Ypsi/Arbor Exit Interview: Johnny Lupinacci

A few weeks ago, shortly after earning earning his PhD from Eastern Michigan University, local Ypsilanti activist John Lupinacci packed up all his belongings and headed west to begin his new life as a academic. Fortunately, though, I was able to track him down and force him to submit to an exit interview… Here are the results.

JohnnyL3cMARK: What first brought you to Ypsi?

JOHNNY: I’d been living in Hamtramck and teaching high school in Detroit. I was a master’s student studying Social Foundations of Education at Eastern Michigan University. I’d started lecturing part-time for the College of Education and found myself commuting to Ypsi more often from Hamtramck, so I moved to Plymouth. It ended up that I hated living in Plymouth, and, for a number of reasons, it was a short stay. Honestly, I was going to move back to Detroit, or Hamtramck, but I’d started lecturing twice a week at EMU, and I was teaching in Detroit, so I narrowed it down to either Ypsilanti or Detroit.

MARK: Before we move on, I’m curious as to why you chose Plymouth in the first place. Knowing you a little, and having spent some time in downtown Plymouth, which, with the exception of a good coffee shop and a pretty decent downtown theater, is like an upscale, outdoor shopping mall, I can’t imagine how you thought that a life there would be rewarding… Was there something specific that you liked about it, or was it just that you happened to know of someone with a place?

JOHNNY: Yeah, you would have thought I made those connections. I don’t know… I had some good friends opening up a recording studio in an old church there, and I had some ties to a coffee shop, the Plymouth Coffee Bean. My good friends Jeffree St. John and Sean Fitzgerald were hosting open mics there and I was playing shows quite a bit back then. I was thinking, “It’s closer to EMU, good coffee, music, and friends.” Well, that wasn’t exactly true. Yes, there were some great people and awesome places to play music, but the overall experience was blahh.

MARK: So, how’d Ypsi win out over Detroit once you made the decision to leave Plymouth?

JOHNNY: I’d mostly been hanging out in Detroit, Hamtramck, and Ferndale, but decided to venture out and explore more of Ypsilanti, since I was considering moving there. Well, it turned out Ypsilanti had everything that my partner Lizzy and I liked to do. We also had a close friend who lived with us, Brandon. The three of us were looking for a place where we could all crash and not be right on top of each other. We looked around town for a place, and ended up renting a beaten down loft apartment on North Huron that we thought had potential. It was above a closed restaurant by the name of Alfredo Martini. We were stoked to be within walking distance of an amazing park, the Huron River, the Corner Brewery, and the Ugly Mug — which, hands down, has some of the best coffee I’ve ever had.

So, while EMU was initially the impetus for the move, it was honestly the Ugly Mug, the Corner Brewery, the Ypsi Food Co-op, and Riverside Park that got us here. Those were pretty much our priorities: good people, good coffee, good beer, good food, and a good place to be outside.

MARK: I don’t know if it’s the same building, but did you, by any chance, have a crazy, paranoid neighbor? I have this vague recollection, back during the run-up to the 2008 election, of knocking on a door in the building that you were living in, or the one right next to it, and being freaked-the-fuck-out by the sweaty little shirtless guy with rapidly darting eyes who kind of lunged out at me through his barely-cracked door. I can’t recall his exact words, but there was definitely a “don’t you tell the fucking feds that I’m here” kind of vibe.

JohnnyL2aJOHNNY: Ha… Sounds likely. I can think of at least three guys who lived in our building that fit that description.

MARK: So, was there anything else that went into the “move to Ypsi” equation, other than the proximity to good coffee, good beer, and a park? And, of course, the desire to get far away from Plymouth?

JOHNNY: On top of all that, I was thinking about expenses. I needed to live somewhere that the rent wasn’t sky high. Hamtramck and Detroit had Ypsilanti beat when it came to rent. I’d paid $450 a month to rent a beautiful three-bedroom home in the Hammy, but my insurance was sky high, and there were costs associated with commuting. Ypsilanti wasn’t as cheap, but it was reasonable, when everything else was factored in, so we signed a lease with the less-than-up-front property owner. Not only could we pay the bills, but we had enough leftover to pursue our passions — make art, play music, drink coffee, and just decide what directions our lives would take us…. I guess you could say the rent was low enough in Ypsi “to have a job to live,” and not “live to have a job.”

It still meant 45-minutes or more to commute to the high school in Detroit that I was teaching at, but it put us within walking distance of just about everything else in our lives that we loved. Also, in the back of my mind I was thinking about how much I liked teaching at EMU and sort of hoped that I could eventually pick up more work there. You know, the life of an adjunct, where you only get a few courses here and there that you love to teach, so you hang out nearby, picking up what you can.

MARK: And, once you got here, you felt as though you belonged here?

JOHNNY: Yeah right away. It was like, “Damn where has this place been our whole lives!” We moved to Ypsilanti, and, within that first year, Beezy’s opened up across the way from our place, and we sort of felt like this was exactly the the type of place where we fit in. I mean, no joke. We went there nearly every morning. It was just the sort of place where you could start the day. And Ypsi wasn’t just the kind of place where we fit in, but fit in under the radar, among a slew of other 30-some year olds who still loved playing in garage bands, would rather see local artists than driving out to DTE, and would sooner spend 30-bucks on good food and iced coffee than 30-bucks on bullshit at Target, or wherever it is middle-class, white America spends its loot.

Basically, I felt at home being around organizers, activists, artists, and everyday people who were living life. I liked the fact that they weren’t all white-guys and gals. I liked the fact they weren’t all straight couples with 2.5 kids and a dog who would want and expect us to go to yoga class and come over for wine to be friends. Nothing against those families, but, in Ypsilanti, we liked being around families that weren’t the stereotypical hetero-normative standard. We also liked that the people we met were grown ass adults living how they wanted, who, for the most part, didn’t give a shit how anyone else wanted to live.

MARK: Where are you at this very moment, as you respond to these questions?

JOHNNY: I’m in Moscow, Idaho, about to shower and go teach over in Pullman, Washington.

MARK: And how does Moscow stack up against Ypsilanti? Are you finding a similar yoga-hating, beer-drinking, non-hetero-normative community of organizers, activists, artists there?

JOHNNY: Honestly, I can’t imagine many places stacking up to Ypsi. I mean this is home now, and it’s a college/hippie town in the mountains. So, it’s beautiful. And the Moscow Food Co-op is unreal. I’ve only been here about three weeks, though, and mostly I’ve been unpacking and getting ready for the fall semester. From what I can gather, though, Moscow has its share of yoga-loving yuppies… I shouldn’t bust on yoga so much. I honestly think highly of it, and I’d probably benefit greatly from doing it. I just can’t get past people asking me to do it with them for fun. It’s like, if you think it’s fun to collectively go to an exercise class, good for you. But, I probably don’t want to go with you… Moscow also has its activist crew. I can tell because each time I go to the co-op or grab a coffee at One Word Cafe, I can see there are folks who say “fuck it” to the dominant cultural norms and consumerist identities. I’m just not social enough yet to make friends with them. I’m guessing it’ll happen soon enough, though.

When we were looking for a place to live out here, because I got a job at Washington State University, we liked Moscow because it reminded us of home, or Ypsilanti. There are a lot of neighborhoods that resemble that working class vibe of Ypsi. Even though there are a few colleges close by, there are more than just students living in those neighborhoods. And they have good coffee. The beer isn’t as good locally, though. They’re really into wine here. Also, gardening is big. Moscow, like Ypsilanti, has a good number of gardens and small farms in its neighborhoods. I mean, you can have chickens, and a good number of people do.

MARK: How did you change, if at all, over the time you spent in Ypsilanti?

JOHNNY: It was a time of huge change for me. I decided to get a PhD. So, there’s that whole aspect. I made a career change from high school teacher to academic — or what my boy, Paul Horvath, and I like to call “blue-collar scholars.” You know, working class people with working class grit hitting the books and classrooms with that hard-hitting grimy style we grew up with.

