This blog is my way of educating myself in what is rather nebulously called urban studies, and of focusing my obsession with American cities and their metropolitan areas. I’ve been devouring research, commentary, and analysis about these places for at least a year now, maybe more, reading blogs like Aaron Renn’s Urbanophile and Rust Wire and Next American City and Data Driven Detroit, bulldozing through stacks of books on the history, theory, sociology, and economics of US cities. I’ve spent hour after hour searching through the terrific scholarly databases available through University of Michigan’s estimable library, which I’ve been able to enjoy continued access to after I finished my master’s degree there this spring, thanks to my new status as a UM employee.
I became obsessed with cities when trying to figure out where I should focus my internship and job applications during grad school. As a gay man who had lived all over Michigan, I’ve learned that location really does matter. There was no gay bar in the small town I grew up in, so moving to Lansing, which had two (now down to one), when I started college seemed life-changing. By the time I finished my bachelor’s degree, I’d learned there was a vast gulf of experiences and opportunities that separated “one bar” towns like Lansing from true gayborhoods. While everyone knows the big nationally celebrated hubs like Chicago’s Boystown, San Francisco, DC’s Dupont Circle, and Atlanta’s Midtown, demographers have uncovered hidden gems in places like Columbus, Ohio. Moving to West Hollywood is a very different experience than to other parts of Los Angeles; and while metro Detroit is still, even after its recent shrinkage, substantially bigger in size than Seattle, the latter has the edge in terms of strong, concentrated gayborhoods.
No one sat me down when I was young and showed me these numbers, because they simply weren’t available until very recently. Nor did I know that researchers were mining other correlations from the new data — that I might find more gays in metros with higher education levels, higher wages, higher cost of living. And I could apply their findings to try to clear the fog from other urban mysteries. Once I began to sift through data, I could put my finger on why metro Detroit felt so different from Ann Arbor, or how when I visited my best friend at University of Chicago, Hyde Park felt so different from Lakeview. Once I started digging through the history, I began to understand how inner city Saginaw came to be so forlorn and abandoned, what had motivated some people to leave while others stayed put, why those two groups of people looked so different, and why it was so hard to get them to come back; why Cincinnati’s architectural stock looks more like Washington DC’s than Cleveland’s or Indianapolis’; why a family friend moved from Chicago out to the suburbs after she got married; why New York is our alpha city instead of, say, the more centrally located Kansas City.
Once I became financially independent and had to shoulder the costs of car repairs and gas at the time prices were rocketing in 2007 and 2008, I also learned for the first time the value added of a robust, dependable public transportation infrastructure. That’s part of why people paid a premium to live in Washington DC or New York or San Francisco, I thought. It explained away part of the seemingly inexplicable cost of living differential between those places and Detroit, which was cheap, cheap, cheap — until you factored in your personal transportation expenses. This fueled my growing appreciation for those pricy, scary, overwhelming beasts that our global cities are. It made me want to know how they had turned out so differently, and how to identify from so many choices which ones were best for me.
Now that I’m starting my third year in Ann Arbor (the Tree Town of this blog’s title), a strange and often delightful little place that is a physical satellite of Detroit but culturally kin to Madison and Columbus and perhaps even Portland, Seattle, or Cambridge MA, I remain in thrall to these questions and to learning more about our very diverse cities, so much that I have to communicate it, to write and discuss it. Simply put, I’m blogging because I’m obsessed.