Archive for the ‘Basis’ category

Local Food and Good Eating in a Season of Plenty II

November 24, 2012

Ann Arbor Farmers’ Market, October 2012

Good news: the local food movement in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County has built success on success over the last few years.  It really is a social movement in the sense that it represents a conscious change in the way we view food production and consumption, and is the result of individual and group actions by many people and different groups and institutions.

What is the motivation behind the movement?  Actually, there are several.

Healthful food 

The understanding that our food was being produced using too many toxic materials (especially pesticides) has been growing over decades and a demand for organic food is now well established.  There is a national organic certification system that has a mixed effect (not a subject for this post) but it is simple wisdom to “know your farmer, know your food” in order to be confident of how the food was produced.

Beyond the issue of toxics, the nutritive value of food is dependent both on how it is grown and how processed.  We now know that grass-fed beef is more healthful because of the fatty acid content, and fresh vegetables contain more nutrients than those that have been stored. And of course, the types of food consumed have a profound effect on health.  As Michael Pollan has thoroughly discussed in his book In Defense of Food, the Western diet is making us sick.  He has warned us against eating food that “your grandmother wouldn’t recognize” and boiled down the lesson to his now celebrated basic rule:  “Eat food.  Not too much. Mostly plants.”   (“Food” here means recognizable food, not industrial synthetic “product”.  Twinkie, I’m looking at you.)  Locally grown real food is a direct way to achieve this goal.  This is the driver behind the “Farm to School” effort. The idea is to train children to appreciate fresh, real food, and to make it available to them through school food programs.

Tasty food

Slow Food, an international organization, has been an important impetus behind the local food movement.  Our local chapter, Slow Food Huron Valley, has provided a real brain trust and organizational center for the movement.  As their website says, “We inspire a transformation in food policy, production practices and market forces so that they ensure equity, sustainability and pleasure in the food we eat.”  Note that last – the slow food movement is not just about the environment or helping small farmers, it is about the taste.  Part of the local food movement has been an epicurean interest in artisanal foods – food made by hand, locally.

Local economy

The local food impetus ties in to a larger quest for local economic vitality. The BALLE organization (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies) exemplifies the effort to encourage  “human-scale, interconnected local economies that function in harmony with local ecosystems to meet the basic needs of all people, support just and democratic societies, and foster joyful community life”.  This relates in turn to the concept of localization, the notion of creating self-reliant local communities.  This concept is the core basis of this blog.  For a comprehensive review of the concepts of localization, see the book The Localization Reader. This set of readings is used for a seminar on localization taught at the University of Michigan by Raymond De Young and Thomas Princen, who are the editors of the book.  The articles contained within have little to do with food and much to do with energy and philosophies of social organization.  Some of them are classics and some newly written by the editors.

Encouraging development of  the local food system is the focus of FSEP  (Food System Economic Partnership), which is housed in Washtenaw County but has members (counties) throughout the SE Michigan region.  FSEP has supported small food business development through education and expert assistance and is conducting a Beginning Farmer program through its Tilian Farm Incubator Program.

Grand Rapids is ahead of our region in using the food system for business development, with their Downtown Market project. (Read local blogger Mark Maynard’s take on this.)  Still, though we do not have an indoor facility, we do have a year-round Ann Arbor Farmers’ Market  with a venerable history (download pdf of history,  thanks to The Arbor Market) and a growing list of other farmers’ markets.

Washtenaw Food Hub, open for business

A really exciting recent development, the Washtenaw Food Hub, is now emerging as a reality.  It recently received a grant from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development for continued development of the former Braun farm (4175 Whitmore Lake Road) into a center for commerce, education, food storage, food preparation and other system-building activities.

Ethical and environmental considerations

Making food choices has increasingly become, for some of us at least, a battle of conscience.  Our industrial food system has been very efficient at delivering relatively inexpensive food, but the cost isn’t just to our waistlines.  It is to the global environment and to other animal species.

