Archive for May, 2010

In the Archives: The Girl Who Burned

Editor’s note: At its May 20, 2010 meeting, the University of Michigan board of regents approved a $17.7 million expansion of the University Hospital’s emergency department, aimed at reducing overcrowding and patient wait times. In 2009, the hospital’s ER had over 77,000 patient visits. A potential visitor to a UM ER back in the early 1900s would have been Bertha Thorn, the subject of this installment of Laura Bien’s local history column.

The house at 160 North Washington stood dark on the night of December 7, 1908.

The 19-year-old servant girl woke up in her attic room around midnight. She sighed, realizing that she would have to get out of bed and get the chamber pot. It would be cold from the chilly room. Bertha wore a union suit under her nightgown.

girl that burned

Bertha's room was likely in the attic.

She got up and sleepily felt for the kerosene lamp on her bedside table. She lifted the glass chimney and lit the lamp.

The chimney slipped. Bertha grabbed for it. Her nightgown sleeve caught fire.

Bertha jerked back. Her sleeve snagged the lamp. It tumbled and broke on the floor, sending splattered fuel and a column of fire up Bertha’s back. As flames roared up her nightgown, Bertha screamed and ran for the stairs.

“The girl ran shrieking, a pillar of fire, to the hall below,” reported the Dec. 8, 1908 Ypsilanti Daily Press, “where Miss Scovill aroused by her screams overtook her and succeeded with rare presence of mind in wrapping her in a couch throw and extinguished the flames. A physician was summoned and it was found that she was burned from her neck to her feet, the flesh being literally baked on her back, arms, and limbs, although not so severely burned across her chest. The fact that she wore a union suit of heavy underwear made the case more serious as it was almost impossible to remove the garments.” [Full Story]

Ypsi: Three Christs publishes an article about an experiment conducted in the late 1950s by psychologist Milton Rokeach. Rokeach studied three patients – who each believed they were Jesus Christ – as they lived together for two years at the Ypsilanti State Hospital: “Frustrated by psychology’s focus on what he considered to be peripheral beliefs, like political opinions and social attitudes, Rokeach wanted to probe the limits of identity. He had been intrigued by stories of Secret Service agents who felt they had lost contact with their original identities, and wondered if a man’s sense of self might be challenged in a controlled setting.” He documented the experiment in a 1964 book titled “The Three Christs of Ypsilanti.” [Source]

Main & Catherine

Marking the county’s leadership transition in a very visual way, the office of new county administrator Verna McDaniel has been painted goldenrod yellow.

S. Fifth Ave: Historic District, Development

On May 17, 2010 the Ann Arbor city council gave final approval to the city’s FY 2011 budget.

Also that same evening, at a different public meeting away from the glitz and glamour of budget deliberations, an historic district study committee – appointed by the council in August 2009 – adopted its final report. The report recommends creation of an historic district along South Fifth and Fourth avenues, from William Street down to Packard Avenue, including the south side of Packard.


The colored overlays indicate existing Ann Arbor historic districts. The question mark indicates the general vicinity of the proposed new historic district. (Image links to .kmz file from the city's data catalog, which will open in GoogleEarth, displaying all the current historic districts in the city.)

The council would still need to approve the creation of the district. The issue is currently scheduled to come before the council for a first reading on June 21, followed by a second reading on July 5. A moratorium on all construction work in the area of the study will expire on Aug. 6.

If the historic district is approved, then the Heritage Row project – a planned unit development (PUD) proposed along the east side of Fifth Avenue south of William Street – would need to win approval not just from the city council, but also from the city’s historic district commission (HDC).

Heritage Row is due to come before the city council for its second reading on June 7. It received its first reading approval from the city council on May 3 – with no discussion, but with one dissenting vote from Mike Anglin (Ward 5).

This article takes a look at the recommendation of the historic district study committee, primarily through the lens of the public hearing held on May 5 in city council chambers. The conclusion of the hearing found Scott Munzel and Alex de Parry kidding back and forth with Beverly Strassmann – over their respective remarks at the public hearing. Munzel and de Parry are legal counsel and developer for the Heritage Row project, respectively, while Strassmann is president of the Germantown Neighborhood Association.

In his public hearing remarks, Munzel had – somewhat unexpectedly – presented a case that the area recommended as an historic district should, if anything, be larger than the study committee is recommending. The issue of the possible district’s size was already controversial at the point when the committee was appointed, and continues to be a bit of a chaffing point among residents. [Full Story]

Wines Elementary

The “Wednesday Wines Walking Bus,” heading to Wines Elementary on Newport Road. Takako Jurgle [photo, with daughter Ayako] has organized an effort to get the city to help morning drivers watch out for kids on their way to school. One aspect is the “walking bus” of kids and a few parents who meet and all walk together, safely, to school. [photo]

A2: Google

The Detroit News reports on Google’s recently released economic impact analysis, which says that the firm’s online ad tools generated $903 million in profits for Michigan businesses. The News also looks at impact in terms of jobs at Google’s Ann Arbor and Birmingham offices – Google had originally said it expected to employ 1,000 workers. The article quotes Lou Glazer of Ann Arbor-based Michigan Future Inc.: “A thousand jobs would’ve mattered, but it’s been much less than they initially promised … The folks in Ann Arbor thought it was like getting the Good Housekeeping seal of approval – if Google is here it must be a good place. It just turned out to be 200 reasonable-paying jobs.” [Source]


On The Wolverine blog, Jonathan Chait writes about UM’s NCAA rules violations and the original Detroit Free Press investigation on these issues: “The average college football fan heard last year that the Detroit Free Press reported major violations by the University of Michigan football program. Then they heard today that the university admitted to major violations. The average fan probably concludes that the Free Press report has been vindicated. It’s a sensible conclusion based on limited information. But it’s wrong. To read the original Free Press report alongside the university’s report is to compare two pictures that bear almost no relation to each other.” [Source]

5th St. & Davis

A group of people walking with a human-sized musical wire mother integrated into a shopping dolly.

Ashley & Liberty

Old Town Tavern again serving beer in glasses placed on the most tasteful coasters in Ann Arbor. [photo]

Third & Liberty

Lutheran church gets new Plexiglas coverings for stained glass windows. [photo]

More Funds Requested for County Jail, Court

An additional $1.35 million is needed to finish up the Washtenaw County jail expansion and new 14A-1 District Court facility – beyond its original budget of $34.6 million and $1.75 million contingency. The news was delivered by county administrator Verna McDaniel at a May 20 working session of the Washtenaw County board of commissioners.

Sign at the entrance to the corrections complex off of Washtenaw Avenue

A temporary sign at the entrance to the corrections complex off of Washtenaw Avenue east of Carpenter, site of the jail expansion and new district court facility.

Unexpected costs, construction delays and lower-than-expected interest earnings contributed to the shortfall, she said. An official request for additional funding will be made at the board’s June 2 meeting.

McDaniel divided the request into two categories: 1) $495,958 for additional costs related to the original project proposal, and 2) $861,000 in costs that are considered to be outside the scope of the originally approved project.

These expenses are in addition to the staffing request made earlier this year by sheriff Jerry Clayton, and approved by the board. The expanded jail eventually will require 39 more full-time workers, bringing the total corrections division staff to 103 employees. The additional staff will increase the corrections budget by $1.478 million this year and $3.248 million in 2011, and create a projected budget shortfall in 2012 and 2013.

