Is Ann Arbor as progressive as it’s billed? And, if not, what can be done about it?

A few days ago, I was having a conversation with the mother of one of Alro’s school friends. As she’s relatively new to Ypsi, I asked how she came to be living here, and she told me her story, which started back in California, when she found out that she’d been accepted into a graduate program at the University of Michigan. Having not spent much time in Ann Arbor, she mentioned the prospect of moving here to a few friends, and she was told that she’d love the town. “It’s the Berkley of the midwest,” she was told. And, as she’d done her undergraduate work at Berkley, she found the prospect appealing. Upon arriving here, though, she found that, much to her surprise, Ann Arbor was a lot more conservative than she’d been led to believe. And, eventually, she and her family found their way to Ypsilanti. As it’s a story we’ve all heard before, I hadn’t intended to share it here… until, just now, I happened across an entry on the Ann Arbor blog Mrs. Jefferies which echoed this woman’s sentiment almost word for word. And, rightly or wrongly, I took it as a sign that it was time to once again contemplate the age old question, “Is Ann Arbor really what it claims to be?”

Here, to kick off what promises to be a rollicking conversation on conservative old hippies and wealthy out-of-state students, is a clip from the previously mentioned Mrs. Jefferies… Enjoy!

Screen Shot 2014-03-26 at 1.38.44 PM

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  1. Conan Smith
    Posted March 26, 2014 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

    Still the Berkeley of the Midwest . . . provided, of course, that Ohio is the Mississippi of the Midwest. A few years ago, Detroit was the most liberal city in America. The labels are all pretty meaningless. What’s important is how a community actually treats its people and the people who want to be its people. My whole life Ann Arbor has struggled with the tension between its liberal reputation and the reality of its culture. No doubt we’re more progressive than average, but we have a long way to go.

  2. Anonymous Mike
    Posted March 26, 2014 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

    Admiral Ackbar knows what’s going down.

  3. Posted March 26, 2014 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    You wouldn’t be getting ready for a mayoral run, would you, Conan? This comment of yours has the makings of a pretty good campaign platform.

  4. Taco Farts
    Posted March 26, 2014 at 11:12 pm | Permalink


    Wait for the old people to die.

    But of course we all know it’ll be too late by then. Thanks a lot, “medicine.”

  5. AnnArborite
    Posted March 27, 2014 at 5:44 am | Permalink

    Really well stated – Ann Arbor has a lot going for it in terms of quality of life, however it is only available to those who can afford it. I grew up in Ann Arbor in the 70s and the town has taken a distinct right turn in its politics.

  6. Jean Henry
    Posted March 27, 2014 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    I agree with everything she said. I am used to hearing CA and big city transplants complain about Ann Arbor not being cool enough, but in this case she has the critiques right. But Berkeley is not a great town. (I lived and worked there for 2 years) It is extraordinarily expensive and split into haves and increasingly few have nots. They do some stupid stuff politically too, but to the progressive side. All while pushing out the poorer population and stripping the public schools by sending their kids to private schools where their kids’ creativity won’t be hindered and they won’t be exposed to ‘toxins.’ Yes it’s happening here, but not on this scale AND we worry about it. There’s a lot more affordable housing development here than there and we are smaller and less expensive. We also had free health care for low income residents until the ACA made that unnecessary. They have more LEED buildings because they have more $$ and it makes them look good. Berkeley exhibits liberalism as identity not action. Lot’s of self-congratulation going on. (so NOT midwestern).

    Everything Ypsi folk rightly decry about A2 exists in spades in Berkley.

    There HAS to be a better model of a progressive college town.

  7. site admin
    Posted March 27, 2014 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    The exit interview with Newcombe Clark is relevant given the discussion of affordable housing in the rapidly changing Ann Arbor.

  8. Grumpy
    Posted March 27, 2014 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    I totally agree about how Ann Arbor sucks and is disturbingly conservative in a lot of ways, but I’m very confused about what that has to do with color schemes of outfits at the Ann Arbor Film Festival opening party. The AAFF is one of the coolest things the city has going for it and one of the few ties to Ann Arbor’s ancient history as an interesting cultural center.

  9. Kim
    Posted March 27, 2014 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    Several thoughts.

    • There is a reason that young people stay in Madison upon graduation and flee Ann Arbor. We should ask ourselves why that is. It might have something to do with the increased number of out-of-state students the U accepts, but I’m sure there are other factors as well.

    • Our community is rapidly aging. The demographics now compared to 50 years ago are worlds apart. This fact needs to be discussed and addressed as it’s not sustainable.

    • We have an art fair, and we seem to think that’s enough to make us ‘artist friendly’. It’s not. Artists cannot afford to live here.

