A Little City With Big City Things To Do
By Steve Bergsman
Photos by the author
My son lives in Manhattan, and whenever my wife and I visit, we usually plan for a mega-burst of activity — going to museums, seeing Broadway shows and eating out at great restaurants found nowhere else in the country. Sometimes, if we are particularly energetic, we might stop in one night at a club like the Blue Note to hear some great musicians.
This Manhattan experience is something that I rarely find in any other city in the country. That is until recently, when I was able to mirror all of my Manhattan activities plus some others while traveling in the Midwest.
Where was I? Chicago, you guess? Or Minneapolis? How about Cleveland or Cincinnati? All good choices, but the answer is no city with so large a population. The most surprisingly cosmopolitan smaller city in the country is Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan.
Well, you might say, it’s a university town. It should have many cultural amenities. If you think that you haven’t been to too many university towns, which are notoriously thin in lasting import after you’ve stumbled past the bars and greasy spoons on the main drag. No, Ann Arbor stands on its own with the university as a supplemental part of its wall of cultural offerings.
Here’s the first thing you need to know about Ann Arbor: it’s a foodie town. I’m not sure if they have zoned away chain restaurants, but I only spotted a couple in the downtown area, a section of the city that was chock-a-block with unique shops, bars and eateries – many of which can be found nowhere else but in Ann Arbor.
In Ann Arbor, you can go inexpensive with a stop at university favorite Blimpy Burger or Mark Carts, a popular downtown cart park. Or, you can go upscale at myriad restaurants. My favorite was Vellum, where I had the local fish, a pan-fried walleye, cooked with hand-pressed onion broth, shallot, brandade and apple.
My second favorite restaurant was the somewhat more downscale Frita Batidos, excelling it what might be called Cuban street food. I’m a huge fan of the Cuban sandwich, which I’d previously ordered only in Miami, because that’s the singular place in the country where they do it right. However, Frita Batidos offered the best Cuban sandwich I ever tasted. Called the “Inspired Cuban,” it consisted of lemongrass roast pork, thick cut bacon, tasso ham, gruyere, cornichons and chipotle mayo on Cuban bread. That and a cup of cortadito (Cuban-style espresso topped with steamed milk) and you are in a little slice of Cuban heaven.
Now, I can talk about Ann Arbor’s restaurants for another thousand words, but good eating was only a small part of my visit to this city of about 115,000, a 40-minute car ride from Detroit airport. In three days there, I visited three museums; saw two plays; caught one rock concert; attended a reception at Metal, a metal design and fabrication studio; strolled the downtowns of two smaller cities outside of Ann Arbor; and even found time for a morning kayak down the Huron River.
I’ll start first with the Huron River, which I first encountered close up while antiquing in the old industrial city of Ypsilanti. One of the primary stops was Materials Unlimited, the showroom for an architectural salvage company, which is like a little museum of design if you don’t mind looking at the beautifully reclaimed doors, doorknobs, windows, lighting fixtures, etc., from homes and offices located anywhere and everywhere.
Materials Unlimited is located in old auto retailer building on the shore of the Huron River. I took some time to walk down to the river, where a local was fishing. I thought at the time, even here in Ypsilanti, this was a beautiful little waterway. I didn’t realize that a day later I would have the opportunity to travel it by kayak.
In Ann Arbor, at the Argo Park canoe livery, a stretch of Huron tumbles into a small dam. For decades, jutting off the dam was a large, ugly concrete spillway. When it was time to fix or blow up the concrete monster, they did the latter, creating a series of naturalistic Grade 2 cascades for kayak enthusiasts.
I never saw the spillway, but the navigable drops were a delight, although not without some danger. One woman in my group of kayakers didn’t make of the cascades, spilling out and turning her boat over. She was so intimidated afterward, I put her in my two-person kayak while my forward passenger took her boat.
Despite the precariousness, these were well-designed flows; every cascade flowed into a recovery pond before the onset of the next challenge — on and on for about six sets, and then under a bridge and a long, lazy river float through the Ann Arbor countryside.
