What Does It Mean to be an Ann Arbor Townie?

The local is the only thing that is universal.  William Carlos Williams, quoted in The American College Town,  Blake Gumprecht.

Recently, we have been hearing about the phenomenon of  “Ann Arbor townies”, with a story on AnnArbor.com  (really a Lucy Ann Lance interview).  This seems at first glance to be pretty trivial stuff, but it is deeper than that.  Here’s my take on the idea.

My Bezonki Award - a Townie Distinction!

I arrived in Ann Arbor as a foreigner.  We drove in from California on a day in early March, just in advance of a heavy snowfall.  After a day of hurriedly picking up a few groceries and buying paint, we finished painting the living room ahead of the moving truck and fell asleep exhausted on our sleeping bags, to be wakened in a dark morning by the noise of our new neighbor operating a snowblower on our driveway.  He explained that he thought being snowed in was a poor beginning to living in Ann Arbor.

In the following days, as I was navigating the one-way streets and other peculiarities of Ann Arbor traffic patterns (just because the two main roads Stadium and State cross on the map doesn’t mean that they intersect), I wondered at the sullenness of the clerks in stores and elsewhere.  It seemed Michigan was a land of glum unhappy people.  (Now I have the same demeanor in early March after yet another snowfall.)  It took a year before I got the hang of the seasons.   I got involved in politics and a job search.  I worked for a couple of years at Parke-Davis and was appointed to the Solid Waste Commission.  But I was still a foreigner.   I moved from the east side of town to the west side.  But I was still a foreigner.  I ran for the office of county commissioner.  But I was still from somewhere else.  Something happened over the last 10 years, though, and one day I woke up to the fact that I had become an Ann Arbor townie.

Actually, that term has only come into use relatively recently, around here at least.  People started organizing “Townie Street Parties” and the like.  Some have said that the term originates with the town-and-gown dichotomy, the idea being that you are either of the University of Michigan or of the town.  But many Ann Arbor townies either work at what some call “the U”  or know lots of people who do.   I think being a townie means that you have lived here long enough that you have absorbed a sense of the place into your pores and it has become part of your own identity.  It means that you often meet someone at a store or a public event whom you once knew well in a completely different context, and when you meet, you don’t just see the person but a long telescoped story of their life standing before you.  It means that when you walk along a downtown street,  you see not only the current storefronts but the ghostly images of the places you used to visit at that location.  (I still have to blink to realize that Jo Jo’s is gone – where I so often enjoyed chicken lemon rice soup before county meetings.)  It means that when you go to your neighborhood hangout (which may be Sweetwaters or Fraser’s or Knight’s or Northside Grill or Benny’s), you are likely to run into someone you know. And it means that you become fascinated with the details of what happens daily in our own little corner of the universe.  (See for example the Ann Arbor Chronicle, especially the Stopped Watched feature, or most of the news items in the Ann Arbor Observer.)  You breathe the seasons of the place, so you know to do your chores during football games and so stay out of traffic jams, and to go to Blimpy Burger after the students leave for the summer.

Nostalgia comes into play, even prospectively. If you are a townie of some duration (which almost defines the state), you probably still miss the original Borders book store and hate that the A&W on West Stadium was replaced by an oil-change shop.  I came too late for the Quality Bakery, but I do miss Doughboys.  Zingerman’s has taken up much of the oxygen for local bakeries, but a variety of options is nice.  One of our earlier blog posts celebrated the concept of “funky” in maintaining the character of Ann Arbor and we often make what the development community consider an undue fuss about keeping favored landmarks around.  (As of today, the Ann Arbor DDA’s advertisement celebrates this quality: “One of the best things about living in Ann Arbor is our fabulous, funky and always interesting downtown”. )  It’s about quality of experience, character, and the familiar all at once.  But that doesn’t mean that we don’t like new things.  Mark’s Carts has received an enthusiastic reception.  (Note the hyperlocal and personal/spontaneous nature of this multilayer enterprise.)

And it means that you rejoice in the whimsy and spontaneity of truly community (townie) sponsored events, like FestiFools and the Water Hill Music Fest.  You may even dote on fairy doors (though some people find them saccharine).  Whimsy?  Where else would you have someone named David Julius Caesar Salad who does poems on commission?  (Here is his ode to townies.)  And the deliciousness of the political satire of the Ann Arbor Newshawks? And a guy called Homeless Dave who interviews people on a teeter totter?  (The name itself is an in-joke; it derives from a careless comment made by a non-townie who mistook the beard for a marker.)  HD has now morphed into Tireless Dave with his indefatigable reporting on the Ann Arbor Chronicle.

