This article is a part of the Arts b-side on Icons. For a full look at our b-side pieces exploring this theme, click this link.
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear “Ann Arbor?”
For most, there’s only one answer: Michigan Football.
It’s a good answer, too. Allow me some Wolverine pride –– no one does football quite like we do. Yes, that Ohio State win might still be some ways away, but when the sports season descends, Ann Arbor comes alive.
The University of Michigan has long been an integral part of the city. However, these days Ann Arbor seems overtaken by the Goliath-like shadow of that big, shiny block “M.” Wolverines, victors, leaders and best –– all of these appellations are iconic representations of the University, and by extension, of Ann Arbor. But is maize and blue the start and end of the city’s lamp-lit streets and weathered sidewalks?
This question led me on a search to find what else lies beneath the surface of our “college town.” Perhaps there are other icons more deserving, more representative, than the University. I wanted to know –– What is Ann Arbor’s icon?
But first, what is an icon? Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines it as an “emblem” or “symbol.” An icon is a person, place, object or thing that embodies or recalls something else. The statue of liberty is an icon of New York, of the immigrant experience, of liberty, of the American dream. For different people from different perspectives, there may exist unique, or even contradictory, icons. An American flag is representative of democracy and freedom from the safety and privilege of my college apartment. For others, it could be a symbol of oppression, western imperialism, systematic racism or grand hypocrisy.
Thus, my exploration of Ann Arbor’s icons is limited. As a student of the University, my experience is practically dyed bright maize and blue; As a born-and-raised New Yorker, Ann Arbor was once a vague dot on a map, synonymous with football, college and snow. Ann Arbor, before 2018, was simply not-quite-Detroit. Of course, that understanding has now changed. Two years and an entire quarantine later, I know better: Ann Arbor is football, college and so much more. Like swampy summer heat –– Who would’ve thought?
The Man, the Myth, the Legend: Iggy Pop
To start off my “research,” I took a leisurely walk down the leaf-strewn streets of Ann Arbor. Grey storm clouds scared off the normal social vibrancy of Liberty Street, and as the first few raindrops began to fall, I ducked into the closest open doorway: Encore Records.
A stereotypical art student, I’m a frequent flyer of Ann Arbor’s downtown record shop. The pit-stop, while unplanned, was a welcome reprieve from the usual at-home quarantining. As I browsed among the colorful record stacks, one in particular caught my eye: Iggy Pop! Some would call it coincidence, I prefer providence –– on my search for Ann Arbor’s symbol, I found the music of a “hometown hero” in my hands. So, I bought it.
A thunderstorm quickly swept me out to sea, the classic Ann Arbor wind propelling me and my broken umbrella back home. In the warmth of my messy college apartment, sale-rack wine in hand and Kroger candles burning, I popped my Iggy Pop “cherry.” The record was exactly what I imagined based on the endless array of shirtless Iggy Pop pictures I’ve come across on the internet: fun, a little chaotic and perfect for a one-woman dance party.
Iggy Pop, for those who don’t know, is a bit of an Ann Arbor legend. Known as the “Godfather of Punk,” Pop found his musical roots in Ann Arbor where he founded his band, the Stooges. He lived and worked around town for several years, and even attended the University of Michigan for a short time before dropping out to pursue his musical career.
Pop certainly feels like an Ann Arbor icon. His pop-culture status puts Ann Arbor on the map as a non-wolverine claim-to-fame. Yet Iggy Pop –– while amazing, well-beloved and still chugging along at the youthful age of 73 –– feels more like a testament to Ann Arbor’s star-studded past than the present.
The Hometown Brand: Zingerman’s
Zingerman’s is everywhere. From a New Yorker’s perspective, Zingerman’s is seemingly Michigan’s answer to the famed Katz’s Delicatessen of the Upper West Side. A Zingerman’s sandwich is a must-have on virtually every tourism site, food guide and “Best of Ann Arbor” list. Some people swear by it; for others, the reputation overshadows the overpriced sandwich itself. But ask anyone for their Ann Arbor recommendation, and they’ll give you the same answer: Zingerman’s.
The last time I stepped foot in Zingerman’s, I spent most of my visit noshing on free samples (the college writer’s dream!), sampling olive oil and indulging in the best of Zingerman’s menu with fellow Daily staff. It was a celebration of another successful year come and gone, and a send-off to our graduates. It speaks to Zingerman’s reputation that The Michigan Daily chose this beloved sandwich shop as the locale for our final hurrah.
Of course, I feel obliged to mention that Ann Arbor’s food scene in general is road-trip worthy in its own right. From the old-school fun of Fleetwood Diner to Sava’s breakfast buffet, Ann Arbor packs an impressive restaurant list. But a robust culinary scene and a fantastic sandwich –– Does this alone fill the shoes of the “icon” label? I’m not sure any one restaurant fits the bill.
Underground Arts: Werewolves, Swing and Nightclubs
To try and capture the Ann Arbor arts scene in a few scant paragraphs would be a crime. Yet no discussion of the city’s identity is complete without an acknowledgement of Ann Arbor’s vibrant, explosive and inventive “underground” circuit.
I’ve been to sweaty formals in Necto, sat front-row to bluegrass banjo at The Ark, moshed to college basement concerts, swing danced with Ann Arbor’s vintage crew and even performed a shabby jig to the Werewolf’s violin. Yes, that’s right –– We have a near-500 year old werewolf who plays the fiddle when the moon is out (and at Hash-bash, and sometimes on summer afternoons). If that doesn’t speak to the unique (weird) culture scene in town, I don’t know what does. Going on three years, I know I’ve barely scratched the surface.
In the heyday of the pre-pandemic social scene, it seemed as if there was a concert every night of the week. From Folk Festival, to street-busking, to summer street fairs and evening jazz, you name it, we got it. Proudly, Ann Arbor attracts its fair share of high-profile musicians. We’re a spot on the map, and that isn’t any small feat.
Perhaps Ann Arbor is an art hub, a music town! Surely we have enough of it? Pandemic aside, the excitement of Ann Arbor’s extensive and vibrant arts scene feels the most encompassing of the city’s identity. Violin Monster, will you be our icon?
Sometime around the height of the pandemic’s “first wave” saw me donating a bold amount of money to Literati Bookstore’s GoFundMe. By bold, I mean money that really should have been going toward my rent. But, after semesters spent hunched over the coffee tables of Literati’s upstairs cafe and long afternoons browsing the sale books rack, I felt compelled to give back to one of Ann Arbor’s trademark businesses. Where would we be without our reliable bookstore? It has seen me and my cohorts through awkward first dates, college finals, snowstorms and rainy days.
The dip in my checking account was soothed by the resounding success of Literati’s fundraiser –– She would live to see another day, another finals season!
Dawn Treader Book Shop, another beloved mainstay of Ann Arbor’s small business scene, was also buoyed through the pandemic by donations and community fundraising. Throughout the ups and downs of the pandemic, Ann Arbor stood by the institutions (big and small) that called the city home.
However, small town charm, while undeniably one of Ann Arbor’s many attractions, is not exclusive to us –– After all, in the Midwest, that’s practically every town. Ann Arbor’s tight-knit community is something special, but not quite “iconic.”
Where Does That Leave Us?
Unsurprisingly, by the end of this article, I’m feeling a bit unsatisfied. My original goal –– to find Ann Arbor’s icon –– is left unfulfilled. I realize there may not be a single icon representative of the city. Or, I must grudgingly admit, perhaps the University really is the icon of the city. The “M” is a glorious sight, sitting on that hill up high.
Here I must also concede that my ambitions were too great. I knew going into this that my superficial exploration of some of Ann Arbor’s landmarks could never hope to encapsulate all that is Ann Arbor. There are half a dozen names, places and traditions that I couldn’t hope to address in this article for fear of taking up the whole page!
What I did find, however, is an important reminder of just how cool Ann Arbor is. After a season of quarantine, drowning in exams (yes, already!) and perpetual despair about the state of the world, I had forgotten. I had forgotten how much I love Ann Arbor, and how privileged I am to call this city home, if only for a short four years.
I’ll end with this: Ann Arbor’s icon has yet to be discovered. I am determined and confident that there is something yet to be found; I am assured without a doubt that the University (while great) is not the start and end of Ann Arbor. I’ll also make a promise to keep looking. What started with a one-off pitch for the Daily arts section’s bi-weekly publication has become a personal quest to dive deeper into Ann Arbor. For those who have read my writing before, I talk a lot about lamplit streets – What’s lies beyond, in the alleys, sidestreets and shadows? Something cool, I bet. Something distinctly Ann Arbor. Perhaps a violin-playing Dracula!
Ann Arbor, I’m coming for you, we’re not done yet.
Daily Arts Writer Madeleine Virginia Gannon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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