Windy City. Big Apple. City of Brotherly
Love. Celery City (that’s Kalamazoo, in case you didn’t
already know). Though the village of Annarbour, as it was called at
its inception in 1824, has rightfully escalated to city status, it
has yet (save vacuous “A squared”) to receive a
public-sanctioned nickname.

Beth Dykstra
Students purchase snacks at the Halfway Inn (also known as the Half-Ass), a venue in the basement of East Quad. (Tomasso Gomez/Daily)
Beth Dykstra
Ann Arborites sip a few drinks on a balmy September evening in front of The Brown Jug, also on on South University Avenue. (Forest Casey/Daily)

Why this nickname void? Surely Ann Arbor possesses as much, if
not more, character than Nail City (Wheeling, W.Va), or Curtain Rod
Capital of the World (Sturgis, Mich.). The University’s 1837
relocation from Detroit, a steady influx of people (the current
population around 114,000), and a huge growth of businesses has
transformed the 28.2 square miles of Ann Arbor from a green, small
village into a bustling, colorful city.

A nickname, though it may be one person’s concept,
requires adoption by the people to keep it alive. And while
diversity is possibly Ann Arbor’s greatest asset, it can
function as a vice by preventing a unanimous agreement on an image
of the city. A brief survey of Ann Arbor’s nightlife reveals
the polemical, capricious and impossible task of pinning down
“Ann Arbor Culture.”

The upstairs of Rendezvous Café (1110 S. University Ave.)
on a Friday night is an agreeable, laid-back place. At 9:00 there
are about 12 people on the warmly-lit second level: A couple is
smoking flavored tobacco out of an ornate hookah; others are
reading, chatting and smoking.

Jad is sitting at a table with five other men, four of whom are
playing Tarneeb, an Arabic card game. Recently earning a Master’s
degree from Eastern Michigan University, Jad has lived in Ann Arbor
for more than three years and continually comes to Rendezvous to
relax and meet with friends. “I feel comfortable here,”
says Jad, explaining the interesting mix of people he finds at the
café: “… there’s (people) from all over,
almost. (At other places,) you don’t see people from China;
you don’t see people from India, from Brazil or Palestine.
And,” he adds, holding a Marlboro Light in his left hand and
a Paulo Coelho book in his right, “I can smoke
here.”

Jad, who speaks English, French and Arabic, lived in Lebanon
before coming to Ann Arbor and is slightly baffled by the
University’s party culture. “It’s weird that they
say U of M is one of the best (schools) in the country …
When I was in school, we couldn’t go out drinking very often.
I wonder how people are having good grades.”

Jad’s friend Ata, who hails from Istanbul, Turkey, finds
Ann Arbor slow and quiet. Ata thinks Ann Arbor is safe and
friendly, but that “(University students’) fun is very
limited: study all week, party Friday.” He also notices a
lack of global awareness among students: “I asked my
(University) friends, ‘Can you give me three countries
surrounding Iraq?’ They couldn’t.”

According to Jad, Ann Arbor, or its image, thwarts
students’ natural behavior. Thinking of the city not as a
“real world” town but rather as a “student town where
people coming from different places try to act according to
specific ‘norms’ that belong to the town,” Jad observes that
students’ pretenses are sometimes overcome by alcohol indulgence.
“Even if people are sometimes acting snobby, they will act
naturally, or sometimes worse, during parties. In Lebanon, snobs
are snobs all the time.”

By 10:00, the upstairs has considerably filled up with smoke,
bodies, and conversation. Jad and Ata return to their conversation
and the street below begins to liven up.

A couple blocks away from Rendezvous, the sounds of a trumpet,
noise machine and polite applause reverberate in the subterranean
walls of East Quad’s Halfway Inn. Not quite Jad’s
“periodical snobs,” the crowd here is a mixture of
undergrads who are, at least ostensibly, interested in music and
community.

LSA junior Dave Armitage, a member of the East Quad Music Co-Op
(which books and organizes the shows), remarks on the uniqueness of
these shows, which usually draw between 50 and 150 people:
“The Half-Ass is different from places like the Blind Pig in
that we are a nonprofit venue, so all the money we make a the show
goes back to the bands.” Atmosphere, of course, adds to the
shows: “There are also plush couches and mood lighting,
making it a perfect date destination for all the lovers.”
Armitage suggests that the co-op is starting, or reviving, a new
culture: “The concerts in the dorm don’t bring the
culture, child, but the culture is bringing the concerts to the
dorm.”

