Mysterious Ypsi, scaring the fuck out of Ann Arbor since 1906


The above image has been making its way around the Ypsisphere today. According to the story that I was told, it was taken during a 1906 Halloween parade in Downtown Ann Arbor. While it’s a little difficult to make out the words on the side of the wagon, they would appear to read “Mysterious Ypsi.”

Upon first seeing the image, I immediately worked out a scenario in my mind that made me rub my hands together in delight. The men in the image, I imagined, had come from Ypsi with the intention of freaking the fuck out of everyone in Ann Arbor. Dressed like skeletons, they broke into the procession, and then proceeded to make their way through town, just staring silently at people as they passed, filling them with dread.

Sadly, as it turns out, that probably wasn’t the case. A little digging led me to a post from the Bentley Historical Library, where the photo in question [Norton Townsend Brotherton Collection, HS10029] was accompanied by the following comment from a person named Wystan Stevens.

The Michigan Union County Fair was held to raise money to build a clubhouse (the present Union building) for male students at the University. The County Fair was not held “every year in April” — it was held only two times, in 1902 and 1905. I don’t know when the 1902 Fair was held, but the 1905 event was on May 5 and 6. This photo, by Ann Arbor photographer A. S. Lyndon, was taken on May 5, 1905. It is one of several parade photos taken that day by Lyndon, which were reprinted in the June, 1905, issue of the “Michigan Alumnus” magazine. The parade photos were taken on North University Avenue. “Mysterious Ypsi” was the name of just one of the numerous booths set up at the fair, which was held in the old Waterman and Barbour Gyms — two glorious, historic spaces, lined in golden oak, which were connected to each other on the NE corner of the original campus. Built in the 1890s, they were demolished in 1977, by order of a Board of Regents that had forsaken its duty to protect and preserve the University’s architectural heritage.

[The above comments were in response to a U-M caption stating that the carnival in question was held every year in April. It also identified the photo as having been taken in 1906.]

So, there you have it. The photo was apparently taken in 1905, almost six full months before Halloween, and the men in the wagon, I’m guessing, weren’t even from Ypsi. No, they were probably just Ann Arbor frat boys trying to manufacture a little “Mysterious Ypsi” street cred.

For what it’s worth, this County Fair Carnival sounds like it was a pretty cool event. The following description comes from the Bentley post:

“Here’s where you see all the freaks,” boasted one exhibitor in the 1902 County Fair Carnival’s official guidebook. “Several gypsy queens will tell you your fortunes by palmistry,” read another.

Regardless of whether these folks in the wagon really were from Ypsi, I’d like to suggest that next year some of us from Ypsi find a horse and wagon, don some black suits and skull masks, take to the streets of Ann Arbor at dusk, and scare the fuck out of some people…. Mysterious Ypsi must live on.

Posted in Architecture, History, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

The annexation of Whitmore Lake schools… Who wins? Who loses?

800px-Whitmore_Lake_Public_Schools_(sign)The Whitmore Lake School District, which presently serves approximately 1,000 K-12 students, is reported to be $60 million is debt. And word on the street is that Lansing might dissolve the entire thing in favor of an all-charter system, unless a way can be found to put the district back on a path toward solvency. Well, in hopes of avoiding an emergency manager takeover, members of the Whitmore Lake School Board apparently approached representatives of the Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) not too long ago and proposed annexation… And, come Tuesday, the voters of both communities will have an opportunity to vote on the idea.

Although it’s not an issue that I’ll be voting on, I found my interest piqued today by a Facebook question posed by my friend Richard Murphy. Here’s what he had to say.

Ann Arborites: I admit I am a mere curious outside observer of the Ann Arbor Public Schools annexation of Whitmore Lake Schools, but I can’t help but see this as A2 subsidizing sprawl.

The “yes” argument seems to go, “for a mere 0.25 mill increase in A2 taxes, we can give our township neighbors both a high-quality, stable school district, and a 3.7 mill tax break!” Considering that an A2 resident is already paying about 46 mills fully-loaded vs. a Northfield Township resident’s ~36 mills total, I don’t really get the rationale for the A2 voter to take on the financial burden here of giving WL a better school district — and I can virtually hear the township Realtors nailing “Ann Arbor Schools Without Ann Arbor Taxes!” onto every listing they’ve got in Whitmore Lake.

