BY SIAN DOWIS
Published January 5, 2010
Most of you probably only have one Ann Arbor, but for me there are two -— the Ann Arbor of my old life and that of my new. My old life-Ann Arbor revolves around my childhood home near the Huron River and my school, Community High School. It’s made up of nature trails, cobblestone streets and places like the Farmers Market, the YMCA, the People’s Food Co-op and, of course, the Arb. My new life-Ann Arbor orbits around my East Quad dorm room. It contains the Diag, the fishbowl, the UGLI, the CCRB, a plethora of late-night dining establishments and, well, this one also includes the Arb.
Of course there’s overlap. I walked through the Diag and ate Backroom pizza when I was in high school. And I still go back to my parent’s home, buy groceries at the Co-op and work out at the Y. In my mind, however, they remain two separate worlds.
I had never imagined that I’d spend my college years where I was born and raised. In high school, I had plans of going far away for college. I thought Ann Arbor was boring and tiny, and I constantly spoke of leaving for one coast or the other. I figured getting out of the Midwest was the only way college was going to be fun, an adventure. I was 16, I was naïve and I was wrong.
I applied to the University of Michigan because, really, it seemed silly not to. Shortly after, though, I realized Michigan was absolutely the college I wanted to attend. The challenge became making it feel like a normal college experience seven minutes away from my house. Over time, I created invisible lines in my head, dividing “college Ann Arbor” with “non-college Ann Arbor.” It helps me feel as if I’m really going away somewhere and really coming home.
Walking around campus during winter break, however, is disconcerting. The streets and storefronts become strikingly empty. It reminds me of pictures of celebrities without their makeup: familiar, bare and sometimes depressing. It’s not natural. It doesn’t feel like my “college Ann Arbor.” Occasionally, I find I enjoy the peacefulness, the lack of crowds. There’s a certain harsh, barren beauty to it all. But more often it gives me the willies.
That’s not to say that Ann Arbor isn’t lovely over break. It is. The trees are showered in shimmering white lights. Main Street and Liberty Street bustle with shoppers buying seasonal drinks at Espresso Royale and handicrafts at Ten Thousand Villages. You can’t go far without hearing the ringing of a Salvation Army volunteer or the caroling of a youth choir. Downtown Home and Garden always burns real frankincense and myrrh; little kids ogle the fairy door outside the Peaceable Kingdom. True, these areas of town are alive during the holidays. But the heart of the Michigan campus remains, for the most part, a ghost town.
When I was in high school, walking along an empty winter Diag didn’t unsettle me. I hardly noticed the difference. In my eyes, the Diag wasn’t the center of a college campus; it was just a nice big patch of green with lots of buildings that I couldn’t name. But after a year and a half of student life, the contrast is disquieting. Whether it creeps me out or feels like a nice change, I observe the absence of students much more keenly now than before.
What do all these observations amount to? Well, they go to show how much being a student at the University has changed my perceptions of my hometown. I’ve come to appreciate Ann Arbor in ways that I never could had I gone to another school. Like the Joni Mitchell song, I’ve looked at Ann Arbor from both sides now: as the townie and the student. I identify with the masses of students flooding the streets in-between classes as much as I do with the frustrated drivers held up behind them.
Places like the Arb have been painted with layers of memory, taking on different meanings over time. When I was really young, five or six, my mom would take me to see the peony garden in full bloom. At that age, I had no idea the Arb was connected to the University, nor did I really understand what the University was. All I knew was that it was a big park with trees and flowers — the biggest park I knew of at the time. I reasoned it probably went on forever. By high school, I’d figured out that the Arb had boundaries. It also became a focal point of outdoor fun, from picnics to sledding to ill-advised swimming trips in the river. On nice days, I’d usually see some fellow Community High School students playing ultimate frisbee or lounging in the sun.
Nowadays, I mostly go to the Arb as part of my running route. As I jog through the main field I can see myself at 15, playing an epic game of capture the flag. By the big hill I see myself at 17, jubilantly falling off my sled into the snow. Down by the river, I can see myself at eight, cooling my toes in the water under the searing July heat.
More than anything, though, staying here has made me realize how much I like Ann Arbor. The more time I spend here, the more I understand what a unique place it is. I used to think Ann Arbor was all used up for me. Now, I’m constantly discovering new things, finding myself surprised by what this town has to offer.
So when my friends come home over winter break with stories of the East Coast, the West Coast and all the places in-between, I admit, I’m a little envious. But I’m consoled by the fact that I’ve gotten to know a place in ways that they haven’t. I think there’s something to be said for really getting to know a place, really caring about it, seeing it from so many angles that you can’t help but love it.