There are few cities in the Midwest that measure up to Ann Arbor. Aside from Madison, our fair city, compared to any other Big Ten college town, is the best around.

Columbus is large, but lacks character. West Lafayette is in the middle of nowhere. Evanston, with Ivy-envy, is much like New Haven: Dead. And everyone in East Lansing is grain-fed. Or so the theory goes.

Ann Arbor is simply different. Instead of strip malls lining the main drag, we have an Art Deco theater and used bookstores. Instead of going to Taco Bell for late-night munchies, we go to the Fleetwood Diner. Instead of going to an Olive Garden for a romantic Italian dinner, we go to Gratzi or Bella Ciao. Instead of any run-of-the-mill suburban franchise like Applebee’s, we have “real” neighborhood hangouts, like Ashley’s Pub and the Brown Jug.

Bottom-line: We live, work, study and party in a real city.

Although Ann Arbor can be very isolating at times, the best thing about this city is that it looks outside its borders for inspiration and self-improvement. We have great architecture, vibrant neighborhoods and establishments that have history and tradition.

And Ann Arbor is a stepping stone to better things in life. Our critics say that we’re stuck-up, arrogant and trapped in six square miles surrounded by reality.

But is that something to be ashamed of? No. We should celebrate it.

One of Ann Arbor’s greatest fans, public radio personality, Midwestern icon and writer Garrison Keillor aptly described Ann Arbor’s residents – including its students – during a live broadcast of “A Prairie Home Companion” in December at Hill Auditorium: “People in expensive scruffy clothing, talking like socialists, in expensive restaurants.”

While Keillor’s description may paint Ann Arbor as a superficial city, propped up by a pretentious and pompous facade, it is a training ground for the real world – a cross section of society with all of its problems crammed into a city with 110,000 people who embrace the diversity and ideas that shape our world.

If you’re an in-stater, Ann Arbor is a great training ground for social mobility and provides a large number of options for choosing a path in life. It’s a place where you can learn to enjoy a good single-malt scotch, progressive jazz, inventive vegan food or an excellent microbrew.

It’s a place that is a stopping-off point for the world’s greatest orchestras and speakers. It’s a nexus for debate, philosophy and issues. It’s a place to tap a keg, find out the difference between New York and Chicago-style pizza, go see a foreign film, understand Kant, question authority, stay up all night with friends and play video games, realize that your high school English teacher was an idiot for embracing the philosophy of Ayn Rand and eat the best damn Buffalo wings this side of Lake Erie (at Mr. Spot’s of course).

It’s a place to hang out and a place to be serious. In Michigan, only Ann Arbor provides such an environment; you won’t find that in East Grand Rapids (where I’m from), Farmington Hills or Traverse City (or up the road in East Lansing for that matter).

For an out-of-stater, Ann Arbor provides those same opportunities, but also offers something else – a reality check. Let’s say you’re from Nassau County, N.Y. and you’re coming to Ann Arbor because of Michigan sports and a chance of getting into the Business School. You think that since your home, let’s say Dix Hills, Great Neck or Jericho, is located near New York City, you are all-knowing and have the right to inherit the earth. While New York is arguably the world’s greatest urban environment, it isn’t the only one. “Doing one’s time in the Midwest” as one out-of-state friend once told me, is probably one of the most important things for an East Coaster.

“It has made me a better person,” she said. “Ann Arbor will do that to you.”

She’s right. In such a small but vibrant and global environment, students in Ann Arbor get to douse themselves in a city that is built on a human scale and has developed into a place where people open up their minds and reshape themselves and are better for it.

And that isn’t just limited to the out-of-staters.

This happens to all people who come through this place – whether you are from northern New Jersey, Detroit’s east side or Indonesia. Then when you move away, as my friend put it, “you keep your experience in Ann Arbor in your back pocket and refer back to it when you need to … just to make sure that you are appreciating not only where you are in life but what you can do with it.”

Of course, any college town is supposed to do that. It’s just the University of Michigan, because of Ann Arbor, does better than most places.

The integration of “town and gown” as it is called, makes Ann Arbor what it is. And it is what makes me miss the city now. Some people never move away. Others who do move on wish they never did. Everybody who happens to come through Ann Arbor appreciates the city both for its benefits and its downfalls.

Yes, there are better places than Ann Arbor. No doubt. But it is places like Ann Arbor that prepare people to appreciate those better places and the finer things in life. That is what makes Ann Arbor so great. Enjoy.

– Michael Grass is a recent University graduate and served as the Daily’s co-editorial page editor in 2001. He can be reached via e-mail at He now lives in Washington, D.C.

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