On the drive in, there’s no sign saying, “Welcome to Ann Arbor, