This article is part of a special collaboration between Michigan in Color and Groundcover News. Read the rest of the joint issue here.
If you’ve ever taken a long walk through Ann Arbor, you might note that for a relatively walkable city, benches are somewhat rare. They’re a bit more common at bus stops, but there’s usually something a bit odd about them. A bar is affixed — usually welded on so removal is impossible — to the bench, dividing it into sections. It’s often cylindrical, making it difficult to use as an armrest. Smaller benches are made impossible to sit in for plus-size individuals and the overall lack of benches makes it harder for those with chronic pain or fatigue to traverse the city on foot. So the question arises: Why are they built this way?
This bench division is a long-standing practice of hostile architecture, which makes cities less hospitable for those mentioned above, but that very hostility is intended toward one of the most vulnerable populations — the unhoused. Bars that divvy up benches make it more difficult for unhoused people to potentially use them to sleep. Hostile architecture to prevent the rest of the unhoused manifests itself in many other ways all over the world: Several sharp stones placed inside structures, spikes on the ground under the pretense of modern art, benches that are fixed to tilt forward, the lack of access to public bathrooms, loud noise blaring through the speakers of local businesses — Ann Arbor being especially complicit in those last few.
If you’ve ever taken a walk through downtown — especially in the winter — you might notice that many restaurants have built small huts, igloos and heated patios for diners to eat in. This hospitality architecture originally started during the COVID-19 pandemic, when restaurateurs had to figure out how to serve patrons under quarantine regulations in the cold of winter, even under risk of fire to their building. Even after things warmed up and patrons began getting vaccinated, local businesses kept this practice for the sheer novelty of the customer experience. And isn’t that just a little odd? These restaurants were able to acquire permits and quickly build small, heated housing in the streets of Ann Arbor for the purposes of the profits they brought in; to refer to the Michigan General Defense Committee’s words, it seems tents on the streets are fine as long as there aren’t any unhoused individuals in them.
Now, let me be clear — this is not a condemnation of our local businesses doing whatever they can to survive — but our unhoused population is doing exactly that to a much more severe degree. What we should call into question is our city’s priorities and how we think about the architecture they form. Ann Arbor isn’t as poor of an offender in blatantly hostile structures as the other locations detailed in my second paragraph. What’s still striking about these choices is that so much thought is placed into making a city hostile to the unhoused rather than addressing its own housing issues — which Ann Arbor is infamously complicit in.
If you’ve taken a walk anywhere around Central Campus — South University Avenue, State Street, downtown — you’ll undoubtedly question why so much of this city is under construction. Sites and advertisements promise new luxury high-rises taking up even more space in this city in the midst of such little access to affordable housing. This architecture is Ann Arbor’s most hostile action against the unhoused and the rest of the city’s population. To their credit, our local government is attempting to restrict the construction of even more exorbitantly expensive housing — student or otherwise — and has granted funds for a more affordable housing development explicitly targeted for individuals leaving their unhoused status. However, these steps taken don’t mean we don’t hold our city accountable for their actions in the future. When aiding the unhoused with its millions of dollars in federal funding remains Ann Arbor’s lowest priority, when money and time is wasted on construction that hurts local businesses and police manpower is used to sweep shelters for the unhoused, it’s clear that our city’s attitude toward the unhoused have thus far been less understanding and much more ignorant. In the meantime, we can acknowledge and thank those who are as hospitable as we should be, like the Robert J. Delonis Center and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Ypsilanti, though the latter hasn’t been able to be opened yet due to understaffing.
The unaddressed status of unhoused individuals in our city is a failure on our city’s part in housing issues, and their efforts need to be for the unhoused — rather than a bar dividing a bench.
MiC Columnist Saarthak Johri can be reached at email@example.com.