Mature Life Features

Cecil Scaglione, Editor

Ann Arbor’s Grown Up

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By  Igor  Lobanov

Mature Life Features

ANN ARBOR, Mich. —- No disrespect meant to Thomas Wolfe, but you can go home again. I learned this when I returned here for the first time since my college graduation 57 years ago.

Locals still call this Midwestern college town a bit west of Detroit “A-Squared.” And it’s still anchored by the main campus of the highly-regarded University of Michigan, ranked 18th among the world’s universities by Quacquarelli Symonds, the London-based global rating service.

Despite significant expansion over the decades, UM’s “Diag,” the diagonal walkway through the shaded expanses of grass, along with the century-plus vintage Law Quadrangle reminiscent of Britain’s Oxford campus remain popular with many of the 38,000 students on campus. Classes on the often share building space with $900 million in high-tech research projects. The town’s 114,000 inhabitants represent more than twice the population a half century ago, yet the core commercial area remains concentrated among the four blocks just west of the campus.

The 1980s economic downturn, coupled with the arrival of a mega-shopping center on the outskirts, have driven out many traditional small businesses. Entrepreneurs and artisans have stepped into the gap. While the university long has lured the highest level of cultural events, the town now attracts a variety of popular music venues, theater groups, art galleries, fashionable boutiques, and trendy restaurants that feature cuisine from a dozen nationalities.

Ann Arbor has morphed over the past five decades from a relatively reserved college town in the traditionally conservative Midwest to an urbane community with a level of cultural panache difficult to match. Quiet residential streets, especially in older neighborhoods, roll by broad lawns fronting large homes set back for a feeling of openness.

Motoring or bicycling through the pastoral countryside brings one to small outlying communities sprinkled with homes that date back a century of more and house the gentle ambience of yesteryear. As you canoe or kayak along the tree-lined banks of the gently-flowing Huron River, you can still catch glimpses of gray herons standing tall in the rushes or a mother duck leading offspring off to shelter.

The only sound you’ll hear as you pass through the center of town is the splash of your paddle. Urban noises are muffled by the trees. It’s definitely a different way to experience Ann Arbor’s city life. Artistic, intellectual, and recreational opportunities aside, the American Association of Retired People (AARP) listed Ann Arbor in 2008 as one of the nation’s healthiest towns, adding that the town has much to offer those seeking a retirement location. One of the reasons, according to U.S. News and World Report, is that the university medical school’s three teaching hospitals are ranked among the top 20 in the nation.

Among the things to see and do is the university’s Museum of Art’s recently opened wing that houses displays ranging from a Nigerian ironwood ceremonial ax to a Cambodian Apsaru Warrior metal sculpture. In town, you can mingle with acoustic-guitar folk-music lovers at The Ark, an intimate club-like setting where the audience is close-up to a different group every weekday night. If you like jigs and reels with your Guinness Stout, pop into Conor O’Neill’s Irish Pub on a Sunday evening. Anyone who can toot a tin whistle, pick a banjo, or squeeze a box accordion can sit in with local musicians. The night we stopped by, 10 players were making the joint jump.

Among Ann Arbor’s legitimate-stage options is the highly professional thespian group at the 140-seat Performance Theatre that presents dramas, musicals and at least one world premier each year. In neighboring Chelsea 20 minutes west, the respected Purple Rose Theater founded by actor-director Jeff Daniels focuses on New America plays with a Midwestern voice.

Imaginative and avant-garde art and crafts abound in the shops around and along Main Street. For example, at 16 Hands, named after the eight members who established the cooperative, you can buy a rain chain, a copper-and-aluminum hanging contraption that transports water from your roof down to a container away from the house foundation. At the century-old Ann Arbor Center for the Arts on Liberty Street you can watch youngsters create cups and bowls by shaping clay on a rotating wheel.

In mid July, the city attracts up to 500,000 visitors to the annual four-day Ann Arbor Street Art Fair. Hundreds of booths and displays crowd downtown streets and the UM campus.

For more information, visit http://www.annarbor.org, or call (800) 888-9487.

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Written by Cecil Scaglione

July 19, 2011 at 10:30 am

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