti. The intersecting area between the trail and river was used as a camping ground, a burial site and a trading post by several different tribes.

When Europeans finally made their way to Michigan, they immediately took advantage of the Huron River and existing Native American trails. In 1809, three French explorers became the first white settlers in Washtenaw County after building a trading post, known as “Godfroy’s on the Pottawatomi Trail,” on the river’s west bank. Less than two decades later, early frontiersman Major Benjamin Woodruff and a handful of his companions founded the first village, Woodruff’s Grove, in Washtenaw County.

By 1825, three prominent settlers — Judge Augustus Woodward, John Stewart and William Harwood — combined their land to create a town near where a federally planned road from Detroit to Chicago was set to cross the Huron River. Woodward suggested they name the new settlement “Ypsilanti” after the heroic Demetrius Ypsilanti, an early 19th century field general in the Greek army. The remaining residents of Woodruff’s Grove eventually abandoned their original settlement, moving about a mile north to the prospering Ypsilanti.  

10 years later, Chicago Road (now known as Michigan Ave) was completed, propelling the creation of new settlements like Ypsilanti along its route. In 1838, a railroad expanding west from Detroit reached Ypsilanti, further contributing to the influx of people in the area. After two decades, a brick masonry station replaced the original wood-frame railroad depot on the east side of Huron River.

With accessible transportation and the initial inklings of industry, Depot Town became the first commercial district in Ypsilanti. Soon after, a second commercial district emerged on the west side of the river along the newly opened Chicago Road. Several mills were constructed during the last few decades of the 18th century with many used for manufacturing goods such as “The Union Suit” and the tightly-knit “Ypsilanti Underwear.”

In its initial phase, the Ypsilanti government stressed the importance of education. Twenty years after the city’s formation, its first seminary school was established. The Michigan State Normal School, a teacher-preparatory school, was created a mere four years later, becoming the first normal school in the United States outside of the original 13 colonies. In 1899, the normal school located in Ypsilanti became the first school to offer a four-year curriculum in teacher training. The school was then renamed the Michigan State Normal College.

In 1959, the college was once again renamed, officially becoming Eastern Michigan University. Enrollment at EMU peaked in the 1990s with over 25,000 students. Currently, the school is governed by an eight-member Board of Regents which are appointed for eight-year terms by the governor of Michigan. As a public university, EMU is not required to pay land taxes to Ypsilanti’s city government.

As industrialization increased nationwide, Ypsilanti’s economy also expanded. In 1941, Ford Motor Company built an automotive plant in Ypsilanti Charter Township’s Willow Run neighborhood. The plant was rapidly converted to an assembly line for B-24 bombers when the United States entered World War II. About 100,000 employees worked at the Willow Run Bomber Plant, producing a B-24 bomber every 55 minutes.

After the end of the war, the Willow Run Bomber Plant was bought by the independent automaker company Kaiser-Frazer and converted back to an automotive plant. In 1953, General Motors purchased the plant for the production of engine transmissions. During the 1970s, the GM plant employed some 14,000 people.

In part due to the presence of automotive and manufacturing businesses, Ypsilanti gained thousands of new residents. The Great Migration — the movement of 6 million Black families from the South to urban areas throughout the nation which occurred in waves over 60 years  — helped fill many industrial jobs and contributed to Ypsilanti’s growing population.

Other impoverished populations, including European immigrants and white families in the rural South, also moved to places such as Ypsilanti in search of a better life. Rose Will Monroe — one of the women who appeared in wartime propaganda videos and was closely associated with the iconic “Rosie the Riveter” — escaped rural poverty in the South through employment at the city's Willow Run plant during World War II.

The influx of people to Ypsilanti continued until it reached its highest population in the 1970 census: 29,538 residents.

However, the construction of interstate roads and the initial decline of industry had already begun to change the city’s trajectory. In 1941, the Willow Run Expressway was built near Ypsilanti and Belleville, becoming the first section of I-94 to be constructed in Michigan. By 1960, road workers had completed the construction of I-94 in Michigan. Before the interstate, cars were required to use Michigan Avenue — the old Chicago Road — and travel through downtown Ypsilanti when going east or west in southern Michigan. Now, they could skip the town entirely due to the interstate construction of the expressway.