Can anybody who’s looked deeper into this explain how this would *not* function as an anti-greenbelt millage for A2? Is there no Pareto optimal solution here where the folks getting the benefit (the WL district residents) are the ones paying for that benefit?

(And, to be clear, I understand there are benefits to the Ann Arbor *School District* in terms of incentive grants from Lansing, boosting head count, and economies of administrative costs. But that’s a different question than asking about the impact on the City of Ann Arbor’s policy priorities, and the citizenry’s decisions to back those priorities with their tax dollars.)

And, yes, you read that right… If this deal were to go through, taxes would rise in Ann Arbor and fall in Whitmore Lake.

Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether or not such an arrangement would be fair, or whether cost savings could even be achieved through consolidation, I’d like to focus on the question of sprawl, which is one that I hadn’t really thought about prior to Murph’s post… Would the annexation of Whitmore Lake Schools, assuming the ballot initiative is voted into reality, make it more likely that people would move to Whitmore Lake, exacerbating those problems associated with sprawl? I know the vote is right around the corner, and this issue might not be as central to the debate as some of the others, but I think it’s worthy of discussion.

Screen+shot+2014-10-22+at+9.48.03+PMAs for reasons why Ann Arbor voters might be inclined to vote in favor of such a measure, in spite of the fact that it would raise their taxes, Ruth Kraut, the woman behind the blog A2 School Muse, has done a good job of laying out the arguments in favor of annexation. Among other things, she notes, such an arrangement would bring more State money into the district, and it would put an end to Ann Arbor’s “siphoning off (the Whitmore Lake student) population as ‘Schools of Choice’ students,” which is something that hadn’t really occurred to me.

I just checked, and the siphoning off of students from Whitmore Lake doesn’t seem to be too huge of a factor right now, as only 16 Whitmore Lake students applied to transfer to Ann Arbor public schools this past year under the Schools of Choice program, and it’s not likely that all of them ended up making the move. It is an interesting question, though… What if the Ann Arbor Public Schools, as they look to attract more students from outside the boundaries of the City, in hopes of pulling in more State money, cannibalize those outlying districts to the point of collapse? Again, it doesn’t seem like it’s an issue here… especially as I just learned from Ruth Kraut that 10 Ann Arbor students have transferred the other way, to Whitmore Lake schools… but it makes me wonder if it might be a concern elsewhere. And, if so, I wonder if a district-wide consolidation might be the only fair solution.

In addition to Ruth Kraut, I also just heard from my friend Linh Song, the executive director at Ann Arbor Public Schools Educational Foundation, who put it like this.

The annexation is motivated less by Schools of Choice and more by inevitable dissolution. Also, Whitmore Lake students would make up a small percentage of our student population of 16,800 students. We would be able to leverage efficiencies, access the state consolidation grant of $1.4M, bring the students in at the A2 state allowance, and add their buildings to our mix. Otherwise those buildings are prime real estate for charter schools…

For what it’s worth, I’d agree that, from the Ann Arbor Public Schools point of view, it makes sense, given the State consolidation grant. (The State wants fewer districts, and they’re willing to pay to see that happen.) I’d also agree that keeping Whitmore Lake from going charter would be preferable. I just have a hard time getting around the sprawl issue noted above. (I don’t like the idea incentivizing people to live in areas where services are more costly to provide by offering subsidies.) And, to be honest, it kind of rubs me the wrong way that the people of Whitmore Lake, many of whom live there because they don’t want to pay taxes at the rate that those of us in cities like Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti do, would be rewarded for that decision… Personally, I’d prefer that we spend the money being used to bail out the Whitmore Lake schools to relocate the people of Whitmore Lake into nearby towns and cities where resources can be more efficiently allocated, but, like I said, I don’t have a dog in this fight. I just find it all fascinating.