  10. Anne
    Posted March 27, 2014 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    I had a similar experience moving here for graduate school from my undergrad in Austin, Tx. A lot of “oh, Ann Arbor, is supposed to be a mini-Austin of the Midwest”. In addition, I had grown up in Michigan in 80s and going to Ann Arbor was always going to the “cool, liberal, big city” for us (growing up in Hillsdale County just about anywhere is more liberal and appears to be a big city). The first shock was the cost of living of the City and lack of affordable housing. I was also disappointed by the lack of much of a music scene and difficult to find independent coffee shops (an undergrad staple). The first time my parents visited me they went through the same period of disappointment as they walked around Ann Arbor talking about the “cool places” they remembered that were now replaced by overpriced furniture and clothing stores.

    However, Austin was going through this same sort of transition in the late 90s during the end of my undergraduate tenure there. This largely coincided with the City’s rapid growth as the popularity and growth of Dell brought a lot of other tech companies to the City. Most of the unique independent shops along the main University drag were being replaced by chains like Starbucks, Chipolte, etc… The largely Hispanic area of South Austin was going through a process of gentrification, increasing housing prices. I think this is a problem that a lot of “cool” cities face as they grow in popularity. They begin to appeal to the large corporations as well and demographics shift accordingly.

  11. Posted March 27, 2014 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    I like Ann Arbor.

  12. Zap
    Posted March 27, 2014 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    Peter, your inconsistency fascinates me.

  13. Frosted Flakes
    Posted March 27, 2014 at 12:13 pm | Permalink


    The fact that some artists can’t afford Ann Arbor might say more about some of our local artists work and less to do with the price of living in Ann Arbor. Many artists find ways to live in places a lot more expensive than Ann Arbor. Maybe those other artists are making things that people find worthy of purchase?

    In my opinion, our aging population is one of the greatest things about this town. Ann Arbor seniors, most of which are insanely interesting/educated, are one of our greatest treasures! My sense is that Ann Arbor seniors are good for the economy. (I might be wrong about that , I don’t know.) Could you say something about their presence being unsustainable?

    I don’t know how AA compares with Madison in terms of retaining its young people but compared to other places I have lived in the Midwest I do not get the sense that young people are overly eager to leave because, as they might say, ” it sucks here”. Rather, a lot of high schoolers and college students have a real sense of pride that they live here…the impression I get is that they are actually aware that Ann Arbor is a good place to live….I think that is remarkable!!! Especially, since we are living in the relatively miserable Midwest…

    Can we do better? Yes. can we do worse? Yes.

  14. K2
    Posted March 27, 2014 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    There’s only one thing more selfish than a young hippie, and that’s an old hippie.

  15. anonymous
    Posted March 27, 2014 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    Fuck Ann Arbor. All the cool kids are in Ypsi.

  16. Posted March 27, 2014 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    I know the writer of this blog and like her a lot. I don’t want to pretend to know what she is going through here but it may be akin to my feelings of the time that I spent in Madison (law school circa 94-96). To date, it was the worst period of my life for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that I didn’t find it nearly as liberal as everyone said it would be. (This is possibly because law school attracts the Crazies. It was also before social media please note). I still have nightmares about my time there (that I have to go back and finish something or that I’m trapped and can’t get out). So I completely understand that helpless feeling you have when you are stuck someplace that isn’t what you thought it would be.

    That said, I think Ann Arbor is the most progressive place in MI. Is it the most progressive place in the midwest? Possibly. Is it the bestest most progressive awesome place in the country? Uh, no. But I think this reflects a larger trend. *America* is not a progressive place…we are basically a sea of blood red with splotches of blue around the big cities (except for areas on either coast).

    I’m not sure how this happened. It could be hate radio and hate internet and the fact that no one wants to think of him or herself as a “worker” (even though we all are, excepting those skinny broads who marry well and get to cruise and the occasional person who will crack the top 1% through hard work and lots of luck/connections) and this meanness that causes people to say “she has X and I don’t and so thus she should not because fuck her” instead of saying “she has X…how do I get that, too?”). But however we got here, here we are and it’s not surprising to me that Ann Arbor would lose some of itself…Michigan is a conservative state and it’s going to rub off.

    I hope we fight back though. When–and let me repeat that–when Snyder & his ilk are reelected in November, it would be lovely to see us go “fuck it” and go whole hog batshit crazy and start putting in affordable (whatever that means) housing everywhere and have buses running 24/7 and have homeless people living in our bell bottoms. Seriously. If someone runs for mayor on the batshit insane fuck you platform, I will get over my extreme shyness and fear of going door to door and go door to door for them (maybe, even typing it makes my hands sweat!)

  17. Rick Cronn
    Posted March 27, 2014 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Things that are worthy of purchase do not a (successful) artist make.

    With all it’s good and bad, Ann Arbor is a company town. What goes on here happens everywhere else in varying degrees of success and failure and goodness and badness. Saying it’s progressive in some way or conservative in some other way, misses the point. It’s all relative. Greener or sunnier is always somewhere else.

    It has nothing to do with art because as much as some people want it to be, Ann Arbor is neither an art nor an artists city. Unless your name is Art, art in Ann Arbor is dominated by and exists only because the company says so.

