Does it exist?
There are always trade-offs. But I’m attempting to maximize the pros and minimize the cons by going through a series of posts where I highlight what I feel are the best possible locations to live a frugal, yet fun life up here in Michigan in an urban setting. Meanwhile, I’m also navigating the desire to live as close to family as possible, which adds to the difficulty seeing as how most of my family lives in rural areas nowhere near any major metros of note.
So I last took a look at Grand Rapids, which is the second biggest city in Michigan. Plenty of entertainment options, a gritty urban experience, great food options, and solid walkability in the core of the city give it big points. However, it’s far from my family, is sprawled out, has a lot of crime, and sports a local city tax.
Well, I decided to spend a good portion of a recent Friday in Ann Arbor to compare and contrast, and see which city might offer better livability, while also factoring in distance from family and cost.
Ann Arbor is a little over an hour from where my family lives, so while it’s closer than Grand Rapids, it’s still not exactly around the corner. But I made the drive down and ended up near downtown. One great thing about A2 – that’s what the cool kids call the city – is that my best friend works in the city. So I called him up to see if he would like to meet for lunch. The timing worked out perfectly and he met me at Zingerman’s Deli – a local institution and nationally-renowned deli.
I’ll admit it. The sandwiches are expensive. So a true frugalist such as myself doesn’t find himself here often. But an occasional splurge is okay, as long as you find value in the purchase. And I’ll tell you I found a lot of value in this sandwich. It was truly a great meal. I opted for the #13, which is a Reuben that replaces the traditional sauerkraut with coleslaw. I usually opt for a traditional Reuben – a sandwich Zingerman’s is famously known for – but I decided to change it up. It was fantastic.
After lunch and some chitchat with my oldest friend it was time for him to return to work and me to hit the city.
I decided first to hit the downtown corridor. Ann Arbor is probably most well-known for the University of Michigan, its tree-lined Main Street, and liberal and progressive culture. I’ll do my best to highlight these through pictures. But it should be noted whereas Grand Rapids features a lot of impressive architecture and a beautiful skyline, Ann Arbor is a low-key city. Its strength is really in the people, not in the buildings. I say that as someone who’s relatively familiar with both cities. Ann Arbor just has a “vibe” that’s unlike any other city in Michigan. A lot of people think it’s like a piece of California or maybe a city in the far Northeast that broke off and landed in Southeast Michigan.
For instance, it’s not uncommon to see people eating food while sitting on the sidewalk, cross-legged. Or a VW Bus. I saw two in my three hours there. It’s a different town.
The Main Street area was where I hit first just because it’s one of the most dynamic areas of the city where it’s not just what you’re eating, but where you’re eating it – diners prefer to eat al fresco whenever possible along this strip. The downtown is, of course, a lot more than Main Street, and I find the downtown core probably as robust and large as what Grand Rapids offers.
Next I swung around just a couple of blocks to visit the library. The downtown branch sits right in the core of the downtown scene, which makes it easily accessible. I walked inside to find a building that isn’t quite as visually impressive as what I experienced in Grand Rapids, but the DVD and Blu-ray selection was particularly impressive.
The location of the library isn’t just great in that it’s located right in the middle of the downtown core, but it’s actually also across the street from the Blake Transit Center – the Ann Arbor Transit Authority’s (AATA) main hub located downtown. It was recently rebuilt accommodate more riders and modern tracking systems. So getting downtown, and to the library, is easy by bus.
So the bus is across the street. Cool, right?
It gets cooler!
On the other side of the library you’ll find Ann Arbor’s Zipcar presence shining strong, with at least two cars located in designated spots.
Nice! It would probably be impossible for me to get around without a car in Grand Rapids, but there is a real chance of living car-free in A2 with a healthy bus system, plenty of bike lanes, and a multitude of Zipcars around the city. Zipcar allow one to sign up for their service for a small annual fee and rent a car by the hour or by the day. This gives you easy access to a car when/if necessary. No need to put gas in them and insurance is included. Pretty jazzy. The two cars you see above are just a couple of at least a dozen spread across the city.
So after spending some time around downtown and soaking up the vibe of the city I headed up toward the university area. University of Michigan plays vital role’s in the city’s economy and culture, and therefore I would be remiss if I didn’t show aspects of that in this article.
