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#OTGYpsi: The 're-wilding' of Ypsilanti's Water Street property


Concentrate Ann Arbor

Rylee Barnsdale's Feature Article: Free walking tours highlight the "re-wilding" of Ypsi's Water Street property

Heathers on Earth

Water Street Redevelopment Area

Bridge Community Cafe on Instagram

Medicinal Plant Walk with Heathers on Earth


Josh Hakala: You are listening to 89 one WEMU. I'm Josh Hakala, and this is On the Ground Ypsi. It's a program intended to bring you the stories of the Ypsilanti community, and we bring you On the Ground Ypsi in partnership with the reporting team at Concentrate Media. Today, I am joined by Concentrate Media reporter Sarah Rigg, whose online news site is reporting this week on the effort to "re-wild" Water Street. And, Sarah, thanks so much for being with us.

Sarah Rigg: Thanks for having me, Josh.

Josh Hakala: And joining us over the phone is Heather Wysor. She is an herbalist and a founder of the online shop Heathers on Earth, which focuses on foraged and natural medicines. Thanks so much for joining us, Heather.

Heather Wysor: Thank you.

Josh Hakala: All right. So, Water Street. If you're from Ypsilanti, there's a good chance you know about it and probably an even better chance you have a strong opinion about what should be done with it. It's an ongoing story. Sarah, for those who might not be aware, if you could give us sort of a cliff notes explanation of what Water Street is and why it's important to the city of Ypsilanti.

Sarah Rigg: Sure. Water Street is a site that has been a thorn in the side of more than one mayor of Ypsilanti. They've constantly been trying to find a developer to come in. Multiple deals have fallen through. They discovered the site was contaminated. As you said, that's the cliff notes version. I'm sure Heather could go into more detail about, you know, things that are relevant to the work that she's doing.

Josh Hakala: So, this is a story written by Riley Barnsdale, who is off being a nerd in the woods rather than her usual of being a nerd right here in the studio. But what drew your team to want to write about this story?

Sarah Rigg: Yeah. So, I'm the project manager for On the Ground Ypsilanti. I used to do this gig on the radio, and I'm filling in for Rylee and my first time here with Josh. And we brainstorm ideas with our editor. And it doesn't really matter who came up with the ideas. Sometimes, the other person will take it and run with it, and I think I'm actually the person who thought we should do something about this. People in the community will point us at cool stuff, which I love. And that's one of the advantages of us being on the ground there in Ypsilanti is that you should check out this Instagram of this Heather person who wants to rewild Water Street. So, that sounded intriguing. We had to follow up on that.

Josh Hakala: Well, the reason why Rylee wrote the article was to draw attention to the folks like Heather, who would like to see at least some of the Water Street property remain a natural space. And, Heather, you've spent more than a decade exploring the Water Street area. Can you tell me how you got started with that and what drew you to that part of the city?