As Michael Pollan outlined so well in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, our industrial food system rests heavily on the cultivation of corn (maize).  It is used in many industrial food products as a sweetener and source of chemicals, but most of all it is used to feed animals.  Zea mays is a very remarkable species.  It can be remarkably productive, partly because it is a C4 plant.  Many other grains, like wheat and millet, are C3 plants, which means that they have a defect in their photosynthetic mechanism which causes them to be very inefficient under conditions of high temperatures and water stress.  Maize loves those hot Iowa summers (with enough water).  But its cultivation requires high inputs of fossil fuels for high production.  So as we consume its products, we are also exacerbating our planet’s energy budget problem.

Some ethical considerations about food. Click for larger view.

Cattle are fed maize for rapid weight gain, though they are not adapted to be grain eaters.  This often happens in crowded feedlots where inhumane events are well known.   The animals are under stress during this time and at slaughter.  Chickens are also often caged under stressful conditions.  (California was the first state in the nation to pass a law requiring changes in chicken cage sizes.)  You don’t really want to hear about pigs.  All of these thoughts can affect your appetite.  (There are others; I discussed this in a post on a different blog some time ago.)

Thus, eating local food, in particular locally raised meat, eggs, and dairy, probably not only gives you access to better food but often to food from humanely treated animals.  Of course, the more vegetables (local of course) that you eat instead of these animal products, the more you win on both ethical and health grounds.

Community food security

And finally, the most important reason of all.  Food security means that people have enough to eat. We’ll discuss that at more length in the next post.

Note: Posts on this subject are listed on the Local Food Page.

The Value of Historic Preservation for Ann Arbor

June 12, 2012

One of the strengths of Ann Arbor as a community is its active historic preservation infrastructure.  Here is what the Ann Arbor Preservation Alliance has to say about that (from a recently published brochure, attached here with permission).

Vibrant downtown streets and lively neighborhoods, laced with a rich diversity of 19th and 20th century historic buildings, provide the backdrop to the sense of place Ann Arborites love and the quality of life they enjoy.

Since 1975, when Ann Arbor’s city council declared historic preservation a “public purpose,” citizens have helped create historic districts and advocated for the restoration and rehabilitation of historic structures in commercial districts and residential neighborhoods.

The brochure outlines details of the Historic District Commission (HDC) process.  The city currently has 14 historic districts.

Ann Arbor Historic Districts, from the Ann Arbor Preservation Alliance brochure. Click for a larger image.

In recent years, historic preservation has become controversial, as it has come up against development pressures.  While historic preservation does not prevent development, it institutes a review process and also makes demolition of structures in a district more difficult.

The importance of historic preservation to maintaining the integrity of areas with historic structures was never so apparent as recently, with the tragic chain of events leading to the destruction of seven historic houses in one of our city’s near-downtown neighborhoods.  The value of these Central Area neighborhoods to developers is a strong incentive.

As we outlined in detail in our previous post,  Heritage City Place Row, there are many community-wide reasons to maintain such structures.  One is, simply, economics.  There are more and more discussions of “placemaking” and the importance of “quality of life” to attracting “talent”, young professionals who will enrich us all by joining new start-up enterprises.   The tourism industry also recognizes the importance of historic areas in attracting visitors.  Here’s what we said about that in our previous post:

Perhaps most telling in these difficult times is the argument that all of Ann Arbor stands to lose economic benefit from the destruction of this attractive area.  Donovan Rypkema, who has spoken in Ann Arbor and many other places on the economic benefits of historic preservation, makes the point that over time the most successful urban areas (i.e. those that attract people who will lift the economic climate) are those that maintain historic and architecturally significant structures.  They are part of the “quality of life” indicators that attract innovators, young entrepreneurial and creative people who will help the region be successful.  Ask yourself: what do you see first in pictures of “lovely Ann Arbor” that seek to entice visitors and investors?  You’ll see pictures of our historic Main Street with maybe the Law Quad thrown in.

Unfortunately, the saga of City Place shows that sometimes the story just doesn’t end well.  The City Council failed on several attempts to establish a historic district for the area. The seven contiguous historic houses on South Fifth Avenue just south of William were demolished and two large apartment buildings that will probably house mostly students are now under construction.  Almost the entire block of that historic neighborhood has been replaced. (Photos of the seven demolished houses are on the previous post.)

This is now the uninspiring view along most of the first block of S. Fifth.

A view down S. Fifth showing the two remaining houses on the block.

