Drive over one of the expressways to a University of Michigan football game and you rarely see a road sign pointing to Ann Arbor. The signs merely read EXIT TO STADIUM. The stadium was built in 1927, and more than 12 million spectators have since watched football games there, but so secluded, closely knit and community-minded was the little town of Ann Arbor that many of the visitors scarcely glanced in its direction. And the indifference was mutual: people in Ann Arbor scarcely glanced at the crowds. The university has been so famous for so long as a powerhouse of intercollegiate sport—the home of Fielding Yost's merciless point-a-minute teams, the creator of an intramural sports program without parallel anywhere, and right now, with an indifferent football season, gaining another reputation with some extremely interesting and artful basketball—that Ann Arbor as a college town was certain of only one fate. It was going to be overlooked.
Not so any longer.
Ann Arbor these days appears to have reacted to President Johnson's beautification program with almost alarming zeal. Instant beauty is being added to Main Street, just six blocks from the University of Michigan campus, in the form of a mall and promenade, with restful benches, decorative shrubs, shaded walks and 44 tall linden trees and honey locusts, costing $200 each. Traffic will be confined to the middle of Main Street hereafter. The community effort to make Main Street beautiful—right now—was made possible by the will of Miss Elizabeth Russell Dean, who died in 1964 at the age of 79 and left her fortune to be used to plant and maintain trees on city property.
A visitor gets the impression that most people in Ann Arbor are concerned, as was Miss Dean, with preserving the small-town atmosphere of the place. They want to keep it despite the fact that the University of Michigan has 31,261 students and crowds of a hundred thousand take over the town for football games.
According to the late Professor Orlando Stephenson's excellent history of Ann Arbor, a promoter named John Allen selected a site "of indescribable beauty 10 miles west of Ypsilanti." That was in 1824. The Huron River curved along the edge of the valley and through the low hills, in a rich but somehow sturdy-looking midwestern landscape, and the indescribable beauty of the place has been almost an article of faith among the townspeople. The University of Michigan was located in Ann Arbor in 1837 after promoters of a land company gave 40 acres for a campus, expecting to clean up on the sale of land around it. Ever since, people have been aware of the university, not of Ann Arbor.
Everywhere you look, it seems, students are running and jumping beyond the next grove of trees, or hurrying to the Matt Mann Pool or to the Sports Building beside it, the country's first intramural sports center, built with the proceeds from the vast crowds at Michigan football games in the '20s. There are at least 250 intramural league basketball teams, 80 in the division made up of social fraternities, 16 teams in the faculty league, eight teams in the foreign students' league and so on. At least 2,000 students play in the league games of touch football and Softball. Nobody knows the totals involved in intramural track, swimming, golf, tennis, handball, wrestling, boxing, water polo, table tennis and the like. Then there is co-recreation. Every Friday night men and women students play in mixed teams—swimming, gymnastics and the like. Officiating at games is a sizable student business at Michigan, officials collecting $1.50 per game, paid by the university. And then there are the sport clubs—a lacrosse club, soccer club, judo club, boxing club and especially a ski club. The nearest ski resort is, surprisingly, only 17 miles from Ann Arbor, but the trains usually take crowds farther, and the crowds are growing. Restaurants in Ann Arbor have place-mats showing 83 ski areas.
Other colleges have the same sort of activity, perhaps, but in Ann Arbor there seems to be more of it. Most of Michigan's total enrollment is concentrated near the original 40 acres of its first campus. That means there are some 8,000 students in the residence halls, about 3,000 in the fraternity and sorority houses, plus 11,000 in homes and apartments.
The townspeople, of course, know the university's sports history. They know Michigan's first intercollegiate football game was in 1879, that Fielding Yost's men won the first Rose Bowl game in 1902, and that in the '20s and early '30s Michigan won the Big Ten championship eight times in 12 years. Great names from the past, like Fritz Crisler and Benny Oosterbaan, are not likely to impress the townspeople, not because of a lack of interest in sport but because they are not impressed by any great names. The May Festival, one of the great musical events in the country, has been held annually for 72 years, and if you grew up in Ann Arbor you might have met Paderewski at the home of Charles Sink, the president of the University Musical Society; or Louise Homer, Artur Rubinstein or Sergei Rachmaninoff.
The traditional restaurant family of Ann Arbor was the Metzger family—the city had a large German colony before the Civil War—and the Metzgers, when they prospered, did not move on to new fields. There is now Metzger's German Restaurant, which carries this arresting sign on Washington Street just east of Main, GUT TRINKEN UND ESSEN TU NICHT VERGESSEN, and Metzger's Old German Restaurant, just west of Main on Washington, which boasts its old-fashioned hasenpfeffer, kasseler rippchen and other rugged delicacies, which have pleased generations of undergraduates.
Ann Arbor remained dry after Prohibition was repealed. Key clubs were organized, and one of these, the Town Club, acquired a reputation because of its restaurant—the only in place in Ann Arbor, said a Detroit gourmet the other day—where at one time you really had to have a key in order to get anything to eat or drink. After 42 dry years liquor by the glass was legalized in Ann Arbor not long ago by a vote of 12,481 for and 10,682 against. You still need a key at the Town Club. But at the Pretzel Bell Restaurant on an ordinary midweek night you find a couple hundred students quietly assembled. On the average, they consume seven and a half kegs of beer nightly. On the walls are 166 framed photographs of famous coaches, track stars, wrestling teams and action shots of Michigan victories.
One of the mysteries of Ann Arbor history is where people stayed when they visited the town. In the old days the accepted social pattern for a football Saturday included a big dinner after the game, with guests spending the night on cots and pallets which covered every available foot of floor space. By 1959, however, as many as 103,234 spectators were in Ann Arbor for a game with Michigan State. Where did they stay? Ann Arbor had only the small Allenel Hotel, since torn down, the Bell Tower on campus and a scattering of motels on the outskirts of town. Visiting teams usually put up at the Huron in Ypsilanti, a small-town hotel where a player piano in the diminutive bar provided a measure of gaiety. But in the past two years motels have proliferated along the expressways. This year building permits in Ann Arbor come to about $100 million. The new buildings include an 11-story motor inn, a 14-story hotel and 13-story and 26-story apartment houses. There is also the new Events Building at the university, a $5 million structure needed because the famous old Yost Field House is overcrowded. It is a tribute to Basketball Coach Dave Strack and such stars as Cazzie Russell and Oliver Darden, who have made basketball a subject that engages popular interest in Ann Arbor. "It's their gift to the city," said a local historian.
Ann Arbor, in short, seems to be in the process of discovering that it has become a city, astonished at its present population of around 80,000 and uneasily expecting a population of 150,000 before long. In 1967 the university will be celebrating its 150th anniversary. Main Street, with its linden trees, will be ready.