  18. Gillian
    Posted March 27, 2014 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    I think part of what is driving the more conservative trend is that the political establishment is hesitant to bring in new people (and thus new ideas.) I am a born-and-raised, card-carrying townie, and I found an incredible amount of resistance when I tried to get involved in politics in Ann Arbor, because I am young and had just finished grad school. Ypsi, on the other hand, was thrilled to have people who want to get involved in making the city better. That openness to new people and ideas is a big part of the reason that I am staying here.

    I understand where they are coming from–they have been burned a lot of times by students who think it’ll be fun to run for office or join a committee but turn out not to have any long-term commitment to the town, but I think the fear of students (not to mention the way council boundaries are drawn) is part of what makes the politics lean toward the older and more conservative.

  19. Mr. X
    Posted March 27, 2014 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    The best quote ever.

    “In Ann Arbor the bike racks say ‘art.’ In Ypsi they are art.”

    That one has stuck with me for years.

  20. Peter Larson
    Posted March 27, 2014 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    Can we see a follow up to this post?

    “Is Ypsilanti as inclusive as it’s billed? And if not, what can be done about it?”

  21. Rustbelt Revival
    Posted March 27, 2014 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    Ann Arbor & Berkeley are even more similar than you may think…

  22. kjc
    Posted March 27, 2014 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    I was excited to see Chuck Warpehoski get on council, as he seemed like a progressive voice. Then he started working on the no-smoking ordinance to combat those insidious homeless people smoking in front of the co-op and I lost interest again. I’ve also hung out with a couple of the “Better Transit Now” people in the past and felt we had similar values. So I was surprised to see some of those names behind that annarbor-centric campaign.

    When we were smoking weed in their historic home —and cigarettes on their sprawling back patio—they didn’t mention they were assholes.

  23. tommy
    Posted March 27, 2014 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    The exit interview with Newcombe Clark is relevant … To Newcombe Clark.

  24. General Demitrios
    Posted March 27, 2014 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think warehousing A2’s poor in the middle of a big field, two miles from a grocery store, and 10 miles from the economic engine for the county is all that progressive. “Ready availability of weed” is also not high on my list of criteria.

  25. Taco Farts
    Posted March 27, 2014 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    Being the most progressive place in Michigan is like having the best-smelling taco fart. Not a high bar to clear nor an achievement worth bragging about.

  26. lorie
    Posted March 28, 2014 at 2:59 am | Permalink

    A2 – lived there for 15 years. Not progressive, not even close. Even the progressives are not progressive when it comes to changing times and new ideas AND the old ideas looked stupid on the face of them. Crazy painful.

  27. Ben
    Posted March 28, 2014 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    I like that someone referenced the Ann Arbor Film Festival. I grew up on AA and now love Ypsi for many of the reasons I loved AA growing up but don’t see there anymore. I like how they can support many local bookstores and such, and that their INSTITUTIONS like the library and the Michigan Theater are so great, but it’s way more corporate than I remember growing up. Maybe that’s one reason I love the AAFF so much, it still embodies that rad energy. Maybe if we can get Deja Vu to move away we could fix up the Martha Washington Theater and AAFF could move to Ypsi. :p :p :p

  28. Posted March 28, 2014 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

    I live on the east side of Ann Arbor in the Pittsfield Village. I love my neighborhood and my neighbors are pretty cool too!

    I think progressivism, as it is practiced in Ann Arbor company politics, is a fix for carpet-bagging finance capitalists.

  29. Grumpy
    Posted March 29, 2014 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

    Ben, this blog post (excerpted by Mark) is specifically citing the Ann Arbor Film Festival as what is conservative about Ann Arbor. I am very confused by this. More specifically the colors worn by festival attendees are “politically conservative?” If anyone can elaborate on this thesis I would really appreciate it. I’d ask the blogger but she doesn’t have comments. Also Conan Smith asserted that it is meaningless to say that Detroit is liberal based on voting records favoring democrats by an 80 point margin? It’s all very strange to me.

  30. Bashit
    Posted November 8, 2014 at 6:00 am | Permalink

    Ann Arbor has worked hard to attract people from other parts of the country who tend to be higher income and to hide the homeless from view.
    The new high rise craze has ruined the downtown area and made it into a concrete jungle, those of us who have been here long term are not impressed. The higher rental rates are having the effect of raising costs at all levels, while pay for most of the service industry jobs has not increased in years. In fact many now pay 8.00 an hour which is not even close to enough for the high cost living here at any level.
    The arrogance and egotism have increased and are now one of the main features of the city. If you come to ann arbor after being away for a while the arrogance hits you like a brick when you get here.
    All in all I think this tourist economy which counts on the students and a few others to bring in money and support the town will implode at the lower levels soon. There is are not enough jobs that pay a wage that is adequate to live here if you are not a professional. The costs keep rising and people who are having problems and end up homeless have less chance of getting out of that situation.
    Every week there are a number of new faces among the homeless and the old ones are still trying to get out of the streets, and yes most of them work at something.
    All in all it is no longer a great place to live and raise a family unless you are raising spoiled brats that think everyone should cater to them.

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