What are Ypsi's greatest strengths and challenges?

Concentrate is hosting a free panel discussion that will explore Ypsilanti's past, present, and future to wrap up the initial five-month stint of On the Ground Ypsi.


"Ypsi: Vibrant Past and Future" will be held Dec. 15 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Ypsilanti Freighthouse, 100 Market Place in Depot Town. The event, which is open to the public, will feature former state Rep. David Rutledge as moderator and four Ypsi community leaders as panelists.


To preview the upcoming discussion, we asked each of the panelists to share their thoughts about the community's historical strengths and forthcoming challenges, as well as their greatest hopes for Ypsi going forward. This is what they had to say.


(The following interviews have been edited for length and clarity.)


Jessica "Decky" Alexander

Eastern Michigan University professor and director of academic engagement programs


What have been some of Ypsi's greatest strengths as a community?


"Ypsi is a DIY community, so it figures out how to work within its community to serve its community. It doesn’t rely on a lot of external support and work. It really has always navigated the assets of the people here to give the community depth and dimension, whether that’s in business, or nonprofits, or popup art. It’s always a landscape to paint on. If you want to try something new, this place has always been very accepting of novelty, and whether that’s an artistic novelty, whether that’s nonprofit work, whether that’s small business, you can create possibility here."


What are some of the biggest challenges you foresee Ypsi having to overcome in the future?


"I still think that small towns like this are contingent on some real strong economic drivers, so a lot of new and more novel or innovative kinds of businesses can grow, and so I think there needs still to be something that gives its population some more weighty employment, whether that’s business, manufacturing, advanced manufacturing, something of that sort. I think economics are the driver for community development, so you can’t have community development without an economic development framework, and I’m not so sure that has been articulated regionally as well. The other thing is it’s really transportation too. With the non-passing of the regional transportation millage, that really impacted Ypsi and its people and our students who come in and out of here. We have a ton of students from Canton. It’d be a lot easier for students to use that kind of regional transportation to have some greater mobility in and out of the community."


What are your ultimate hopes for Ypsi’s future?


"That it becomes really an art and culture destination. I feel it’s coming there. I think it also has always been sort of a frontrunner in really innovative business models, like the Corner Brewery or Cultivate, where they blend business and nonprofit. My hope is we’re going to get people to come to this community that are innovators and will find a way to generate new economies and then new opportunities, which then lead to new opportunities in arts and culture and things of that sort. I think that’s where it is. I think this has still always been an amazingly interesting landscape to paint on. I’m not concerned with what people call all the kinds of gentrification because even though Ann Arbor is so expensive I think to have a multi-economic class in the city is a good thing. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I don’t think it prices one group out just to have another wealthier economic group, and it’s still not that wealthy. It’s still like a middle-class economic group, so I don’t think that’s a bad thing. But Ann Arbor is so expensive and that impacts Ypsi."


Bryan Foley

Community activist and lifelong resident of Ypsi's South Side


What have been some of Ypsi's greatest strengths as a community?


"Our greatest strength in the community is that we know each other as neighbors and friends and relatives. One of the funniest jokes that goes around is, ‘Everybody in Ypsilanti is cousins. Everybody in Ypsilanti is related.’ And if you come on the South Side of Ypsilanti, you’ll find that there’s a lot of truth to that. That’s because most of us migrated here from the South and there’s a lot of marrying between families. So our greatest strength in Ypsilanti is that we truly are all family."


What are some of the biggest challenges you foresee Ypsi having to overcome in the future?


"What’s on the horizon right now is gentrification. When our automotive industry collapsed around here, we had an influx of drugs, in particular crack cocaine, and that created a void and a disconnect from our past and our future. Drugs devastated us, and what has happened is that there’s an influx of people who are moving into the community who have no knowledge, no history of who we are and what actually occurred, who are taking advantage of that situation. A lot of people, because they’re culturally insensitive and insensitive to who we are as a people, are taking advantage of those losses without any consideration as to who we are or even asking us our opinion on how we feel about things before infringing on territory that we really do consider our home."


What are your ultimate hopes for Ypsi’s future?


