While much of Michigan struggles in a failing economy and faltering job market, it seems as if a crystal bubble protects Ann Arbor, population 113,934. To believe that, however, would be an insult to the city’s people. Everyone in this clean, accessible town seems to put Ann Arbor’s future first. Their drive is evident in their attention to environment and focus on the local economy. If you have ever wondered what America could be at its best, spend a day wandering the streets of Ann Arbor and chatting with locals along the way.
Whether you consider yourself a country mouse yearning for an exciting weekend or a city mouse trying to relax, Ann Arbor is an ideal destination. Surrounded by towering trees and home to the University of Michigan, the city boasts exceptional cuisine, art and history. It is a friendly, conscientious and walkable city—the perfect mix of small-town casual and big-city flair. Spend a quiet afternoon at the park, or shop the stores along Main Street packed with local goods. There are live music venues and a constant rotation of university events, enabling you to be as exploratory or reclusive as you want.
First, though, you have to get here. Located directly off I-94 at the eastern edge of Michigan, Ann Arbor is about an hour southwest of Detroit. Positive visited some of the city’s sights; here’s a roundup of favorites.
Taste of Michigan: Breakfast at the Farmers Market
In Ann Arbor’s historic Kerrytown District a few blocks from downtown, farmers from throughout the state fill the weekly Ann Arbor Farmers Market with the freshest fruits and vegetables, herbs and flowers in an array of colors. By 8am on Saturday, dozens of people fill the aisles, perusing the organic, locally grown produce. A quick breakfast of fresh berries and bread still hot from the oven enables you to support the local economy and get a true taste of Michigan.
“Thanks for stopping by,” says Jeff Carpenter of Carpenter’s Organic Produce, as he fills a bag full of red and yellow tomatoes. Carpenter tells me that he started coming to the market as a child with his father Dwight and grandfather George, who are standing on either side of him helping customers.
Now in his 20s, a green baseball hat covers Carpenter’s head and a pair of headphones wraps around his neck. The three generations of his family continue to make the 75-mile drive from Allen, MI, every week to sell the goods from their farm.
In a state where one in 10 people struggles with food poverty, farmers markets and the farmers who supply them offer a valuable—and health-conscious—resource. This includes the Ann Arbor market, now in its 92nd year. “No farmers, no food, right?” Carpenter says, pointing to a bumper sticker of the same quote posted behind him. “This is not only an opportunity for us to put bread and butter on the table. We feed the community.”
Enlightened shopping: Robot Supply & Repair and the Cherry Republic
The Farmers Market isn’t the only way you can get a true taste of Ann Arbor, however. After breakfast, walk the half-mile over to one of the most unique shops in town: Liberty Street Robot Supply and Repair, 115 E. Liberty St.
Here, there are all the cogs, gears, and springs you could need, as well as humanoid parts. Author and publisher Dave Eggers (known for his first book, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” and his publishing company, operating under the name McSweeney’s), has set up the Michigan branch of his national writing and tutoring center behind the robot storefront. 826 Michigan offers after-school tutoring and writing workshops to the children of Ann Arbor, from grade school through high school. Like all eight of the 826 programs across the country, Michigan’s is fronted by a unique, volunteer-run store where you can also get inside the minds of the program’s participants by reading (and purchasing) compilations produced by the children, with all proceeds going to fund the 826 tutoring program.
Around the corner at 223 Main St., the smell of cherries wafts from the door of Cherry Republic. From barbecue rubs and sodas to salsas and sweets, the shop features more than 170 cherry products derived from Michigan cherries. Walking the rows is an educational experience too, with facts about Michigan’s cherry crop hanging in frames. For example, the United States produces 650 million pounds of cherries each year, most of which grow in Michigan and the Pacific Northwest.
Store manager Keri Hardy tells me that in order to protect that cherry crop, “We take a one percent donation from every purchase in Ann Arbor and give it to local farmers who need help.” Those donations protect the store’s future, too, helping to ensure plenty of delicious samples for every visitor.