MARK: Care to elaborate on the “grimy style” you grew up with? I’m curious as to what childhood was like for you…

JOHNNY: I had amazing, loving parents who worked hard and provided a solid middle class life for my sister, brother, and me. My childhood was great, and I grew up around hard-working people. You know, automotive industry workers and skilled tradesmen and tradeswomen. My parents pushed school and involved us as kids in tons of community activities. The “grimy style” I refer to came more into play in my teenage years and later. I guess “grimy” can mean a few different things. I’m referring to it in the positive connotation. The condition of something which has accumulated grime on it. You know, a build-up of that salt-of-the earth grime that shows to all who observe that whatever it is has been around for a while and gotten plenty of use. It’s hard to explain. I guess the opposite is stuff that’s clean and shiny, and on display, and not for touching or using. That’s something that makes no sense to me. You know, like when you go to someone’s house and they have a room of furniture you’re not supposed to sit on, or dishware on display that you aren’t supposed to eat off of. I don’t know, it’s like the shit I’m talking about is like having chairs that are sat-in and have ass indentations where people have sat and probably some stains where head grime and hand grime have left evidence that someone who worked hard, and got dirty, chilled out there on the regular. I’m talking about chipped dishes that function just fine and still make regular appearances on the tables of those hard working folks when they eat. Does that make sense? It’s just a style or lifestyle that can be detected when you shake hands with someone and their hands are hard and calloused because they actually work with their hands. I mean, it’s a sign of a person’s lifestyle. I’m also using it to denote the existence of an alternative set of ethics. You know, the “grimy” people who make up their own rules and laws. I mean, sure laws exist, but they don’t play a primary role in how some of us live or interact. So I grew up around folks who worked hard, and stuff they had was for using, not for showing off or saving for some unknown reason. I also grew up with people for whom blood, friendship, and justice ran deeper than any societal expectation, norm, or “law.” So, shit was, and is, grimy.

I grew up, especially as a young adult, surrounded by people who had the grit to stand up for what they believed in, and, above all, for justice.

MARK: Back to the question as to how you and your ideas evolved over the years you spent in Ypsi, I’m curious as to how your involvement in the community might have played a part in that development…

JOHNNY: I was moved and changed, during the last two years I spent in Ypsilanti specifically, by the people I met through Occupy Ypsilanti. There were just so many people who were involved, at so many levels, contributing toward making the community safer and healthier for youth, and for everyone. Not in some sappy-ass way, but in a powerful way that was really inspiring. There were people doing shit to make things better. The fact that I had met so many people in the community who were doing something on the regular to organize and empower their neighbors was something that really shifted my thinking. I had serious doubts about the state of the country we live in, and about the collapse of the industrial Empire, but there I was, in a place like Ypsilanti, where people had planted food forests, fostered creativity in their youth, and gardened as a community. They were planning to be fine on their own, no matter what shit goes down. I started to believe that activism wasn’t dead and that organizing works. I would even say that I was given hope. Folks were actively transforming a community in a way that was both intergenerational and empowering.

MARK: If you could only keep one Ypsi memory, what would it be?

JOHNNY: There are, hands down, at least five top memories that I will never forget, and never stop replaying in my mind because they were so awesome. If I could only keep one, it would be hard to decide between meeting Ian MacKaye outside of Dreamland Theater, eating at Abe’s Diner at 1:00 AM with Derrick Jensen, or chilling with Boots Riley and The Coup at Beezy’s. But, honestly, the one memory I wouldn’t give up for anything would be the winter walks in Riverside Park. There was one walk in particular during a huge snowstorm. My partner and I posse’d-up with our canine companion, Joni, and all went for a walk in the park. It was evening, and we were all bundled up in snow gear, and it was so cold and empty in the park. Huge snow flakes, falling on the already deep snow, were lit up by the lights in Riverside Park, which made each massive flake look like a flying saucer falling onto the piled-up snow. There were a few other families out sledding and dogs running around, but it was silent, and the Huron was flowing, but with all that ice on the banks. It was just one of those moments that you know you’re in the moment and all your senses are peaking. You’re in the essence of being alive right where you in that moment.

