Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan: a geography

Saturday, September 26, 2020 - 10:00am

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Courtesy of Stephen S. Clark Library, University of Michigan Library

In his article for Geographical Review, geographer Blake Gumprecht posits the American college town as “a place apart, a unique type of urban community shaped by the sometimes conflicting forces of youth, intellect and idealism that have been a critical but underappreciated part of American life.” 

I have a hard time agreeing with the second part; the image of a youthful, crafty, idealistic American is practically a stereotype in my book. As for the idea that college towns present a unique set of questions to the geographically-minded person, that is something I can get behind. 

It should be no surprise that Gumprecht talks about Ann Arbor in his article. He writes about the leafy neighborhoods, the proliferation of bookstores all within walking distance of each other and the effort to launch a “research park” just outside the city in the early 1960s.

Since arriving here from my home of Washington, D.C., it has been a privilege to learn about the geography of Ann Arbor throughout my years at the University of Michigan. I have always enjoyed exploring the town on long walks from Central Campus to far-flung locations like the Eberwhite Nature Area, Bandemer Park and even the Matthaei Botanical Gardens. 

One day, however, as I was walking across East Huron Street toward the Diag, it occurred to me that I was crossing a border. Of course, there were no signs or immigration officials to stamp my passport as I left the off-campus world and stepped back on University property. It was a crossing I had made many times before, but this time I thought about it geographically. 

According to the National Geographic Society, geography is “the study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.” In other words, geography is more than just people fiddling around with maps; it is a way of seeing the world that emphasizes how the spaces where we live shape us, and how we, in turn, shape them.

This article, then, is one student’s attempt to think about Ann Arbor geographically. To me this is a fascinating subject, but also a serious one. Growing up in Washington, D.C., I formed ties with both the people and the land that will last for my entire life. The physical spaces of the city — the streets on which I walked to school, the parks where I played as a child and the buildings that kept me warm —  are always with me, even when I am not there. 

***

The first issue is to demarcate the boundaries of the University’s Central Campus. State Street, from the Ford School all the way to the corner of the Diag, forms the western border. Many landmarks populate this busy thoroughfare, including the Law School, Angell Hall and the newly-renovated Michigan Union.

On the eastern border, the University has respected the border of South Forest but pressed as far as possible into the northeast corridor with its dormitories and health system. The Mary Markley Residence Hall, for example, is on the doorstep of the Nichols Arboretum, whereas the hospital enjoys sprawling views of the Huron River.

The northern and southern borders, however, are a different case. To the north, East Huron Street provides a substantial buffer between town and gown. The majority of cool bars and restaurants are further down, so it is not a place frequented by undergraduates, and further west, the architecture devolves into an unsettling mix of lavish high-rise apartments and austere industrial buildings. 

Hill Street, however, has quite a different feel from its northern counterpart. It is closer to popular study spots such as the Ross School of Business and the Law Quad. In the evenings — even, unfortunately, in the middle of a pandemic — Hill Street comes alive with throngs of people going to and from the bars on South University Avenue and the many fraternity houses.

Now, there are lots of examples of University buildings that fall outside of this neat geographical abstraction. To make things more concrete, imagine our campus as a piping hot Reuben sandwich from Zingerman’s Delicatessen, where the two slices of rye bread represent East Huron and Hill streets; yes, there are little pieces of sauerkraut and corned beef that fall off the sides, but right in between those two slices is where the action happens.

***

Speaking of Zingerman’s, I will now shift my focus to one of the most well-known northern neighborhoods in Ann Arbor: Kerrytown. 

The boundaries of Kerrytown were consistent across practically every map I consulted and every person I asked: Depot Street to the north, South Division Street to the east, East Huron Street to the south and South Main to the west.

When looking at historical maps of Ann Arbor, I was surprised to find that the area surrounding modern-day Kerrytown was for a long time the densest part of town. One surveyor’s map from 1854 clearly shows that most of the occupied lots at the time were located on the western side of the town between Second and Fifth streets. Off to the east sits a lonely square titled “Michigan State University” (University of Michigan librarians assure us that this was an error on the part of the surveyor). 

Though a casual observer may not notice it, there are pieces of history hiding in plain sight all over Kerrytown. To explore this history, I talked on the phone with Grace Singleton, a managing partner of Zingerman’s, who informed me of just one such piece of local lore. 

“The Kerrytown district is interesting. Where the deli is is actually where the original plaque for the city was located,” Singleton said. “When Ann Arbor became a city, Kerrytown is kind of where the downtown was. (Zingerman’s) was one of the first buildings, so it’s all historic.”

In addition to the historic value of the neighborhood, Kerrytown is also known for its diverse cultural and artistic offerings. In a typical non-pandemic year, there are numerous festivals, including the Kerrytown Bookfest, the Ann Arbor African American Downtown Festival and Edgefest, which is hosted at the Kerrytown Concert House. Thankfully, the weekly gathering of the Ann Arbor Farmers Market has only been partially disrupted by pandemic conditions. People can still shop for fresh produce and interact with the growers, though social distancing guidelines necessarily limit the scope of these interactions. In our interview, Singleton expressed her admiration for this mix of activities.

“There’s little pockets of residential interspersed with all these shops, and I just think it makes it a really unique, diverse area,” Singleton said. “There are also still a lot of shops where people live above them. And there’s museums and venues for music and shopping, and all that. But then there’s like residents right next door.” 

There are a lot of undergraduates who live in the area, but Kerrytown is also a popular neighborhood for graduate students and young professionals. I talked with Tasha Thong, a third-year PhD candidate at the School of Public Health and Chelsea Richards, who works for Michigan Medicine.

Thong had lived on Geddes Avenue on the east side of campus while completing her Master’s degree at the University (though she was clear that she much preferred Kerrytown, saying, “I have lived in other places in Ann Arbor and this is definitely my favorite by far.”) 

Richards, on the other hand, said she had recently moved to Ann Arbor. Her favorite part about Kerrytown was having access to the various natural surroundings. 

“I love that you can walk to the river and there’s a nature trail that goes along it where you can easily get on the Border-to-Border trailhead to bike,” Richards explained. In fact, if you look at a map of Ann Arbor, there is a much larger concentration of greenery on the northern edges, close to the Huron River, when compared to South Campus. 

When I asked them about their perceptions of the south side of campus, they referred to its inhabitants as “the younger crowd.” And I think for the most part, they are correct. Though as I will soon explain, the southern side of campus also exhibits diversity of ages, albeit of a much more pronounced range. 

***

If you ask the average undergraduate what lies below Hill Street, they would probably talk about the predominantly student-populated streets of Church, Greenwood, Oakland, etc. These pockets of student life are scrunched up in the corner underneath State and Hill streets, though they border a much more established neighborhood called Burns Park. 

I did not talk about the borders of Kerrytown because all the available maps I consulted and the residents I talked to offered the same streets. Burns Park, on the other hand, is a bit of a mystery.

My belief is that Google Maps’s outline of Burns Park is just plain wrong. For some reason, it includes areas east of Washtenaw Avenue inside its boundaries of the neighborhood, including a section much further east which is completely cut off from the rest. Even the Diag is a part of Burns Park according to the Google folks out in Silicon Valley.

The most inclusive definition of Burns Park that still retains a semblance of accuracy has Hill Street as a northern border, Washtenaw Avenue as an eastern border, East Stadium Boulevard as a southern border and State Street as a western border. When I interviewed Dr. Gorman Beauchamp, a former professor of literature in the English department at the University, this was the definition we agreed upon as a starting point for the discussion.

In 1995, Beauchamp published an article in The American Scholar titled “Dissing the Middle Class: The View from Burns Park.” Beauchamp first moved to Ann Arbor in 1965 as an undergraduate and has lived in various locations around the city. In the article, Beauchamp examines the psychology of his neighbors in the predominantly middle-class, family-oriented neighborhood of Burns Park. He explores the tension and guilt that avowed liberals like him held for the “crass materialism of their bourgeois existence,” even as they continued to reap the material benefits of middle class life. Beauchamp writes in his article, “the truest statement that ever heard about my estimable neighborhood was uttered by a colleague in the English Department: ‘Ah yes, Burns Park — where they vote left and live right.’” 

