In Praise of Smaller Cities
When Carol had walked for thirty-two minutes, she had completely covered the town, east and west, north and south; and she stood at the corner of Main Street and Washington Avenue, and despaired. - Main Street, Sinclair Lewis
When I was growing up in Michigan, I couldn’t wait to get out. There was no view as thrilling as the map of a big city laid out from an airplane window at nightfall. Each time my parents took us on a trip, I plotted my escape. I poured over our weekly issue of The New Yorker, memorizing the places advertised in the back of the magazine.
On Sunday afternoons, my brother and I sat in my godmother’s car, playing the game we called “Driving to Chicago.” (Thankfully, her keys were safely put away.)
Eventually, I got my wish. I've lived in Chicago, New York, Washington, and Tokyo. And now, I’m back in Ann Arbor, the town where I was born. Only I’m not standing on our Main Street and despairing.
Turns out my years living in big cities have given me an unexpected education in getting the most out of small city life. They’ve helped me discover what’s most important to me: a lively, diverse community, with access to good food, the arts, the world around us, and a comfortable place to live that’s also affordable on a freelancer’s budget.
Of course, Ann Arbor is unique. Thanks to the University of Michigan, a good-sized number of Ann Arborites have lived in other big places. We’ve learned to recognize each other almost instantly, much as Greeks and Canadians do. (It may have to do with wearing black most of the time, even in our 90-degree summer.)
Compared with the surrounding Detroit area, "It’s like an island," my friend Luke Song, who designed Aretha Franklin’s inaugural hat, remarked when I told him I was writing this piece. "Ann Arbor – the city that everyone loves," Rufus Wainwright said on stage at the Ann Arbor Summer Festival last month.
Photo credit: Susan Montgomery/Shutterstock.com
As a food lover, I realized the advantages of my town a few years ago, after a trip to Manhattan. The New York Times had written of the excitement that merchants could now sell jamon Iberico, the Spanish ham, which was scandalously expensive. I spotted it on the menu at Bar Boulud for $37 a serving, gritted my teeth at the price, and ordered some. When I got back, I found it on the counter at Zingerman’s Deli, where $37 yielded enough for a week.
These days, with the internet speeding food and fashion trends faster than ever, looks and flavors arrive in Ann Arbor in the blink of an eye, and if I can’t find it locally, I can pretty much always have it shipped in.
This is still a city of 108,000 people. That’s too small for some big city diehards, who want multiple choices of Thai restaurants, Pilates studios and cocktail lounges at their finger tips.
We have a few of each, but we don’t have good Chinese food, and I prefer to drive to Dearborn, Michigan, about 30 miles away, when I want authentic Middle Eastern cuisine. While our surroundings are pretty, especially when trees downtown are lit at Christmas, we don’t have a single skyscraper to compare with the glittering array along Lake Shore Drive.
Although we grumble about construction and football season traffic, the ease of getting around Ann Arbor is one of the things that we big city refugees find so attractive. Ari Weinzweig, the Chicago native who co-founded Zingerman’s, told me this past weekend about getting stuck on his way back here from his hometown.
It took half an hour to travel Ontario Street on the Near North Side to the freeway entrance ramp, he said – the same amount of time he needs to drive from his Ann Arbor home to Detroit Metropolitan International Airport.
To be sure, we don’t have the sheer variety of theater options I adore in Chicago and New York, or the glamour of the Washington cultural scene. But at the Kennedy Center in D.C., I was just another concertgoer. At Carnegie Hall, Peter Allen once pushed past me to exchange kisses with a friend. In Ann Arbor, it’s likely that Ken Fischer, the genial director of the University Musical Society, will welcome me. He invariably calls me "kid," and often upgrades my seat, unasked, if he has a better one available.
He’s just one of the people who look after me, like the ladies at Gold Bond dry cleaners (on Maynard Street) who bring my clothes to the front of the store when they see my car drive up.
In New York, celebrities get sandwiches named for them. Here, I’m on the menu at Nick’s House of Pancakes (Micki’s Lemon-Blueberry Poppyseed, which sells about 60 orders each weekend). On Bastille Day, Luke Song and I asked for a French dessert at Zingerman’s Roadhouse, and Emanuel, a sous chef from Nice, whipped up crepes just for us.
Of course, some of this is because I’m a townie, and maybe because I’m a writer, but these relationships are a sharp contrast to the anonymity I felt in big cities. A friend in New York once remarked that the secret to coping was just to "live in your neighborhood."
Well, if you’re going to do that, why not have an entire town?
I don’t want to paint an overly rosy picture. Like Chicago, which is going through a perilous summer, Ann Arbor has had a recent crime spree. Over the winter, police reported numerous home invasions, in which thieves came in through back doors and windows and walked off with flat-screen TVs and laptops.
Many of those homes were unlocked, something no one with big city experience would do. Likewise, Ann Arbor's new underground parking garage seems like an unwise move to those of us who have walked urban streets late at night.
Yes, I get impatient when I’m stuck behind a clearly lost car from Ohio or New Jersey that doesn’t understand our slightly confused system of one-way streets. I know how big city taxi drivers would dispense with them.
But honk? Nobody does that here.
At the end of Main Street, Carol Kennicott’s husband has come to see her in Washington, where she has escaped from Gopher Prairie. They have been apart for nearly two years, and despite a determined wooing, he tells her he is not going to ask her to come back just yet. "I want you to be satisfied when you get there," Will Kennicott says.
She does return, although her discontent remains just below the surface. Not mine.
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