Have you been tempted to make Ann Arbor your refuge from the rest of the world? I know I have. They say this is 28 square miles surrounded by reality. The shock attached to the crimes around campus this year — shocking as they are — is itself a measure of the comfort we usually keep. Yet you don’t have to go far away to get schooled in the tough times we’re inhabiting.
A 20-minute drive from campus will get you to the Willow Run plant, a sprawling property just north of I-94. This factory, which Henry Ford constructed to build bombers for World War II, was once the largest single room on our planet. After the war, it served General Motors for more than 50 years. It’s been empty since the company went bankrupt. In the adjoining school district, Willow Run Community Schools, three-quarters of the students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.
Along the Huron River, about eight miles from The Rock, you can walk through an isolated southern section of Ypsilanti’s Riverside Park where field lights tower over a meadow that is beginning to sprout small trees. Not too long ago, this was a baseball diamond. However, the city ran out of money to operate its recreation department in 2003. The path along the river is lined with toppled lamp posts.
At the edge of Ann Arbor, in a wooded area at the crux of I-94 and M-14, you’ll find Camp Take Notice, a homeless community where dozens of people live in tents year-round. The downtown homeless shelter has only enough beds for a fraction of the people who need them, and the camp’s residents find value in taking governance into their own hands. The camp isn’t as big as those that sprung up around the country during the Great Depression, but it’s a reminder of the difficult conditions swirling around the outskirts of our little oasis of learning.
Much of life here can seem removed from the storm and stress of a troubled world. In the blur of libraries, cafes, classrooms and rental units many of us inhabit, “reality” often feels like something alien. Lying on Ingalls Mall, I can stare up into the sky and imagine that the whole universe is a kind of garden, where the grass is always manicured to perfection and the only moral dilemma is whether or not one should feed the squirrels.
Yet even here in the city, amid the $12 sandwiches and sparkling new collegiate towers, you can find hints of a less rosy reality. Privileged spaces don’t maintain themselves, after all. I think of the makeshift bed I saw once in the basement of a restaurant a few steps from the Diag and the small army of custodial staff wiping down classrooms where they’ve never sat.
Ann Arbor natives haven’t all been equally privileged either, despite the stereotype and the steady work of gentrification. On the corner of Fourth Avenue and Ann Street you’ll find a historical marker commemorating the time when the block was home to Ann Arbor’s African American business district — back when an unwritten code barred blacks from living south of Miller Road. Now that the tanneries and slaughterhouses are gone, most of the cheap real estate that remains lies at the city’s edge, especially toward the east. Despite the two Whole Foods we have, the city isn’t an undifferentiated island of affluence, at least not yet.
That brings me back to the old saying. There sure is a lot of money within these 28 square miles, and some distinctive cultural norms. But the truth is there’s only one reality out there, and Ann Arbor is part of it. By perceiving this town, and ourselves, as wholly insulated from the whirlwind of the world beyond, we obscure the fact that we’re all part of one phenomenon, and that austerity and abundance are a relationship, not independent conditions.
As students, we’re presumably here to learn something about what’s real, which can be a scary enterprise and one that motivates us to seek refuge from the forces shaping our world in an imagined sort of Switzerland. But the first step to the real might be seeing that we’re already part of it, whether we like it or not.
Joel Batterman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.