One particularly great aspect of this is that Ann Arbor actually has two downtowns. You have the main downtown which encompasses a number of blocks that run both perpendicular to Main Street and parallel to it. Then you have what’s referred to as a student downtown, near the university area. Here is where you can find both the iconic State Theater and Michigan Theater, both of which typically show classic and/or independent movies with independent schedules.
Walking further up toward the university area finds me directly on campus, which is really just a short walk from the core of the city. One of the most visible, and arguably beautiful, buildings along the southeast side of campus is the University of Michigan Museum of Art, which completed an expansion that opened in 2009.
Across the street from this museum one will find the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. Looks awfully cool, though I didn’t get a chance to step inside this trip.
I then spent some time just taking in the buzz of the university area, which was teeming with students. I walked across most of the campus, which is beautiful in how it balances old architecture, new architecture, and open spaces filled mostly with grass and benches. I could definitely see myself just reading a long book here on a lazy afternoon.
On the other side of the campus I happened across the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History.
One great aspect of the museums is that admission for the most part is free. They strongly encourage donations, however, which I would happily oblige when visiting next time.
I then spent a good deal of time slowly walking back across the campus, making my way back to the student downtown area located along State St. On my way back to my car, which I parked for free across town, I found a number of unique restaurants and stores. One store in particular caught my attention. The pictures above might not capture the essence of bicycle riding in Ann Arbor, and how prevalent it is. Well, bikes are pretty much everywhere. This little store near campus tells the story.
After this last shot I strolled back to my car and decided to head home after a fruitful and adventurous afternoon in beautiful Ann Arbor. But I had to get one last picture in. I couldn’t do a photo essay on Ann Arbor without giving you readers a look at Michigan Stadium! The Big House, which is where the Michigan Wolverines play football, is the largest stadium in the country with an official capacity of 109,901.
I decided to go for a unique angle here, which kind of shows how the stadium really rises out of the ground. It’s really quite stunning and intimidating in person. My sister’s boyfriend is a die-hard fan of the Wolverines and wants to take me to a game or two this coming season, depending on tickets. Looking forward to that!
So that’s a look at A2 through my eyes. It’s definitely more dense than Grand Rapids, with narrower streets and wider sidewalks through the entire downtown area. There’s far less car traffic through the entire core of the city, and much more foot and bicycle traffic by what I saw. But it also has a smaller and more intimate feel, for better or worse. Grand Rapids feels big, while Ann Arbor offers amenities you find in big cities with the accessibility of a small town. I think this is probably a common trend with most big college towns.
Some vital stats:
- Population: 113,934
- Size: 28.70 square miles
- Average high in January: 31.2 degrees Fahrenheit
- Average high in July: 83.2 degrees Fahrenheit
It comes down to this. I’m going to lay out what I feel are some pros and cons to living in the city, both through the lens of someone looking to live frugally and become financially independent as early as possible, but also as a direct comparison to Grand Rapids. In addition, I had to consider certain personal circumstances when coming up with the following lists.
- The food is some of the best in Michigan. Ann Arbor takes its culinary status quite seriously, and some of my personal favorite restaurants are located within the city. However, many of the trendier eateries can be quite expensive, which are just as easily avoided. I find that eating out in Ann Arbor is generally more expensive than eating comparable food in GR. Groceries of course are extremely similar in price.
- Very walkable city, especially downtown. It gets a citywide walkscore of 49, which is similar to Grand Rapids. However, A2 is much more dense, and a much smaller city. This alone makes it easier to get to areas within the city in quick order. There’s simply much less sprawl.
- Quite possibly the only city in Michigan where it would be possible to realistically get by without a car, especially with my personal situation where I’d like to be able to visit family often (of which lives a little more than an hour from Ann Arbor). The aforementioned Zipcar service is primarily what makes this possible. In addition, Ann Arbor has a Lyft and Uber presence. Furthermore, the city takes its bicycling very seriously with a whole website dedicated to it, and a bike sharing program being launched. Lastly, I’ve been taking a good look at the bus routes and it seems feasible to get across town in short order relatively easily and cheaply. However, I’m not sure the math would work out if I’m visiting my family multiple times per month, as daily rentals can add up quickly and exceed the costs of just keeping my car.
