Heartland America: Michigan’s Ann Arbor
Ryan Summerlin December 19, 2010
Often, when I’m visiting other cities around the country, I compare them to the two great places I call “home.” Sometimes I even work up a little “Could I live here?” scenario in my mind.
In the case of Ann Arbor, my answer would definitely be YES! And I’m not alone: The city is consistently high on publications’ ranking lists: “Best Places to Live” (Money), Best Walking Cities in America” (Prevention), even “Healthiest Hometown in America” (AARP).
On a recent fine fall weekend, I visited the city that locals refer to as “A2″” (or A-Squared). I came away thinking that the city of 113,000 residents is one of the hippest and most energetic cities I’ve ever passed through. Surely, the 40-some thousand students who attend the University of Michigan have something to do with that energy. Also factor in those dynamic folks involved in academic programs at the university (U of M has the largest pre-law and pre-med schools in the country!) and others involved in the area’s notable research and development, and it’s easy to see why the city has cultivated such a rich cultural scene.
Located about 40 miles west of Detroit, Ann Arbor is a less frantic “exurb” of Motown and a more “heart of America” place to spend time. The city’s square-mile or so of downtown is a great place to stroll. It’s also a great place to relax at a street-side cafe as you check out others who’ve come to sample AA’s charms. Among them might be big blue alums, art collectors, theater buffs, classical musicians, techno and hip-hop fans, shop-a-holics and foodies in search of eateries, of which the region is truly rife.
Here, in a much-abbreviated run-down, are a few attractions this tourist would urge you to find:
THE CAMPUS: Actually, there are two of them, connected by trademark “big blue” buses. I’ll concern myself here with Central Campus. At the heart of it is its landmark “Diag,” the diagonal walkway crossing the original 40-acre university. Along its route are examples of the U of M’s vast collection of public art, including Maya Lin’s iconic “The Wave.” Near the State Street end you’ll find the university’s three museums: UMMA, (U of M’s Museum of Art), Exhibit Museum of Natural History and The Kelsy Museum (100,000 objects from archeological digs). All of them are world-class.
On my visit, I so hoped to be one of the 107,000 spectators in America’s largest college sports stadium ( known colloquially locally as “The Big House”) to watch the Michigan Wolverines challenge another Big Ten school on the gridiron. But I’m told that games are consistently sell-outs, and that even a single ticket is harder to find than a snowball in Hawaii. Better luck next time!
THE ARTS: Theatre? Traditional productions at The Performance Network or the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre. More experimental or innovative fare at the U of M Basement Arts Theatre. And in a nearby suburb – Chelsea – home-town boy and Hollywood actor Jeff Daniels often directs or performs at his acclaimed regional playhouse – The Purple Rose.
Music? Bob Seger, Nanci Griffith, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Leon Redbone and John Prine are but a few who’ve wowed audiences at The Ark, a world-renowned folk, ethnic, and alternative music club that features live music over 300 nights a year. The Blind Pig is AA’s funkiest rock bar, if you’re so inclined. And at Hill Auditorium on campus, concerts are near-nightly events and that’s only one college venue I have space to name.
The AA Art Fair (actually four fairs in one in mid-July) is the city’s biggest party. This annual ode to art covers about 25 city blocks and attracts more than 500,000 visitors. My friends put it this way: “Expect to be overwhelmed!”
GOOD EATS: Hard to believe but AA boasts of nearly 300 restaurants, micro-breweries and coffee shops, an impressive number not matched by many cities of the same size. I’ll throw out a few names of places I personally tried in my three-day hiatus from calorie-counting: high end dinners at Pacific Rim, Eve, and Mediterrano; yummy lunches at Cafe Felix, Jolly Pumpkin and Conor O’Neill’s Authentic Irish Pub. In a class all its own: Zingerman’s, a consortium of eateries including a New York-style deli and a classic roadhouse.
SHOPPING: Two primary locales: The Main Street area (at most six blocks long) has an abundance of art galleries and specialty shops, many of them open into the evening for the dining crowd. Kerrytown: Includes a dynamic farmer’s market and dozens of niftier-than usual boutiques.
For more information, contact the Ann Arbor Convention and Visitors Bureau: (734) 995-7281 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Carolyn Schwartz writes from Pittsboro, N.C., and Summit County.