What's Left Ypsilanti

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A Tale of Two Towns?

Alex Thomas

It was the best of times for Ypsilanti, the worst for much of the world. Bombs were needed to bomb the bad guys and planes for the good guys to do it. During World War II folks came from far and wide, but mostly whites from Kentucky and Blacks from all over the South, to work in the Willow Run Bomber Plant. The workers in that factory, and the bosses in those smoke-filled rooms were the original cast in Ypsi’s present narrative. The work they did and the decisions the cis white-males made in those smoky rooms are what created our region's current socioeconomic and political reality. All in the Willow Run Bomber plant in Ypsilanti… well, Ypsilanti Township.

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Townships just don’t have as snug of a place in the American lexicon, memory, or bosom as cities do. That’s why many are surprised to learn Ypsilanti Township is 7 times larger in area and has a population of over 55,000, while the City of Ypsilanti has just over 21,000. Who’s bigger? Who’s got more folks? Who cares? We all Ypsi, ain’t we?

The folks with money have always cared. The politicians who take their money have also shown a consistent interest over the years. In the nineteenth century, when Washtenaw County was founded, if enough of those people with money were in a particular area of the county they wanted to control it. So, in the 21st century we have twenty-eight municipalities hacked out in Washtenaw County. That’s why Ypsilanti Community High School is in Ypsilanti Township, not the City. St. Joe’s hospital is in the Township — Superior Township that is. And, Ann Arbor’s IMAX theater is in Pittsfield Township, but you can just write “Ypsilanti” on mail to all three.

Something’s fishy. A familiar stench, one suspects. Is it greed? indifference? sexism? racism? classism? I smell it all and it really smells bad after 74 years. The story isn’t a tale of two towns, but of haves and have-nots, and the way the former cloaks its exploitation of the latter as best it can.

Who’s bigger? Who’s got more folks? Who cares? We all Ypsi, ain’t we?

Propaganda and policy are the time-tested tools of the trade. Rose Mill Monroe, the woman who brought the cultural icon and symbol of working-class women “Rosie the Riveter” into the national consciousness, did so as a worker at the Willow Run site. Today the character is often celebrated by the well-meaning as a symbol of women’s empowerment. What better evidence of war propaganda’s efficacy?

The extent to which women were empowered in 1945 is debatable. This was 26 years before Martha Griffiths introduced the Equal Rights Amendment as a U.S. House Representative from Southeast Michigan. It failed to get adopted. Rosie was flexing those biceps and feeling empowered and equal 72 years before #MeToo! Despite the tremendous contribution of the scores of women that entered the workplace, they were always expected to go home after the war. They did, too.

At least those guys in those smoke filled rooms didn’t culturally appropriate when disseminating their Rosie message. I haven’t seen any posters of Black women in Rosie gear from the time. Their nonexistence is the most authentic part of Rosie the Riveter propaganda. Henry Ford didn’t want Blacks working at the site; those that eventually made it were the result of socialist organizing and protest, and yet you’ll see African-American Rosies at events today.

There aren’t many women of any ethnicity working at the Willow Run site today. There aren’t many people there at all. After the war General Motors purchased and operated two automobile plants on the site, which accelerated population and economic growth throughout Washtenaw County. GM was the largest employer in the world during the 50’s. Its workers purchased newly built homes which comprise many neighborhoods of today’s Ypsi. There were 14,000 workers at the site during the 70’s. One factory closed in 1992 and the other in 2010, taking the last 1200 workers and their paychecks with it.

Millions of our state tax dollars have been invested in the American Center for Mobility. There are fewer than 30 people working full-time at the site and no job postings.

Today the people with money make decisions in smoke-free rooms. They’re all still white for the most part, though now there’s a few cis women in the mix too. Yet somehow the decisions still benefit the same folks. They are getting more creative.

A non-profit occupies the site now: a research facility for driverless car technology called the American Center for Mobility (ACM). It takes taxpayer money and does research for the major automobile corporations. The ACM is a publicly funded partnership with the State of Michigan, Michigan Economic Development Corporation, the University of Michigan, Business Leaders For Michigan, and Ann Arbor SPARK. Millions of our state tax dollars have been invested in it. The exact amount is unknown. As of press time the ACM’s 990 tax form, which is required for non-profits, has yet to be filed. We do know that there are fewer than 30 people working full-time at the site and no job postings.

Today maybe Rosie could get a gig at one of the two Walmarts within a 10-minute drive of the Willow Run site. It’s the largest employer in the world now. Many of its employees are white — as are 70% of the recipients of SNAP food assistance benefits in the area. If Rosie is a Bridge Card holder she’d have something else in common with much of their workforce, as the federal government provides many of Walmart’s associates with medical and SNAP benefits.

The Willow Run site’s story is integral to any understanding of today’s Ypsi. It’s a tale of discrimination and exploitation masked by crafty PR and complicated by an albatross of jurisdictions and borders. How little the story is known mirrors the ignorance of Ypsi’s current reality, and the success those in power have had in maintaining that ignorance. Ypsi isn’t a tale of two towns, but the same old story of the those in power trying to keep it. Until that’s more widely accepted, understood, and addressed, I’m not expecting any revisions.

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