A tiny hunt: spotting the wee fairy doors
From inside Cherry Republic, you may have glimpsed one of Ann Arbor’s most intriguing quirks: a fairy door. Most of these tiny, painted doors are less than six inches high and sit at street level so that they reach to just above your ankle. Yet despite their small height, the doors have hijacked an entire city’s imagination. Many appear on the outsides of buildings, including one visible through Cherry Republic’s windows overlooking Liberty Street. The morning I was there, a mother had brought her two young daughters to see the door. Dressed in tutus and holding wands, the girls posed for a photo in front of the door, and then spun around to leave gifts for the fairies—miniature drawings and rings on the front stoop.
The idea for the doors came from the mind of illustrator Jonathan Wright, who added a fairy door to his own house in 1993. It seemed fitting for the preschool his wife ran out of their home. Now the doors have spread to businesses throughout Ann Arbor—including inside the library and Google’s regional offices.
Throughout the city, there are approximately 20 fairy doors and an entire fairy village tucked away near the library. Follow this map to hunt them all down—or at least some of them on your way to lunch.
Lunch at Zingerman’s Delicatessen
Based on everything I have come to learn about Ann Arbor and every recommendation I heard during my time there, you do not want to miss Zingerman’s Deli, 422 Detroit St. My friends told me this. Managers at stores told me this. Servers at other restaurants told me this. In short: Zingerman’s is an Ann Arbor institution, serving delicious specialty foods and traditional Jewish dishes since 1982.
I, however, was too hungry to wait. Arriving at the deli at prime lunch hour (noon), I met a line that wrapped around the building and down the street. Consider this fair warning and plan either an early or a late lunch at Zingerman’s. Or you could run across the street to the farmers market and grab an apple to snack on while you wait.
Impromptu tag: A speedy tour of the Wave Field
After lunch, not only will you have energy to burn off, but it will also be due time to check out the campus of the University of Michigan—the state’s oldest university, founded in 1817 when Michigan was still a territory. Outside the François-Xavier Bagnoud building for aerospace engineering, 1320 Beal Ave., eight rows of 50 rolling grass waves fill the landscape, nestled between buildings.
Though subtle, those waves are no accident. Sculptor and landscape-artist Maya Lin designed the waves in 1995, reminiscent of an ocean set in the middle of the landlocked Midwest. People come here for study dates, melting into the curves of the waves, or they come to picnic, perched upon the crests. The waves convey a peacefulness, as if all the separate entities—the women giggling through their homework, the family pointing out clouds together—are part of a whispered secret.
That is why it made complete sense when a group of people relaxing on one end of the 10,000-square-foot field rallied everyone present for an impromptu game of tag. It was late in the afternoon as we leapt and ran over the waves. The game lasted no more than 15 minutes, but we felt a part of something different and beyond ourselves, as if there really were an ocean in the middle of Ann Arbor.
Street smarts: downtown street fairs
Time to get back to Main Street, where virtually every weekend night during the summer, some sort of festival fills the street. The night of the Mayor’s Green Fair, I stop at booths on clean water and land conservancy, sample food from a truck with a garden as its bed, and chat with bikers galore.
Michael Firn is one of those bikers. Part owner of Sic Transit Cycles, 1033 Broadway, Ave., he stands at the edge of the street, repeatedly folding and unfolding a Brompton bicycle. He reduces it to the height and width of a suitcase before popping it back open and riding in a circle. “I call it a bike that folds, not a folding bike,” he says. “This is the next generation of personal transportation. Space, theft, the elements—at the end of the day you can put it in your closet or the trunk of your car.”
Firn alludes to the urbanization of America, with most people now living in cities where space is limited and crime ever-present. And while there remains plenty of room in Ann Arbor for full-size bikes, the fact that there is a demand for Brompton here—that people can imagine fitting it into their lives—is a prime example of how this modest, Midwestern town keeps a steady eye on the future.
Viewing pleasure: late night movie at the Michigan Theatre
Finally, the sun has set. Vendors at the fair along Main Street close up shop, and the town—except for the bars—begins to settle. So why not relax with a movie? The historic Michigan Theater, 603 E. Liberty St., shows independent and classic films, and plays host to the Ann Arbor Film Festival. The Historic Auditorium room, built during the silent film era, has 1,700 seats. It also houses one of the only remaining theater pipe organs still played in its original setting. So grab a bag of popcorn, sprinkle it with real butter, sit back and enjoy the show.
Ann Arbor will still be here tomorrow. Its residents have made sure of that.