For decades after, many Ypsilanti residents continued to ride the industrial wave, working in manufacturing jobs across the city. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration passed the North American Free Trade Agreement, the first international trade agreement after the Israeli Free Trade Agreement in 1985. In the next 13 years, the United States agreed to nine more free trade agreements. Rapidly, employers began moving jobs to other countries where manufacturing and employee costs were much cheaper.

Near the end of 2007, the housing bubble collapsed and the Great Recession hit the United States, drastically impacting industrial areas, including Ypsilanti. GM declared bankruptcy in 2009. One year later, the Willow Run plant occupied by GM for more than 60 years closed its doors for good.

According to the 2014-2016 Economic Outlook report, Ypsilanti’s economy was hit the hardest in Washtenaw County by the recession. From 2010 to 2012, housing values decreased, poverty rates increased, and population-to-employment levels were the worst in the county. Since 2001, Ypsilanti has lost over 13,000 manufacturing jobs.

To describe areas that have been negatively affected by deindustrialization, the term “Rust Belt” began appearing in the 1980s. The Rust Belt loosely encompasses the area from the upper Northeast to the Midwest in the United States. The Cleveland Community for Arts and Culture characterizes the Rust Belt as areas suffering from population loss, urban sprawl, high concentrations of poverty, an unstable housing market, troubles with brownfields, vacant properties and stigmatization — all traits that can be applied to Ypsilanti.

But the Rust Belt definition also highlights many of Ypsilanti’s strengths: low living costs, abundant space for development, active community involvement and redevelopment and a high-quality arts and culture sector.

Today, Ypsilanti is home to about 20,000 people and several new local businesses. The Riverside Arts Center has become increasingly involved in the community. The city government is taking steps to decrease debt, including the controversial Water Street debt — the 2003 purchase of 38 acres on Michigan Avenue meant for mixed development that has stalled due to its brownfield status, or a former industrial site where environmental contamination affects future use of the land.

After years of decline, the Ypsilanti economy seems to be on the mend.  

A stigmatized city

In a conversation about affordable housing last year, Susan Pollay, executive director of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, said, “If Ann Arbor is perceived as Manhattan, Ypsi is Brooklyn.”

The comparison to Manhattan and Brooklyn isn’t novel. With increasing gentrification in Ann Arbor, many residents are moving outside the city. Often this includes struggling artists and musicians who cannot afford the high rent prices in Ann Arbor.

But like Brooklyn, stereotypes of Ypsilanti are often negative.

A building is shown near Michigan Ave. in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Many of the buildings near this once iconic street face structural issues such as deterioration.

A building is shown near Michigan Ave. in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Many of the buildings near this once iconic street face structural issues such as deterioration. Buy this photo
Zoey Holmstrom/ Daily

Amanda Edmonds, the current Ypsilanti mayor and a University alum, thinks that stigmas are created by a combination of things. Edmonds said many stigmas and stereotypes are founded in societally ingrained structures of race and class.

The blue-collar, the working-class town versus the kind of educated elite,” Edmonds said. “Those are dichotomies you see in other places as well.”  

Ignorance can also play a role in perpetuating and continuing stereotypes. Edmonds mentioned that people are sometimes afraid when they are faced with unfamiliarities. This fear contributes to the negative narrative that is then perpetuated from person-to-person and in the media which she cited as the real challenge.

“I hear people with perceptions of Ypsi that are just so, so unfounded,” she said, emphasizing the lack of information present in stigma.

Many city residents also perceive the media as playing a negative role in the portrayal of Ypsilanti. In a conversation about their experiences living in the city, Paul and Susan Metler described how Ypsilanti has transitioned through the years and how the media has played a role in perpetuating a negative narrative.

Aside from the year she lived in Toledo, Ohio after first marrying Paul, Susan has lived in Ypsilanti for her entire life. She grew up on River Street with five older siblings, a stay-at-home mother and a father who was a medic during World War II and then eventually an automotive worker for General Motors at the old Willow Run Bomber Plant. Susan said it was an era where some people thought Ypsilanti couldn’t get any better.

While today Depot Town is considered the “nicer” downtown, during Paul and Susan’s high school experiences, it was considered the more decrepit.

“Ypsi has definitely changed,” Susan said. “The Depot Town, this area has completely flip-flopped because this area used to be really dark and seedy. There was definitely hobos that hopped the trains, rode the rails.”

Yet despite running into hecklers near the train station, Susan never felt afraid of her hometown.

Paul, who moved in and out of Ypsilanti during his childhood, attributes much of the negative stigma to the media’s representation of the city.

“The Ann Arbor News would always report on the crime in Ypsi and never report on the crime in Ann Arbor,” Paul said

To counter media biases, Edmonds said she tries to push positivity throughout the city. She noted that because of its much smaller size, crime in Ypsilanti is (to a degree) much more easily front-page news. Edmonds said that sending press releases about positive things happening in Ypsilanti has the potential to help counter the negative narrative currently in place. Hand-feeding the media information about the good things in Ypsilanti she said puts the city in a position for more positive coverage.

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Illustration by Emilie Farrugia.

Current issues

Though crime is a major theme when Ypsilanti makes the front-page news, very few news outlets actually report exactly what happens in the city because of its geographic location. Many residents complain of an over-representation of crime in Ypsilanti, though some homicides don’t even make an appearance in the media.

Several reasons have been proposed over the years as to why such crimes are more prevalent in the city to Ann Arbor’s east. For one, large volumes of Section 8 housing are owned by out of state corporations who aren't committed to the safety of their units. Engineered poverty contributes to an increase in drugs, gangs and guns. Subsequently, the city attracts people from surrounding areas for the purchase of drugs and other illegal activities.

As well, while Ann Arbor has a surplus budget because of its large tax base, the Ypsilanti Police Department suffers from limited finances and a small staff. The Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office and Eastern Michigan University police are contracted by the YPD in an agreement called the Eastern Washtenaw Safety Alliance to help patrol the Ypsilanti community. But because they are overwhelmed with calls, officers are not able to adequately patrol high-crime areas.

Former Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje attributes much of Ypsilanti’s current problems to the decline of the automotive industry and the loss of manufacturing jobs in the area.

“If we go back to the '60s and '70s — really before the major demise of the automotive industry — Ypsilanti was a different city,” Hieftje said. “They still had their tax base, which had been, like a lot of Michigan cities, developed around industry. Ann Arbor’s was less industrial. And the University was bigger and got more research dollars, things like that, so the city held up better. But Ypsilanti had a lot of its eggs in one basket, so when the automotive industry began to downsize that was obviously not good for Ypsilanti.” 

Hieftje noted that several projects — such as Reimagining Washtenaw a project headed by a group of elected officials and staff members working to make Washtenaw Avenue friendlier and Transit Oriented Developed, or TOD — have the potential to help reinvigorate the city.

“You have a residential place that is connected to a work center,” Hieftje explained. “People want to move to that residential place because they can just walk to the station.”

A bridge is shown over the Huron River where people first settled when they came to Ypsilanti. The river divides Cross St. and Michigan Ave., separating the city’s two commercial districts.

A bridge is shown over the Huron River where people first settled when they came to Ypsilanti. The river divides Cross St. and Michigan Ave., separating the city’s two commercial districts. Buy this photo
Zoey Holmstrom/ Daily

Beth Barron Ernat, the current Community and Economic director for Ypsilanti, said that the city is actively working to combat budgetary issues and to ensure affordable housing in the area. However, with 40 percent of the city owned by tax-exempt properties such as EMU, the government is struggling to increase its tax base.

Currently, Ernat’s office is working on the Neighborhood Enterprise Zone project which aims to freeze taxes in the southside district of the city to support more renovations to homes in the area and improve the quality of the neighborhood. Ernat said keeping Ypsilanti affordable is the main purpose of projects that her office works on such as NEZ.

“We pride ourselves on being a more affordable community,” Ernat said. “We want to be available to everyone and in order to do that we need to sustain lower rents and higher quality of life.”

She noted that one of the main struggles the city must work through is providing people with employment and training opportunities to reenter the workforce after the loss of industry in the area.

Mayor Edmonds also admitted that attracting outside visitors is a constant struggle for Ypsilanti’s growing economy. She mentioned that getting people to cross Carpenter Road — a road near US-23 that runs perpendicular to Washtenaw Avenue and is often considered the divide between the two cities — is one of the biggest challenges Ypsilanti faces.

“Really it’s a matter of … just being willing to cross the line and try it out,” Edmonds said. “There doesn’t have to be a community conversation about it or anything.”

The return from rust

“Obviously, it’s not going to be cars and automotive," Paul and Susan responded when asked about the future of Ypsilanti.

While the manufacturing industry has returned to an extent in Michigan and beyond, many view its decline in industrial towns as irreparable. Now, Ypsilanti is focused on creative solutions that help contribute to growth in the economy.

“These are the types of things that Michigan communities that used to have strong auto-presence, auto-industry presence are all going through,” Hieftje said in response to the Rust Beltian narrative.

When walking through downtown Ypsilanti today, it’s evident the city is supportive of local businesses. After its decline in the mid-20th century, Depot Town rebounded, filling many of its vacant buildings with unique business models. In 2013, QVS’s “In the Kitchen with David” awarded Ypsilanti a Golden Spatula for its annual Favorite Foodie City Destination.

“That post-Rust Belt story has often been arts and reuse of old, what had been industrial, buildings into more creative use — not that industry isn’t creative — but more creative-class uses,” Edmonds said. “That’s happening in big cities and non-Rust Belt places as well, but it’s a nice niche because you have these facilities often that aren’t in a place any longer to have or attract someone who wants to fill a 750,000-square-foot former Ford plant.”

One newer example of this is Cultivate, a small shop located in an old automotive garage that sells coffee and beer six days of the week. Cultivate is a nonprofit businesses started by Bekah and Ryan Wallace and their friend Billy Kangas. All of the profits made through the sale of coffee and beer go toward helping end hunger. Though they pay taxes as part of an agreement with the city, Bekah emphasized their commitment to the Ypsilanti community and the nonprofit sector.

Kangas is an Ypsilanti native while Ryan and Bekah are from Grand Rapids. The Wallaces lived in Ann Arbor before moving to Ypsilanti last year. Originally, Cultivate was conceptualized as an Ann Arbor business, but opening in the larger city never quite worked out for the couple. Eventually, a friend suggested they look at buildings in Ypsilanti. Since the opening last September, Bekah has been pleasantly surprised by the city.

She talked about the vibrant music scene and community-driven atmosphere Cultivate is surrounded by. Bekah noted that while Ann Arbor is often considered the artsy, local-centric town, most of their customers come from Ypsilanti.

“I think now it’s probably like 80 percent people that live within three to five miles of here,” she said. “It’s mostly Ypsi, really loyal, really local folks that come in. I still don’t think that a lot of people in Ann Arbor know that we’re out here. They think it’s so far.”

Klemkow noted that while not everyone will enjoy Ypsilanti or should go out of their way to visit, a lot of people in Ann Arbor dismiss the city without evidentiary support.

“It’s a university town just like us here in Ann Arbor, and there’s lots of exciting things happening there. You can sort of dismiss it or you can support the good things happening there,” she wrote.

Zuniga Sacks reinforced Klemkow’s sentiment.

“I think there’s a big disconnect between the two. Ann Arbor residents — especially University students, it seems — don’t think there's anything to gain by visiting Ypsilanti,” he wrote. “And that’s understandable because Ann Arbor is fantastic, but that viewpoint really underestimates what Ypsilanti has to offer.”

“Comments usually varied, but I think for the most part they assumed every part of Ypsilanti was what you heard on the news,” Flegal added. “No one was ever really excited or thought that it was cool that I lived in Ypsilanti.”

Hieftje, a proponent of thinking about the bigger picture, believes that thinking of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti together as a region rather than separate towns might help decrease stigma and increase migration between the two cities. Increasing synergy between local police and fire departments helps both economies in the long run. Similarly, projects like emphasizing a commuter rail alongside an Amtrak station and increased bus routes has the potential to help the region as a whole.

“Putting the two places together as a region is good for Ann Arbor and it’s good for Ypsilanti,” Hieftje said.

James, one of the students who lived in Ypsilanti, agrees with Hieftje.

They’re definitely sister cities … they should be combined into one city,” James wrote. “A quick trip down Washtenaw (Avenue) is all it takes to go from one to another. They’re both college towns and have different tastes of student life to offer. One is no better than the other but they both contribute to a good experience.”

Regionalism aside, the future of Ypsilanti has many signs of hope. With an engaged mayor and a dedicated government, the city is working on tangible solutions to combat root issues in the community. Rebuilding the city’s public housing, bringing back the railroad, encouraging commercial growth and a multitude of other projects are all in the works for the city’s future.

“What’s great about that and what’s great about so many other things happening in Ypsi is there are Ypsi people making it happen,” Edmonds said.