"I’d like to see us come from out of this recessive or depressive state that we’re in. I would like to see us finally get the benefits and rewards that everybody else has in Ypsilanti. There was a time when we as black people weren't accepted on the north side of Michigan Avenue, and that goes as far as present day. Sometimes we’re viewed as a pariah in our own neighborhood and in the downtown area. Ypsilanti is very vibrant, so we need to come together and respect each other’s diversity, respect each other’s cultures and history, and I would kind of like to see us come together for the advancement not just of a select few but for the betterment of everybody who lives here in the city of Ypsilanti."


Mark Maynard

Longtime Ypsi resident, blogger, and cofounder of Landline Creative Labs


What have been some of Ypsi's greatest strengths as a community?


"Ypsi has a few things going for it. It's got a sense of place, which I think is more and more unique these days, given the great extent to which places, thanks to the growth of chain stores and restaurants, are beginning to feel the same. I think, when you’re in Ypsi, there’s still a sense that you’re somewhere special and different. It’s not like other small towns of its size where, in exchange for higher rents, they've sacrificed their identities. At least we haven't really done so yet. And, more importantly, I'd say our people are clearly a strength. There’s a strong community here that’s willing to embrace good, new ideas. But, at the same time, there's also a respect for our shared history, which is important. And I think people are generally kind. It’s a good place to do things. If you have a good idea, I’ve found Ypsi to be a pretty receptive place, and I think that’s a good thing."


What are some of the biggest challenges you foresee Ypsi having to overcome in the future?


"I think how to grow responsibly, and with a sense of equity, is going to be probably the most difficult thing we face. I think growth is going to happen whether we like it or not. I think the housing market in Ann Arbor, as it continues to price people out, will continue to move people this way. I think we need to be aware of the things that I just mentioned – the sense of place and the community – and work to the best of our ability to protect them. We need to create opportunities for the people who live here. We need good jobs. And we need financial stability. But, at the same time, I wouldn't want to sacrifice our identity or our people, and I think that’s going to be a difficult line to walk as we go forward. But, yeah, I think the battle to keep Ypsilanti open, diverse and interesting is going to dominate the next several years."


What are your ultimate hopes for Ypsi’s future?


"I hope Ypsilanti continues to be the kind of place where I want to live and raise my family. I hope that it’s able to retain what I love about it, which is why we moved back here. At the same time, however, I think growth is inevitable, and I hope that we find a way to do it so that people aren’t left behind. I'd also like to see more community-wide conversations, in hopes that, collectively, we can come to some kind of consensus about what we want this community of ours to evolve into. And I hope we can evolve in a way that we all feel good about, without sacrificing too much of who we are in the process. I think it’s going to be difficult, though, and I don’t know how many communities have been able to navigate it well. I think clearly Ypsi’s going to grow. I know, from friends looking to buy houses here, that the market is changing rapidly. Prices keep going up and there aren’t really very many empty storefronts anymore. And it feels like we might be losing control over the direction in which things are headed. So my hope is that we can find a way to guide things in a direction that we can not only be happy about, but be proud of."

Lynne Settles

Ypsilanti Community High School art teacher


What have been some of Ypsi's greatest strengths as a community?


"Some of the greatest strengths of the community [are] diversity and the fact that Ypsi lets their voices be heard when they like or don’t like something. And they really come out and support each other when new businesses open up, when new events are happening. They’ve come out to all of the children’s events. They’ve supported them, in their presence, at events we’ve had for the kids. They’ve come out and used their dollars to support fundraising activities we’ve had to support the kids. The local media and press has run stories on them, helping to support them. And just keeping up with what’s in your magazine, I’ve seen that Ypsi comes out and supports people. Even if I’m not there at the event, I read that people come out and support each other."


What are some of the biggest challenges you foresee Ypsi having to overcome in the future?


"Affordable housing, I hear, is a problem. I don’t [struggle with affordability] myself, but I hear from my students and parents and from reading different things from the community that affordable housing is a problem. So just making sure that Ypsi does a good job of taking care of all of its citizens — the entire community — is something that I think Ypsi’s struggling with but trying to overcome."


What are your ultimate hopes for Ypsi’s future?


"That it just continues to grow in the direction that it’s going. It’s a small-town community feel, but it wants to get to the point that it’s economically able to stand on its own and not have to worry about standing in the shadows of Ann Arbor."


Registration and other information about the "Ypsi: Vibrant Past and Future" panel discussion is available here.


Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.


All photos by Doug Coombe.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.