- Lots of entertainment options, including the aforementioned museums. There’s also a local small zoo, live theater, a comedy club, plenty of live music (including Blind Pig where Nirvana famously played), and most notably U of M football. In addition, A2 is close to Detroit, where you can catch live sporting events where all four major professional sports leagues are represented. Some of this entertainment is free or low-cost, and some is not. But simply strolling the streets with a cold beverage in hand is a great way to spend an afternoon in the sun while also getting in a little exercise.
- The city just has a vibe. It’s not really tangible, but it’s there. And I think people either like it or not. Ann Arbor is notoriously liberal, and is noted as one of the most progressive cities in Michigan. Whereas it’s more common to see a Ford F-150 or Chevy Impala in most of Michigan, you’re just as likely to see a Toyota Prius or bicycle in Ann Arbor. It’s different, which is something I kind of dig.
- The city mixes urban flavor with nature very well. As one would expect with a city with the word “arbor” in the title, Ann Arbor has plenty of trees almost everywhere you look. And the Huron River runs through the city, which provides for beautiful scenery and parks along the bank.
- Routinely shows up on “Best Of” lists, including livability, college towns, and quality of life. It would be impossible for me to name all the lists this city shows up on, so I’ll just include a neat little compilation.
- Crime is significantly lower than Grand Rapids, and every other city of its size in Michigan. From the data I’ve seen, it’s generally less dangerous than the US, on average.
- My best friend works in the city. This would make hanging out for lunch here and there feasible.
- The University of Michigan provides for a young, vibrant, and dynamic environment, feeding young, intelligent people into the city’s core. Some people stay; some don’t. But this alone provides for a unique experience in the city, while also economically benefiting the whole area.
- Housing is expensive. This is the major drawback to the city. Houses tend to run about twice as much as Grand Rapids, and A2 housing is generally more expensive than the average of the entire state. I’ve found that renting is about 30-40% more expensive than GR, and renting would probably be the most accessible way to live in the city on a budget. However, I have seen a few condos here and there that aren’t outrageous. But one must consider that the major reason housing is so expensive in Ann Arbor is because the demand is so high. Many people want to live here, and students who want to live off-campus also soak up excess rental inventory.
- It’s far from family. Though closer than GR, it’s still far at a little over an hour away.
- Traffic is pretty bad. It’s not really all that difficult to travel within the city because so many people walk and bike around. However, getting in and out of the city – especially via the major north-south freeway, US-23 – can be tough at best, and exceedingly frustrating at worst. I’ve been to Ann Arbor twice over the past month or so, and these visits were during off-peak hours. And both times I got stuck in traffic jams both going to and leaving Ann Arbor. I think this is primarily because US-23 is only two lanes and just cannot handle the traffic volume.
- Nowhere near a nice beach. West Michigan has some of the most beautiful beaches in the whole country, nestled up against Lake Michigan. But Ann Arbor is a substantial drive away from any of these beaches, and makes it cost prohibitive to visit these beaches in regards to both time and money. As someone who moved to Florida for the excellent beaches, this is kind of a bummer. There are beaches here and there along the smaller lakes located in Southeast Michigan, but we’re talking apples and oranges.
The pros definitely outweigh the cons of living in the city, but a couple of cons could be problematic. Mainly, the expensive housing and being so far from family. But if one could live here without a car it might offset the expensive housing, potentially allowing the math to work out. Tough to say exactly without just doing it. Zipcar is an interesting variable. I’m not saying I would necessarily give up my wonderful Corolla if I were to move here, because it might be cheaper just to keep the car. But it’s nice to have the option.
I may add one more article to this series, highlighting a small town close to my family. It would be difficult to add much flavor via pictures, however, because many of the towns near my family don’t offer much in the way of scenery. Unless cornfields and tractors are your thing. I’m joking a bit there, but there’s some truth too. Though, there are some interesting historic towns located within 15-20 minutes of where I currently live that offer extremely affordable housing and somewhat charming, if small, downtown areas.
In the end, it might be tough for me to justify living in a city like A2. I’d be assuming much of the high costs of living in a world-class college town without the corresponding high income of someone working in the healthcare or education fields. Furthermore, I’m not a student, so it’s not necessary for me to live there. As someone who now works from home I can live anywhere, so this would be more of a want than a need. And it might be difficult to rationalize that.
Any thoughts? Does Ann Arbor seem like a great place to live? Do the pros outweigh the cons? Anyone who currently lives there agree or disagree with my thoughts?
Thanks for reading.
Photo Credits: Moi