On Platt Rd. south of Packard, a two-bay cinderblock garage stands forlorn and abandoned, with a “SWISHER REALTY: For Lease” sign plastered on its front. “No one looking at it now would know that it was once an important place in the neighborhood,” says Realtor Ronald Dankert, who listed the property on behalf of the owners of the adjacent Bombay Grocers.
The garage is one of the last remaining vestiges of an almost-forgotten chapter in Ann Arbor history. Between 1947 and 1956, it served as the fire station for the city of East Ann Arbor, complete with living quarters and two rigs. The storage building in back housed city work trucks; the police station was across the street.
“No one but a handful of longtime residents would know that this area was once a separate city,” says Jim Mabley, the building’s former owner.
Settlement at this crossroads dates back almost two hundred years. As Janet Landman wrote in a 1989 Observer feature, the Potawatomi gave up title to the area in the 1807 Treaty of Detroit. In 1825, just one year after John Allen and Elisha Rumsey bought the land that would become Ann Arbor, Oliver and Sarah Whitmore and Samuel and Charlotte McDowell settled in what would become East Ann Arbor. They and other early settlers paid $1.25 an acre.
A century ago, most of the future city was still farmland. But after WWI, developers started to build subdivisions, a pattern that was repeated after WWII. Though vestiges of farming traditions lingered–as late as the 1950s, Emil Nordman drove his horse and wagon to downtown Ann Arbor every Saturday to buy feed–the last farms were quickly subdivided.
East Ann Arbor became a city on September 2, 1947. Its 2,000 citizens needed police and fire protection, water and sewer lines, and paved roads that Pittsfield Township (“then still run mostly by farmers on a part-time basis,” Landman wrote) was unable to provide.
City administrators moved into the old interurban trolley depot, across from the new East Ann Arbor Shopping Center. Built in 1947, the center housed a food market; Lundy Hardware, which Jim Mabley would later own; W.W. Ladd Dry Goods; and Community Drug. The city built its fire station behind the shopping center on Platt. Former hardware store owner Mary Cruse told Landman that when the fire whistle blew, volunteer firemen would run from every direction. Neighbors would rush outdoors to watch, or call the hardware store to ask, “Where’d they go?”
The small city’s biggest need–a water and sewer system–was ultimately its undoing. Underground springs drove construction costs so high that annexation to Ann Arbor seemed the only way out. For its part, Ann Arbor was desperate for more affordable housing. In November 1956, annexation passed by a margin of three-to-one in Ann Arbor and two-to-one in East Ann Arbor.
When Jim Mabley and his wife bought the hardware store in 1977, they used the former fire station as a warehouse. “At that time, there was still a strong neighborhood feeling to the place,” Mabley says. He remembers annual spring cleanups, when the hardware store donated garbage bags, brooms, and gloves to neighbors.
The Mableys sold their business in 2000, when hardware superstores moved into the area. “East Ann Arbor has changed dramatically. It’s almost unrecognizable nowadays,” says Mabley. Their former store is now Mukesh and Bharti Patel’s Indian grocery.
One of the few remaining businesses from East Ann Arbor days is G & H Barbers, which opened its doors in the late 1940s. Jim Mullin joined the barbershop in 1973, seventeen years after Ann Arbor annexed East Ann Arbor. While he wasn’t in town during the East Ann Arbor days, he’s hung old photos of the city on the walls of his shop.
“As time went on, this became the forgotten side of the city of Ann Arbor,” Mullin says, noting that new residents from faraway nations have given it a strong ethnic flavor. “There’s still a bit of a neighborhood feeling to this area,” he says. “We’ve seen generations of families walk through our doors, and we’ve watched kids grow up. We like to say we give many of our customers their first and last haircuts.”
The old cinderblock fire station, once the center of East Ann Arbor’s community spirit, has also seen generations pass by its doors. Like other vestiges of the ghost city, it stands as a silent witness to long-gone people and a forgotten past.