Ann Arbor: liberal heart of the Midwest, is the place I call home. A beloved college town in which things like a deer cull can monopolize months of public debate. Ann Arbor, although filled to the brim with small town charm and regularly honored with numerous seemingly arbitrary accolades, is not a city without its fair share of problems. In particular, like many cities in modern America, Ann Arbor is plagued by an inequality gap.
This gap was something that I grew up in and around, implicitly aware of throughout my childhood, and explicitly disturbed by as I entered high school. Unfortunately, however, Ann Arbor’s problems are far too often ignored — swept under the rug by a unique form of Ann Arbor elitism that uses extreme outward social liberalism to cover the reality of racial and economic homogeneity that is increasingly prevalent in this town.
My first experiences with this side of Ann Arbor culture began in elementary school. Bryant Elementary is located in one of the few low income neighborhoods in Ann Arbor, surrounded by multiple public housing projects and large, low-income apartment buildings. The school welcomes a diverse student body, both racially and ethnically, among which a large percentage receive free or reduced lunch. My dad would often say that when he attended our school concerts, he felt as if he was sitting in a meeting of the United Nations.
My neighborhood was not originally included in the Bryant school zone, but it was added as a result of a citywide redistricting effort to bring about socio-economic diversity. However, among the 10 or so children that lived on my block, my brother, my cousin and I were the only ones to attend public school. Instead, many of our neighbors, fearful of the behavioral issues and other distractions that their children may have encountered at Bryant, choose to send their children to a $20,000 a year private school at which they would be surrounded by classmates who, socioeconomically, looked just like them.
Reminiscent of the racial homogeneity used to protect the cultural integrity of white neighborhoods in postwar Detroit, my neighbors, though a diverse group of individuals, leveraged economic barriers to essentially achieve the same goal: produce an artificially created “safe” space, sheltered from change and the reality of the diverse outside world.
This attitude, however, is entirely paradoxical when considering my neighbors’ political affiliations and apparent core belief system. Though my neighbors, like many Ann Arborites, bleed blue on the outside, speak of how they cherish diversity and inclusion, and mourn the tragedies surrounding the demise of public education, their ideologies seem to be entirely lost in implementation. When given the opportunity to immerse their children in a diverse environment, like Bryant school, they veered in the opposite direction. This perplexing conflation of values is something that I perceive to be representative of the greater Ann Arbor community: Social liberalism is celebrated from a distance, but hardly practiced up close.
I wish I could say things got better when I reached high school, but unfortunately, the inequity that I witnessed in education frankly got worse. The diverse group of students that sat beside me all throughout elementary school seemed to disappear, especially as I transitioned into taking self-selecting advanced classes. I soon noticed that my classes felt less like a U.N. meeting and increasingly more like a Senate Republican conference (though of course very different in political leanings.)
This extreme racial homogeneity of advanced classes seemed to create a restrictive tradition for success at my school, a tradition that mandates whiteness as a prerequisite for admittance to the school’s high-achieving culture. When students fall behind — a trend that often occurs along racial lines — they are isolated from the opportunities of academic success that have come to define my school statewide.
I didn’t have to look far to find evidence of this achievement gap. Photos hung in the entrance hall of my high school depicting great, (predominantly) white alumni. The idea of college for many of my classmates was an expectation, not an achievement. And when 87 students from my graduating class decided to attend the University of Michigan, almost none of them were African American.
My journey in public education continues at the University of Michigan. Here, I have gained a new perspective of life in the city, realizing that the Ann Arbor I grew up in and the Ann Arbor that I experience as a University student are remarkably different. Using the model of gentrification, it is almost as if the wealthy University students are a type of gentry, bringing a wave of investment that is in turn shaping and changing the culture of the city. Canada Goose jackets have replaced Birkenstocks as the fashion piece of choice for people I encounter around town, Range Rover SUVs are beginning to threaten the hordes of Subarus in the parking lots, and New York City-priced apartments in high rises sprung up around town.
The culmination of these outward economic status symbols create a restrictive culture that uses high prices to maintain an exclusive and homogeneous community. As the high visibility of this elite class culture spreads across campus, students who can’t produce a certain look or lead a certain lifestyle are being excluded economically, socially and psychologically from what seems to be the dominant culture of the University community.
This cultural evolution strays far from the University’s founding value of providing a quality education for the common man, a place where you could get an East Coast education without belonging to the East Coast elite. However, trends at Michigan in both the high average income of the student body, and high prices of tuition and living indicate the opposite. Though the University has taken active efforts to attract low income students to its doors, this public institution no longer appears to be a place for the common man. To be common at the University of Michigan is not to be from the 50 percent, but to be from a family who makes $154,000 or more a year — in other words, belong to the privileged elite.
Given the many changes to the city of Ann Arbor in recent years, both physically and demographically, the future of the city is unknown. However, what is certain is that if the city follows the trend of building an ever growing economic border around its limits, the inequality gap and its effect on city culture will continue to grow. Who Ann Arbor is really for is now the dominant question. Is it for the people who live here currently? The people who will be able to afford the increasingly high price of cost of living in the future? Or is it for the cultivation of a diverse and multi-dimensional community that Ann Arbor voters demand, yet take no steps to enforce?
Ann Arbor is in the midst of an identity crisis — we preach one set of ideals yet practice another. We know who Ann Arbor was in the past, but until residents and the University decide to act on their beliefs and take control of who they want to the city to be and belong to in the future, the fate of the city is left to the trends of economic development. Until Ann Arbor can find a way to bridge the divide between theory and practice, the future of the city may be out of our hands.