And, as long as we’re quoting people, here’s another item that might be of interest to those of you who will be voting on annexation come Tuesday. It comes from a recent opinion piece by Michigan State Representative Adam Zemke.

…It’s not rocket science as to why parents move to a community, and high quality public schools are at the top of their list of reasons. It’s also not rocket science that if a family can’t or doesn’t want to move to Ann Arbor, they may consider driving their children here. In the latter case, AAPS receives the per-student dollar appropriation (called the foundation allowance) from the State at the level of the district from which they came. For example, in 2014-15, a Whitmore Lake student who comes to Ann Arbor through schools of choice brings with them $7,251. In contrast, an Ann Arbor student brings $9,100.

Just north of Ann Arbor, Whitmore Lake Public Schools remain financially solvent today, despite decreasing numbers of students. It is important to note that this population decrease is the result of families that moved during the great recession coupled with a declining birthrate. The issue of declining birthrate will impact AAPS for the foreseeable future too. And while WLPS has a slight positive fund balance today, they have very few financial reserves and it’s likely that they will soon become a deficit district.

…This economic reality is why annexation of Whitmore Lake represents a benefit to both AAPS and WLPS. By annexing Whitmore Lake, the new AAPS will have the ability to generate over $1.78 million in operating revenue above what is generated in the two districts separately. This is due to the difference in foundation allowance between WLPS and AAPS students. Will the per-student foundation allowance decrease by $5? Possibly, but the net increase due approximately 950 new students entering at almost the current AAPS foundation allowance more than offsets that…

One last thing… Here’s an interesting aside from someone that I know who grew up in Whitmore Lake.

…My basic understanding is that Whitmore Lake overdrew the bank account building that new high school for students that never came. (They expected a big development bump in the 2000’s, but the recession of 2008, and the housing crash, among other things, happened instead.) I’d like to see Whitmore Lake align with Ann Arbor, mainly because I don’t want to see it align with conservative Livingston County (Howell, Brighton, etc…), which is ideologically more likely in the long term…

To be honest, I don’t know how I’d vote. It’s a confusing issue, and I’ve yet to even factor in how this might effect Ypsilanti if it passes. (Will more young families who can’t afford to live in Ann Arbor, who might have considered Ypsilanti otherwise, now gravitate toward Whitmore Lake?) Speaking of Ypsilanti, I saw, in one of the stories that I just read, that someone was asked why Ann Arbor was considering the annexation of Whitmore Lake and not Ypsilanti. The response was pretty straight to the point… something along the lines of, “Ypsilanti never asked.” I know we’ve got plenty of other things to discuss without raising the question of Ypsi annexation, but I wonder why Whitmore Lake pushed for annexation and we didn’t, assuming that’s really what happened.

Posted in Ann Arbor, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 54 Comments

Exploring the links between Nazism and the theory of evolution at Michigan State University

The Science Insider is reporting that an anti-evolution group will be hosting what they’re calling an “Origin Summit” on the campus of Michigan State University this weekend, in part in response to ongoing research being conducted at the University that further substantiates the theory of evolution. According to the website of the Oklahoma-based Christian group behind the event, the symposium will include eight workshops, one of which will focus on how evolutionary theory informed the worldview of Adolf Hitler. That session, in case you’re interested, will be run by Dr. Gerald Bergman, who, depending on which source you choose to believe, is either a distinguished academic or a raving lunatic who has only published in the likes of the Creation Research Society Quarterly since being denied tenure at Bowling Green State University in ’79 and fired the year after… Given that Bergman has said publicly that Darwin’s main goal was not to increase human understanding relative to the origin of life, but to “murder” God, my sense is that the latter is probably a more accurate reflection, but I’ll let you be the judge.

hitler-and-the-nazi-darwinian-worldviewI’d had plans to tell you about my recent near death experience in Georgia tonight, but instead I find myself frantically flipping back and forth between Bergman’s Facebook page, where he discusses his upcoming book, “Hitler and the Nazi Darwinian Worldview,” and the court case he brought against Bowling Green for wrongful termination. And now I’m wondering if there’s any way I might be able to get to MSU this weekend to see for myself just how far Bergman is willing to go to demonize our old friend Darwin.