I followed up with Beauchamp, who still lives in the neighborhood, to ask a few questions about the view from the Burns Park in 2020. The area is still home to many faculty and administration, and though Burns Park does not lend itself to a catchy demonym, Beauchamp said that residents still exhibit a self-identification with the neighborhood itself.

“Burns Park very much has a kind of self-identification,” Beauchamp said. “But about other places, I really couldn’t speak. I think all of them have names in the real estate business. They’ll have a house identifying what part of town it’s in by a particular name, but I don't know how much those things translate into real consciousness for people who live in those areas.”

I think this is a major difference between local residents and college students who live south of Hill Street. The focal point of the Burns Park neighborhood is the sprawling park and elementary school of the same name. “The one thing in Burns Park, of course, is the elementary school,” Beauchamp explained. “Very highly rated, so parents with young children will move into Burns Park because that’s where they want them to go to school.”

Thus, it is easy to see why local parents and children would self-identify with the neighborhood, whereas college students might not. The children spend a majority of their youth playing in the park and going to school, and the parents bond over their children’s experiences. For these reasons, the park draws in the local crowd much more easily than the college crowd.

For college students, the feeling is mutual. I spoke with Jacob Feuerborn, a recent graduate of the Ross School of Business who lived on Greenwood Avenue, a mere five blocks from Burns Park Elementary School. Feuerborn loved his experience living on Greenwood, but was unfamiliar with the name of Burns Park.

“Oh, which one is Burns Park? Is that the one by Jack’s Hardware?” Feuerborn asked (that’s Forsythe Park). After a quick Google search, he said he had actually seen the park before.

“Ah, now I can see which one is Burns Park,” Feuerborn said. “It’s interesting that it’s considered the same neighborhood. I would say there’s a big spectrum, where down there it very much feels like a normal suburb, whereas Greenwood, Oakland and streets like that feel a lot crazier. A lot more college.”

In fact, the existence of student neighborhoods in the middle of the neighborhood has seemingly fragmented Burns Park into two separate Burns Parks: Lower Burns Park and North Burns Park. These are much more fiercely family-oriented areas; what some might call the real Burns Park.

This difference in identification between residents and students likely starts with the search for housing. My intuition is that college students are only vaguely intentional when it comes to picking a neighborhood in which to live. We might care very much about location — for example, a business student would rather be closer to Ross — but this does not translate into any careful selection of neighborhoods. Adults are more likely to care about things organized on the neighborhood level, such as access to good schools. 

For now, it seems that the two major constituencies of Burns Park live in relative harmony, save for the occasional noise complaint. But if history has shown us anything about the American college town, it is that as colleges grow in size and influence, the geographical demands they make on the town increase as well.

***

In the last few minutes of our conversation, Beauchamp expressed his disbelief for a growing phenomenon on the Ann Arbor landscape.

“I must say what has just impressed and mystified me is the building of apartments in Ann Arbor. I mean … this tsunami of apartment buildings. I don’t know who the hell is living in these places.”

I actually know a few people who live in these places, but I must say that I too find it remarkable how many high-rise apartments have sprouted up — four in the past three years alone. 

When you look at the expansion of University property and student neighborhoods in historical perspective, most of the growth is from the center out.

Aggressive geographical expansion, however, has not been a constant trend. Consider this 1915 map of Ann Arbor. The emphasis of the surveyor is clearly still on the western side of town, and it seems like the University had not expanded much since 1854

1854 map: 

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Courtesy of Stephen S. Clark Library, University of Michigan Library

 1915 map: 

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However, a 1960 campus map provided by Overbeck bookstore tells a different story. Granted, the map serves a different purpose than the surveyor’s map in that a subtle arrow points viewers to Overbeck bookstore. This is a map, though, that many students will recognize as depicting Ann Arbor as they know it. Many familiar University buildings, even fraternities and sororities, are listed in the map’s margins. Unlike with other historical depictions of our environment, the modern student feels “at home” with this one. 

