Commoning, Public Art, Vandalism


About five months ago, on May Day, the local community joined together to seedbomb the acre of Water Street at the corner of River Street and Michigan Avenue. The little clay balls were handcrafted by children from Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor elementary schools, as well as several adults in the community, who were eager to take ownership of this little, neglected plot of land at the heart of our City, and bring new life to it. These “bombs” contained 8 species of native grasses, and 27 species of flowering plants. And, judging by what’s going on in the field right now (September 4, 2013), some community members also fashioned their own seedbombs with common, non-native annuals like cosmos, cornflower, and sunflower.

Not only was the seedbombing and the potluck feast that followed it a genuinely pleasurable and radical (from the Latin radix, or “root”) experience, we’ve now got a blooming commons.

This morning before work I drove by the field to transplant little and big bluestem, nodding wild onion, ironweed, and red-osier dogwood from my garden, and was happy to encounter the following things in blossom:

Prairie Dock
Showy Goldenrod
Gray-headed coneflower
Black-eyed Susan
Partridge Pea
Little bluestem
Butterfly milkweed
Purple Love Grass

And this was in addition to the aforementioned cosmos and sunflowers. If you look closely, you’ll also find Bearberry (arctostaphylos), blackberry, raspberry, Chokecherry, nasturtium, and marigold.

-1-2What Mark and I and all the Commonists (ranging in age from 1 to 80) involved in this meadow restoration wouldn’t have been able to predict is that shortly after May Day, public art would start to crop up in the deep gorgeous lot directly behind the adopted meadow. The Ypsilanti Freeskool, in cahoots with a handful of other local artists and activists, erected a meandering cairn of pieces of the rubble and stone that fills the lot. This was followed, in turn, by all kinds of raw, spontaneous field art, including a lovely hut that’s currently serving as a kind of Information Center, free library, and meeting space. One intrepid sculptor fabricated a dynamic tree of hay, wire, rebar, and concrete. Then, in August, some Freeskoolers and I erected a 12-foot-tall pyramid of cedar beams, which with rope suspends a large piece of humanmade rubble sourced from the lot.

There’s much to say about the creative making-use of neglected—neglegere: “not chosen”—public space; I’ll spare you, convinced as I am most of you know the factoids and testimonials regarding these kinds of community actions and transformations; but I would only point out a personally beloved fact, which is that on a majority of my visits out to the meadow to look after it, or to the sculpture lot, I encounter strangers—black and white—in the act of interacting with something out there. I’ve had friendly conversations with elderly men taking a lunchbreak from fishing the Huron, and with young Washtenaw Community College students who heard this was a place they could make an open-air sculpture.

After unloading my car this morning of plants and tools, I saw that the simple, lovely little bench someone had anonymously crafted of wood and placed in the seedbomb meadow had been uprooted and overturned. While setting it back into place, I glanced out into the sculpture lot and noticed the cedar pyramid was no longer standing. Walking out towards it, I then saw something awry at the little hut (it had been ransacked, and a fair amount of its contents ruined, or strewn about, or submerged in the rain barrel).

Naysayers might say, “What did you expect?” and I don’t know that I’d waste time trying to argue that vandalism wasn’t a distinct possibility from the get-go. Instead, what I’d like to do is invite all of you who are interested to visit these Commons (the meadow and sculpture lot) and, in being there—either as a creator, an enjoyer, or both—assume the responsibility of also being a caretaker. There are so many ways to be a tender of the Water Street Commons, from making art; to studying the species of butterfly, bee, and bird (a few Eastern Kingbirds were snatching insects from the air above the meadow last week); to transplanting native Michigan plants and grasses from your own garden into the meadow; to watering and caring for the plants that are already there; to installing foodplants; to making art; to helping implement the Ypsilanti Zen Center; to pulling spotted knapweed; and best of all: to picnicking at the end of the day.

Actually, that isn’t best of all. Best of all: just visit. Behind you a wilderness, and before you a busy city street. Being alive and active in the intersection of these two kinds of space is personally (and maybe even publically?) reinvigorating.

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  1. anonymous
    Posted September 5, 2013 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    Vandals trashed the Riverside Arts Center this Spring. And they did quite a bit of damage to the bee hives outside the Co-op earlier this Summer. In both cases, the vandals were found to be young teenage boys. It would be great if they could channel their energy in more productive ways, like planting, and making art.

  2. double anonymous
    Posted September 5, 2013 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    It really is a beautiful space, and so nice to see the hawks and butterflies returning. My hope is that it’s just stupid kids and not someone trying to send some kind of political message.

  3. The Real Real McCoy
    Posted September 5, 2013 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    There’s no political message. The fact is that for every person you have who is trying to do the right thing and make Ypsi a better place, you have twenty pieces of shit destroying it (when they aren’t walking the neighborhoods of productive individuals and stealing everything that isn’t nailed down).

  4. Frog Bottom
    Posted September 5, 2013 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    If it were political, they’d plant pot and poppies on the site and send you off to prison.

  5. Charlie
    Posted September 5, 2013 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    It sure would be nice if those teenage vandals that keep being discovered as the source of this type of trouble had something to do with their time where the onus wasn’t on them to organize it themselves. I lived in a city with nothing to offer teens. We didn’t have anything to do but bother our parents until they made us GO SOMEWHERE & then we bothered everyone else. The cycle continues.

  6. anon
    Posted September 5, 2013 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Teenage vandals? I’m thinking fratboys or landlords.

  7. rubble
    Posted September 5, 2013 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    A landlord isn’t going to get out of his or her airconditioned SUV and walk across that field to knock over artwork. They might send a goon out to do it, but I think it’s unlikely. A better bet, I think, is that it’s the work of a drunk headed into the woods. I do, however, like the idea that it’s an enemy of Mark’s who decided to lash out in the real world after being publicly emasculated on the website.

  8. Posted September 5, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    In Nairobi, the police would shoot them on the spot.

  9. Elliott
    Posted September 5, 2013 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    Nairobi sounds like a paradise.

  10. JC
    Posted September 5, 2013 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    I just went out there to water and discovered that some sweetheart(s) had put the cedar pyramid back together. Thank you.

  11. Charo
    Posted September 27, 2013 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    I think the vandalism was carried out by a demonic force from across the street at KFC.

    I had the epiphany watching this.

One Trackback

  1. By The Miracle on Water Street on September 5, 2013 at 10:34 pm

    […] by my friend Jeff. In it Jeff explained how, the previous night, a person, or persons, unknown had vandalized what we’ve come to call the Water Street Commons, tearing apart a large sculpture, defacing […]

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