Heather Wysor: So, I am originally a city girl, but, over time, through healing and going after some spiritual practices, recognize that nature needs to be a bigger part of my life than I ever really expected it to be. And so, when I adopted a dog, we needed space to run around free. And he wasn't a leash boy. And so, we would go out to Water Street, and we had our own 30 acres. And, you know, besides a few people living on the property once in a while and, you know, other people walking their dogs or exploring, for the most part, it was just us. And it was really cool to be out there and just to be able to do whatever we wanted to do. You know, we didn't want to do much except explore. But then, as we were out there, we started to notice other things being built, which meant that even though I wasn't seeing other people, there was people there creating and doing things that were different from what I was doing. So, people started building sculptures and then the little free library showed up and then the trading post. And that was really fun because that was when the Water Street Commons came into play. And that was when the whole community got involved in the plan for keeping it wild, because there was no plan for development at that time. You know, the city was recognizing that the land was being used by the people of the city, but they didn't know how to do anything with no money. Just let the people be on the land. And then, from what I gather, they did some testing and found out that it was more contaminated than they thought previously. So, that's when they put up the fence around the Water Street Commons and made everybody even take the pieces down. It didn't stop people from going on to the land, you know? There's still always been trespassing. Whether the city says don't go there or not, you know, people still walk the land. The way that people use greenspace in the city, they use it how they would like to use it. Because, you know, it's not like there's a playground. You build one, you know? That's kind of how it was. And so, people were using it the way that they wanted to use it. And then, it started rewilding very fast, a lot faster than I expected it to, you know, because it was really just rubble when I started walking it. It was just concrete with rebar. And then, people would pull out, you know, chunks and build stuff with it. But for the most part, it had no soil. And, over time, the soil came back, and things started growing more and more. And now, there's trees, you know? It's wild! Really, it's wild! And, you know, even early on, I used to see all sorts of wildlife back there, like foxes and all sorts of big birds, hawks, you know, really cool stuff back there and stuff that you wouldn't see anywhere else in the city. And then, there's the edge, right? The pathway that people can walk. But then, there's a whole section of nature area that has been untouched but really untouched by humans, which means that nature did what it was intended to do. And all of the natural elements are there. All of the native plants that are supposed to show up showed up. And it's really cool to see the diversity and to see all the critters come in because of the diversity and then to just see it, like, continue to just grow and grow and get greener and greener and greener. I do walk because I was an urban forager. I do walk a lot of land that has been derelict. You know, somebody owns it. They don't maintain it. This is something different. I've seen it grow into something that is really special. And a lot of the the rare birds are around there, too, You know, like, there are very unique aspects to this land because of the weirdness of it, right? Like, why is it empty still? Why? There's something about it. Nothing is going to be there except for the people and the nature. And I'm calling it in right now.

Josh Hakala: You're listening to On the Ground Ypsi on WEMU. I'm joined by Concentrate Media's Sarah Rigg and Heather Wysor, the founder of the online shop Heathers on Earth, which specializes in medicinal plants. And you partnered with Bridge Community Cafe and the Queer Outdoors to organize plant walks and foraging walks at Water Street. Tell me about these organizations and what these walks are like.

Heather Wysor: Yeah. So, Bridge Community Cafe is a wonderful business that is run by my friend Sierra, and she wanted to have events for the community to teach people how to take care of themselves. And so, she called me and said, "Hey, Heather! Can you do a walk to provide people some skills that that they might need for the future, considering it's a little uncertain?" I've done Water Street walks before, but this is something that's my new business. And so, it's really easy to pop from the coffee shop just down to, you know, across the river and down onto the Border-to-Border trail. You know, we all just walk together and be with like-minded people who are interested in learning how to be more self-sufficient and interested in learning more about the world around them and how they can access more information. Those type of people are really important to get, and we need to connect those people together because we all need each other and we all need our other skillsets, right? We all need each other to be smart moving forward. And so, let's get this information to the people's hearts and minds, so that we can help each other, especially now. But, in the future, of course, right, when things are getting more and more uncertain, these are skills that all of us are going to benefit from. And, again, like, it's not anything out of reach. We just take a walk down to an area that's right in our neighborhood, and we get to look at plants that are helpful for our health journeys. And then, maybe, we don't we don't harvest those plants from Water Street because they're toxic. But we have that information now. We have that skill set now. And then, when we see it in an area, maybe we plant it in our garden or we harvest it somewhere else. And now, we have that in our toolbox. And then, our community has that in their toolbox, and it ripples.

Josh Hakala: So, you're someone who knows so much about plants and what they can do for people. What type of native plants have you found and what uses do they have? And is the Water Street area particularly rich in plants that can be used for natural medicines?

