Unbuilding racism: Activists confront injustice in Washtenaw County's built environment

A growing number of local leaders are examining racism's influence on our community's development, and seeking to counteract those effects moving forward.
Ypsilanti-based social activist Yodit Mesfin Johnson says "people tend to understand places based upon what they see, not on what was." And in Ann Arbor, "what was" includes a vibrant Black community that's now largely lost to history. In the Kerrytown and Water Hill neighborhoods, segregation once created a Black enclave – and then policy changes and gentrification resulted in its disappearance.

Now, Mesfin Johnson is one of a growing number of local activists seeking to draw attention to the idea of unbuilding racism, or highlighting the disparity and injustice that have shaped our built environment. The concept has been getting increased traction nationwide, but it manifests in unique ways in Washtenaw County.

"Ann Arbor didn't have overt Jim Crowism like the South," says Deborah Meadows, program chair of the African American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County (AACHM). "There weren't water fountains, or restrooms labeled 'white only' or 'Black only.' But there were covert racial practices, like a wolf in sheep's clothing."
African American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County Program Chair Deborah Meadows.
Meadow points to University of Michigan research that is documenting local racialized housing deeds and applauds both "Black and white citizens and scholars who are uncovering these truths and searching for opportunities to educate, discuss, and work towards change."

"Some may feel the best way to grow is to learn from our past," she says. 

Racism without redlining

Jessica A.S. Letaw says Ann Arbor residents can't have a true conversation about justice until there's a better understanding of what needs to be restored and transformed. Letaw is a board member of Ann Arbor’s Downtown Development Authority, co-host of the podcast Ann Arbor AF, and founder of Building Matters, an architecture and urban planning nonprofit designed to raise Ann Arbor’s literacy around the built environment.

"Unbuilding racism, however you define it, is sticky. Buildings are really sticky. They're hard to create. They take a long time, a lot of money, involve a whole bunch of people, and when we get one they tend to stick around for a really long time," she says. "So when we quantify things in our built environment through our values and planning and through our community efforts, we get stuck with things for a very long time."

Letaw says the first step is understanding that we have built racism physically into our environment, often through individual buildings – on purpose and over a long time.

"Every time we build off of an intentionally harmful status quo, we're doing it again. And so for me the place to start is to understand that this is real," she says. "We have segregated ourselves racially and economically on purpose for most of the country's history, and in Ann Arbor you don't have to go too far to see this."
Building Matters founder Jessica Letaw.
Ann Arbor didn't have a redline map, which the U.S. government created in the '30s to designate communities of color as risky for lenders. Those maps had a population threshold and Ann Arbor fell below it. But Letaw says that doesn't mean the community has been "on the right side of history." 

"[People think] we don't have a redline map because we're good white people. We don't have one because we're too small," she says. "Ann Arbor found other ways to enact racial segregations that didn't rely on a redline map."

Letaw explains that this happened through racially restrictive covenants, selective showings by realtors, selective lending, and land use planning practices that kept people of color out of certain areas. 

"It happened in all of those de facto, much smaller ways, but with the exact same racial consequences," she says. 

Ann Arbor's Black history

Among the AACHM's efforts to preserve and share local African-American history is a walking tour and map of Ann Arbor's historically Black communities. The map was created in collaboration with the Ann Arbor District Library as part of its Living Oral History Project. It includes the sites of former businesses and community centers in the Summit Street, Water Hill, and Kerrytown neighborhoods. The tour and map highlight where Black families lived, worked, worshiped, went to school, and owned businesses.

"New residents may not be aware that their homes were once inhabited by African-American families," Meadows says. "And those families, in our recent past, may not have been able to choose where they wanted to live due to housing and lending practices that restricted African-Americans to these areas."

Today there are several places that stand out to Letaw (and that appear on the AACHM's walking tour map) as examples of injustice playing out in the built environment. One is the dark brown building at Fourth Avenue and Kingsley Street that was once known as the Dunbar Community Center. The building, which looks like a home at first glance, once housed law offices and is currently being used as a co-working space.
Linette Lao, Yodit Mesfin Johnson, Jessica Letaw, and Deborah Meadows at Bellflower restaurant in Ypsilanti.
"It was where Black kids and teenagers went after school to do their homework to socialize and to dance with each other on weekends," Letaw says. "Fast forward to today, and while there are some people of color there for sure, it's a white-owned co-working space occupied primarily by white people."

Just north across the Ann Arbor Farmers Market parking lot is Community High School, formerly Jones Elementary School, one of two primarily Black elementary schools in Ann Arbor until 1965. At that time, in the wake of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the Ann Arbor Board of Education acknowledged that the school was segregated and closed it. When it reopened in 1968, the goal was for it to become an integrated high school.

"But what actually ended up happening, and what remains true, is that it is a majority white high school, and it is still fairly economically and racially segregated," Letaw says. "We had a community which had a Black elementary school, a Black youth center, Black-owned businesses. Most of the homes were Black-owned. Now who lives there, and who feels like they belong there, is totally different from just years ago."

Looking back to build a better future

Ypsilanti resident, writer, and designer Linette Lao says one of the first steps in unbuilding racism is taking a thorough, critical look back at a community's history. Last year Lao was featured in a virtual panel discussion on unbuilding racism as part of Ann Arbor nonprofit Nonprofit Enterprise at Work's (NEW) "Centering Justice" discussion series. Lao says the event was an opportunity for her to "grow a personal understanding of place and space and belonging, and how we are always in dialogue with the land and with the people that were here before us." 

