What does Ypsilanti need? EMU students' project seeks to improve campus-community relationship
Photo by Noah Pylvainen
There’s a lot Eastern Michigan University students say they would love to see in Ypsilanti: a GameStop, good paying jobs, grocery stores, a Red Lobster, a zoo and a mall.
And beyond that, what would it take to get students to live and stay in the city? Good-paying jobs is again a popular request, as are improved roads, improved safety and a city that lives later into the night.
These were responses to open-ended sentences thought up by an EMU urban planning student and a recent graduate who placed them on postcards and marker boards on EMU’s campus. Markers and pens were left out, and the students spent last week responding to the questions.
Maia Hardy and Noah Pylvainen undertook the interactive "Asking Ypsi" project with the objective of bridging the disconnect they - and many school and city officials - see between the city of Ypsilanti and EMU.
An open-ended sentence on the backside of 500 postcards showing Ypsilanti buildings simply read: “And we need more ____.” A second open-ended question on marker boards said “I would stay in Ypsi if _____."
Photo by Noah Pylvainen
A third sentence written on a board outside Mix at Washington Street and Michigan Avenue in downtown Ypsilanti read “I am in Ypsilanti today because .”
The latter drew responses ranging from “I need a key made” to “I moved here for the love of my life” to “it’s the people in Ypsi that make it so cool!”
Pylvainen and Hardy found the inspiration for the project from Candy Chang, an artist and urban planner who posed open-ended sentences like “Before I die ” to the public in a similar fashion.
They discussed Chang's projects with EMU urban and regional planning professor Dr. Nina David, and she urged the pair to develop their own project in relation to Ypsilanti. The “Asking Ypsi” project isn’t for a class, but more a creative way for Pylvainen and Hardy to collect data on and analyze why Ypsilanti and EMU don’t have a model relationship.
They discussed the project with City Planner Teresa Gillotti, who said she liked its objective, and they found a $316 grant through the university to fund the effort.
“Planners have to look for creative ways and new ways to get opinions of the residents, especially students,” Pylvainen said.
But he said some of the answers went against his and Hardy’s urban planner sensibilities.
For example, many students said they wanted to see chain establishments like Red Lobster, Potbelly, Church’s Chicken and Kinko’s in the community.
“It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but from an urban planning perspective it's not a good thing to have those kind of restaurants,” he said. “What’s good for Ypsi is local food places that keep money in the city and are supported by each other. It’s a better business environment.”
The responses also featured interactions between respondents. One respondent said he or she would stay in Ypsilanti for a cool graphic design job, to which another person replied that he or she should check Ypsilanti-based VGKids.
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Pylvainen said they will likely put postcards outside Red Rock Barbecue and other businesses downtown in the coming week. He and Hardy will compile the answers afterward and possibly make them accessible to the business community or city officials who could find the data of use. The pair might also try to publish an article on their findings and experience in an urban planning magazine or journal, Pylvainen said.
But ultimately they hope it will spark similar projects that will continue the dialogue and help break down the walls that have existed between the EMU and Ypsilanti communities.
One of the main reasons Pylvainen said the issue exists is because EMU is a school where “you commute, pull in a parking structure and get in a building.” That creates parking problems, but he said officials are approaching the issue wrong by building more parking garages and lots instead of making the campus more walkable and connected to the surrounding community.
“The university hasn’t focused on urban design but what if they created a way to make it a walkable place?” he asked. “They’re getting people as quickly as possible into buildings and back out to their cars as quickly as possible, and we wonder why people don’t want to live in Ypsilanti. People don’t realize it’s a nice place to live and play and to be in.
“EMU is too auto-oriented.”
But for all the insight the project has provided Asking Ypsi’s developers, it doesn’t mean a future in the city is in their cards.
Pylvainen said Hardy is likely headed to Portland, and he doesn’t yet know what he’ll do. But he said just graduated from EMU and for the first time he feels a connection with the city and is spending the summer here.
Still, it will take more than a connection to keep him here - he needs work.
“I love my house; I live in a historic home, but I’m not really sure,” Pylvainen said. “I’d love to get a job and stay, but it’s basically, it’s up to the economy as to whether or not you can get a job here.”