MARK: How have you seen Ypsi change over your time here?

JOHNNY: I think that it’s hard for me to say, because I hadn’t spent too much time in Ypsilanti before moving here, but I definitely saw the Downtown transform. We lived on North Huron and so it was nice to see the Riverside Arts Center become more active, and I loved how the block transformed from pretty much vacant and struggling businesses to some vibrant and healthy places, like the Thomas Blondi Salon and the Brite Idea Tattoo shop. The drawback to being on that block was Smarty Catz, which was awful to live above, and to have to come home to all the time. Someone should take that place over and turn it into a nice dinner joint, because it’s seriously out of place on that block.

With the addition of Bona Sera Cafe, and the closing of Pub 13, combined with the success of Beezy’s, Washington Street seems to have had an attractive makeover, and it’s just an awesome spot downtown.

You also can’t help but notice that community gardens and the number of people building raised beds in their yards has boomed, so major props to Amanda and the folks at Growing Hope. Which is another one-of-a-kind sort of thing that Ypsi has that makes it such a great place.

Also, I was stoked to see Cross Street transforming. I love EMU and Ypsi, so the more that those separate entities blend, the better. I like that both Michigan Avenue and Cross Street are growing to offer the same feel that Depot Town seems to have mastered. I gotta say I have mad love for Cafe Ollie. I know Café Luwak had some history in the Depot Town scene, but to add a place vegetarians, and even vegans, could eat without having to customize something, was a huge addition to the already long list of reasons to live in Ypsilanti.

There’s also been hardship, though. I saw schools really take a hard hit. And the divisions between Willow Run and Ypsi grow. I’m not a real local, nor do I know that whole history, but I was aware of the divide from being inside the schools, and working with the youth and the teachers who were living that division.

MARK: So, tell us about your burgeoning career as an academic.

JOHNNY: I moved somewhat reluctantly away from Michigan, but it goes with the territory with a career as an academic. I got a job offer to teach at Washington State University, in their Department of Teaching and Learning. So, I get to do what I love, and have been doing at EMU as a lecturer, but with graduate students at WSU.

MARK: What classes are you teaching?

JOHNNY: This term I’m teaching “Cultural Studies in Education” to a really diverse group of students in a Cultural Studies and Social Thought in Education doctoral program.

MARK: As I understand it, you consider yourself an anarchist… I’m curious as to how you define anarchy, and whether you feel as though it could really work on a large scale in a country like America.

JOHNNY: That’s a good question, because anarchism isn’t one thing. I think, as a label, it can be really misleading. There are a lot of “anarchists” who would disagree with me and how I live. My thing is that I try to live an anarchist philosophy in my life to the degree that I can continue to maintain working in structures that anarchism is fundamentally opposed to – like a university. In theory, anarchism and education are inseparable, but there’s nothing anarchistic about paying a ton of loot, and submitting to an authority, in order to “learn.” So, to the degree I can, I teach using an anarchist approach to education, and teach about anarchism. I mean, I just got tired of hearing and reading about “democracy,” and the anarchist position that decisions ought to be made by those directly impacted by those decisions just made more sense to me. Also, I like that anarchism is about uncertainty and about the possibility that you can not only make a difference, but it’s also your right and responsibility to participate actively in community. The part I think a lot of people freak out about regarding the “A-word,” is that they want “community” to mean a specific thing that is usually defined and policed by the State. Anarchism challenges that one person, or one power (the State), gets to make decisions for people.

So, Anarchism to a bunch of people means “anything goes,” and, while that’s kind of true, it’s not only about breaking stuff and causing a ruckus. While it includes that, it’s not limited to that. We can go way into this, but basically there has been an intentional misrepresentation of anarchists around the planet. Anarchists get pinned as some sort primitive rebels, or wild people, when, in most cases, they’re regular people who are just saying no to authority. So, I think one-sided images and news snippets of the “black bloc,” or of some Hot Topic t-shirt-wearing group of white teens who spray painted some bank windows, present an image that anarchists are a problem. Which is partially true, in a good way. There are so many types of anarchic actions, and all of them interrupt and challenge the State.

