and the life of a county clerk
A Tale of Two Cities. When I was moving back to Michigan after grad school, I had to go back and forth a couple of times; I made one of those trips by train. During the trip, I got talking with an older lady fellow passenger.
She asked me from where, and to where, I was moving.
I said, from Ithaca, New York, to Ann Arbor, Michigan.
She said: "Oy, that must be the life!"
I suppose she was thinking I was in transit from one ivory tower to another. But in truth Ithaca and Ann Arbor do have a lot in common.
From a political standpoint, both cities are very liberal even by college town standards. Both cities have the same old-fashioned structure of an elected mayor, five wards, two council members per ward, all elected on a partisan ballot (typical in New York State but almost unique in Michigan). Both city councils regularly consider measures intended to influence national or international affairs.
Both cities like to proclaim their different-ness. According to the T-shirt slogan, Ann Arbor is "24.5 Square Miles Surrounded By Reality". Ithaca takes pride in its no-expressway isolation; if you travel there, your last hour of driving is on winding two-lane roads through a region of Appalachian rural poverty.
There's also the fact that Cornell University's Ithaca campus and the University of Michigan's Ann Arbor campus are similar in size and as close to identical in national rankings as two sizeable schools can be. They are peer institutions in a very precise sense.
(Okay, some quibbles: Cornell straddles the division between public and private universities, in that some of its colleges are "statutory" (being part of SUNY) and others are "endowed", i.e., private. Michigan is fully a state university, though some say it pretends to be a private school. And MSU, up in East Lansing, is a more precise analogue to — and historical partner with — Cornell's agricultural and hotel-school elements.)
Overall, it is really impossible to say definitively that either Cornell or U-M has more to boast about in academic prestige terms. Yet the way this level of prestige has been internalized by their respective communities is very different. Ann Arbor thinks of itself as the "Athens of the Midwest," with hauteur to match; Ithaca thinks of itself as the bottom rung of the Ivy League, and feels appropriately humble.
This has operational relevance especially for newcomers and visitors. Ann Arbor, despite its transience, despite being in the unpretentious Midwest, is a difficult place to "break into". Ithaca, despite being in the East and the Ivy League, struck me as much more friendly and welcoming.
Some of this may boil down to football. In Ithaca, nobody I knew seemed to mind very much that Cornell was always losing in every sport. In Ann Arbor, U-M football is like a civic religion, and the outcome of a big football game affects the local mood for days.
I don't remember Cornell having any hated rival schools. It's a different story here. My wife, invited as a guest speaker to a U-M undergrad class, was literally hissed and booed when the professor mentioned the university where she earned her Ph.D.
Ann Arbor is a community that thinks very highly of itself; it's tempting to point and laugh. In this vein, be sure to check out Ann Arbor Is Overrated (as well as its old site until the move is completed).
Still and all, for a person of my tastes and priorities, Ann Arbor is a pretty good place to live.
....Posted by Lawrence Kestenbaum Comments
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