Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A Bit of Ypsilanti History

Ypsilanti, Michigan is a unique place with a rich history that many residents overlook. Prior to World War II, Michigan State Normal School had a quiet, pastoral college campus nestled on the northwest edge of Ypsilanti, surrounded by hundreds of acres of prime farm land and fruit orchards. What was to become Eastern Michigan University was bordered on the north by the Huron River.

Whether as a normal school, a college, or a university,  Eastern Michigan has always drawn most of its student body from around the state of Michigan. Eastern's original mission was as a teachers college, but by the nineteen sixties, it became a full-fledged university broadening its scope by offering masters programs in a wide variety of academic areas such as science, business and technology.

Despite this broadened mission, Eastern is still Michigan's largest teacher preparation institution, providing many of the nation's teachers. EMU is proud of the fact that teachers make all of the other professions possible. Think about it!

During the Civil War, The Spanish-American War, and World War I, the United States drew off  substantial numbers of able-bodied young men from Michigan's farming communities. Many of them assembled and disembarked from the train station in Depot Town on Ypsilanti's east side.

The Great Depression and World War Two saw many of the area's farms fall into disrepair, with some simply abandoned. Big money was to be made in support of the war effort. The bulk of able-bodied men had already joined the service, leaving a manpower vacuum at The B-24 Liberator bomber plant in Willow Run. 

To meet labor needs, the Ford Motor Corporation imported workers from the South and drew additional workers from a previously untapped source, the women of the area. The east side of town soon became a blue collar residential area as it was nearest to the plant.

In the most dramatic demographic shift in the area since the white man drove the red man west, Ypsilanti went from a sunrise-to-sundown farming community to a 24/7 blue collar town.

America changed almost overnight from a rural economy to an urban economy, and soon suburbia would sprawl across the furrowed landscape with the construction of the Federal Interstate Highway System, built during the Eisenhower administration, which changed traffic patterns and hurt the Ypsilanti business community diverting traffic south of town.

Old Ypsilanti runs along Michigan Avenue and comprises the commercial business district. After the Second World War, downtown's fortunes declined. When Ypsilanti had the chance to build a modern shopping center on vacated farm land, the local business community felt it would spell disaster for downtown businesses, and they rejected it. Forward-looking Ann Arbor snapped up the Briarwood development.

During the nineteen sixties, Ypsilanti decided to take some of the War on Poverty money from the Johnson administration's Great Society program and built low-income government housing, known in town as "the projects." 

Rather than incorporating these housing units around the city, the decision was made to build them just north of the expressway and south of downtown. This development created a minority isolated community with a legacy of racial division.

In many ways, Ypsilanti is a microcosm of America history. Its fortunes have waxed and waned with those of the country, yet it still survives with pride in its achievements and optimism for a bright future. 

Recognizing the wealth of historic architecture in their town, The Ypsilanti Heritage Foundation is taking steps to preserve its nineteenth-century homes and restore the area's remaining timber framed barn shells, many of which have been destroyed over the years.

See Ypsi-Ann Trolley post:

Ypsilanti Heritage Foundation website: