Last Thursday, I stopped by Student Food Co.’s table in Mason Hall to pick up a few essentials, and I asked about the new “People’s Food Co-Op” bag, its price listed on the chalkboard at $10. It’s basically a paper bag filled with various kinds of healthy junk food, not really what I was looking for, but I was curious and wanted to know more. What made me take a step back was the way one of the girls selling took a moment to introduce the co-op to me to the point of even pointing down State Street in the direction of Catherine and Fourth Street. For any other student, someone who’s never heard of the co-op or who’s shopped there once but has only vague memories of the experience, this might be a perfectly normal gesture. For me, it felt strange simply because I’ve shopped at the co-op more times than I can count. Growing up in town, I’ve been a customer of the store for my entire life.
It’s understandable that one of my fellow students, probably someone from out of town, didn’t know about my far-reaching connection to this Ann Arbor icon. What I find interesting is just how little students really get to know this city. Over the course of four or more years here, people live in dorms and campus housing, occasionally venturing into apartments in more “townie”-centric neighborhoods. With restaurants, nightlife scenes and study spaces located right around campus, it makes sense that most students stay within a fairly small radius from the Diag. After all, who wants to walk an extra half-mile to pay extra at pricey Main Street eateries?
I’ve been the opposite case. As an incoming freshman, I knew my favorite entrée at plenty of spots on Main Street, but barely understood the location of the Diag in relation to the rest of town. Before enrolling at the University, all I saw was this other side — the “townie” side — of the city. I’d walked around campus a couple times before, so I thought I knew everything about the University. As I’ve discovered over my three years here, that wasn’t the case at all.
The University is a large and complicated place, very different from “real-world Ann Arbor,” as a fellow student remarked to me during the fall of my freshman year. Learning my way around this new part of town — where to study, how to find my classes, and what kind of snacks to pack for a long day — has been an adventure, and one I’ve been enjoying greatly. While my time here hasn’t been perfect, of course, it’s been nothing short of pleasurable seeing my world expanding, little by little, to accommodate the Chemistry Building, MLB, East Quad. And while I’ve lived at home during the fall and winter semesters, spring has drawn me away from the familiar more and more — with a weekend at the Bio Station, six weeks on the New England Literature Program and, this coming May, a month overseas.
And just as this other side of my city has slowly opened up to me, I hope other students have been exploring beyond the four “U” streets that border the original campus. Just as I’ve found favorite restaurants on South U and on State, I hope others will branch out to explore Main Street, Westgate, Traver Village or other shopping destinations around town.
When I enrolled at Michigan, I was still a townie. I’d eaten at the League and walked across the Diag, but without knowing their names. I’d studied in the Hatcher reading room, but probably couldn’t have located it on a map. It’s been through my time here, through walking campus and getting myself lost, that I’ve truly learned my way around a side of the city previously hidden to me. I thought I knew what campus looked like, what the University was, but I couldn’t understand all of that without first living the student experience in my day-to-day routine.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t another side to the city, one that I hope will be of as much interest to students as it is to townies. It’s there in the bungalows of my neighborhood, the Huron River, the Arb and city parks, it’s what makes this city Ann Arbor. It can be found in the public library and in downtown boutiques. While campus and its surrounding neighborhoods may technically be a part of town, they aren’t the same as the destinations for people who live here year-round. So if you find yourself getting tired of the same old sights, then break away from the throng and go out for a stroll on the city streets or in the local neighborhoods. On your way back, maybe you’ll even find yourself stopping into the People’s Food Co-Op to purchase your favorite healthy snack.
Susan LaMoreaux can be reached at email@example.com.