Commissioners were informed that additional items not covered in these requests will be addressed during the planning process for the 2012 and 2013 budget cycle. No dollar amounts were provided for those anticipated expenses. [Full Story]

Chelsea: Granholm

Chelsea Update publishes a report on Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s appearance at last week’s Rotary Club of Chelsea meeting. The post quotes club member Andy Ingall: “The specific reason is unclear as to why she chose our club. She’s been in Chelsea a number of times, and our club has a reputation of being friendly and unassuming. I think it’s also about the right size for the audience she was looking for.” [Source]

Fifth & Liberty

Much dirt digging downtown. Big hole at the intersection of Fifth & Liberty, with backhoe loading dirt onto a large truck. Similar action at the Library Lot site. Haze of dust throughout that area.

EMU: Tuition

USA Today includes Eastern Michigan University in a roundup article about college tuition costs, highlighting the fact that EMU did not raise tuition, fees or room and board for the coming academic year. The article includes a photo taken at an EMU campus picnic, with people forming the shape of 0%, and quotes senior Antonio Cosme: “They are putting the needs of students first.” [Source]

Main Street

6:15 a.m. Traffic lights are out at Main & Depot  and Main & E. Summit. Police have been notified and are en route.


The University of Michigan has posted its response to allegations that its football program, led by coach Rich Rodriguez, violated NCAA rules. Self-imposed sanctions are related to quality-control staff and practice and training time. The posting includes links to documents sent to the NCAA. [Source]

City Accepts $2 Million, DDA to “Retreat”

At its May 5 board meeting, the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority approved a $2 million payment to the city of Ann Arbor. And about two weeks later, at its May 17 meeting, the city council used the additional revenue in the city’s FY 2011 budget to help reduce the number of planned layoffs in its police and fire departments from 35 to 5.

The $2 million payment was based on a term sheet that a “working group” of councilmembers and DDA board members had put together out of public view over the first four months of the year. The term sheet was adequate to convince a 7-member majority of the 12-member DDA board that the $2 million should be paid by the DDA to the city in advance of a long-term revision to the city-DDA contract, under which the DDA manages the city’s parking system.

The parking contract was most recently renegotiated in 2005 and provided for a maximum payment by the DDA to the city of $10 million over the period from 2005 to 2015. The city drew $10 million in the first five years and had requested in January 2009 that the DDA open discussions to renegotiate the contract.

With the term sheet now out in the open, it’s clear that its content is problematic for councilmembers and DDA board members who were not part of the working group that produced it. Several councilmembers and DDA board members alike have expressed strong opposition to one of the key ideas in the term sheet – that the DDA would assume responsibility for parking violations and other code enforcement.

But based on the term sheet discussion at the May 12 meeting of  DDA’s partnerships committee, the piece of the term sheet of most interest to DDA board members is one that is also the most politically controversial: The DDA would be acknowledged as the engine for developing city-owned land in the DDA district.

The DDA partnerships committee conversation on May 12 came against the backdrop of recent questions raised by the mayor and the city council about what kind of legal authority a DDA has in the context of the city’s system of governance.

And the outcome of the partnerships committee meeting was a decision to hold another full board retreat, this one on May 28 at 2 p.m. at the DDA board room. The general topic of the retreat, which is open to the public, will be the term sheet. The DDA already held its semi-annual retreat about two months ago, on March 16. [Full Story]

Zingerman’s Deli Expansion Moves Ahead

Ann Arbor Planning Commission meeting (May 18, 2010): Two items with ties to Zingerman’s received approval from planning commissioners at their most recent meeting: The site plan for expansion of Zingerman’s Deli, and a special exemption use for the Westside Farmers Market, located next to Zingerman’s Roadhouse.

Grace Singleton, Paul Saginaw

Grace Singleton, a managing partner of Zingerman's Deli, sits next to Zingerman's co-founder Paul Saginaw as the planning commission deliberates on a proposed expansion of the deli, which was ultimately approved. Behind Saginaw is Michael Quinn of Quinn Evans Architects, who is working on the project. (Photos by the writer.)

The farmers market has no further steps to take – it opens on June 3, from 3-7 p.m. But the approval process for the deli expansion is far from over. After seeking approval from city council for its plans, deli partners will need to circle back to the city’s historic district commission – the site is located in the Old Fourth Ward historic district. The Chronicle has previously reported on their earlier efforts down this path: “Zingerman’s: Making It Right for the HDC.”