The day of my kayaking was my last one in Ann Arbor. After spending time on the river, we headed back into downtown for my fabulous lunch at Frita Batidos. Sated, three of us then drove to the lovely, nearby hamlet of Chelsea which has an old but thriving little downtown.
The actor Jeff Daniels grew up in this part of the world, and after many years in Hollywood moved back here with his family. One of the many generous things he did on his return was create Chelsea’s Purple Rose Theater (he starred in Woody Allen’s movie, The Purple Rose of Cairo). My friends and I stopped here to see one the theater’s offerings, 33 Variations, an intriguing play about Beethoven. It was absolutely topnotch.
Once the play concluded, we hopped in our car and headed back to Ann Arbor for dinner at one of the more popular upscale dining spots, Mani Osteria & Bar.
I was there on a Saturday night and there was a crowd at the door waiting for one of the already busy tables to empty. You can’t beat something like this: local ingredients for its house-made pastas and wood-fired pizzas, all served with small production, Old World wines.
I was having dinner with Marianne James, executive director of The Ark, who was telling me about the long history of this particular Ann Arbor music hall, which has been around since 1965 in one form or another, and today is one of the most important venues for new music and folk/roots music in the Midwest. Musicians touring east from New York make the stop here before Chicago and beyond, and the same is true from those touring from the west.
These small venues — about 400 seats — are my favorite, because you are invariably never far from the stage. So, after my dinner at Mani, I walked a few blocks to Main Street and took in an 8 pm show of Marshall Crenshaw and the Bottle Rockets.
Just as I suspected, there were really no bad seats in the house, and the musicians out-perform in such intimidate settings.
As I mentioned, I was in Ann Arbor for three days, and it wasn’t just popular culture that I sought. At the Performance Network Theater I also took in the fine play about Martin Luther King, The Mountaintop, which had a limited run on New York’s Broadway in New York starring Samuel L. Jackson.
Plus, I got to visit to three museums. In Ypsilanti, I toured the entertaining and pop-culturish Automotive Heritage Museum, home to vintage automobiles, many of which, such as the Hudson, Kaiser and Corvair, had been built in Ypsilanti. Preston Tucker, the entrepreneur who created the Tucker car, lived and worked in Ypsilanti. One of the cars from the movie, Tucker, is here. (No, it wasn’t one of the 51 Tuckers that were actually built.) The museum includes Miller Motors, a preserved, pre-Word War II dealership that still operates, servicing vintage Hudson automobiles.
On a more serious note, I strolled over to the beautiful University of Michigan campus, where I visited two small but terrific museums.
My first stop was the newly reconceived Kelsey Museum of Archeology, and I have to say this is a real gem. The focus here is Greek and Roman civilization in Egypt, as the bulk of the collection was done at a site outside of Cairo called Karanis. What makes this Greco-Roman collection different from most others in museums is that so much of the artifacts relate to everyday life. From toys to shoes to textiles, it’s amazing how much has been recovered.
Although it looked a lot like graffiti to me, the museum boasts the largest collection of Latin inscriptions in the West with 375 items.
Make sure you see the unique, full-size replica of the famous Villa of Mysteries murals from Pompeii. Getting these watercolors to be displayed here is a story worthy of a very long book – ask your guide for the tale.
Also worthwhile is the Museum of Natural History. It’s a little old-style in that it’s not very interactive and heavy on panoramas. But I have to admit — since I started visiting natural history museums when I was in elementary school, it’s the panoramas I love the best.
I should conclude by saying the most impressive tour I took while on the university campus took place on a quiet Friday morning. It was of the University of Michigan stadium, locally referred to as The Big House. For those who don’t live in Ann Arbor, UM stadium seats over 110,000 and is the largest in the country. Highlights include a visit to the press box and locker room … and, most importantly, you get to stand on the field and fantasize what it would be like to play football for 110,000 people.