Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Ypsilanti History--The Town and the Gown

Three forward-looking American businessmen with thick billfolds bought up the French land claims along both sides of the Huron River in 1825. They surveyed the cleared farmland for a new town they named Ypsilanti. Although odd and difficult to pronounce for people unfamiliar with the name, Ypsilanti is unique and has served the city well. The proper pronunciation is /ip'si-lan-tee/ but never /yip'sil-lan-tee/. Visitors might want to refrain from using the term Ypsitucky. Many residents consider the word offensive.

The City of Ypsilanti came of age with the founding of Michigan State Normal School in 1849. Classes began on March 29, 1853, with the completion of their newly constructed, three-story classroom building. The school building was destroyed by fire in October 1859 but was rebuilt and ready for classes six months later.

Michigan's system of education was patterned after the German system. The mission of normal schools was the "normalization" of teaching standards and practices. Normal schools trained teachers for the common schools which were popping up around the state. In 1899, Michigan State Normal School was the second normal school in the nation to adopt a four-year curriculum and earn the distinction of college.

When World War Two ended, the passage of the Servicemen's Readjustment Act (the G.I. Bill) helped Michigan State Normal College expand with new buildings and new departments offering a broader range of offerings to accommodate the increased enrollment of veterans. 

The Normal College became Eastern Michigan College in 1956, but that was short-lived. When Eastern Michigan established its graduate school in 1959, it was upgraded to university status.

Today, Eastern Michigan University offers degrees and programs at the bachelor, master, specialist, and doctoral levels. Since 1991, Eastern Michigan is the largest producer of educational personnel in the country. We are everywhere.

The City of Ypsilanti and Eastern Michigan University's Board of Regents have a one hundred and sixty-five year shared history. They have survived catastrophic fires, angry storms, and devastating winds. They have been witness to every American war since the Civil War, weathered the Great Depression, and grieved over the political assassinations of the 1960s.

A two year reign of terror stalked Ypsilanti from July 1967 through July 1969. Seven young women--three of them EMU coeds and one an Ypsilanti teen--were wantonly murdered by a serial killer. This sustained nightmare left an indelible impression on residents. Both the city and the university were bound by fear and helplessness. 

A lot of water--and history--has flowed past the Peninsula Paper Company dam on the Huron River. Political insiders and local historians say there have been a number of Town and Gown spats over the years, but overall, the relationship between the city and the university has been mutually beneficial. EMU is currently Ypsilanti's largest employer.

Looking down West Street Cross Street
Unlike the University of Michigan campus which is inseparable from the City of Ann Arbor, Eastern Michigan's campus is set apart from Ypsilanti's downtown--with one notable exception--EMU's College of Business on Michigan Avenue. The university and the city need to find more ways to work together to promote each others shared interests.

Ypsilanti has untapped potential to once again be a place to go, rather than a place to avoid or drive past on the Interstate. Ypsilanti needs some can-do people with vision. If a mass transit scheme can be worked out--like a commuter rail stop in Depot Town--the city's economic development department needs to capitalize on it.

Thank you to James Thomas Mann. Much of the information used in my last three Ypsilanti posts was adapted from his two volume photo study, Images of America: Ypsilanti - A History in Pictures.