Although the Council retreat – Monday, December 10th – is ostensibly to talk about the budget, each member of Council was asked to prepare a 4-5 minute speech about “what they believe” about the future of the City.
It’s the ‘vision’ thing, as George Bush said. This is my speech.
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 square. 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 over 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 was primarily to defend ‘us’ against marauding ‘others’ but that role has changed over 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% of our residents (43K out of 114K) 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 70K 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.