the city of Ann Arbor
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Painting the rock at the corner of Hill Street and Washtenaw Avenue is much more than just a longstanding campus tradition. 

In 1953, Michigan students and their Michigan State counterparts began vandalizing each other’s campuses with paint the week before a rivalry football game, a tradition that escalated to student arrests and suspensions. While the vandalism subsided on campus, the Spartans tried to get the final word, painting “M.S.U.” on the side of a limestone boulder in an Ann Arbor park sometime in the late 1950s. The tradition of “Painting the Rock” persists at both schools today. Almost every time I drive down Washtenaw, the Rock looks different after a new student group or sports team has covered it with everything from “Go Blue”s to students’ names to political slogans.

But the Rock had a life long before the 1950s. If you were to scrape off the hundreds — maybe thousands — of layers of paint, you’d find a copper plaque depicting the stone’s original purpose: “To George Washington this memorial erected in celebration of the two hundredth anniversary of his birth, 1932.” For years after the painting began, there was a push to preserve the monument’s integrity with a sign erected as recently as the 1970s begging people not to paint the memorial, but the tradition was too cemented in campus culture to be shut down. 

For at least some residents in the area, the Rock represents a lot more harm than good. Despite its co-optation by the University community, the Rock sits in George Washington Park, on city property. For Lauren (whose name has been changed due to her fear of retribution to her business by University clients), a born and raised Ann Arbor resident, the rock is the perfect depiction of the University’s relationship to the broader community. 

Lauren expressed her frustration to me in a recent phone call. She’s one of several local residents who have complained about the littering of paint buckets or concerns of toxins getting into the gutter. In 2016, Nehama Glogower, another resident, wrote an article for the Ann Arbor Observer about her experience slipping in wet paint on the surrounding sidewalk. According to the women in both cases, they were unable to get their concerns heard.

“(Residents) resent (the University’s) entitlement,” Lauren said. “Where (the students are) a transient population, they don’t have a sense of placemaking because this isn’t their permanent home. And the University sort of allows that for their brand, and they don’t have a sense of collaboration.”

Colin Smith, Parks and Recreation Services Manager for the City of Ann Arbor, gets occasional complaints about the park, mostly when paint gets on the sidewalk or beyond. He said his department has to maintain the park at least twice a year, which he estimates costs about $500-$750 per visit when accounting for the materials needed to repaint the sidewalk and the labor. However, Michael Rein, U-M director of community relations, said he has never heard complaints about the Rock.

What is remarkable about the history of tension between the University and the town is how seldom it is addressed. Ann Arbor is constantly ranked among the top college towns in the country and is considered one of the University’s biggest assets. The school is so intertwined with the surrounding area — geographically, culturally and economically — that town and gown problems can seem nonexistent.

Ann Arbor was founded in 1824 by John Allen and Elisha W. Rumsey. The two men headed west from Detroit in January of that year and reached what is now present-day Ann Arbor by early February. The pair purchased a collective 2.6 square kilometers of land for $800 (what would be about $22,000 today) and opened up the Washtenaw Coffee House, the town’s first structure. Ann Arbor — named in honor of Rumsey and Allen’s wives, both named Ann — started to expand as an agricultural trading center. 

The University of Michigan, which had been founded in Detroit in 1817, relocated to Ann Arbor in 1839 while both school and town were in their infancy. Less than 20 years after its founding, the city had a population of 2,000, a courthouse, a jail, a bank, four churches and two mills. The University was even smaller. During its first year in the new town, the University had just seven students and two professors. Now, the city’s population stands at over 120,000, and the school’s total enrollment is over 44,700. Michigan and Ann Arbor have grown, simultaneously, but not necessarily together. 

While most state constitutions give state legislatures power to provide for higher education, Michigan is one of the few that mentions specific institutions and enumerates specific forms of governance and autonomy. Most states’ public higher education systems are controlled by a governing board, while Michigan’s 15 universities are independent schools. Each has their own school board that generally supervises the university’s actions and controls its finances. The governing bodies of Michigan’s three flagship institutions — the University of Michigan, Michigan State and Wayne State — are given almost complete autonomy over the universities’ operations. This has a number of implications, one being that the University isn’t bound by the Ann Arbor local government in nearly any form — it doesn’t pay taxes or follow the same zoning regulations — which, naturally, can cause some town and gown problems.

“The University doesn’t need to follow any of our rules,” Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor said. “They don’t follow our zoning; they don’t follow our planning. And, of course, they have the resources to do what they want when they want to do it.”

The perfect example of this dynamic is the 27-foot-tall, 48-foot-wide billboard between Michigan Stadium and the Crisler Center. The huge electronic sign was put up in 2013 much to the dismay of permanent residents. At the time, then-City Councilmember Taylor urged the University to take it down, arguing that it was a distraction to drivers. Former University President Mary Sue Coleman responded by saying that it is the responsibility of the driver to not be distracted.

According to residents, the light from the sign can be seen from miles away. The billboard flies in the face of city zoning laws that directly forbid electronic signage, but because of the University’s constitutionally-granted autonomy, the Council’s only recourse was to ask them to take it down. Though it passed a unanimous resolution asking the University to take it down — or at least limit its use — the sign stayed. 

Taylor says these instances are few and far between, and that relations between the two organizations are generally positive. This, he posits, is because the two entities are mutually beneficial: Ann Arbor benefits from housing a world-class university, and Michigan benefits from being in a town where people want to live.

The school and the town also frequently work in tandem on the provision of public services or other shared projects. In some cases, this means directly involving students in the community. For example, the U-M School of Information connects local organizations, both businesses and governmental offices, with students to help with website design or marketing. There’s also an industrial engineering class with a longstanding relationship with the Parks and Recreation department, according to Smith. The community engagement often extends to other parts of the state. The Detroit Initiative, a class in the American Culture department, sends students to different volunteer organizations in the city. 

In other cases, the organizations work together on infrastructure. Fire Station 5, located on Michigan’s North Campus, is staffed by city employees but owned and kept up by the University. The two organizations worked together last summer to repave sections of South University Avenue and Hoover Street.

Still, there’s something to be taken away from the billboard situation: The town and gown relationship is typically positive because the University chooses to be a good neighbor, not because it has to be. 

And, according to Lauren, that can make locals feel beholden to the University and inspire feelings of resentment. She feels like people are hesitant to stand up to the University, given that it is the largest employer not only in Ann Arbor but in the state.

“It’s sort of like this mixture of ambivalence, futility, fear, where no one wants to potentially sour the relationship with U-M for potential backlash,” Lauren said. 

Last month, in a two-page letter addressed to Taylor and the City Council, the University raised its concerns over a proposed housing project off of South Main Street next to the University golf course. The letter, signed by Rein, cited the potential impact of stormwater detention, retaining walls and a lack of golf ball netting. He said the University “may seek recourse” if the concerns aren’t addressed and University property is affected. 

There was immediate blowback from community members, with many accusing the University of prioritizing its golf course over affordable housing for Ann Arbor residents who, in many cases, are University employees. The letter also surprised City Councilmembers, though some were more inclined to consider the University’s concerns than others. 

“They are a community partner,” Councilmember Ali Ramlawi told MLive. “I think we should be very sensitive to their issues, whether we play golf or not. I think we have a big interest in maintaining that good relationship with our partner.”

In Ann Arbor, if you don’t have a neighbor or cousin or spouse that works for the University, you likely work for a business that serves University clientele. For better or worse, the two are inextricably linked. 

And, most of the time, it is for the better. The University is what makes Ann Arbor the most educated city in the U.S., with over half of residents over the age of 25 holding at least a bachelor’s degree. In a lot of ways, the University also dictates the city’s culture, creating a sort of feedback loop between the young, liberal undergrad population and the progressive, artistic community the city prides itself on. 

“We, as a community, punch above our weight on so many different things in terms of arts and culture, education, athletics,” Taylor said. “We have opportunities in our town of 120,000 that would be the envy of towns two or three times our size.” 

University spaces like the Arb and the University museums are open to the public. As Taylor said, the town and gown motivations are frequently aligned, though not always identical. 

At the onset of the pandemic, Neel Hajra, the CEO of the Ann Arbor Community Foundation put together a group of community leaders to discuss problems at hand. The group, which included representatives from the city, Washtenaw County, the merchants’ association, the Chamber of Commerce, Destination Ann Arbor and the University, still meets every couple months to reassess at different stages of the pandemic.

Last summer when the University announced that students would return to campus, residents were rightfully concerned. What would the testing procedure be? Would cases spike? In response, the University developed an integrated communication strategy with the city under the tag “Take care of Maize and Blue and A2.” The campaign posted signage around downtown and throughout campus urging social distancing and mask wearing, establishing consistent expectations for both organizations. 

The University communicates frequently with city officials on how to keep the community as safe as possible. But it’s difficult to sugarcoat the situation: Regardless of what precautions were taken or rules put in place, bringing thousands of students — myself included — back to campus placed locals more at risk than they otherwise would have been. It only took until Oct. 20, at which point 60% of COVID-19 cases in Washtenaw County were connected to the University, for the county to issue a stay-at-home order for undergraduate students.

And when vaccines became available, students lept at whatever opportunities we could find, performing mental gymnastics to morally justify driving sometimes hours to less populated areas for available appointments. The Wall Street Journal published an article raising concern over how many people from other parts of the state were getting vaccinated at Ford Field the week after I’d driven to Detroit for my first dose. 

But for all the damage we do, students and the larger University community also contribute heavily to the local economy. In June, Espresso Royale announced it wouldn’t survive the pandemic. Wilma’s closed its doors last April. Satchel’s followed suit in August. And Arbor Brewing Company. The list could go on. As much as Ann Arbor would have benefited from having us gone this year, it also needed students on campus in some respect. 

When I decided to attend Michigan, I fell in love not only with the school but the idea of living in Ann Arbor. I pictured myself getting coffee at Literati or walking to the farmer’s market on Saturday mornings. I wanted to get Zingermans and hang out by the docks. Three years later (during which I’ve spent a lot more time at the Brown Jug than the farmer’s markets my pre-college alter ego was picturing), I still don’t feel like I really know Ann Arbor. 

It wasn’t until the pandemic, when walks became a necessity, that I explored Burns Park or Allmendinger. Especially before any of my friends had cars on campus, my definition of Ann Arbor was State Street, Liberty and anywhere I could walk to on Main. Still, my definition of Ann Arbor is completely different from Lauren’s or any other permanent resident’s. She’s right when she says students don’t have a sense of placemaking. I love Ann Arbor, and I feel lucky to get to live here, but it’s not my final destination. I don’t have an incentive to improve the school system or take an interest in the state of the infrastructure beyond what lies directly next to campus. I interact very infrequently with people outside of the University’s bubble, and I don’t know how students can change that without imposing ourselves further onto a community that’s ambivalent about our presence. 

Lauren said she often sees groups of girls (who probably look a lot like me) walking down Liberty, behaving as if being a Michigan student entitles them to the whole town. 

“As an Ann Arborite, born and raised, it feels like a nagging sense that you’re always a guest in your own town,” Lauren said.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself entitled, but I get what she means. It’s the same reason I never questioned who maintains the Rock or considered what it would be like to live with the constant shining lights of the South Campus billboard if you have no connection to Michigan sports. 

Because, in my mind, Ann Arbor is Michigan, and Michigan is Ann Arbor.

Statement Correspondent Lane Kizziah can be reached at