Here, by way of background, is a clip from the Science Insider.

…News of the event caught MSU’s scientific community largely by surprise. Creation Summit secured a room at the university’s business school through a student religious group, but the student group did not learn about the details of the program—or the sometimes provocative talk titles—until later, says MSU zoologist Fred Dyer. The talk titles led Dyer to suspect that the student group was not involved in planning the conference, he says, prompting him to look into its origins.

Creation Summit sought to hold the event at MSU because “four of our Board members live there in Michigan,” wrote Mike Smith, the group’s executive director, in an e-mail to Science Insider. “We hope to have conferences on campuses throughout the country, but ya gotta start somewhere.”

Creation Summit is “not overtly evangelistic,” Smith wrote. But “we hope to pave the way for evangelism (for the other campus ministries) by presenting the scientific evidence for intelligent design. Once students realize they’re created beings, and not the product of natural selection, they’re much more open to the Gospel, to the message of God’s love & forgiveness.”

MSU has a prominent community of evolutionary biologists. In addition to Lenski, it is the home campus of biologist Robert Pennock, who provided high-profile testimony in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, a 2005 federal court case that produced a ruling against the teaching of intelligent design in public schools. MSU is also the lead partner in the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action, a multiuniversity effort funded by the National Science Foundation that pursues a wide range of evolution-related research and education efforts.

Some leaders of MSU’s evolutionary biology community are urging their colleagues to simply ignore the event, predicting that any engagement and debate will be fruitless. “In my opinion, this event will be just another forgettable blip in the long history of antiscience, antievolution screeds,” Lenski says…

For what it’s worth, I don’t deny that Hitler was likely influenced by Darwin. That, of course, isn’t the same as saying that Darwin is somehow complicit in the killing of millions Hitler saw as inferior, as Bergman is suggesting. For those interested in delving deeper on the subject, I’d suggest Dan McMillan’s recent piece at, pulled from his book How Could This Happen: Explaining the Holocaust. As McMillan says, “The evolution theorist couldn’t have known that people like Hitler would exploit his ideas in such horrifying ways.” But that, I suspect, was probably already obvious to all of us capable of rational thought.

While the provocateur in me appreciates Bergman’s attempt to popularize the phrase “Nazi Darwinian Worldview” in hopes of furthering his political objectives, it just doesn’t stand up to even the slightest scrutiny. I mean, I get where he’s coming from. I get that he’d like to suggest that mass-extermination, school shootings and the like are what you’re sure to get if you question the infallible word of God as conveyed through the Bible, but there isn’t really any evidence of that. Sure, Hitler may have deluded himself that what he was doing wasn’t evil based upon his understanding of Darwin’s theories, but that doesn’t mean that Darwin is responsible for the extermination of millions any more than the Beatles are responsible for the crimes of the Manson Family or J.D. Salinger for the murder of John Lennon. Millions and millions of people accept the fact that life evolved on this planet, and they’ve done so without calling for the extermination of religious minorities. Not just that, but many of them actually profess to be deeply religious. Take, for example, Pope Francis, who just made his feelings on evolution known this past weekend when he said, When we read about Creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so.” This isn’t about good versus evil. This is about truth versus fear. And Gerald Bergman is on the wrong side of history.

One last thing… As our friend Doug Skinner just reminded me, “Hitler never mentioned Darwin. He did, however, call Henry Ford his ‘inspiration’.”

Posted in Religious Extremism, Science, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 34 Comments

An anonymous text warns that a portal to Hell is going to be opened in Ypsilanti on Sunday. Please plan accordingly.

I just received the following text from a number that I don’t recognize, and I’m not sure what to make of it.


Should I take this seriously? Should I report it to someone?

I’m not certain, but I suspect it might have something to do with the gateway between dimensions that was first discovered back in 2011.

update: OK, there are now posters showing up around town.


Posted in Art and Culture, Uncategorized, Ypsilanti | Tagged , , , , | 17 Comments

Ypsilanti Immigration Interview: Emily and Isaac Wingfield

Still trying to unravel the mystery of why people would choose, of their own free will, to move to Ypsilanti, I reached out to new residents Isaac and Emily Wingfield, and demanded that they submit to a formal Ypsilanti Immigration Interview. Here are the results.


MARK: Isaac, I understand that you just recently took a position at the University of Michigan and decided to settle down in Ypsilanti. Why Ypsi? Was it strictly a financial decision, or did other things factor into it?

ISAAC: On paper it was largely a financial decision… researching places to live from 350 miles away, we didn’t have a lot to go on. There were other things that definitely factored in as well, like good public transportation and being reasonably bicycle friendly. (Since I’m either biking or riding the bus to work, these were both essential.) That said, when we visited to look at our options, we really liked that Ypsi felt like its own place. I was also drawn to the touch of grittiness Ypsi has.

MARK: It’s a discussion we have here quite a bit. There are some in Ypsi, I think, who would see a downtown Starbucks, for instance, as a good thing… a sign that we’d somehow made it as a community. I’m in the other camp. I think, in the long run, authenticity is more important. In a world where everything is beginning to look the same, I value places that are able to maintain their unique identities, and I suspect that those of us who feel this way are growing in number. Fortunately, we haven’t really had to have that fight here yet, as Ypsi isn’t exactly on the radar of corporate America, but I suspect that it’ll happen. Hopefully, by the time it does, we’ll have learned a lesson or two from our neighbor to the west, where chains making more significant inroads.

EMILY: I don’t want a Starbucks…

ISAAC: I’d agree. I think having more independent places gives you a much more intimate sense of place than somewhere like Starbucks, which are the same everywhere in the country.

EMILY: But, we need people to start and run businesses. Do you think Ypsilanti has entrepreneurs like that?

MARK: We’ve got a few, but we could always use more. My hope is that, with the success of places like the Corner Brewery, Beezy’s and the Wurst Bar, that others begin to realize that there’s real opportunity here. I suspect that food and beer is where it will start, but one hopes that it expands from there. We have the Rocket, which is great, but I’d like to see other retail businesses open. And, ultimately, I’d like to see us bringing in a few tech companies from Ann Arbor, the employees of which, I suspect, would rather be in a real downtown environment than in an office park a few miles from a shopping mall. But, yeah, I think we can do it.

ISAAC: Yeah, that sounds great, and I would love to see that kind of innovation and entrepreneurship in Ypsi. We don’t have plans to open a business, but we try to be intentional about supporting local companies by giving them our business.

MARK: And what is it that you’ll be teaching, Isaac?

ISAAC: I’m teaching photography in the Residential College (RC). I’m excited about the RC because of the interdisciplinary approach. It’s a great community to be joining. I’m also fortunate to be stewarding the only darkroom left on campus, since I love traditional film-based photography.

MARK: So there’s not a dark room in the entire art school? I get that technology is shifting rapidly, and that things like 3D printing labs are probably of more interest to incoming students than darkrooms, but I still find it amazing that there’s now only one on campus.

ISAAC: I’d agree, but it’s happening all over; programs are tearing out darkrooms to put in digital labs. I think it reflects a changing perception of the importance of craft. I think, however, that the hands-on experience a darkroom offers has some staying power that sitting in front of a computer doesn’t offer.

MARK: And what do you do, Emily?

EMILY: I’m a contracted textile designer for the John Ritzenthaler Company in Pennsylvania. I design kitchen textiles for retailers.

MARK: I don’t think I’ve ever talked with a kitchen textile designer. What can you tell me about the industry, and the way things are headed?

EMILY: Well, it was only the nineties when things were mostly being made here in the United States. Everything was also more hands-on. My first boss started out hand-painting the repeat patterns, and going to the factory to make sure the screens were properly made. Now everything is manufactured overseas, and the design work is all digital, and that’s how I work. I don’t think this will change anytime soon. There are some niche markets for more locally-made and sustainable production. I have a friend in Providence who is doing this, and I admire it… I’d like to see more of that.