Heather Wysor: It is, actually. The wonderful thing about medicinal herbs is that most of them are weeds. Most of them are just weeds. And we put a name on it, and then we say, "Oh, this is a flower. No, that's from your garden." So, it really is accessible on our own. And things that we found at Water Street are things like yarrow. Yarrow is a common herb that a lot of people use, but it's good for stimulating the immune system, It's good for colds and flus, that sort of thing. There's also a lot of St. John's wort down at Water Street. St. John's wort is a common remedy for depression and anxiety. You know, I just want to know only if you're not using other pharmaceutical medication because it will interact. But St. John's Wort is a staple for me when I'm feeling low. Teasel is down there. Teasel is a beautiful plant because it gets really tall, and it almost looks like people when it's in the field. It has these little heads, like a tuft on the top. And it's really, like, a stunning plant. But the root of it is used for Lyme disease and autoimmune disease treatment. And it's one of the first that I always go to--that and Japanese knotweed. So, these are weeds that we're using to treat very gnarly diseases.

Sarah Rigg: I'm sort of an amateur forager myself, just a backyard forager. And it always seems like from the time I was a kid, it seemed like waste spaces, things that people considered waste spaces, always had really interesting diversity in them.

Heather Wysor: Absolutely. And, you know, this is an old wives' tale, right? But the theory is that anything that you need specifically is going to show up in your backyard because the plants are drawn to you with what you need, you know? They're wanting to help us. They're wanting to gift us their medicine, and they want us to get to know them. Walk out into our environment and say, "I'm curious about that flower. What is that?" And so, a lot of times when you have that sort of sight, when you tune in and you drop down and you see something in your environment and you go look at it, you say, "What is that?" A lot of times you actually need that! It would be beneficial for you to take either that flower into your home and smell it or take the plant in and use it as medicine, whatever. Learn about it. Take it to your friend who might need it. It's all part of it.

Sarah Rigg: Is that why I have so much catnip in my backyard?

Heather Wysor: Oh! You have a cat?

Sarah Rigg: I do. Two of them.

Heather Wysor: Yeah. They're calling it in.

Josh Hakala: I think a renegade cat probably did that. And that's entirely possible. It might have been my cats. They're obsessed. Well, I wanted to ask you a little bit about the Water Street development as I mentioned at the top. Everyone seems to have a strong opinion as to what should be done with it. So, I ask you. Ultimately, what would you like to see done with Water Street, and what does your vision look like?

Heather Wysor: Yeah. So, I'm going to just go all out on my, like, ideal vision without any consideration to, you know, money or taxes or, you know, any sort of like development structures. But, from my perspective, it's very clear that it's going to be hard to develop considering the toxicity. And if it is going to be developed, it's going to be very expensive. So, whoever is going to develop it is going to have to have a really solid plan for its future. And I don't know where that's going to come into play. I hope that it does. I hope that it does. But, in the meantime, it's just sitting there, and it is being used by a lot of different people. How do we use this for the community in the meantime? Or recognize the grittiness of that and completely pivot. So, I'm all for pivoting. From my perspective, it makes sense to give it back to someone who will responsibly steward it in a way that keeps the native habitat in mind and also humanistic terms in mind. What does the community need? What would the community benefit from? What are the services that the community needs right now? Do something small. Keep it within a larger design of smaller structures, within a larger natural habitat. And then, go from there. But give it to somebody who will be able to steward it responsibly.

Josh Hakala: Well, it's great to have your view of this. Heather Wysor, the founder of the online shop Heathers on Earth, and Concentrate Media's Sarah Rigg. Thanks to both of you for joining us here today on On the Ground Ypsi.

Sarah Rigg: Thanks, Josh.

Heather Wysor: Thank you. I appreciate it so much.

Josh Hakala: And if you would like to listen to past episodes of On the Ground Ypsi or would like to listen to an extended version of today's interview, you can find it on our website at WEMU dot org and the WEMU app. This is On the Ground Ypsi. I'm Josh Hakala, and this is 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti. Public radio from Eastern Michigan University.

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Josh Hakala is the general assignment reporter for the WEMU news department.
Sarah has been involved in journalism since she began producing a one-page photocopied neighborhood "newspaper" in grade school, later reporting for and then editing her high school paper. She has worked on staff at Heritage Newspapers and the (now defunct) Ann Arbor Business Review and has written as a freelancer for various publications ranging from The Crazy Wisdom Journal to the News-Herald to AnnArbor.com. She began writing for Concentrate in February 2017.
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