This article is from 2015, but still has some great ideas for ways to experience Ypsilanti! For more ways to enjoy Ypsilanti, click HERE!
It’s hard to imagine Ypsilanti without her parks and the celebrations, festivals, ballgames and evening walks that they host. We take for granted our parks, but they haven’t always been there, and sometimes it took great effort to make them a reality. Each has their own story.
The first public spaces in Ypsilanti were laid out with the town. Two squares on either side of the river served as gathering places and markets, but these were a far cry from the manicured and recreational parks of today. Those squares can still be seen in Ypsi’s street patterns. Indeed, Park Street on Ypsi’s eastside is a reminder of the one hundred years or so that it edged the eastern square.
1868 Panoramic map showing the two city squares.
The very notion of urban parks didn’t find a place in city and town life until the late 19th century. For a peaceful day out among the trees, families often took a Sunday to visit the graves of relatives and picnicked in local cemeteries or harnessed the horses and went for a country drive. Industrialization changed all that as cities became more polluted, crowded and unsanitary. As with so many public services, our park system began in the Progressive era of the 1890s.
1900s Map showing Prospect Park as a cemetery and Frog Island as an island.
Ypsilanti’s first proper park was Prospect Park, formally a city cemetery, which makes a nice connection to the days when families would spend the day with their beloved deceased. Acquired by a women’s civic organization, the Park Improvement Society, in 1892, the graves were removed to Highland Cemetery and the park deeded to the city in 1894.
The cannon in the park came from Fort McClery in Kittery, Maine, and placed in the park in 1902. The park once had a lake and was extensively landscaped. In the early 1900s, orchestras would play outdoors in the summer here.
Prospect Park is a neighborhood park, and on any given day a dozen different activities are going on; from dog walking, to pick-up basketball games, to family reunions and quiet afternoons reading on a bench. An open space never developed, Prospect Park harks back to the earliest days of city parks and the city’s age and history can be felt there.
August, 1932 Ypsilanti Press article on the acquisition of a parcel for Riverside Park
The home to many of Ypsilanti’s most important festivals and events, it is now impossible to image the city without Riverside and is one of Ypsilanti’s iconic places. It’s nearly impossible to live here and not visit at some point during the year, if not every day. Riverside Park, at the center of the city on the Huron’s west bank, was long the overgrown, often flooded, backlots of the well-heeled homes on the Huron Street bluff. For many years the river was polluted and bottom lands were considered unhealthy, so riversides were rarely the places of recreation and more likely that of industry.
What is now Riverside Park was part of an original plan by New York’s famed landscape architects the Olmsted Brothers. It never came to completion, but the vision remained and for decades park advocates lobbied to acquire and clean the necessary parcels to put together the nearly 14 acres that today make up the park. It was originally known as Quirk Park, after the family who owned much of the property, or just as “the river flats.”
Some of the final pieces, particularly from the Edison Power Company which owned much of the river, of the puzzle were put together in the late 1930s, but then World War Two came and the effort was stalled. For many years, trash was dumped in the area and the clean-up necessary was arduous, but the effort worth it. Today, Riverside, with its connections to Frog Island, Depot Town, Downtown, Waterworks Park and various neighborhoods, serves as Ypsilanti’s Central Park.
1937 Ypsilanti Press article on the plans for Frog Island.
Frog Island really was an island. For one hundred years it was also the industrial heart of Ypsilanti. The millrace that the island allowed powered flouring and lumber mills, foundries, and small manufactories. Scoville’s Lumber would process logs floated down the Huron River for use to build Washtenaw’s houses and farms for generations. After electricity allowed for industry to be powered off the river and a series of devastating floods, the island was abandoned.
Frog Island was acquired by the nearby Ypsilanti High School in 1933, landscaped and the flood wall built. Frog Island was used for decades as the practice and playing fields until 1975; many thousands of baseball games have been played on its grass. Slowly the old race was filled with detritus from the nearby rail yards and ceased being an island altogether in the 1960s, though the course of the race can still be seen from the cement foot-bridge.. The amphitheater and “tridge” (a three-ended bridge which connects Frog Island to Riverside Park) were built in 1983. An older, concrete, bridge leading from Depot Town to the fields was built in the 1930s by the Works Projects Administration (WPA) during the depression. A community garden is now on Frog Island and tenderly cared for, a long way from its industrial beginnings!
The original Carver Center, now Parkridge Community Center.
Built during World War Two, Parkridge was a product of the fight for services and against segregation for war workers and their families from Ypsilanti’s largely African-American south side neighborhood. Frank Seymour, a black UAW office, was instrumental in making it happen and was elected Ypsilanti’s first black council member in 1945, in part because of his work with Parkridge. The eight acre neighborhood park is adjacent next to the Parkridge Community Center, the Perry Childhood Development Center and homes operated by the Ypsilanti Housing Commission.
A genuinely neighborhood park with jungle gyms, slides and courts, the park hosted Ypsilanti’s nationally famous Black Arts Festival for many years from the 1960s through the 1980s. The festival has recently been revived. Formerly called the Carver Center, the Parkridge Community Center attached to the park is now administered by Washtenaw Community College and provides any number of services and spaces to the community. In constant use, the park was originally built and landscaped by people from the neighborhood. Not just any park, Parkridge is both a symbol and a testament to the community spirit of Ypsilanti’s historic south side.
August 1900 Ypsilanti Commercial on Emancipation day Celebrations in the Ypsilanti Fair Grounds.
Recreation Park has a long and storied history. First known as Cross’s Grove, after the community woodlot on the hill overlooking the village, the area that is now Recreation park was the site of fairgrounds and the county’s most important horse racing track. The outline of that track can still be seen in the layout of the park. Since the earliest days of Ypsilanti large gathering were held here. Everything from mass political rallies to professional bicycle races have taken place on the nearly eighteen acres (Ypsilanti’s largest) of the Park. Ypsilanti’s suffragettes also used the park for fairs to drum up support for the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the right to vote. The above article details and 1883 Emancipation Day parade ending at a large rally of speeches and games in the Park.
Around 1905, the Normal College (now Eastern Michigan University) purchased the site and used it for track and field practices. As EMU built Bowen and other facilities after the World War Two, the site became Recreation Park and a pool eventually was placed here. The only pool in the city, during the dark era of segregation, the pool was given over to different communities to use on different days so that black and white children would not swim together. This practice was ended during the Civil Rights period and now the Park is one of the most diverse of any in the city. Bordering both the Normal Park and south side neighborhoods, Recreation is abuzz with activity in the warm seasons and hosts many Little and Softball League games as well as family BBQs, community gardens and a senior center. Recreation Park has that well-lived in feel of your favorite chair; a little worn, but perfectly comfortable and familiar.
Carolyn King breaks Little League gender barrier in 1973.
Seven acres Candy Cane Park is the only major park in the city built with the community it was designed to serve. At nearly eight acres, Candy Cane sits in the middle of College Heights, a neighborhood built in the post-World War Two era.
Home to ballfields and innumerable Little League battle, Candy Cane was also home to Ypsilanti’s most well-known contribution to the struggle for women’s equality. On the night of May 10, 1973 Ypsilanti made the headlines of the evening news as twelve-year-old Carolyn King took the field as an Oriole defying the Little League’s International ban on girls playing. King had the support of the city council (including African-American mayor George Goodman) and the local Little League. The case would land in court and end up being instrumental in opening up many youth sports to young girls. Today Carolyn lives in Toledo, but sometimes travels to Ypsi to throw out the first pitch of the Little League season.
Ypsilanti’s old Water Works.
Waterworks Park is ten acres large and also along the Huron River. The earliest map of the Ypsilanti area, around 1819, identifies this area as being the site of an “Indian field”. It lies south of Downtown and derives its name from the fact that the city had its water treatment plant there. The remains of the reservoir can still be seen in the park along the river. Long owned by the city, for many years the area was the local dump, because it was prone to flooding. When the Ford factory across the street was operating, the park was the scene of lunch breaks and union ball games; the local auto workers union hall lying at the edge of the park. Now the park is home to a disc gulf course, built in 2007, and flocks of ducks and geese.
It is also, shhh – don’t tell anyone, the best place in the city for a quiet walk along the Huron River.
Peninsular Paper Mills.
Peninsular Park is the newest city park in Ypsilanti. Acquired in 1986 and first opened in 1992, this seven acres is secluded and largely wood. It stands on the site of the old Peninsular Paper Company powerhouse and holds a fishing pier and picnic pavilion.
The Peninsular Paper Company was one of Ypsilanti’s most important factories. It was built in 1867 to supply newsprint to the Chicago Tribune and employed a large number of workers, both men and women. The factory, with its bleaches and dyes, was also responsible for much of the early pollution in the days before regulation on the Huron. Occasionally the chemicals would kill off schools of fish or turn the whole Huron red. The Paper Company, and other riverside factories, cleaned up their act as the growth of industry made the citizens of the city demand it. And now this former factory is a park. Who could imagine a greater change?
And that’s the lesson of all of these parks, nearly every one of which was created by the initiative of the people of the city. We can’t take our parks for granted. They haven’t always been here, and if we don’t preserve and protect, they might not be here in the future as well. And who could imagine Ypsilanti without her parks?
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