One reason the developer was able to execute this so-called “by right” development was that he was able to assemble the seven contiguous lots into one lot for the purposes of producing a site plan.  Under provisions of the current R4C zoning, this development met most of the setback and other requirements.  (Actually, the neighborhood submitted an appeal [long text here] to the Zoning Board of Appeals, which for some reason failed even to consider it.)

Now we may be able to make changes in Ann Arbor’s zoning ordinance that would prevent a similar tragedy.  As reported by, the City Council has now received the report of the R4C/R2A Zoning District Advisory Committee.  (Download report here.)  We’ll have to hope that Council approves the changes in the zoning ordinance recommended by this citizen committee.    It is important to safeguard our Central Area neighborhoods, and the others where R4C zoning exists.

But if we are to continue protection of historic structures, and to obtain the benefits of historic preservation, citizens as well as council members must support the work of the Historic District Commission as well.  Their decisions have sometimes been controversial, only because the reasoning behind their guidelines is often not intuitive to some people.  (The recent kerfuffle over a rail fence on the Old West Side is an example.)  Their faithful monitoring of our historic districts has resulted in a better community for all of us.

To learn more about the Ann Arbor Preservation Alliance, send an email to

A Pause for Breath

June 6, 2012

The secret is out – the publisher of Local in Ann Arbor is running for office again.  I’m running for the open council seat in Ann Arbor’s Fifth Ward.

I want to keep Local in Ann Arbor as what it was intended to be: a blog about the life of our city, with special attention to the issues of the day.  I don’t want it to morph into a campaign vehicle.

There will be more posts, but not very soon.

Issues discussion from a campaign perspective is going on at Ann Arbor – It’s Where We Live (my campaign blog).

We’ll be back.

UPDATE:   Okay, so that sentence should have read “There will be more posts.”  It seems there is a lot to write about that is not directly connected with a political campaign.

The Council Party vs. the Ann Arbor Townies

December 10, 2011

How often have we heard it?  “Ann Arbor in Amber”  (refers to the fossilized resin, not the fictional kingdom), the place where townies “don’t want to change”.  As we said in our earlier post, What Does It Mean to be an Ann Arbor Townie,  this is really a reflection of two different visions for our town.  Here’s what we said then:

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 has been a tough year for the Council Party.  They have learned yet once again that elections are the check on unbridled power.  Here’s the problem: voters are residents who have a vested interest in the circumstances that actually affect life in the city.  But the Council Party is often working on behalf of a future vision that doesn’t include those troublesome residents.  Thus, the CP suffered significant defeats in both the primary and general elections of 2011.  (Links are to Ann Arbor Chronicle roundup of those elections.)

In the primary elections,   the CP mounted challengers to two incumbents (Mike Anglin and Steve Kunselman) who have been a thorn in their side.  As we noted at the time, the Fifth Ward race in particular was a direct contest between two views of how Ann Arbor should be governed. As reported by, challenger Neal Elyakin rang all the CP bells,  with support for the Fuller Road Station, “dense downtown development and a future economy that supports job creation” and, infamously, a reference to “naysayers”.  In the Third Ward, challenger Ingrid Ault also made statements that could be regarded as pro-development and was endorsed by CP stalwarts such as kingmaker Leah Gunn, Joan Lowenstein, and CM Sandi Smith.  Both challengers were qualified, generally well-regarded in the community, and raised a decent amount of money.  But they were both decisively defeated.  Here are the results of those primary elections.

Council Party incumbent Stephen Rapundalo easily defeated a novice political challenger.  But Tim Hull’s determined campaign did serve notice that Rapundalo might be vulnerable, and thus one of the more remarkable chapters in Ann Arbor political history began.  Former councilmember Jane Lumm was persuaded to come out of political retirement to run as an independent in the general election.  Though a Republican, Lumm was supported by many Democrats as well as Republicans in an upwelling of electoral enthusiasm that can only be described as “post-partisan” in its breadth.  Lumm’s positions were antithetical to the Council Party’s on nearly every point.  She won decisively.   Here are the results of the contests of interest in the November 2011 general election.

Incumbents in two wards were scarcely contested. Sabra Briere (not of the Council Party) had no opposition at all and Marcia Higgins (a CP stalwart) faced an opponent who ran as a Republican but who was rather quirky and apparently entirely self-funded. So if we are keeping score, the total for the season is Council Party 1: Community (or townies) 4.

Take That!  And That!

Clearly this year’s elections were going to be disappointing for the group of insiders who have been running the city for the last 10 years.  Now a defender has emerged to score the upstarts.  Former councilmember Joan Lowenstein has written an article that appeared in the December print edition of The Ann, a magazine that is furnished as an insert in several other print vehicles in Ann Arbor.  The article has now been made available online ( thanks to the publisher) though now formatted as a “letter”.  Lowenstein, who served as an enthusiastic Council Party Council Member until stepping down to run as a judge in the 15th District Court (2008) and who now serves as DDA chair, has a long history of “dissing” residents.  I can’t possibly do better than A2Politico’s summary of that history.  But she has really outdone herself with this one.  Her article combines disinformation with outright insults, and is even politically incorrect.  (Since when is it okay to attack people on the basis of age?)  She specifically calls out Lumm, Anglin and Kunselman as “antis”.

In Lowenstein’s current piece, she accuses townies of opposing the pedestrian crosswalk ordinance (it was not a campaign issue as far as I am aware), and the pedestrian path along Washtenaw.    Though some of Lumm’s voters might have been unhappy with that path because it took a swath out of their property and required some assessments, no mention of it is on her website, and it has certainly not been much discussed citywide.  She appears to attribute opposition to the Fuller Road Parking structure to fear of outsiders.

“A transportation center would bring in more people, and people are dangerous if you want to huddle in a corner and hold on to what you have”

Lowenstein goes on to imply that Community voters are against culture because they think government should provide “only” basic services, interested in “shrinking government so that it provides nothing but water, sewers, roads and police” but not in “public art, concert halls,  theaters and libraries”.    This is due to our crabbed age-related tendencies, when we need to “attract young, industrious, intelligent and civic-minded people”.  Yes, the problem is that “people get more conservative as they age”, and she has already explained that the “antis” are “Most…not only in the category of older but in the subset of elderly”.

What this is all about is the “development to bring in young talent”  idea that has been a consistent element of the Council Party’s world view for some years.  (See our post of almost two years ago with a summary of the arguments.)  So if you care about your neighborhood and want a decent quality of life in your city, you are somehow preventing the young from establishing a foothold.  Framing the argument  as a generational war is hurtful and untrue.  Many of the neighborhoods of Ann Arbor are home to young families and even young single people need reliable water and sewer, safety as provided by police and fire protection, roads that can be traveled, and like to visit parks.  Many of the disputed issues (such as the Justice Center that many of us opposed and the Fuller Road Station) would in fact burden a future generation with debt when the “subset of elderly” will be beyond caring.  Using labels like those in Lowenstein’s article to dismiss those who have a different vision of the future is at first laughable, but finally, disturbing because it attacks community cohesion at a basic level.

Disclosure: I both endorsed and contributed to Anglin, Briere, Kunselman, and Lumm in the last election season.

UPDATE: chose to make Lowenstein’s column and this response into a news story.   It elicited many comments, most of them critical of Lowenstein but some supporting her viewpoint.  The poll appeared to be almost evenly divided, though like so many polls the choices were poorly stated.

NOTE: The link to Lowenstein’s column in The Ann is broken.  I cannot identify a source of the original column. (October 16, 2016)


Is Regionalism Really a Good Thing?

November 27, 2011

Regionalism has become the guiding force behind many initiatives – but is it good for Ann Arbor?

A group of happy people gathered last Monday (November 21, 2011) to hear an important announcement. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) regional administrator Antonio Riley was there to announce a Sustainable Community grant award to Washtenaw County and there were a number of elected officials basking in the glow.  But the real star of the show was an idea, not a person.  It was Regionalism.

Many recent initiatives in Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County, and Michigan have been organized around regionalism, in which the role of traditional jurisdictions like cities, villages and townships is diminished in order to operate within much wider boundaries.

The idea has a lot of appeal on the face of it. The reasoning behind it has several arguments.

  • One is that certain functions, like transportation, naturally occur over larger geographical areas than the traditional political boundaries describe.
  • A major impetus is that it is “good for business” because of efficiency in organizing and delivering services and administering policies (and business does not have to deal with “a patchwork” of regulations and politics).
  • Perhaps the most persuasive to many is the opportunity to distribute benefits and services more evenly across boundaries, with less regard to the affluence of each locality.  It  is the basis of many of our Federal and state programs, where citizens are guaranteed certain benefits and protections whether in the poorest or most wealthy states or counties.

Tony Derezinski at a recent Ann Arbor council meeting. Courtesy of Ann Arbor Chronicle (photo has been cropped).

This last is a strong moral argument that speaks to “our better angels” and our sense of community when it is being broadly expressed.  It is an argument that lies behind some of the acceptance of the Reimagining Washtenaw Avenue project, which this grant is intended (even designed) to support.  The siren song of intergovernmental cooperation and collaboration speaks in part to our response in Ann Arbor to the knowledge that Ypsilanti (city and township) is our sister urban area that is not as wealthy as fortunate Ann Arbor.

One of the enthusiastic speakers at the announcement was Ann Arbor Councilmember Tony Derezinski, who has been the promoter of Reimagining Washtenaw Avenue since its inception.  CM Derezinski is also a committed supporter of the concept of regionalism.  As he said at the event, “We are a region, we are not just Ann Arbor”.  And then he misquoted (with apologies) poet John Donne in saying, “No municipality is an island unto itself”.  Here is the full quotation of the actual poem (really from a long essay).

In other words, are we not responsible for each other?  This is an easy emotional and empathetic argument which, unfortunately, runs into some practical and political brick walls on close examination.

If you examine the history of humankind even at a superficial level, you will note that it consists of waves of geographical consolidation, followed by periods of revolt in the name of self-determination.  The thing is that natural human communities are self-limiting.  Right now, Europe is trying to work out how much member states will take on in respect of each other. In the United States, we are still arguing the dynamic of federalism vs. states’ rights.

Michigan resolved this question constitutionally as Home Rule.  The  review of this principle by the Michigan Municipal League quotes the 1908 constitution as saying, “each municipality is the best judge of its local needs and the best able to provide for its local necessities.” As the review indicates, the principle of home rule for Michigan municipalities has been eroded in recent years by state law overriding the ability of local units (note that “municipalities” is a basket term for cities, villages, townships, and counties) to regulate a wide variety of issues.  Only this week, as reported by the Ann Arbor Chronicle, the Ann Arbor City Council was grappling with a proposed state law that would prevent Ann Arbor from extending anti-discrimination protection to people on the basis of sexual preference.  The ingrained belief in the home rule principle persists in the Michigan psyche, especially as it comes to taxes.  Some Washtenaw County townships still have a local tax limitation for local services of 1 mill, and they are proud of it.  (Charter townships may tax up to 5 mills.  Special ballot issues don’t count.)

So if we are to extend authority across established jurisdictional lines, two things happen.  One is that local control of just what services and options are offered is limited.  Another is that one jurisdiction may find itself paying, at least potentially, for services received by another.

With Reimagine Washtenaw, if it is fully fleshed out and enacted, four municipalities (Ann Arbor city, Pittsfield Township, Ypsilanti city, Ypsilanti Township) will surrender much of their sovereignty within the Washtenaw corridor to a new entity, a Corridor Improvement Authority. (For good reviews, see the Ann Arbor Chronicle’s report of a public meeting and coverage of a BOC working session.)

There are some other examples of regionalism that specifically affect the City of Ann Arbor:

The move to a countywide transit system.  We have a number of posts about this, including the most recent on “Where the Money Is” .  The decision was made a couple of years ago to emphasize commuter access to Ann Arbor rather than to optimize within-city service.  Now Ann Arbor taxes are being used to pay for express buses to Chelsea and Canton, as well as enhanced service to Ypsilanti.

The Governor’s transit plan. As we reported earlier, Governor Snyder has proposed a Regional Transit Authority that includes Washtenaw County.  If enacted fully, it would draw all Federal and state transportation funds to itself, contract local bus service to AATA and other local entities, but emphasize major routes for the movement of workforce toward the Detroit Metro area, probably by use of Bus Rapid Transit technology.  This would handicap the ability of local transit authorities like AATA to innovate and serve new needs locally.

