It’s always a beautiful day in the neighborhood; that is, if you’re willing to crouch down in a variety of public places across Ann Arbor.
In the late winter of 2020, the city felt relatively bleak. With almost the entire freshman class (including myself) being kicked out of the dorms, any potential for normalcy on campus and in Ann Arbor diminished to a faint, distant loss. With most students my year either completing the semester entirely online or from inconveniently located off-campus housing, the true community we had signed up for was, for the time being, a figment of the imagination.
That desolation hit the city of Ann Arbor hard, elevating the already present economic struggle of local, well-loved businesses. Places that were once city staples were boarded up, replaced by national chains at best and left indefinitely empty at worst.
College looked different than we had anticipated. Ann Arbor looked different than it ever had before. It was, or at least, it felt, hopeless.
Until, on one unsurprising yet depressingly dark afternoon, a red door, and then a smaller replica of that same red door, entered my line of vision. That door was located on 332 S. Ashley Street, the now-empty home of Red Shoes, a beloved gift shop that closed upon the owner’s unfortunate passing in 2021, was my first discovery. Besides the fact that it faces a parking lot on a street few people think to walk on, it’s a hard structure to miss. A bright blue house with a bright red door, inviting curious eyes to wonder what’s going on inside.
Standing at about seven inches, built into the store’s blue shutters as if it had been there all along, was what I would come to know as a “fairy door.” A puzzling, delightful suggestion that there was more to the world than what it looked like in this desolate moment.
My fascination with the miniature door at Red Shoes led me to Googling “tiny doors Ann Arbor,” which eventually got me to the wonderful, early-2000s rabbit hole that is urban-fairies.com.
The website, run by Ann Arbor’s very own “certified fairyologist,” Jonathan Wright, details every fairy door that has “appeared” around the city since 1993. It also houses information about Urban Fairies Operation, LLC, Wright’s way of extending Ann Arbor’s magic into the larger fabric of folklore and fairytales. What the website won’t tell you is that these fairy doors are the result of decades of research and architectural work from Wright. Though the doors are undeniably magical, the man behind their creation and lore may be even more so.
Since graduating from the University of Michigan in 1983, Jonathan Wright’s personal and professional life have been woven by magic. The first fairy door “appeared” in his home a decade later, to the delight of his two then-young children. In the almost three decades since, doors have been spotted in the storefronts of local businesses, a classroom at a local elementary school (where his wife, Kathleen, teaches kindergarten) and even in the lobby of Mott’s Children’s Hospital. They seem to be everywhere, and yet, they can be hard to find. As Ann Arbor changes, the fairy doors often follow suit, disappearing and reappearing as the city adapts to a stagnant cycle of social and economic change.
One of the first locations to house Wright’s fairies was The Peaceable Kingdom, a gift shop that operated at 210 S. Main Street until 2017. Other locations, like Red Shoes, Voilà and Selo/Shevel Gallery have also closed since the entrance of the fairies, though some of their doors are still intact.
In my now-daily pursuit to find every fairy door within walking distance of my apartment, it was easy to feel disappointed at the number of boarded-up windows and closed doors (both miniature and regular) on every street. In tandem with my fervent obsession with local Ann Arbor businesses, my search for each fairy door became a highly effective crash course in the city’s recent history.
Since the boom of fairy doors in the years 2005-2007, Wright has gained substantial media attention for his work, being interviewed by international outlets like The Washington Post and The Guardian. But in all of his success, Wright consciously makes decisions that keep the magic of his fairy doors rightfully intact. In talking with Wright at the very cafe in which this citywide venture began, it was abundantly clear that his goals stretched far beyond his own monetary gain.
“To see folks’ delight in the discovery when the doors simply appear is very satisfying to me, even if it does not pay the bills,” Wright said. “Urban Fairies Operations is not about bringing tourists to Ann Arbor, though the doors certainly do that. The doors are not about promoting commerce downtown, though they indirectly do that, too. The doors are about bringing joy and sparking imagination, and that they do very well indeed.”
During my freshman year, I was easily disheartened by the business closures that made many of Wright’s doors inaccessible to the public or completely destroyed. But Wright has not let Ann Arbor’s shifts and struggles diminish the purity of the doors’ magic. In fact, he uses it as leverage to increase the mystery behind his fairies’ whereabouts.
“Fairies come and go at a whim. At any given moment a fairy door may be there…or not,” Wright’s book, “Who’s Behind the Fairy Doors?,” reads.
Magic is a uniquely infinite commodity, and yet, it often goes unharvested. In its endless flexibility, it may be the most reliable method of lifting the human spirit. Sometimes, it may be the only one, and Wright is keenly aware of that.
The Urban Fairies “slogan,” seen on books, posters and other memorabilia, reminds even the most unaware of passersby that “imagination is the key to the fairy doors.”
Though on a significantly smaller (literal) scale, Wright’s world of folklore is not unlike the creations of pioneers in children’s media like Mister Rogers and Jim Henson. What Wright, Rogers and Henson understand is that imagination is a powerful force in fostering progress.
“I’m not certain how ‘magic’ plays out in human life because that is, well, magical. But I do know that imagination is integral with humanity,” Wright said. “Imagination helps us to discover new and wonderful things, to visualize what might be. And of course, it can help us to escape some of the mundane, tedious and painful aspects of life.”
Wright admits that “children between the ages of three and eleven are the most prolific fairy spotters,” in his book. But much of Wright’s work aims to appeal to the imagination within people (and fairies) of all ages, particularly in his blog and book. The book features a variety of fairy drawings from children, stylized into more detailed pictures by Wright, all of which are accompanied by witty quips about the fairy and its origins.
The “rock fairy,” for example, originally created by a child named Eleanor, is illustrated next to a caption: “Occasionally seen bickering with the note paper fairy and the scissor wing fairy.” It’s silly, it’s fun and it’s undoubtedly heartwarming. Wright’s simple yet pointed humor is one that seamlessly brings you back to childlike enjoyment, if only for a moment. His drawings take the children’s ideas seriously, while still cracking jokes to keep even the least of believers entertained.
In the winter of 2021, almost nothing, except maybe a possible vaccination appointment, felt magical. The fairy doors were something to do, something to discover. But more than that, they were, and continue to be, a reminder that where we are right now is not where we may be forever. Having the opportunity a year and a half later to meet the creator of this phenomenon myself, that magic retains its power. The power to believe in a better, brighter world.
“It’s all about building homes,” Wright’s website reads. Surely, in more ways than one.
Statement Correspondent Emily Blumberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.