So does all this sound rather silly?  Maybe – but there is something behind it that is not silly at all.  It is this type of private conversation that binds groups together.  In other words,  shared experiences and even jokes help to create community cohesion. I’m sure that anthropologists and sociobiologists could go to town (pun intended) with this – probably everything from coming-of-age rituals to oxytocin secretion is involved.  I have only the intuitive understanding that we need ways to identify ourselves as part of a group, and these little bits of ephemera are helpful in doing that.

Another thing that we know as townies is that our local environment is what supports us.  For that reason, though we certainly do patronize chain stores and fast-food outlets, we are likely to aim at local businesses when feasible.  So we’ll likely buy appliances at Big George’s , hardware at Stadium Hardware or Ace Hardware, housewares at Ace, and gardening supplies at Downtown Home and Garden (though Target and Home Depot are doing well).  We’ll veer toward the Produce Station and Arbor Farms when we can (though Kroger and Whole Foods are doing fine).  We’ll eat in one of the local hangouts or in a Main Street restaurant (and there seem to be not too many restaurant franchises except in the campus area and near the malls). And of course many of us are likely to patronize one or more of the local farmers’ markets or join a CSA.  Without thinking it through too much, we realize that we are interdependent and the physical, economic and social structures of the town all support us.

General note in advance of comments: I realize that every generalization I have made will be challenged and that many townies prefer other stores, hangouts, etc. than those mentioned, and some may live exclusively on McDonald’s fries.  Also, some people will have spent their entire life obsessing about UM sports and avoiding the Art Fair.  Further, our community connections range from Kiwanis to church to Transition Ann Arbor.  I’m not trying to limit anybody.  It’s all good.

Part of my acculturation to Ann Arbor was the experience of being a county commissioner and meeting people from all over Washtenaw County.  This gave me an opportunity to see our town as others see us.  The general opinion outside the “walls” (the freeway ring) is that we Ann Arborites think we’re pretty special.  (And they don’t particularly agree.)  And yes, everything that I just said shows that there is a certain self-satisfaction and self-absorption involved.  But actually, we are pretty special.  I’ve got documentary proof.

No no, I’m not talking about the endless stream of awards that our Mayor has applied for and frequently brags about, or that we are #whatever on various meaningless lists. (Currently we are even bragging that we didn’t make the All America City award, but we were at least considered for it!)

The nature of our city has been the subject of a couple of recent studies.  One was the Patchwork Nation project, published in summary as a book.  (See HD’s Teeter interview with the author.)  The author, Dante Chinni, unfortunately interviewed very few people, including Mayor John Hieftje and Jesse Bernstein (the then Chamber of Commerce president).  He classified us as “Campus and Careers” and much of the chapter enthuses (a word I detest, but it fits here) about our future as a high-tech center (“The Base for the New Economy…Campus and Careers communities are primed to become economic drivers”) and quotes Hieftje at length about our environmentalism.  Other than a reference to “lattes and liberalism”,  it says little about the nature of the actual community where people live.

Blake Gumprecht did a better job, I think, in his book The American College Town. (See John Hilton’s excellent review.)  He identified Ann Arbor as one of a very few select, and unique, communities in the United States and perhaps the world.  They are all smallish towns and small cities that host a major university.    Gumprecht is an academic geographer so is well situated to turn an analytical, yet sympathetic, eye to the special characteristics of such towns.

He chooses relatively few college towns for explicit review, though several others (including the site of my graduate alma mater, Madison, Wisconsin) are mentioned in context a number of times.  Ann Arbor is singularly honored – sort of.  The title of the chapter is “High-tech Valhalla” and he confesses that he almost didn’t include us in the book because our essential identity as a college town is getting blurred by the ambitions of those who would make us a high-tech success center.