I say that with some caution, though, to not claim that I live outside of capitalism. I mean, I think a huge flaw in anarchic groups is that the members can sometimes get caught up in individually resisting to the point of exclusion and isolation. That seems futile to me, so while I hate driving a car, I have one. While I actively challenge capitalism, I don’t make all my own clothes and eat only food I grow. I mean, we all inherited the world we live in. The big question for me is, “What are we gonna do to pass on something different?” So, for some that’s going off the grid. For me, it’s making day to day choices that represent my beliefs the best I can. I may not be able to stop the need for people to need cars, but I’ll work hard to contribute to a community that doesn’t need cars. That’s just an example. Another is food. I choose to buy some of my food, but I also work hard to set up relationships with farmers and to grow food I can trade and share.

I think anarchism has worked all over the planet and continues to. I mean, we can call it anarchism, but there are 1000 year old systems of living that predate “anarchism.” So, Zapatismo is anarchic, but I wouldn’t limit it by saying its an anarchist movement because it’s Zapatismo – a situational, local movement in support of living systems. We might use anarchism to talk about it in classrooms or radical magazines, but it is unique. I think that anarchism is a language or dialect for understanding resistance movements, and for igniting the spark of rebellion that exists in every community. So, yeah, I think it’s happening in America. I think the less we call it out or name it, the more it spreads. I mean, it’s not a system, like some alternate plan, unless the plan is to not have one plan, and to say NO to the State. I think, if the State was to not exist, people would be just fine. I mean, it might not be all peaches and pie, because human nature has the potential to act in extreme self-interest, as well as the potential to act in support of mutual aid. So, I draw from an anarchist framework to emphasize that I wholeheartedly believe that, if people practice mutual aid and work to set up opportunities to care for one another and survive without being dependent on authority, then the more it’s gonna be how we live.

JohnnyL4bMARK: Are you doing any research in addition to teaching? If so, what are you studying?

JOHNNY: Yeah I am doing all sorts of research. It’s sorta the big thing about this job. Right now, my research has a few main foci, but could be overall summed up by saying I am examining how people learn to both identify and examine destructive habits of modern human culture. The premise is simplified by the suggestion that education ought to confront dominant assumptions about humans existing as individuals separate from and superior to the greater ecological systems to which we belong. In short, I am working with teachers, activists, and other community educators to explore alternatives to the current dominant curriculum. We work locally to collaboratively construct learning experiences that are local and in support of living systems.

So, as part of that agenda, I’m researching how adults learn to teach, and what sort of practices and strategies will help support the development of socially just and sustainable communities. I research how we can transition from current school models to more “community-based” schools.

MARK: What, in your mind, is the best case scenario for Ypsilanti?

JOHNNY: Wow, I could make this a huge scenario, but I’ll keep it short.

I would say my best-case scenario is that the community continues to grow in the direction it is and that housing prices and rent don’t skyrocket like they always do in places that are cool to live. I think Ypsilanti has the chance to maintain what it’s got without the typical increase in cost of living. I don’t know, maybe it’s just my hopes. I think it’s got strong local pride and borderline functions as a sub community with sovereignty from a lot of the bullshit going down in Michigan. I mean, the State is increasingly mimicking fascism, and, all over, people fear the State and the State fears the people. Well, in Ypsilanti the strength is in the fact that people seem to not have stock in the policies or even the State politics, but rather in turning toward each other and local relationships.

For example, I love the way folks have been gardening and planting food along the Huron because I think 50 or 100 years from now Ypsilanti will be a food independent community. That people will benefit greatly for the fostering of bee communities, fruit trees, and other edible plants intentionally gardened to support life as food systems are dangerously threatened globally.

