Writing Ypsilanti

RePresentations of Ypsilanti are fraught (does it matter whether these are “representations” or “presentations”? I don’t think so). By “fraught,” I mean they are piled high, brimming even, with hints of foreboding about crime and poverty endemic to the city and the nearby township, both of which bear the name Ypsilanti. That this is so turns out not to be an insight worth bothering to share with anyone who has lived on the east side of Washtenaw County for more than a few months.

Nevertheless, I am thinking about this locale because I am developing a course for now conceived as a rhetorico-geographic study of EMU’s surrounds. Yes, of course, it will be writing focused, as it will attend to questions of routes, distances, and enframings with a particular investment in producing variations: re-composing the local. I aim to have the proposal submitted by the end of the semester. Right now I am gathering ideas, storing them in such a way that they will, in time, assume the shape of a provisional syllabus and schedule.

And this means I am taking stock of local coverage of local events, conditions, or problems, as the case may be. For example, a series of articles have appeared in Annarbor.com about Ypsilanti Mobile Village, an abandoned mobile home park on Michigan Ave. just east of the intersection with Prospect. In late December came news that the owner filed bankruptcy. By early January, there was a story about the owner expressing his intentions to clean up the site, and on Friday, word that a judge ordered the cleanup to proceed. I don’t want to suggest that this series of stories is particularly representative of Annarbor.com’s coverage of Ypsilanti, and certainly there is much water under the bridge, so to speak, about how Annarbor.com depicts Ypsilanti, how the “paper” writes Ypsilanti, that is. The series on Ypsilanti Mobile Village is simply an example–perhaps an example I am all the more interested in because I have driven by the park a couple of times, because it is as close to campus (to the west) as it is to where I live (to the north). To give you some sense of the mobile home park’s condition, an employee provided this video footage to Annarbor.com with the first report:

That the initial complaint is reprinted in full in each of the follow-up stories strikes me as introducing a curious but distinctive echo: “Raw sewage continues to leak from several residences.” “Raw sewage continues to leak from several residences.” “Raw sewage continues to leak from several residences.” Reading it over yet again, the image becomes more deeply seated. It cements an impression that these grim conditions are permanent, that they are woven into the landscape in such a way that no bureaucratic or legalistic action will change any time soon.


  1. This sounds like a fascinating class. Will this be under or postgraduate?

    I’m a huge fan of Ypsilanti, warts and all. Yes, there’s crime, but there’s also authentic community, respect for diversity, and bubbling pockets of creativity and innovation that just aren’t possible in corporate cities anymore. Plus, Ypsi’s just plain weird – a living, breathing, David Lynch film. It’s the perfect antidote for those of us who pine for the days when culture was allowed to develop (or even implode) organically.

  2. I’ll be proposing this as an undergraduate restricted elective, probably something numbered in the three hundreds. That said, I can imagine a similar or related course at the graduate level taking shape all in due time.

    I agree wholeheartedly about Ypsilanti. It is unusual. I’ve gone back and forth (both in my head and in conversations with colleagues) about whether a course like this ought to focus on Ypsilanti or whether it should be expanded to Washtenaw County or all of SE Michigan. It’s a tough call, especially considering that many EMU students commute and perhaps do not identify all that strongly with Ypsilanti proper. It would be unfortunate if students ignored the course because it explicitly named Ypsilanti. Obviously this is something about which I remain undecided.

  3. Yeah, you have an interesting dilemma – whether or not to limit the class to Ypsilanti, which might limit the appeal or apparent relevance to the majority of students who are commuters.

    I took a great online class through EMU last summer called CTAC 578: Community Communication with Michael Tew. One of our readings and discussions was about relationships between universities/colleges and the towns/cities where they’re located. Specifically, we looked at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, and the efforts of a group of faculty and students there to build bridges between the school and the community of Troy via web-based and face-to-face means. It was a fascinating study, and we discussed how some of the same dynamics are evident in the EMU/Ypsi relationship. Some of Dr. Tew’s communication students might be interested in the class you’re developing.

  4. That sounds like a terrific class, John. You didn’t by any chance read Ellen Cushman’s The Struggle and the Tools, did you?

    I’ve been giving a lot of thought to titling the course. There might be some advantage in a generic title such as, Composing Rhetorical Landscapes (or Geographies of Writing)…something like this. On the other hand, I see some value in referring explicitly to Ypsilanti. The assignments in the course will be flexible enough to allow students some room to attend to their own local communities or routes to campus, but the title itself has been tricky to decide.

  5. I’ve done a lot of work with Ypsilanti in writing. I have made one big map of Ypsi as I know it with annotations on butcher paper, and plan to make another. The map really act as an idea generator, but also speaks to the relationship you’re trying to get at with this course. It sounds awesome.

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