Ypsi’s founding fathers envisioned a “public square” on Water Street

I received an interesting email today from a reader concerning the acre of Water Street that we’ve been working on these past few months. Attached to the email were three images… two of which were taken from “Washtenaw County: An Illustrated History“. The person who sent the email wanted me to know that the original plat (seen below), drawn in 1825 by Augustus Woodward, John Stewart and William Harwood, called for the creation of two “public squares” in the village of Ypsilanti, one of which was slated for the intersection of Congress and Mill. (Congress, as you know, is today Michigan Avenue, and Mill is now Park Street.) So, it would seem, at the founding of the City, the plan was to have a “public square” on the property we today refer to as Water Street… right on the very spot, in fact, that our City Council recently sold to Core Resources for the construction of a Family Dollar. How’s that for irony?

The reason this was brought to my attention, I was told, was because I’d gone out of my way, these past few months, to say that, should a developer for the parcel that we’d adopted ever materialize, I wouldn’t have any qualms standing aside and allowing them to plow under our native plants, and bring an end to what we’d started. According to the author of this email, now that we’ve initiated a commons, we should fight to keep it. “As it was the intention of our founding fathers to have a commons area on Water Street,” this individual said, “you’d be well within your rights to fight to keep it undeveloped on behalf of the citizens of Ypsilanti.”

In addition to the 1825 plat, the author of this email also included a map of downtown today, showing the area our founders had designated as a “public square,” straddling Michigan Avenue, just west of Park Street, in relation to the acre that we’ve been working on. (I’ve added color to the images so that you can see where our City founders indicated public spaces should be in 1825, and where they’d be in relation to today’s landmarks.)

Personally, I’m not sure what to make of it. I know that the 1825 plans of these three long-dead land speculators isn’t binding. I can see, however, how it’s worth noting that the men who founded our City saw common space as being integral to its success, and that they envisioned one of these areas being on Water Street. That, I would think, would likely cary some weight with people in this community. It’s one thing, after all, for a pack of blog-reading, yuppy, hipster, native plant-loving anarchists to demand a commons. It’s quite another to acknowledge it as a directive from our heroic, pioneering ancestors. I don’t know that it changes my opinion concerning economic development, as I still think that we need to leverage Water Street to grow our tax base and create jobs, but I do find it interesting that there’s a historic precedent for what we’re doing. And I’d like to think that, just maybe, the ghosts of our founding fathers are happy to know that we’re trying to keep their dream alive, even if it is a half a block away from where they’d envisioned it.

Here’s how the author of the email concluded his note:

“Keep fighting on behalf of Woodward, Stewart, and Harwood, and don’t allow this acre to become a strip mall, even if it might mean a few jobs. We need this space. We’ve needed it for almost 200 years.”

update: It’s probably worth noting that I don’t think having a commons on Water Street and pursuing economic development on the site are mutually exclusive undertakings. Quite the contrary. As I’ve expressed elsewhere on this site, I believe what we’re doing on Water Street will make it more likely, not less likely, that developers, both commercial and residential, will be drawn to the 38-acre parcel. As for whether, in the long term, the commons should stay, I guess we’ll have to play it by ear. I can, however, easily envision a scenario in which a thriving, sustainable commercial ecosystem revolves around a public space like the one we’ve envisioned.

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  1. XXX
    Posted June 1, 2013 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

    Not to take anything away from your point, but I’m curious if any of those three men stayed in Ypsi, or if they just sold the land and moved on.

  2. Edward
    Posted June 2, 2013 at 5:12 am | Permalink

    “Public square to Family Dollar. A history of the American commons.” The book pretty much writes itself.

  3. Posted June 2, 2013 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    The “founding fathers” of Ypsilanti also thought that the river was a great place to dump industrial waste–this is why “Mill Street” ran all the way to the river, so the mills could tap it for power and dump waste in it to be carried away, while the public square was on Michigan Avenue.

    All the concepts for Water Street over the past 15 years have included public space, though they reflect a more current concept of the value of the river, treating the waterfront as an asset to be placed in the public trust, rather than a dumping grounds to be parceled up among private interests for carrying away of waste.

    That’s not to say that there should *not* be a “commons” on Michigan Avenue, just to point out that Woodward et al, as 200-year-old land speculators carving up the site from afar don’t have a monopoly on concepts of the public interest in this property.

  4. Elliott
    Posted June 2, 2013 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    I was waiting to see what form the establishments pooh-poohing would take.

  5. anonymous
    Posted June 2, 2013 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    A trail along the river does not a commons make.

  6. Pete Murdock
    Posted June 2, 2013 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    It was far more of a real commons prior to the “Founding Fathers” arrival.

  7. Oliva
    Posted June 3, 2013 at 4:56 am | Permalink

    One of those founding fathers gave us Detroit’s street layout and Ypsilanti’s name change and much else, but for me the best thing Woodward did was: abolish slavery in Detroit (except for French and English slaveholders because of jurisdictional issues). From what I’ve read, he was a very smart man, knew many languages and fields of study, was no slouch. We could probably use some of his smarts now . . .

  8. 734
    Posted June 3, 2013 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    I agree that we shouldn’t put too much stock in the vision put forward by land speculators who benefited greatly from the forced displacement of Native Americans, but I do find it ironic that Family Dollar will stand where our public square was meant to be.

  9. Toad
    Posted June 3, 2013 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    We should all dress like it’s 1825 when the Family Dollar opens, and meet in the middle of the store to smoke pipes, play checkers, trade beaver pelts, and shoot the shit.

  10. Ben
    Posted June 7, 2013 at 6:08 am | Permalink

    This is inspirational. I would love this. Maybe we need another dedication ceremony that takes these ideas into account. Also, maybe I’m looking at this wrong, but where the Family Dollar would be, between Park and hypothetical Lincoln, doesn’t cover where the seed bombs are, which is closer to River, right? Whenever I go by it I go through this in my head. Tell me what I have wrong. :)

  11. Elliott
    Posted July 18, 2013 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    Like them or not, Family Dollar of Michigan has a lot to deal with at the moment.


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  1. […] been about a month since we called people together to help lay the trails around the Water Street Commons, and we figure it’s time meet again, for another few hours of work. This time, our primary […]

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