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An Ypsilanti history lesson as the city turns 200 years old on Saturday


Josh Hakala: This is 89 one WEMU. I'm Josh Hakala. The city of Ypsilanti's Bicentennial will be celebrated this Saturday at Riverside Park. With that in mind, it seemed like a good time to talk to Dr. John McCurdy, a professor of history at Eastern Michigan University. He was part of a small team that was tasked with putting together a book to celebrate the city's 200th birthday. It's called "Ypsilanti Histories: A Look Back at the Last Fifty Years." I started off by asking him to paint me a picture of what the city was like back when it was founded in 1823.

Dr. John McCurdy: So, the city is founded.... the date they choose is 1823, which is the date that Benjamin Woodruff and several other individuals come west to Michigan and decide that they want to plant a settlement on the Huron River. There had already been a trading post published by French traders going back to Gabriel Godfroy, who had been in the locations in 1760. And, of course, there had always been indigenous people in this area, most recently the Potawatomi and the Wyandot people, who had been here for four generations. So, 1823, we mark, as the date that, basically, to continue inhabitance by settlers begins in Ypsilanti.

Josh Hakala: So, where does the name Ypsilanti come from?

Dr. John McCurdy: From Demetrios Ypsilantis, the Greek general. He was known as the "Greek George Washington" in the 1820s. And then, this sort of moment of American history, of great optimism, of a sense that the revolution and republics and democracy is spreading across the world, that Greece was joining the United States in this new democratic experiment. Things don't really work out as well for Greece and for Ypsilantis, but the name sticks, nonetheless.

Josh Hakala: So, cities like Detroit were starting to evolve in the early days, and it seemed like cities like Ypsilanti sort of were, I guess, conduits to other cities. Like what kind of role did Ypsilanti play in those early days?

Dr. John McCurdy: So, Ypsilanti has the advantage of being, of course, on the Huron River, which takes you right into the lakes and will get you down to Detroit. But also, there had been a historic Sauk Trail, a Native American trail, which had basically reached from modern Detroit to modern Chicago, and Ypsilanti is placed right on top of that. Of course, this trail is renamed Michigan Avenue today. And so, Ypsilanti was able to benefit from those transportation networks. Of course, when the railroads come, that adds a third link to connect Ypsilanti to the area and to the rest of the country.

Josh Hakala: In the World War Two era, the area got a boost from building cars, and, of course, the role Willow Run played in the war effort. Can you talk about the impact that period of time had on the city?

Dr. John McCurdy: Yeah. So, I mean, Ypsilanti before World War Two is a pretty small town. I mean, it's still a small town, but it was even smaller then. And it was pretty much a sleepy college town with some light industries. But the coming of World War Two, and especially the construction of the Willow Run plant, the bomber plant, really changes the town because it changes its philosophy. It moves much more towards heavy industry. Of course, that attracts a large number of immigrants, both white and Black, largely coming from the South, but from some other places as well, and really sets the city on a path of growth. I would say this, the second piece of that is, of course, following World War Two, there's a lot of money invested through the GI Bill, in terms of college education. And there would be, at this moment, that we see what is now Eastern Michigan University grow from a small school, a small teachers' college of a couple thousand students to what it grows to, which is a university of about 25,000 students. And that all happens largely as a consequence of the changes with World War Two.

Josh Hakala: What are some of the moments or even the movements in the city's modern history that have made Ypsilanti what it is today?

Dr. John McCurdy: Well, I think there's several. Of course, I think one of the great priorities of the city has been trying to preserve its heritage. And so, the creation of the Ypsilanti Heritage Foundation, as well as creating a historic district to preserve the buildings and the way the city looked and I think really pushed back against some of the urban renewal that was destroying some of the integrity of the buildings within, especially the downtown area, but also the growth of communities, organizations, neighborhood organizations, to really try to preserve the city and to bring some attention to Ypsilanti as it is. I think also recently, I mean, there's there's been a shift to what is the purpose of Ypsilanti. Of course, the deindustrialization that we've witnessed over the last 50 years has rocked the city. You know, there are several parts of the city that are basically abandoned at this point that had once been factories for Ypsilanti to rethink itself. Like, who is it if it's not an industrial place, if it's not producing cars, what does the designing exist for? And I think it's rediscovered some of its roots in education. Of course, Eastern Michigan has been here since 1849. So, that's become more of a, I think, focus of the city than it once had been.

Josh Hakala: So, tell me about the book that you helped put together, "Ypsilanti History: A Look back at the Last Fifty Years." Of course, we're celebrating 200 years of Ypsilanti. But why did you focus on the last 50?

"Ypsilanti Histories: A Look Back at the Last Fifty Years."
Ypsilanti Historical Society
"Ypsilanti Histories: A Look Back at the Last Fifty Years."

Dr. John McCurdy: The sort of the longer version of the story is that there was a formed Ypsilanti Bicentennial Commission to plan the celebration for the bicentennial. And one of the things they wanted to do was to produce a book for the bicentennial and a history of Ypsilanti. And so, we got to work on this. Bill Nickels, the president of the Historical Society and myself as well, along with Evan Milan and Sarah Zawacki, also helped with putting this collection together. And we thought what would be good was there are good histories of Ypsilanti written in 1923 for the centennial and in 1973 for the sesquicentennial. So, we thought, well, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, why don't we focus on the last 50 years? And rather than trying to have a narrative voice tell that story, to ask the people of Ypsilanti to contribute their accounts of what had happened over the last 50 years. And so, what we did is we put together a collection of 40 essays, each about 2000 words in length or less--we tried to keep them very short--which just focused on different aspects of what has happened in the city since 1973.

Josh Hakala: Tell me about the process of putting it together, who you chose, and what type of stories the book tells.

Dr. John McCurdy: You know, we invited people to tell stories in different ways, and the contributors to the book were both amateur and professional historians. So, some, like myself and my colleagues in the in the history section at EMU, we drew on archival records. Other people did as well. Some people put their own reminiscences or what they remembered, especially people who had lived through some of these experiences, who were significant people who we really wanted their voices captured.

Josh Hakala: So, what are you going to be celebrating when the city turns 200?

Dr. John McCurdy: I think celebrating that there's a great deal of optimism in Ypsilanti. So, one of the things that I learned by working on the Bicentennial Commission is just how many people, especially young people, come to Ypsilanti and really love it. I am not from the area myself. I came here for the job to teach at Eastern Michigan, but I meet these people who some come from the university, and some come just because they like the place. And they have a lot of energy. And there's a lot of new businesses starting, a lot of nonprofits, people trying to really take Ypsilanti seriously and really want to see the succeed. And it's a spirit I haven't seen other places. For me, that feels very hopeful that Ypsilanti is going to continue that be a very desirable place to live and to be.

Josh Hakala: Dr. John McCurdy is a professor of history at Eastern Michigan University and one of the editors of the book, "Ypsilanti Histories. A Look Back at the Last 50 Years." Thanks so much for giving us an abbreviated history lesson of this 200-year-old city.

Dr. John McCurdy: Okay, my pleasure to help. Thanks a lot.


Ypsilanti Bicentennial

Ypsilanti Historical Society

Dr. John G. McCurdy

"Ypsilanti Histories: A Look Back at the Last Fifty Years"

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Josh Hakala is the general assignment reporter for the WEMU news department.
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