I like high tech.  My husband moved here (and brought me along) because of it.  I rejoice in the incubators like Dug Song’s Tech Brewery and the many startups and young or older companies that have given this town employment and vibrancy.  But Gumprecht’s point is that high-tech growth changes a college town and he highlights some of the conflicts that it causes.  Since we are now living in a state governed by a graduate of our high-tech industry who also shaped much of our local economic development push, it gives one pause.  Gumprecht’s book has a long and interesting history of Ann Arbor light industry and its interaction with the UM.  (Think Power.  Think books.  Think University Microfilms.)  He also points out that many high-tech ventures have left Ann Arbor once established.  His conclusion is that the movement has altered the city, and whether that is good or bad is left as a matter of opinion.

But his discussion of the general characteristics of college towns strikes some important chords. College towns are unconventional places, “full of eccentrics, activists, and others who reject mainstream values”.  They are full of NPR listeners.  Quality of life is high.  “College towns are known for having lively downtowns, picturesque residential neighborhoods, unusual cultural opportunities for cities so small, ample parks and recreational facilities, safe streets, and good schools.  They rank high on lists of the best places to live, retire, and start a business.” “College towns with flagship universities are more likely than other college towns to have bookstores that cater to non-mainstream tastes, lively arts scenes, ethnic restaurants, and movie theaters showing offbeat films.” “Residents of flagship college towns also tend to be worldly and aware.” “All of these characteristics make college towns…desirable places to live for educated, liberal, hip young people and older adults.”  In short, we have it really good here.  And we’d like to keep that.

Perhaps this is what is really at the bottom of the current political divide in Ann Arbor.  It’s the townies vs. the economic development visionaries.  Or as a friend recently put it, the Community Party vs. the Council Party.  There is a segment of city movers and shakers who would like to see Ann Arbor become a metropolitan center, with  higher density, intense economic development, and more opportunities for wealth generation.  They openly resent the “neighborhood types” (aka current residents) who oppose change that threatens their own neighborhoods and quality of life.  (As former city councilmember Joan Lowenstein so aptly put it, we get sulky.)

This is truly a divide, not merely of “politics”, but of the vision for the future of the city.  Community activists don’t simply say “no”.  They say “yes” to the many qualities of our city that are valuable and enhance our lives.  On the other hand, we townies aren’t opposed to change on principle, and we certainly want a thriving economy.  We just don’t want to be displaced to achieve it.  We love our town.

UPDATE: See the Ann Arbor Chronicle’s account of their first annual Bezonki awards for a true townie immersion.  They celebrate people who have supported them and to the “the interplay of fine lines that define our community”.

Explore posts in the same categories: Basis, Neighborhoods

6 Comments on “What Does It Mean to be an Ann Arbor Townie?”

  1. Alice Ralph Says:

    I wonder, basically, whether the answer is simply that a “townie” is simply a resident who loves the town we live in. And that means we also love the ones who love our town. When you love someone or something, you are both protective and hopeful. You hope for the best, for all and always. I also think that in a durable loving relationship, it is essential to like the one you love. Once on a bus ride from the U [!] area, I heard a conversation [?] between apparent grad students. They were complaining about nowhere to go, nobody of note, and nothing to do [in this podunk town]. And yet they chose to come here, to do something important in their lives– and may not have left campus since their arrival. Maybe they were homesick. I hope they have since been able to establish themselves among friends in a town they love, too. So, maybe a really simple test is “do you LIKE [or are you learning to like] our town? Do you like us? Is Ann Arbor just a part of you (where you happen to live), or are you a part of Ann Arbor?
    ps–Ann Arbor is the fourth college town to which I came to live, as a student in one of them. It is not because I eventually went to grad here, that I now feel so much like a townie. What Vivienne said…and even more.

  2. Kai Petainen Says:

    wonderful article!

  3. Dan Meisler Says:

    The problem with Townies and/or locals is the suffocating nostalgia that snuffs out any vision of a future that might include something new and different, something that is not “how it has always been” in Ann Arbor. There must be something between the Community Party and the Council Party…
    (my credentials — grew up here [Commie High grad], lived here for the past 7 years, nearly 20 years in town all told)

    • varmentrout Says:

      I honestly believe that most long-term residents are fine with changes that preserve the character of the town (as aside from every single feature). Many of these community visions are embedded in our master plans and zoning ordinance, which are the product of decades of discussion. Those do permit “new” things, just limit the impact on established neighborhoods.

      But all this is a matter of degree and perspective. One person’s “town character” is another’s “suffocating nostalgia”. It’s important that we continue to have the community discussions to find the happy middle.


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