MARK: Where had you both been living just prior to this?

ISAAC: We were living in Houghton, New York. Allegany County is the poorest in the state, and has a population of just under 50,000. Our new neighborhood, here in Ypsi, is a bit different. We can’t walk down the street to visit the sheep out to pasture anymore.

MARK: There was talk for a while of putting goats on Water Street, which I think would have been nice.

EMILY: I like goats, but I have a lot of questions… Like why? And who would take care of them?

ISAAC: You’re so practical about it, Emily…

EMILY: It’s because I’d really like to see it happen. Let’s cover the logistics!

ISAAC: I love the idea of more urban agriculture. I’m not sure the point of goats, unless it’s a dairy operation, or they’re just weed control. But I’m sure there’s some way that the City could move forward on that in a way that benefits everyone, keeps the open space, and provides more local food production.

MARK: We’ve got at least one person in town with a small scale goat operation. If I understand correctly, he sells both milk and cheese. My sense is that others would like to do the same, if they had room to do so, and if the City were more receptive to it. As for why some of us had thought about it for Water Street, it was a combination of things. Primarily, we had this big 38-acre parcel in the middle of town that had been sitting vacant for over a decade, so we thought, “Why not put it to use?” And, as you mention, we thought that the goats would help with weed control. It would also give passersby something interesting to look at. And, I thought, we could easily find a local person interested in urban agriculture to jump at the opportunity. But, instead, some of us got together and planted a native prairie along Michigan Avenue.

ISAAC: The prairie is a start. The struggle with urban farms is that property value in the City tends to work against the space typically used for agriculture, even of the small-scale urban style. The best thing is probably to develop a culture that supports a kind of pop-up farming, where underused property (vacant lots like the Water Street property, but there a plenty of other examples, just on a smaller scale), can be used on a shorter term for small livestock or farming. Short term farming is tough though—farming requires such an investment in the soil, and that takes some time.

MARK: And how have you found Ypsi thus far? Are you experiencing any culture shock?

EMILY: Ypsi feels very comfortable. I love how we are in close proximity to neighbors, and live in a neighborhood where people desire to be in community with each other. I also love that we can walk downtown and to the parks. It’s a very walkable city, which I hope only grows in that way. It’s a small town that has potential to grow and offer a lot, but keep the small town charm.

MARK: When you say that people in Ypsi “desire to be in community with each other,” do you mean that there’s more of a communal feel here that there was in New York State? Were people there more private, closed-off, etc?

EMILY: I wasn’t thinking necessarily in contrast to New York, but, in other cities where I’ve lived, you sometimes get a sense that people don’t really want anything to do with you. Our neighborhood is very friendly.

ISAAC: It also doesn’t feel like the kind of place where you have to live forever to be considered a local. Everyone welcomes you in.

MARK: That’s one of the things that kept bringing us back to Ypsi. (We’ve left twice. Once for Atlanta, and once for Los Angeles. And, in both instances, we came back.) We felt that we could contribute here in a substantive way, and that our efforts would be appreciated. There wasn’t really an entrenched infrastructure standing in the way of us doing things. It was more of a meritocracy. Or at least that was our sense…. that this was a place where young people would be welcomed and valued.

EMILY: Oh, interesting. I didn’t realize you guys have lived in so many places and have returned. You need a nickname or something – the boomerangs. It’s encouraging to hear that effort is appreciated.

MARK: You also lived in Providence for a while, right?

EMILY: Yes, we were there for three years.

ISAAC: We lived in Federal Hill, which was supposedly the neighborhood that ran New England during the heyday of the mob.

MARK: It seems as though there’s recently been an influx of people from Providence. In addition to you both, we now also have Sara Meyer and Seth Gruenwald. I know that, technically, they’re living in Ann Arbor right now, in U-M’s family housing, but I get the sense that they’re more well suited for Ypsi.

ISAAC: I think there’s some similarities between the two places, being post-industrial.

EMILY: There’s something about them both that’s down-home. There are still a good amount of locals who are Ypsi through and through, but then you have the transient folks as well. We just went to a block party in our neighborhood and got a real feel for this mixture. It’s diverse, inviting, and beautiful. And, I think Providence is similar.

