Ann Arbor: A City for All Seasons

College towns generate an energy that keeps the juices flowing even when the weather’s cold and blustery. Consider, for example, Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan (UM) main campus since 1837.

Ann Arbor itself was founded in 1824 by John Allen and Elisha Walker Rumsey, who had settled the new Michigan Territory with their wives. Paying the government’s price of $1.25 an acre, they named the parcel in honor of Allen’s wife, Annarbour, and the sylvan “arbour”—which later morphed into Ann Arbor.

Summaries of Arithmetic through Dust, Including Writing Not Yet Finished; Aut Bar; Marcia Polenberg between two Giocomettis. Photos by E.B. Boatner. Summer view of Wave Field, Maya Lin (1995). Photo Courtesy of the University of Michigan, Architecture, Engineering & Construction

Arriving around Noon, we lunched at the Gandy Dancer, a restaurant in the restored 1886 Romanesque stone edifice formerly housing the Michigan Central Railroad Depot. Shrimp Danielle and exquisite Crème Brûlée du Jour were spiced by the sight of an actual train, whistling and clattering by on the tracks just below our window.

The Gandy Dancer is a hard act to follow, but Ann Arbor is up to the task. By count, it has some 300 restaurants in a 20-mile radius, and we were eager to sample them.

That very evening, owner John Roumanis welcomed us to Mediterrano for “Amuse Bouche (A Lesson in Olive Oil),” and a superb four-course dinner, one of which was a Mediterranean-style Savory Lamb Chops, with cumin, coriander, and preserved lemon. Roumanis, who opened the restaurant in 1995, noted that its Extra Virgin Olive Oil is homegrown—that is, his own groves in his Greek hometown of Lakonia.

We’ll return to food, but man does not live by bread alone, and one mustn’t forget that Michigan is known far and wide as “The Great Beer State.”

“Lesbians love beer!” Rene Greff chuckled when I asked about GLBT clientele during a beer tasting at Arbor Brewing Company, and she added that the establishment welcomes everyone. She and husband, Matt, also co-own The Corner Brewery in Ypsilanti. The two discoursed on brewing arcania, while offering beer flights that included Phat Abbot Belgian Dubbell, a malty strong ale at 9.5 percent ABV (alcohol by volume), and Terminator Dopplebock, a richly spicy winter lager at 8.5 percent.

Brad Sancho’s Original Gravity Brewery in neighboring Milan features his personal brews, with monickers like Southpaw IPA and Belgian Training Wheels, plus the eponymous Mason Brewer, named after the meister’s 2-year-old son.

While Ann Arbor does not have a large specific “gay scene”—the whole town is remarkably gay-friendly—what might be termed a “gay nook” with bar and bookstore is in Braun Court in the picturesque Kerrytown district. Partners Keith Orr and Martin Contreras own cozy two-story Aut (pronounced “out”) Bar, as well as Common Language Book Bar next door.

Aut’s motto—“Changing the world…one Cosmo at a time!”—translates into community action and fundraising. Picketed by the notorious Reverend Fred Phelps in 2001, Orr and Martin turned the other pocket, creating a fundraiser by pledging $1 for every minute Phelps picketed, and inviting others to join in. Phelps’s venom raised nearly $7,500. The duo’s technique, dubbed “Every Minute Counts,” has spread to other communities.

UM also actively supports diversity. Next February, it will host the 2011 Midwest Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender Ally College Conference.

Gabe Castro Javier, Assistant Director of the UM Spectrum Center, explained, “The conference will also serve to kick off a year of celebration honoring the 40th anniversary of the Spectrum Center. The Spectrum Center is the oldest office of its kind [promoting diversity] in the nation, and we are very lucky to have the support of a vibrant and active community.”

The magnificent University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) nearly doubled its space a year ago with the Maxine and Stuart Frankel and the Frankel Family Wing, a soaring 53,000 square-foot expansion of the original 41,000 square-foot facility. On view was the debut of a major loan exhibition, The Lens of Impressionism: Photography and painting Along the Normandy Coast, 1850-1874.

Art spills beyond the confines of mere walls. Outdoors, one encounters Tony Rosenthal’s The Cube “Endover,” a massive 15-foot x 15-foot x 15-foot Cor-Ten cube that rotates at a nudge; Maya Lin’s (Vietnam Veterans Memorial) Wave Field, a 90-foot square of shaped grassy earth undulating like inland whitecaps in its winter mantle; and Alice Aycock’s eccentric Summaries of Arithmetic through Dust, Including Writing Not Yet Finished.

Art also fills the private homes of numerous local artists, like Marcia Polenberg and her husband/fellow artist, Ted Ramsay. Polenberg, who invited us in, works in a variety of media and subjects. Her busts of Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti embody a restless, kinetic energy.

You can observe art, you can watch it being produced, and you can—at least at Motawi Tileworks—create your own. The only tilemaker licensed to use the late Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs, it creates designs in Craftsman and Art Noveau styles, producing vivid bird, animal, insect, and plant motifs. Following a tour of the facilities, along with a talk with founder and co-owner Nawal Motawi, our group was let loose with carving instruments and fresh tiles. The artists will glaze and fire your masterpiece, as well as ship it to you.

Ann Arbor is a walking town, and Main Street is the perfect venue for cold-weather excursions, as one can pop in and out of unique, independently owned stores strung like pearls on a cord. Purveying treasures and bargains to accommodate any pocketbook here are Ten Thousand Villages, a global cornucopia; 16 Hands; The Peaceable Kingdom; Selo/Shevel Gallery’s American crafts and imported folk art; and WSG Gallery. “Earth’s Finest Comics and Games,” Vault of Midnight boasts, harboring a selection extensive enough to equal any metropolitan shop.

Famished from shopping? Try hearty Central European fare at Amadeus, with Chef Paul Stroszynki; Paesano, with Chef Isabella’s handmade chocolate ganache truffles; and The Blue Nile, with platters of injera bread heaped with traditional Ethiopian meats and vegetables.

Neighboring towns Chelsea and Dexter also entice with choice cuisine, galleries, and drama. Chelsea’s Purple Rose Theater, founded by actor/native Chelsean Jeff Daniels, was showing his Escanaba. Dexter’s Encore Musical Theatre presented Annie, which we attended on our final evening, replete from a stunning dinner at Bistro Renaissance that included Lobster Spring Rolls, Pan Roasted Quail, and Seared Diver Scallops.

But spring is springing, and summer brings the Ann Arbor Art Fairs and Ypsilanti Beer Festival.

Browse, or just visit—for the art, shopping, food…and beer.

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