Suburban nowhere

Sunday, November 15, 2020 - 1:26pm


Illustration by Eileen Kelly

In his essay “On Being Midwestern,” author Phil Christman wrote, “When asked to describe their hometowns, people (from the suburbs) replied with truisms that, put together, were also paradoxes: ‘Oh, it’s in the middle of nowhere.’ ‘It’s just like anywhere, you know.’ ‘We do the same things people do everywhere.’ No-places are as old as Thomas More’s Utopia, but a no-place that is also every-place and any-place doesn’t really add up.”

Growing up in the every-place and any-place town of Marshall, Mich., the feelings of being nobody and experiencing nothingness that are tied to the suburbs resonated with me.My town of 7,000 people is practically a carbon copy of the other towns scattered across rural Michigan.

Nowadays, I feel like a stranger when I return to my hometown. The sidewalks aren’t meant for my feet. The people I pass by say hello to the version of me they remember in their heads from four years ago. My parents talk to me like they know me, but I feel far removed from their lives.

This uncomfortable feeling of distance makes me long for a time when I lived in the blissful ignorance of believing that the rest of the world was just like the world I grew up in. Now when I walk around Marshall, I feel like an adult playing with their childhood dollhouse. When I’m there, I’m filled with nostalgia and an alarming feeling that I’m looking at something, rather than living in it. 

Growing up in Marshall made moving to Ann Arbor feel like moving to a cosmopolitan city — something the 6-year-old version of me had always dreamed of in her head. Visiting Ann Arbor for the first time, it seemed like an epicenter of art and culture. I laugh a little at this now, but when I visit my hometown I’m reminded just how little art and culture I grew up around. I can see why I was enthralled by the city then. 

For a number of  students that come from cities bigger than Marshall, Mich., moving to Ann Arbor feels almost like downsizing.  To better grasp this feeling I spoke to one of my friends, School of Information Senior Sarah Higuchi-Crowell. She talked with me about her experience in moving to Ann Arbor from New York City.

She said, “Ann Arbor is very suburban. I guess it’s labeled as ‘The City of Ann Arbor’ so I can’t really call it the suburbs. But … it is the suburbs to me.”  

I’d only been to New York City once, in high school on a choir field trip, but even I could see where she was coming from. Ann Arbor, with its population of a little more than 120,000 people, is quite small compared to the 8.3 million populace of New York City. Yet, coming from my town of 7,000 people, Ann Arbor was certainly a big city to me.

When I lived in Chicago the summer after my freshman year I got a taste of what “city life” was actually like. I’d never been around so many different people, nor had I had so many options of things to do. I got a thrill off of blending in with the rest of the people there. There was certainly a great deal of comfort in anonymity — a word I don’t think many suburbs know how to define.

For me, attending the University of Michigan was an opportunity to escape the every-place-and-any-place-ness of my hometown. Yet, Sarah’s description of Ann Arbor as suburbia made me realize that many towns in the Midwest were every-place and any-place to people who are from metropolitan areas like New York City. 

To get a better understanding of the transition one must make from such a bustling place, I spoke with my boyfriend Raviv Sarch, who is a New York City native and current LSA senior.

“It isn’t like any suburb I had been to before. Maybe even that’s telling, the fact that I am describing it as a suburb. I don’t think many people would really talk about it like that,” he said. “I like it, though. It’s really nice to be within walking distance of all my friends, too.”

I enjoyed Raviv’s optimism about cities like Ann Arbor. When I applied to the University of Michigan, I saw it simply as a way to escape the smallness of Marshall — a stepping stone of sorts on my path to living in cities like the ones 6-year-old me dreamed of. 

Yet Raviv moved to Ann Arbor, he said, to “have the experience of living somewhere that wasn’t the city. When I was younger something that was really important to me was breadth of experience, so I knew I wanted to go to school somewhere that wasn’t in New York.” 

I suppose we were both trying to escape our hometowns, in different ways. My vision of cities has always been idyllic, almost to a fault. But I can’t help dreaming of a bustling world beyond the one I’ve grown so used to. Perhaps when I finally reach the city, I’ll miss the quiet.  

Mariah Scissom, a friend of mine who is also from a middle-of-nowhere town, New Buffalo, Mich., talked with me about how she moved to Ann Arbor as a way to escape from her hometown as well.

“The two towns feel like different worlds. When I come to Ann Arbor, I don’t have to worry about anything that’s happening in New Buffalo. When I’m in Ann Arbor it’s kind of like my own world. I can decide for myself what’s important to me and I can kind of escape into those things.” Mariah described New Buffalo as “a town with one stoplight. All the businesses are concentrated around that stoplight. It’s quaint.” 

I could describe my town in the same way, as I’m sure many other people can. Yet, when I’ve facetimed my friends from Chicago, London and other large cities around the globe, showing them the area, they seem to think of it fondly. One of them even went so far as to say, “I love Midwestern suburbs.” 

I’m fairly certain this was the first time I heard someone describe the suburbs as something they loved. I’ve always been a little embarrassed about my hometown roots. I’m one of many others from a place that is everywhere and anywhere. How can someone who’s from a place that’s the same as almost everywhere else possibly be unique or interesting? 

Yet, I think about my friend Mariah, who grew up in a town almost identical to mine, and I think, “Yeah. Mariah is like really cool.” I think the same of Raviv and Sarah, two people from New York City. All of them: really cool. I’m glad I moved away from my hometown just as I plan to move away from Ann Arbor after graduation. Although, I don't fault those that choose to stay. It’s interesting to think about what kinds of people are drawn to Ann Arbor and why they choose to stay or go. It’s interesting to think about the places people are from and the ways it shaped them, or the ways it didn’t.

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