Pending approvals, Zingerman’s hopes to break ground on the project early next year.

Also at last week’s meeting, commissioners reviewed the site plan for the Windsong affordable housing project off of Stone School Road, north of Ellsworth. They ultimately approved plans for building 32 townhomes financed in part by the Michigan State Housing Development Authority. But concerns were raised over problems that some residents in the site’s existing 12 townhomes are causing for their neighbors. Three of those neighbors spoke at a public hearing, saying they’d like a higher fence around the property, at the least, to deal better with harassment, fighting, graffiti and other issues. [Full Story]

Ypsi: Auto Industry

Writing in the New York Times’ Wheels blog, Nick Bunkley reports on Ford Motor Co.’s plans to invest $135 million in two auto parts plants – including its plant in Ypsilanti, which will be making battery packs for electric cars. The investment is being officially announced at an event at the Ypsilanti plant today, attended by Mark Fields, Ford’s president of the Americas; Bob King, incoming president of the United Automobile Workers union; and Gov. Jennifer Granholm. [Source]

Barton Dam

Noon. Below the dam along the river. What appears to be an entire bumblebee nest (more than 40 bees) is above ground in one area, flying every which way, acting disturbed. I’m guessing someone or some animal wrecked their nest, and they don’t yet know where to go. Rare to see so many bumblebees active and pissed.

UM: Student Engagement

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on software developed by UM professor Perry Sampson. Called Lecture Tools, it lets students ask anonymous questions during class, mark up lecture slides, and answer questions from the instructor in real time. Sampson contends that having a laptop in class keeps students engaged: “If the lecture is boring, students are good at understanding when they don’t need to listen. I take my laptop to faculty meetings for the same reason.” [Source]

Column: What, If Anything, Is a Bicyclist?

Temperatures hit the high 70s at Sunday’s Artisan Market near Kerrytown, where volunteers for Common Cycle were helping people learn about bicycle repair.


Top to bottom: Tom Wright, Frank Schwende, Thomas Kula. (Photos by the writer.)

And as the weather gets warmer, the primary election season will also start to heat up – just as surely as journalists will appeal to hackneyed clichés to describe it. For local office candidates, as well as commentators on local races, part of the sport is to categorize the community into convenient groupings – like parents, homeowners, renters, students, landlords, environmentalists, developers, new urbanists, preservationists, park-lovers, young professionals, old hippies, the handicapped, business people, transit riders, etc.

I’m not certain that bicyclists would make the list as a voter group. But they’ll serve to make the point I want to make.

Yes, that non-exhaustive list of groupings is a sometimes useful and convenient set of labels. But just as the word “zebra” is a convenient label for those horse-shaped animals with a black and white pattern of stripes, that doesn’t mean that all of those “zebras” are necessarily biologically related.

The title of this column, in fact, is a play on the title of a fairly famous essay by Stephen Jay Gould: “What, If Anything, Is a Zebra?” That essay was written back in the early ’80s and I’m not sure if the evolutionary biologists ever settled the question. I don’t really care – zebras don’t live around these parts, and even if they did, they’re notorious non-voters.

But bicyclists do live around here. And they’ll serve as well as any grouping to illustrate the fact that among any “community” we include in a list of labels, there’ll be smaller sub-communities that have more specialized interests. So we’d do well to avoid thinking of these convenient labels as reflective of any one coherent community.

This column takes a look at three groups of people that could fairly be labeled “bicyclists,” with the idea that they’re separate groups, with maybe some overlap in people, but which are fundamentally different: Washtenaw Bicycling and Walking Coalition, Bicycles Are Traffic, and Common Cycle. I look at each group through the lens of one of their events I’ve attended over the last week and a half. [Full Story]


Cottonwood cotton in drifts all over town.