1960 map: 

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Courtesy of Stephen S. Clark Library, University of Michigan Library

Even though the process of expansion has had its fits and starts, the overall tendency is for more acquisition, more construction and higher enrollment. In his history of the University, Howard Peckham writes that the University enjoyed its first “postwar bulge” after the Civil War; bolstered by returning soldiers, Michigan became the largest university in the country with an enrollment of 1,205 students. 

This foreshadowed the much larger postwar bulges in enrollment that significantly increased the student populations of universities all across the U.S. during the 20th Century. Starting from when he assumed the University presidency in 1951, Harlan Hatcher oversaw a period of immense growth in enrollment. By 1956-1957, University enrollment had ballooned to 22,180, which was even higher than the highest postwar enrollment. 

With every massive increase in the University’s enrollment capacity, it proved it could grow even larger than thought possible while still providing a quality education. Accommodating a larger student body meant expanding deeper into the University’s immediate environments, which is exactly what happened. 

But is there a limit to how large the University can grow?

***

Considering the history and the possible future of campus expansion reveals an unsettling truth; in many ways, the University behaves like a large real estate corporation.

It is a running joke that there is always construction around certain parts of campus. However, a lot of real estate moves are also unfolding “beyond the Diag.” In 2015, the first residents moved into the Munger Graduate Residences, a building that dwarfs the surrounding homes and businesses. In 2018, the University completed a $24 million deal to acquire the Fingerle Lumber lot, a move that put an estimated $30,000 dent in the city’s tax revenue. 

Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with the University buying property to accommodate its growing student population. My worry is that the necessity of growth is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The University wants to increase enrollment, so it builds more dorms, along with new academic buildings and sports complexes, which then attracts a larger pool of applicants, leading to the necessity of building more dorms.

These developments bode well for real estate corporations. Since 2004, Ann Arborites have witnessed the construction of more than a dozen high-rise apartments with many on the way. It will be no surprise that rent prices are rapidly increasing; rental website Zumper.com reported in 2019 that Ann Arbor ranks second among college towns with the fastest growing rent, with an average increase of nearly 16 percent year-on-year. And with Ron Weiser, founder of local real estate company McKinley Inc., sitting on the University’s Board of Regents, the entanglements between the University and private real estate have never been stronger. 

So where does this leave neighborhoods like Kerrytown and Burns Park?

Reflecting on the role of small businesses like Zingerman’s and Kerrytown in general, Singleton had a lot to say about the benefits of local living.

“One of the things I’ve always really liked about Kerrytown is that it does have this diversity of character,” Singleton said. “Everyone is mixing together all the time. There are law offices and tech offices and food shops and retail. And I think that's really important. I wish we could figure out how to keep some of that in other parts of the city because I actually think it makes the area where you live more interesting. It keeps resources near and makes the community stronger.”

For the students’ perspectives, I asked Feuerborn to compare his experience living in apartments with his time on Greenwood. He started by saying that living in an apartment was more convenient, but there are a lot of experiences you miss out on.

“The feeling of, like, sitting in a hammock on your porch, eating dinner, talking to your roommates as the sun is setting and people are tossing around a football outside … Nothing compares to that.”

From the perspective of a real estate corporation, all this kind of talk is very cute, but even in “Tree Town,” money does not grow on trees. Singleton steps outside in the morning and sees an imperfect but vibrant community at her doorstep. Feuerborn lounges on the porch and watches his neighbors pass by under a bright red Midwestern sun. The real estate CEO unfurls a map of Ann Arbor and sees the outline of a brand new high-rise. All it needs is a gentrified name: The Kerry, Greenwood Commons or The Beauchamp at Burns Park all have a nice ring to them.

***

Like all geographical abstractions, the maps I have so carefully sketched here are not likely to last. The equating of economic growth with institutional and even moral progress is too ubiquitous to expect anything different. But when the University’s enrollment finally totals 100,000 students, will young reporters such as myself still find solace in contemplating the old high-rise apartments of days gone by? 


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