The Urban County.   Ann Arbor was one of the first Block Grant communities in the state, and for many years was the only community in the county with Federal CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) funds to spend on human services and housiing.  Washtenaw County formed the Urban County to make CDBG-funded services available to other communities.  As described on the county website, the city’s Community Development department was merged with the county’s department and finally the City of Ann Arbor joined the Urban County.  One consequence was that Ann Arbor lost nearly $400,000 a year in human services money that had been grandfathered in.  As the memorandum provided to Council explains, this was to result in an increase across the Urban County of $100,000 in HUD-supplied funds.  But those funds would be directed toward other uses (not human services).  An increase to the county  of $100,000 in Emergency Shelter Grant funds was expected to offset this somewhat.

So while Ann Arbor formerly had human services money from a Federal grant and an independent Housing and Human Services Advisory Board to administer them, the City Council has been obliged to supplement human services from the Ann Arbor general fund in the last several budget years.  This has led to heart-rending presentations from non-profit organizations that serve the needy and their clients.  A search in the Ann Arbor Chronicle archives has many reports of such moments, including the one with paper cranes.  At the same time, general fund support for human services from Washtenaw County has also been cut severely in the wake of County budget problems.  In a triumph of bureaucracy, the County approved a Coordinated Funding model for distribution of services in 2010.  This funnels all funds, including those donated to the United Way, through a goals-and-objectives process that is supposed to be more efficient.  (An astonishing document prepared by Community Development touts the economic “return on investment” for nonprofit funding, quite a change in emphasis from human needs.)  One result was slashing the funds allocated to the Delonis homeless shelter from $160,000 to $25,000 (see the account by the Chronicle).  On an announcement that this would result in closing the “warming center” in which homeless individuals not in residence at the shelter can find protection on coldest nights,  both the County and the City of Ann Arbor found some stopgap funds, just for this year.

The A2 Success project and SPARK  This is regionalism on steroids.  The A2 Success project was begun approximately in early 2009 and has a number of economic development projects for the “Ann Arbor region” (which is essentially Washtenaw County with some incursions into Wayne County).  SPARK, which began as a merger of the former Washtenaw Development Corporation and the Smart Zone, now styles itself  “Ann Arbor, USA” and has been consuming ever more and more general fund support from both the City of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County.  Now a revived millage tax levied by the county will give SPARK over a quarter of a million dollars next year.

Regionalism Rules – but what about Localization?

Clearly the concept of regionalism has the support of most of our political leaders, and it has a powerful and persuasive voice.  But does it really benefit the community that we have within our City of Ann Arbor?  Or is it actually an effort to exploit the resources that we have, including our educated population,  our positive image countrywide,  our strong cultural environment, and most of all our tax base? In other words, is regionalism at the expense of Ann Arbor taxpayers supportable only for altruistic reasons?  Or does it bring our actual community actual benefits?

You wouldn’t expect a blog called Local in Ann Arbor to espouse regionalism, and you are right.  As we said in our first post, we support something of an opposite concept: localization.  In “What Does It Mean to be an Ann Arbor Townie“,  we tried to put forth the case that we have an unusually desirable place to live because of our special local character.  But it goes beyond that to a belief that a successful, resilient community is built on interdependence at a local level. To some extent, we must be an island  – and island economies are notably self-sufficient.

Localization is a world-view, a prescription for living, and a field of academic study.  I’m looking forward to the coming book on the subject,  The Localization Reader, by UM professors Raymond De Young and Thomas Princen.  You’ll hear more on this from us another day.

UPDATE:  This post is not the place for a full discussion of allocation of costs in AATA’s regional outreach.  However, the attached Report to the Treasurer from last year (it does not include the special service to Ypsilanti) shows the contribution of Ann Arbor taxpayers to the Commuter Express projects.  The University of Michigan does not contribute directly to this service (as stated in a comment below), but rather compensates employees for the cost of their fares.  The report indicates that 31% of this service (to Chelsea and Canton) is paid for by Ann Arbor taxes, and 26.4% by fares.  The remainder is picked up by State and Federal operating assistance.

NOTE: Readers of this post may also find discussions of governance in this post on regional transit plans and its sequel of interest.  The two posts discuss governance issues for regional authorities.

NOTE: We have now begun a new series on this subject, beginning with Regionalism Reconsidered.


Transition Exits Ann Arbor

October 3, 2011

A little more than two years after Transition (a worldwide movement) introduced itself to Ann Arbor,  the local group has announced (via its email listserv) that it is disbanding.

After much deliberation and collective soul searching, we are writing to let you know that the initiating team of Transition Ann Arbor is officially disbanding.   We believe it is important to announce this widely so that we can release the effort into the hands of others, should there be a future groundswell of committed individuals.  

Some challenges we faced were the usual ones, such as personal time constraints and life circumstances. But there were other challenges that we didn’t anticipate, such as the fact that the Transition model has proven difficult to implement in a city the size of Ann Arbor without staff or a strong ties to an existing 501c3 nonprofit.  

We are excited to see the growth of Transition-related efforts in the Ann Arbor community and region. We continue to believe that there is a role for an umbrella organization that strengthens these efforts and develops cohesive plans, action groups, programs, and messages that help our community prepare for the long emergency–the impacts of peak oil, climate change, and economic instability. Unfortunately, we don’t have the necessary resources (or person-power) to make this happen. We have a wealth of accumulated knowledge and lessons learned from our efforts over the last 2 years, including the beginnings of an energy descent action plan. To improve future organizing, we would be happy to share our insights and resources with anyone interested in picking up similar work.

As might be understood from this statement, Transition was founded to support the worldview of those, such as former Environmental Commission chair and mayoral candidate Steve Bean, that we in Ann Arbor (the country, the world) are facing a future singularity in which conditions of life will change drastically.  (The reference to the “long emergency” is a direct reference to the dystopian classic, The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler.)  Transition Ann Arbor has been especially notable for its “reskilling festivals” in which such skills as sock darning, keeping bees, and other domestic crafts are taught.  According to the announcement, these will continue under the guidance of their organizer, Laura Smith (

A core concept that Transition and similar efforts are based on is “peak oil”, a belief that the world economy and our very way of life will shift dramatically once the cost of energy increases because of dwindling oil supplies.  The data for peak oil are fairly unambiguous and (discounting the possible effect of shale oil) it appear that the point at which oil supplies begin to dwindle is in the next decade (by 2020).   Lester Brown and the Earth Policy Institute have been promulgating news of this and related impending disasters (most having to do with resource depletion of various kinds) for years.  Yet there are doubters and deniers like Michael Lynch (though these arguments are rebuttable).  Problem is, a worldview in which a collapse is imminent definitely undercuts the current growth paradigm and interferes with business as usual.  We’d really rather not be bothered as long as it looks as though things will go along much as they have since most of us can remember.

We all got a bit of a wake-up call with the economic cataclysms of 2008 and 2009. Though Kunstler has not changed his views or his predictions,  what seemed so imminent during the few months following the crash of 2008 now seems to have retreated a bit over the horizon.  It’s a little hard to get excited over darning your own socks when socks made in East Asia are still available at discount stores at pretty decent prices.  Admittedly, lots of people are out of a job, but gas prices seem to have stabilized.  And though food prices have gone up a little, we can still get most of everything we want and the expensive restaurants in downtown Ann Arbor seem to be doing a booming business. This means that choosing “local food” and making your own still appears to be just that—a choice.

Since one of my own interests and concerns is community food security, I was glad to see that Transition Ann Arbor is passing along its modest treasury to Growing Hope.  But otherwise we are left with pale washed-out “sustainability” efforts like the Ecology Center’s 350.0rg  and the UM’s “M Planet Blue“, which basically tinker around the edges with time-honored environmental fixes (all good).  It’ll perhaps be a little while longer before we have a group in Ann Arbor that really sounds a singular alarm.  If that is going to be you, you are invited to contact Jeannine Palms (, one of the organizers and a longtime community activist.

What Does It Mean to be an Ann Arbor Townie?

August 16, 2011

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  (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”.

END OF THE BEZONKI ERA   Now that the Ann Arbor Chronicle is closing, the last Bezonki awards have been made.   Here are pictures and a history of the awards.