I would like to see EMU and the community more integrated. I don’t exactly know how… maybe EMU opens up a program for free classes for Ypsilanti residents or something.

I would like Ypsilanti to get one more music venue slightly larger than Woodruff’s, or maybe it’s Woodruffs. Nonetheless, I think Ypsilanti is a prime location and ready for a spot that will be known like the Blind Pig, the Magic Stick, or now also the Crowfoot. EMU has Pease Auditorium, which I love… recall the Derrick Jensen talk. But it’s a pain in the ass to book a show there, and it’s at the University, so it carries with it a lot of baggage. I mean Dreamland and Woodruffs do great things, but it would do Ypsi right to have a place that could pair up local bands with nationally and internationally touring acts. I guess that’s sort of what Woodruff’s is doing, so hopefully that grows.

MARK: Tell me about the kids you worked with in Detroit?

JOHNNY: Eh, I feel bad talking about them because I’m really careful to not make them objects. I can say, however, that they were amazing kids… smart, and underserved. On one hand, people look at them and label them as “disposable children” or “future prisoners”. On the other hand, though, I’d say they’re the truth. They’re the ones who understand the shit most of us pay to learn about in books. They know more about the failures of the State, of how capitalism works, about racism, classism, sexism… So, I’d say that they are my teachers. They made sure I was woke the fuck up and wouldn’t sleep on the fact that all people mattered and that there was a revolution taking place and it looked different than how it’s often envisioned. I think those youth exist in Ypsi, and everywhere for that matter. It just happened that it was the kids in Detroit who became my teachers, and so it’s thanks to them that I will always hustle harder to push educators to recognize, respect, and learn to represent local youth and the places to which we all belong.

MARK: Any parting thoughts for the people of Ypsilanti?

JOHNNY: Sure. Keep on… Ypsi is for real. Keep it that way.


[If you enjoyed this, check out our Exit Interview Library.]

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  1. Wayne
    Posted August 25, 2013 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    I wish I knew about these people before they left town.

  2. Posted August 25, 2013 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

    Wayne, me too! Especially another former DPS teacher! I have a distant dream of teaching at the college level and I am so pleased to read about someone who is living the dream :) All the best, Johnny!!

  3. Edward
    Posted August 26, 2013 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    Please interview these men living above Smart Catz. Or give them a reality television show on Community Access.

  4. Proud Anarchist
    Posted August 26, 2013 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    We all know what Mark thinks of Anarchy.


  5. anonymous
    Posted August 26, 2013 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    I love the idea of EMU offering classes for free for Ypsi residents, even if it’s just one class a semester, and it’s capped at certain number. I think that would go a great way toward improving relations between the city and the school.

  6. K
    Posted August 26, 2013 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    All of these interviews note the same things. People move here because they want to live in a walkable downtown with good coffee and beer. They don’t come here for low taxes or dollar stores.

  7. Mr. Y
    Posted August 26, 2013 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    From Plymouth to Smarty Catz, One Man’s Epic Journey of Self-Discovery

  8. Mayor Paul
    Posted August 26, 2013 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    People don’t move to Ypsilanti because of high taxes and dollar stores, but as taxes go up and more dollar stores open, Ypsilanti will attract more creative types who value those things.

  9. Posted August 26, 2013 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure I follow that, Paul. Are you saying that creative types, once they’re here, will grow to value dollar stores?

  10. Posted August 26, 2013 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

    I wrote this on facebook, too but here you are:

    This post was great to read & also hard as I am too now living my first official days away from Ypsi – not sure if I’ll return to live there any time soon. (Through no fault of Ypsi – it’s my grant-dependent job).

    All I have to say is that Ypsi is home to me for many of the same reasons Johnny outlined & it’s the #1 place I’d like to live in Michigan.

    I’ll add, too:
    One of the great things about my Ypsi experience was actually getting work with Johnny on a bunch of rad stuff!

  11. Will
    Posted August 26, 2013 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

    Just remember we’ll always be here, eager to see you again. In the meantime, go change the world!

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