Throughout middle school and high school, I ate breakfast every morning over a copy of the Detroit Free Press that sat on the kitchen table. Munching shredded wheat and mulling over the day’s most interesting headlines, I learned about not only national politics and global events but also local power struggles and community events. For a kid who couldn’t even drive a car around the block, I knew quite a lot about local goings-on.
Something happened, though, when I went to college. I moved away from my parents’ house and their breakfast table, and I didn’t want to spend the money for my own subscription to the Free Press. I transitioned from a knowledgeable high school senior to an oblivious college freshman, gathering scraps of information from a hodgepodge of Daily articles, websites and briefings from my mother. Unlike before, I had to work to know what was going on around me, and when an intensive Spanish course and Nietzsche seminar took over my life, I didn’t have time for such an effort.
Campus is a beautiful place, especially in the spring and summer. On days when the sky is blue, the lawnmowers are roaring and the Triton fountain is sparkling, it’s hard to imagine being anywhere else. It’s difficult to remember that this state has a 14-percent unemployment rate, that this city is a bright spot for development in a slumping region and that we live 35 miles from the border of a city in which 47 percent of adults are functionally illiterate. It’s much more fun to just play Frisbee.
But think more broadly for a moment. Find a computer, open a web browser and zoom the Google map out from Ann Arbor. It’s time to see where you live.
You’re looking at southeast Michigan, which is not easily defined, but which I would call the cluster of Detroit’s suburbs and Ann Arbor. You can try counting all the municipalities in this area, but it’d be tough. There are currently 160 members of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, connected by at least seven interstate highways and a web of crisscrossing north-south streets. While the sheer geographic span seems daunting, the conflicting interests and ideological differences across the area can be overwhelming. The region encompasses everything from bustling downtowns to fields of grazing cows, from the 80-percent black population of Detroit to the 95-percent white population of Livonia, bastions of both Republican and Democratic leaderships, avenues of mansions and blocks where only a few crumbling bungalows remain.
History has shown that getting this diverse group of cities and townships to agree on something is close to impossible. Whether it be public transit funding, water distribution or even library card access, each municipality has its own stubborn agenda: to protect and provide for its unique segment of citizens in the way that its leaders and residents see fit.
Being such an independent and thriving city, Ann Arbor has had the privilege of avoiding much of the southeast Michigan squabble. It provides its own water from the Huron River, maintains an excellent public transportation system and stays partially isolated from the region’s economy thanks to the University. But no unit of government can avoid interconnectedness and interdependence completely, and eventually what impacts the rest of the area will change Ann Arbor as well. This city is part of a region facing complex, distressing problems but also a region in which creativity, resourcefulness and selflessness spring up in the most unexpected places. You are also a part of it, and you share in both its setbacks and its advances. You should get to know it.
During my years at the University, I’ve learned how to stay connected with the local communities that are important to me. I still have pre-exam days where the world seems less important than the books in front of my face, but in general, I know where to get the information I need. Experiential classes and internships have also taught me that the only way to really know what’s going on in the world is to see it for yourself. Go to the farmers’ market and talk to the food providers about independent farming in southeastern Michigan. Go to local parks and see the variety in municipal services. Go to southwest Detroit and talk to residents about the plans for a second international bridge. Whatever you do, be interested, be inquisitive and be engaged.
Carolyn Lusch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.