During her presentation, Lao, an Ypsilanti resident for nearly 30 years, shared about a handcrafted magazine that she and local historian and educator Matt Siegfried are creating about Ypsilanti's early Chinese immigrants. A central element of the "zine" is a look at the first Chinese laundromat in Ypsilanti, which was left in ruins by an 1893 cyclone. A few years ago Lao was taken by an old photo of the damaged shop. Looking at the photo through the lens of the devastation of somebody's business, particularly an immigrant business, affected her. She says the photo came alive with the promise of untold history. 
Writer and designer Linette Lao.
"For a while I had never noticed before that it was a picture of a Chinese laundry, and then I later realized that it was right at Riverside Arts Center – and I was even on the board of Riverside Arts Center," she says. "That building is so familiar to me and I never thought about those early Asian immigrants to Washtenaw County before that and how in proximity of space we were so close, just separated by 130 years."

She shares that historically, white people did not run laundromats because it was considered very dangerous work. 

"White people didn't want to take the risk, so it was usually Chinese men owning these shops until there were some machines, money could be made, and it was less hard work," Lao says. "It's important to know these things, to know where you are and how you got there. You must be a curious citizen and look back in order to build things and create a future that's real, solid, and allows our community to move ahead."

Beginning the unbuilding

Mesfin Johnson is one of several Washtenaw County leaders who have been making diligent efforts to create that future and unbuild racism in the community. She says the "reprehensible" erasure of Black and brown residents in Ann Arbor is something she's committed to continuing to bring to light. 

"The reality is that ours is a white bedroom community that espouses the ideals of progressive change, but rarely actually lives into those," she says. "Are we committed to progressive ideals only in words, or in deeds? There's a sort of gulf between who we say we want to be and who we really are."

One of many hats Mesfin Johnson wears is CEO of NEW, where she's aiming to implement principles of unbuilding racism as NEW redesigns its headquarters. NEW has hired Deanna Van Buren, a renowned architect, urban developer, and founder of Oakland, Calif.-based architecture and real estate development nonprofit Designing Justice + Designing Spaces, as its architectural partner in that project.

The building that houses NEW was once a junkyard that was transformed into an arts incubator by local philanthropists. Anchor tenant and nonprofit Artrain had a vision that the arts should be available to everyone everywhere, so Artrain put art on trains and took them to rural communities. Mesfin Johnson feels a deep responsibility to steward Artrain's legacy and vision, so inclusion and accessibility are non-negotiable tenets of NEW's organizational DNA and physical building space. 

"I want to redevelop our space so that we welcome not just established organizations, but future world-makers and artists and activists and elders," Mesfin Johson says. "I want to intentionally and explicitly honor the land and its history and make this space accessible, affordable, and environmentally conscious so that we live into the inherited stewardship of our Native siblings."
Ypsilanti-based social activist Yodit Mesfin Johnson.
At the end of the day, unbuilding racism for her means repairing the harm that edifices and erasure have enacted upon marginalized people in Washtenaw County. It's her intention to create a space that accelerates transformative impact in the community, with the community. She encourages residents to talk to or write their county commissioners to ask that money from the American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) be allotted to the rebuilding of Black and brown entrepreneurship ecosystems locally.

Justin Hodge, county commissioner for District 5, also encourages communication, stressing that it's key for people to talk to their elected officials. He says that one way movement can happen is if the county government works in partnership with other local municipal governments – who also received ARPA dollars.

"We have to work toward getting these governments to first make racial justice a priority and, secondly, encourage them to put funds towards it. Our county has a racial equity office that is doing good work, and we encourage other local governments to partner with us," he says. "The county doesn't have enough rescue funds to do everything, but if we could leverage partnerships and do some targeted initiatives, that could be really impactful."

Hodge is supporting an ARPA funding package that the county Board of Commissioners will consider in the future, called the Community Priority Fund. He says the fund will focus on providing funds for organizations and nonprofits in the 48197 and 48198 zip codes, where the county's residents of color are concentrated.

"I'm really thinking hard about how we can structure it to support economic mobility, and I think there's room for building up Black businesses and addressing racial injustice there," he says.
District 5 County Commissioner Justin Hodge.
Unbuilding racism will require more than just money and reconsidering the structures of our environment. It will also involve an examination of our internal architectures. Mesfin Johnson, for one, has hesitation about the willingness of those who fall into the category of the "moderate white liberal." 

"We're the eighth most economically segregated county in the country, and that economic segregation shows up plainly in housing and where people live," she says. "We have concentrated poverty on the east side of the county. And increasingly over the last few years, as folks get priced out of Ann Arbor, you have even more middle-class white people moving into Ypsilanti and others keep getting pushed out to the fringes."

Letaw also has strong feelings about the future and feels that some community members need more "awareness of our whiteness so that we understand how we are showing up in conversations and relationships with expectation of privilege."

She thinks the Ann Arbor community is doing a better job of working towards that goal, identifying disparities and understanding intersecting identities better than in the past. But disparity still abounds and very long strides still need to be made.

"We need to look at who we really are and know what history we are contending with," Letaw says. "And when we can do that with humility and compassion for everyone in our county, that's when a good conversation can happen and transformative vision can be realized."

Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at jaishreeedit@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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