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Posted on Sun, Dec 16, 2012 : 5:58 a.m.

'Small town' not defined by physical size, but feeling of community

By Guest Column

In preparation for the Council retreat on Dec. 10, each council member was asked to prepare a 4 to 5 minute speech about “what they believe” about the future of the City. This is the speech from Council Member Sabra Briere, D-1st Ward.

It’s the ‘vision’ thing, as George Bush said.


There’s been some recent talk about whether Ann Arbor is ‘still’ a small town. Well, I’d like to talk about small towns. I grew up in a town that is about one mile squared. I walked to school and came home for lunch. I helped the scouts plant daylilies on a hillside to slow erosion; I sold Girl Scout cookies. I waded in the river, hunted for snails and snakes, and could be gone for hours without my mother worrying about me. Just more than 2000 people live in my home town; the graveyard holds nearly 200 years of my family burials; the public library has a commemorative plaque containing the names of my family members who served and died in the Civil War.

But even in small towns it’s hard to capture that ‘small town’ feel.

There are good things and bad things to say about small towns - the times when new residents don’t fit in, the nosiness and insularity. And of course, the sense of belonging, of being known and knowing so many, of the trust that comes from strong ties to the community.

I believe every community - no matter how rich, or large, or diverse - is a small town at heart. That strangers will smile at you, offer directions, or push you out of the snow. That a neighbor will help you carry your groceries or rake your leaves or check on you if you are ill in your home. I’ve lived in tiny communities and large cities - and I’ve always found that, as humans, we want to connect. I’ve also seen that we want to help build our communities and make them better places. Sure, there are people who don’t want to deal with their neighbors, volunteer in a park or even make eye contact. But a community is built by those who are willing to engage.

Maybe the role of government once primarily was to defend ‘us’ against marauding ‘others’ but that role has changed throughout the past few centuries. I think it is government’s role to do for us - as a community - what is too expensive or complex or too rarely needed for us to do for ourselves - as individuals.

I’m talking about building and maintaining the physical and social infrastructure that helps us live with our neighbors. (Providing storm, waste and potable water; building and fixing streets and bridges; installing street lights and keeping them lit; collecting trash; ensuring fire and police protection; establishing regulations for building and zoning). But I’m not forgetting the role the government plays in helping to level the playing field between individuals and among neighborhoods, and to provide for the health and welfare of all. Our pooled resources - through the government - allow each of us to contribute toward that which benefits us all.

And how does this translate into a vision for Ann Arbor’s future?

We’re in an odd position among communities. Almost 40 percent of our residents (43,000 out of 114,000) are students at the University. To me, that means that many of us don’t have lasting ties to our community. I don’t think there’s any way to change that. But the rest of us - about 70,000 people - see Ann Arbor as their home, at least for now.

Ann Arbor was once a small town like the town where I grew up. 40 years ago, when I moved here, it wasn’t so small in size, but it retained that small-town feeling. When I shopped on Main Street, no one asked for ID with my check, because they recognized me. Clerks knew what size my son wore. I could go into a book store, and have someone steer me toward the very types of books I liked to read. The librarian knew my name.

To me, a small town isn’t defined by the number of people in it, or the number of square miles, or the height of the buildings. It is limited only by the connections we have with our neighbors and by the investment each of us makes in our community’s success. For me, small-town feel requires caring about the 90-year-old down the block, and those who live in assisted living up the street. My challenge and my goal is to find ways to keep that small-town feeling while being open to new ideas. I hope that each of us feels ownership toward our neighborhoods and responsibility for our community; I know I do.


say it plain

Mon, Dec 17, 2012 : 2:39 a.m.

I think @LXIX hit the nail on the head with his comment about *trust*. That's what makes a "small-town" feel, trust in and care for the community. And there is so much lately that indicates these are waning. The citizens vote down a new un-needed downtown library, and the city's leaders and opinion-makers seem to believe there was an 'error' in judgment. The citizens drive around town and wreck their cars and rattle their bones, and wonder why the city leaders don't do something about it. When they hear tell about new art funding proposals, and see the less-than-pleasing results of the art money already spent, they wonder what happened to those good ol' small town values like caring about protecting people from hazards like fires and crime. When they see good ol' local businesses leaving because of ridiculous rents that only chains can pay, they wonder about the people who are brokering these deals...are they our *neighbors*?! No, Virginia, they are not. Indeed, they are catering to the in-and-out populations of students, the new cash cow in these parts, along with selling gifts and fake local flavor to the passersby and entertainment-district tourists. Not in all cases, of course, but increasingly so. The feeling of community doesn't come easy when a DDA makes decisions based on what will increase parking revenue and visitors-from-out-of-town per unit-of-time. Hoping for better foot traffic for Bar Louie via a hotel and conference center, hmm, not exactly "community" building.

Linda Peck

Mon, Dec 17, 2012 : 2:13 a.m.

One thing I do notice is that our Ann Arbor college towns and our Ann Arbor townie towns are different and overlap. You know, this is community, too, and it works most of the time for us. There is so much good here and so many lovely people I see every day. It is not Dexter and it is not Detroit. Let's be grateful for what we have and build on the best of it. Let's try to see clearly, no rose-colored glasses, into the future to see what is really needed here to build on the good stuff. It means something to me to have strong police and fire departments with good equipment, and good roads. I love that the street cleaners came down my street today! Basic stuff, but very appreciated. Leave the atmosphere creating to great interpersonal relations and strong support of local business.

Doug Kelbaugh

Sun, Dec 16, 2012 : 5:08 p.m.

Good thoughts about community in general and for AA in particular, Sabra. Psychologists, sociologists and pundits say "connecting" is one of the essential emotional human needs (along with sharing, feeling you're contributing to and respected by your community/society, etc.) A technical question to which I seek an answer from anyone: What is the actual non-UM-student population of AA? Sabra suggests its about 70,000, which is 114,000 minus about 43,000 UM students, but I don't think all students, especially undergrads, are counted in the AA census. I've never been able to find a good answer: some say many of the students are counted at their hometown address during the census; others say it depends on what the student opts for; and yet others say it's a mix of the two. (Perhaps it depends on whether the students is still a legal dependent of their parents?) If anyone has a definitive answer, please post it. Thanks, Doug


Sun, Dec 16, 2012 : 5:51 p.m.

Excellent question. I hope the answer is posted here. This should be readily available information when the population figures are provided.


Sun, Dec 16, 2012 : 4:41 p.m.

I'd submit that if the city council feels as if it needs to take a "retreat" from the city...perhaps it's not such a "small town"...


Sun, Dec 16, 2012 : 2:54 p.m.

Instead of a retreat from from home at community expense the council should spend the time "walking" their community and talking to their citizens. It's actually nice to get out of their "ivory tower" for a change of pace and they might learn something about the real world.

Craig Lounsbury

Sun, Dec 16, 2012 : 12:43 p.m.

since I decreed "small town" to be less than 10,000 people Ann Arbor stopped qualifying somewhere between the 1890 census and the 1900 census.

Craig Lounsbury

Sun, Dec 16, 2012 : 3:19 p.m.

look on the bright side, you can ride the bus for free old timer.. ;)


Sun, Dec 16, 2012 : 1:54 p.m.

Thanks a bunch. Since I already declared Ann Arbor to be the small town where I grew up,your decree would make me the oldest person in the city - over 112 years old. Since students were not included in the census prior to 1950, I might even be 150 years or older. That really worries me, too. The DDA would consider me to be just another historic structure. And we all know what happens to those around here...


Sun, Dec 16, 2012 : 12:31 p.m.

George Bush was voted out of office. I grew up in a small town once. It was called Ann Arbor. That is ancient history. Like Atlantis - an idealistic myth long gone. "Trust" is a crucial notion in any representative democracy. Do Ann Arbor residents really "trust" their City Council to act judiciously upon their behalf? Art, crosswalk laws, excessive construction in lieu of infrastructure maintenance, UofM tax encroachment without retribution, grand "visions" in lieu of basic services, outsourcing of responsibilities, DDA and AATA mismanagement, overpopulation-based economics. Yadayadayada. How about "trust but verify"? [Hey, I found the right-click spell checker ! ! Yahooooo !! Well, it is exciting.]