ISAAC: Definitely. They both feel like places that have maintained their distinct culture, and have a mixture of hard-working salt-of-the-earth folks who are locals, born and raised, just living life. They also both have people who come and go.

MARK: Generally speaking, what do you miss most about Providence? And, more specifically, what do you miss about the Providence art scene?

EMILY: I miss the good, cheap eats. There was super authentic food of all kinds: Guatemalan, Thai, Italian, seafood, Indian, farm to table, and gourmet, if you felt like splurging. And it was all so good. I also miss the water and geography. Specifically, I miss the art scene in Providence. I miss having a good music venue. We enjoyed going to see plays. They had the PPAC which showed Broadway plays, but also a couple independent type places whch would put on more progressive contemporary plays, or community folks putting on plays at AS220. AS220 is a cool organization and so is New Urban Arts. Both attract artists, and those who appreciate art, and help them use their skills to give back to the community. Those were gems in Providence, for sure. The people just do what they love to do, and sharing that with the community makes the world a better place. Yeah, I miss that. I miss the people. Lots of creativity overflowing from individuals, and lots of parties and potlucks and hanging out inspiring each other.

ISAAC: It seems odd, but one thing that’s been a big adjustment being in the Midwest is how the city is laid out. Because Providence is on the East Coast, it’s about 200 years older, and it shows when you walk around the city. Many neighborhoods were built with houses right up on the sidewalk because they needed to make the most of the space they had. With that in mind, it feels strange to be in our clearly urban Ypsilanti neighborhood, where every house has a sizable front yard, not to mention a back yard. I miss that kind of compactness. I think it also reflects the limited impact the automobile had on the structure of the city.

When it comes to the art scene, I do think there are a lot of similarities between Providence and Ypsilanti. Because they’re both places where industry was, but has largely moved out, they’re very affordable, which makes both great places for the arts. Artists have a lot more freedom to operate under the radar because they can afford to create a lot more, so you see more art being made, and more organizations popping up.

That said, because of the difference in scale, Providence has a lot more in the way of resources that really enrich the arts community. The RISD Museum is an amazing resource for the community, and RISD as a whole definitely spills over into the local arts community, with lots of graduates staying around afterwards. There’s also a number of fantastic community arts organizations that are doing great stuff in Providence, like Emily already mentioned. New Urban Arts is particularly close to my heart after being involved there for several years.

MARK: What did you do at New Urban Arts?

ISAAC: I started out as an artist mentor, spending several hours a week working with high schoolers who came to their drop-in hours. It’s pretty unique in that it’s very unstructured, but there are a lot of very committed, involved students. It’s very egalitarian, mentors making things alongside students, rather than teachers instructing, and it creates a great community with some fantastic results.

MARK: Where are you both from originally?

EMILY: I lived in Delaware until middle school, and then my family moved to Eastern North Carolina. Both are original for me as in I feel Northern and Southern at the same time. My parent’s roots are in North Carolina.

ISAAC: I grew up in Asheville, North Carolina. It’s definitely a place that is still in my blood, with all its complexity.

MARK: What kind of response do you get from people in Ann Arbor when you tell them that you’re Appalachian State grads?

ISAAC: There hasn’t been much of a response I’ve found. Occasionally the football game from 2007 comes up, but I suspect that was a bigger deal for Appalachian to win than it was for Michigan to lose, or at least of the sort people want to remember.

EMILY: It’s mixed. Some people have never heard of it, and then some are like “Oh yeah… I know that school.” Then it comes out that it’s only because of the football game 5 years ago.

MARK: I know this is probably coming somewhat from left field, but I’m curious to know your thoughts on rural poverty in Appalachia. (I think my interest stems from the fact that I was born in Kentucky on the day Robert Kennedy started his ”poverty tour” of Appalachia, but it’s a subject I keep coming back to on this blog.)

EMILY: I don’t have too much knowledge here, and don’t know if you’re looking for a particular thought. But, for me, living in places with rural poverty, I’ve learned not to judge. There are stereotypes, but not everyone fulfills those. I’ve also learned to love life with little, and that rich culture comes from relationships between generations. Someone might choose to stay in the place they grew up, even though they won’t have a steady income or a promise of the “American dream.” They may have a different kind of wealth than someone like me, who has moved around a lot — strong roots and ties to a familiar place.

There’s not an easy fix to rural poverty, or any poverty. When it comes to these kind of issues, I take wisdom from Michael Jackson, “If you want to make the world a better place take a look at yourself and make a change.” For me, on this topic, that means befriending people who aren’t in the same social and economic class that I am, understanding hardships they face, and helping when I can. Simply put, I try to love my neighbor, or friend, how I would love myself.

ISAAC: I would definitely agree; it’s easy to come into situations (or just look in from a distance, as an outsider) where rural poverty is prevalent and bring a lot of assumptions and stereotypes. Like Emily said, spending time in the place, and getting to know people makes a big difference in how you think about it. I would also say that rural Appalachian poverty is definitely distinct within rural poverty. It’s certainly present in my mind given the poverty in Allegany County, where we lived prior to Ypsilanti. It’s rural poverty, and it’s just on the edge of Appalachia. Both our time there, and my time in Western North Carolina, have given me a glimpse into that world. There is a long history of poverty in Appalachia, as the allusion to Robert Kennedy suggests, and that history makes it all too easy for people to make assumptions about “poor people” in Appalachia that often loses sense of the actual people who are living in poverty. There is certainly difficulty in a life of rural poverty, and education and exposure to new and different things is probably one of the most difficult. Urban poverty is somewhat different because living in a city exposes you to a broader swath of life. In a city it is much more difficult to live without bumping into people who don’t look like you, don’t live like you, don’t think like you on a regular basis just because there are more people. As a well educated academic, I am keenly aware of the things I miss out on that rural communities filled with poverty still have, often because they don’t have a choice, primarily the sense of rootedness in both relationships/family and place. I try to keep up with a podcast called Inside Appalachia, and the coal industry, and the struggle in parts of Appalachia to move beyond it, are often featured in one way or another. Because of the rootedness of those communities, folks who have only ever known that place and those people, it’s hard to envision leaving the family, the friends, and the landscape behind. Not necessarily because they can’t, so much as it is unappealing to leave those things behind which mean so much to them. So they tend to struggle on.

MARK: What’s the role of photography in social change?

ISAAC: That’s a reasonable question, but I’m not sure I best know how to answer it. I am probably of the school that believes photography, at least on its own, has a hard time generating social change. There is a relationship between the two, and it can help create a groundswell, but I think that most often happens when there’s already a movement afoot, and photography just helps bring it into the limelight. At the same time, I would like to think, as a photographer, that my work makes some kind of impact on the world (though I’m not sure if that’s the same thing as “social change”). However, not working in the photojournalism or documentary photography tradition makes this issue feel slightly less urgent to resolve for myself. Did Lewis Hine’s images of children working in mills and factories instigate changes in child labor laws, or was he just showing up at the right time in the slowly changing perspective on children in the workforce? Were Ansel Adam’s images of the West instrumental in the formation of national parks, or were the national parks already on their way, and he was just one more voice to support the cause? It’s hard to say.

MARK: What would you like to accomplish while you’re here in Ypsi?

EMILY: I would like to get connected and help create community. We are starting with our immediate neighborhood by going to our neighborhood association meetings and jumping in where we are able.

ISAAC: It’s hard to say, since we’re still learning about Ypsi. Definitely getting to know folks, getting to know more about the community, the history, and eventually finding some way to get plugged in and serve the community that uses our skills and abilities. I’d also love to get into a community garden.

[Still wondering why people want to make Ypsilanti their home? Check out the rest of our Ypsilanti Immigration Interviews.]

Posted in Art and Culture, Special Projects, Uncategorized, Ypsilanti | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments


Sidetrack ad Aubree’s ad BUY LOCAL... or shop at Amazon through this link Banner Initiative Apes Selection