Down the street from East Quad, a slightly swanky house party is
underway. A small crowd gathers on the apartment’s roof,
which overlooks a very busy South University Avenue. LSA junior
Kellan Cummings and RC freshman Natasha Stagg are perched on a
ledge. While Stagg is excited about her move to Ann Arbor —
“There’s a lot more diversity here … I like the
overall feeling of it, compared to Grand Rapids” —
Cummings’s thoughts on the city lack any doses of
romanticism. “There’s a lot of good restaurants here; I
must admit that,” he offers. Then, after a pause, he adds,
“There’s good record stores, too. That’s
it.”

Down below, Cummings’s apathy is completely contrasted as
two enthusiastic students, who are coming from a very different
kind of party, share their thoughts on the city. “My favorite
thing about Ann Arbor is the parties,” says Dan Brown, who
goes to school in Port Huron. “The frat parties,”
interjects LSA freshman Ron Mantell. “You don’t have to
pay for shit; it’s awesome. You never have to pay for
anything.”

Their tip to check out Sigma Alpha Epsilon (apparently
it’s off the hook) was not overooked. On the driveway of the
looming house, two sorority hopefuls explain their Greek desire.
LSA freshman Jenny Sedney, who justifies rushing with:
“Basically, right now, I’m going through the process
till I find it annoying,” is impressed with the town and
“knickknack stores” around Ann Arbor.

Her friend, Jessica Delaney, also an LSA freshman, looks forward
to the structured sociality of sorority life: “I love having
something to do constantly. I love, like, say on this day
there’s gonna be this party, or on this day there’s
gonna be this party — I love that; I think that’s so
fun.”

Though the women plan on becoming part of the Greek culture,
they are still sensitive to those who don’t rush. “I
have a group of friends in my hall that some of them are like,
‘I wanna be in a sorority,’ and some of them
aren’t, but we still can hang out,” Sedney says.

The last stop of the night is Mitch’s on the corner of
South Forest and South University avenues. The crowd at
Mitch’s is older, calmer and more clothed. Dana Congbon goes
to Wayne State University, but frequently visits Ann Arbor. She
likes the Ann Arbor bar culture, especially Mitch’s,
“because you don’t have to be a whore to get in.”
Congbon and her friends get a kick out of the uber-mini-skirts that
have been seizing the thighs of undergrads this season and are
relieved that Ann Arbor offers alternatives to frats. “Have a
beer, sing some karaoke,” Congbon says of the bars,
“you don’t need to hooch out.”

It’s clear from Friday night’s south-side
expeditions that there are, in fact, many subcultures that lie
beneath a somewhat elusive “Ann Arbor Culture.” What’s
noteworthy, though, and a facet of the city’s culture, is
that these subcultures are actually represented. On Saturday night,
one of Ann Arbor’s subcultures was celebrated with
festivities in Kerrytown.

“Like a Prayer” blasts outside Vaugh Court, and a
swarm of people is dancing at OutFest, a festival kicking off
National Coming Out Day (Oct. 11). Jeremy Merklinger is the
president of WRAP (Washtenaw Rainbow Action Project), which
organizes this 10-year-old event.

“This would never happen in Howell, or Grass Lake, or even
Jackson,” Merklinger declares. “Ann Arbor is so
open-minded and liberal — it’s just acceptable here to
be gay.” He points out that the facts that WRAP has a working
relationship with the Ann Arbor police department and that the
mayor came to OutFest speaks greatly of the city’s
tolerance.

No cultures, or subcultures, are ideal. “The (LGBT)
community is very, very divided,” Merklinger says.
“People start to clump together with people that they
understand.” Of course, Merklinger’s comment can be
applied to many communities, including many of those in Ann Arbor.
The depth and breadth of sub-cultures in Ann Arbor showcases the
diversity and community that the residents possess. Isolating a
single culture to exploit, or tout as an image, seems futile and
unnecessary. Perhaps the population could be appeased by this
nickname: Ann Arbor — The City of Cultures.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *