Free walking tours highlight the "re-wilding" of Ypsi's Water Street property

The 38-acre property has gained a complicated reputation due to development challenges, but some see it as a natural, educational space where native species can flourish.
The 38 acres that make up Ypsilanti's Water Street Redevelopment Area have gained a complicated reputation since the city completed purchasing the land in 2003. The land, just east of downtown Ypsilanti, has been host to several different industrial uses that contributed to environmental issues. Several possible development projects for the land have fallen through, and the property currently stands overgrown while the city continues to search for developers. 

Some community members, however, see Water Street not as an opportunity for housing or commercial use, but as a natural, educational space where native species can flourish. Ypsilanti resident Heather Wysor has partnered with Ypsilanti's Bridge Community Cafe and Ann Arbor-based hiking/foraging/camping group The Queer Outdoors to bring free outdoor plant walks of the Water Street area to the Ypsi community as part of a greater effort to "re-wild" Water Street. 

Wysor is a self described "woodswoman" and founder of the online shop Heathers on Earth, which focuses on foraged natural medicines. She says she's been walking Water Street with her dog since 2012, and was initially interested in the area for its solitude from the hustle and bustle of the city.

"It was the only place you could be away from people," Wysor says. "Since nobody really wants to be out there, except people needing to be away from people, it's been left really wild." 
Heather Wysor at Water Street.
In her walks, Wysor says she has seen "many different people" living on the land, utilizing the various construction materials left behind from previous demolition. About 10 years ago, an informal project known as "The Water Street Commons" resulted in community structures like a trading post and a free library on the property, as well as a 2013 native wildflower planting project known as a "seed bombing."

"It was a take-back-the-land kind of initiative where they came out to till part of the land, and people came out and threw seed bombs onto it," Wysor says. 

Unfortunately, after an industrial study found the area to be unsafe, as well as what Wysor describes as "a cycle of things being built and destroyed" by passersby, the Commons became a thing of the past.

Wysor has seen firsthand, however, that fencing and city orders haven't kept people out. And past development failures and environmental challenges haven't kept others from being interested in Water Street's future.

"There have been a lot of people excited to come together to put forth their perspective on why the land is important," Wysor says. "It's an industrial waste site, but people are drawn to the land."

Through her own foraging walks, Wysor has found that Water Street has become a thriving ecosystem for a number of native plant species, some of which Ypsi residents may be mowing or weeding in their own yards without realizing their practical uses. Ypsi native species such as St. John's wort and staghorn sumac have a history of being used for medicinal purposes by Michigan's Indigenous tribes. While people today may head to a pharmacy instead of the woods for our medicine, Wysor has pinpointed an opportunity to educate the community on the land's historic uses.
Heather Wysor at Water Street.
"Folks can see these weeds they mow down every day and see them in a different light," Wysor says. "There's always new things to see. The land is always changing. The opportunities for learning are endless."

Bridge Community Cafe owner Sierra Lambert met Wysor when Lambert participated in one of Wysor's foraging walks, where the two got to talking about hosting other workshops on foraging and natural medicines. Lambert says the cafe's goal is ultimately to be a community space for folks to meet, educate, and support one another, so working on this initiative with Wysor fit squarely within that mission.

"I knew Heather would be interested in a plant walk, and it wasn't something I could fully focus on myself," Lambert says. "She was already holding a walk on Water Street, and it really felt like it came full circle."
Bridge Community Cafe owner Sierra Lambert and Heather Wysor.
Holding an outdoor event, with a walk starting at the cafe on West Michigan Avenue, was a new venture for Lambert. She says the response was very positive.

"There are so many different people who are interested in learning," says Lambert, noting that the cafe's most recent walk saw around 15 guests of all ages asking questions and sometimes teaching one another. "Mostly it was their first time learning anything about these plants. It was nice."

The partnership with The Queer Outdoors is also new, to both Lambert and Queer Outdoors founder Maya Grant. Grant, who founded the group as a way to safely find community as the COVID-19 vaccine rolled out, has hosted workshops on topics like foraging and natural medicine before. They say they were "very excited" to get on board with Wysor and Lambert's idea.

"We love educating the community and learning about things that Indigenous cultures talk about," Grant says. "We're so lucky because they thought of us and wanted us to meet their people."

In addition to education and helping folks find community in outdoor spaces, Grant also sees these walks as an opportunity to uplift and support businesses like Lambert's and Wysor's. They have used The Queer Outdoors' Meetup event page to encourage walk attendees to "support Bridge Community Cafe by grabbing a drink or snack," or to donate directly to Wysor to help her continue providing the workshops free of charge.

"The club is all about making the outdoors as accessible as possible," Grant says. "All of our events are free, but since our educators are all coming from different backgrounds, we want to make sure they're compensated for the labor. Knowing that we can support them and they can support us is very cool."

Although each walk is different, Wysor, Lambert, and Grant all seem to share a vision of what these walks could mean for the community. The walks are not just an opportunity for participants to get outdoors and learn more about the land, but also to be outdoors with one another, and hopefully leave the walk feeling closer.

"There are so many people with the knowledge, but not everyone has the opportunity to learn from another individual," Grant says. "Seeing that access happen and be available is just so great." 

"We're helping the land and ourselves," Lambert says. "We're not going to survive without the earth. We can't just use resources and not understand them. If somebody's doing a walk, and you can just go and learn for free, you should go."
Heather Wysor at Water Street.
"It's so important for people to see that regular people do this," Wysor says. "The walks, getting people on the land and together and seeing that we're all talking about the same things – you go back changed, which is great. We need these relationships more than ever."

Wysor's upcoming plant walks will take place on Sept. 1 and 3. The walks are free to attend. More information on the walks can be found at Bridge Community Cafe's Instagram page, or The Queer Outdoors' Meetup event page. Follow Bridge Community Cafe for announcements on future walks. 

Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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