I fell back in love with Ann Arbor, unintentionally, on a run. I was training for an upcoming half-marathon, and I ventured farther and farther away from campus to get in my miles, seeing my endurance improve gradually. As the seconds on my stopwatch clicked upward, the familiar sights of the Diag, Nichols Arboretum and Kerrytown slowly morphed into quiet residential streets and shaded trails along the banks of the Huron River.
I never expected Ann Arbor, or rather, the 3,000-some acres that make up the University campus, to feel dull. My mother and sister are alumnae; growing up, they’d tell me how they missed the campus’s indescribable energy. I was entering my senior year of high school, and despite having told everyone I wanted to go to Michigan for years, I had never been to campus. I lived five hours north in a quiet tourist town on the shore of Lake Michigan and thought every day about how excited I was to leave. Ann Arbor was the antithesis of my hometown: It was young, vibrant and alive.
But at some point after I had matriculated, the magic began to fade. I can’t exactly pinpoint when, but I think it happened while I was living in the Bay Area over the summer for an internship. Coming to California, I felt my whole world open up again. Everything about Ann Arbor that invigorated me — the natural beauty, the liveliness, the local charm — was amplified by a thousand in San Francisco. Returning to Michigan in some ways felt regressive, like there wasn’t anything new waiting for me here. I was entering my senior year and resigned myself to biding my time until I could move on to the next thing.
The University’s Central Campus is only 85 acres, but it casts an outsized shadow on the rest of the town. Residents of Ann Arbor have long complained about the “town-gown” divide, and the University’s blatant disregard for the city’s political authority. Students who grew up in Ann Arbor have described the University as being a completely different side of the city, with its own distinct culture and feel. Despite this separation, students still manage to encroach on townie life. It only occasionally bubbles to the surface in public ways, like at city council meetings, but if you look closely, you’ll see plenty of complaints and jokes about students on social media.
The town-gown relationship isn’t completely adversarial. The University does work with the city; both have a vested interest in maintaining Ann Arbor’s status as one of the best college towns in the country and one of the best places to live. Still, these goals seem at odds.
College students are, by nature, transient. A good place to live for four years in your 20s is different from a good place to put down roots and raise a family. I always understood why Ann Arbor was a great college town, that was obvious enough. But I sometimes wondered what made this city different from the other upscale, mid-sized cities across the country.
I started running farther and farther away from campus out of necessity. I had to increase the length of my long run each week. Eight miles became 10 and then 12.
I slowly edged deeper and deeper into the neighborhoods surrounding campus, like Bach, Water Hill and Barton Pond, before I found myself in wholly unfamiliar territory. I like to think that, even before I dove into marathon training, I got off campus more than the average student, albeit mostly because I had a car. I was a regular at a bagel place down on Washtenaw Avenue, often ventured out to the city’s parks and trails and would occasionally drive to Ypsilanti so I could go out for dinner without seeing everyone I knew. This certainly wasn’t all there was to Ann Arbor and its surrounding areas, but I thought I had seen a fair amount.
Now, I’m convinced the best way to discover Ann Arbor is on foot.
My main running route circled through Kerrytown before getting on the border-to-border trail, a 35-mile pathway that connects one end of Washtenaw County to the another. I’d make a loop around Gallup Park and continue on the trail before turning around near Washtenaw Community College. Other times I’d head through the Old West Side neighborhood or east on Geddes Avenue, far past the Arb or frat row.
On these runs, I began to see Ann Arbor with fresh eyes again. Intuitively, I knew there was more to campus; I wasn’t so self-absorbed as to think that people didn’t actually live in town. For the most part, however, my existence in Ann Arbor has been constricted to the one-mile radius around wherever I was living at the time. I’d drive to Meijer and Trader Joe’s and Briarwood every now and then like most students do, but I never took the scenic route or made any detours.
Running allowed a certain level of serendipity that driving didn’t. I was free to jog down any side street that caught my eye or circle around the block to catch a second look at one of the gorgeous old homes in the Old West Side. I could stop to pet a dog or read a sign tacked to a street post or get out my phone to figure out where on earth I was. I had lived in Ann Arbor for 3 years, but every run taught me something new about this place.
Despite my commitment to exploring beyond the cushy areas of campus, many of my favorite places to run were in the Old West Side and Burns Park, two of the most affluent neighborhoods in the area. While most students don’t regularly venture out to these areas, they were still within walking (or in my case, running) distance to campus.
If you don’t look closely, campus can feel homogenous, only displaying the particular kind of lifestyle maintained by wealthy students: M Den merchandise, SoulCycle classes, Aventura tapas and riverside dinners at the Gandy Dancer. I wondered if I had inadvertently replicated the same phenomenon during my training — was I focusing on the shiny, wealthy surface of the city and missing a much realer and more nuanced picture of what Ann Arbor was like?
When I eventually returned to my apartment in Kerrytown at the end of each run, I updated my mental map of the city. I began to see how my small corner of campus was connected to the rest of Washtenaw County through trails and elementary schools and yard signs and fliers and all sorts of subtle markers.
Recent U-M alum Justin Yuan moved to Pittsfield Township, located south of Ann Arbor in Washtenaw County, during his third year at U-M and has continued living there post-graduation.
“It’s honestly super nice,” Yuan said of Pittsfield township. “It’s a new area, there’s a lot of stuff nearby, and I can spend more time in Ypsilanti, which is just beautiful. It’s less crowded but there’s still tons of people and it’s less expensive.”
Yuan admitted that he’d come to appreciate Ann Arbor proper and the downtown area more since moving farther away.
But it’s not so easy to disentangle my idyllic vision of Ann Arbor from its wealth. Many of the features that make the city such a great place to live are supported by its affluent taxpayer base, like its well-kept parks and accessible public transportation. It’s the hidden subtext to every Ann Arbor ranks among best places to live headline. The award-winning public schools, fantastic library system, gorgeous parks and beautiful neighborhoods can be yours, but only if you can afford it.
When it comes to building community and organizing for a better Ann Arbor, the city’s ultra-affluence can be a challenge.
“A lot of organizing is seeing the invisible people,” said Yuan. “And not invisible by their own design, but just by the reality of how people are forced to live, especially in a more expensive area, like in Ann Arbor.”
Yuan, who now works full-time as an organizer with the Huron Valley Workers Organizing and Research Center, cited how many low-wage workers are pushed out of Ann Arbor by high rent prices. This geographic dispersion, combined with long commutes on top of work, can make it difficult for residents to see their common struggles or organize.
Building real community and making Ann Arbor a great place to live for everyone — not just for wealthy townies and students — takes work. Recognizing that there are communities beyond the University and that Ann Arbor is home to diverse people, many of whom are invisible to us, is the first step.
On a romantic level, I do think there is something special about Ann Arbor. It’s some combination of Midwestern friendliness, thriving cultural institutions, walkability and beautiful scenery. Ann Arbor will never be able to compete with a major city, but it doesn’t need to.
There’s so much more waiting to be discovered if you’re just willing to step off campus.
Statement Correspondent Haley Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.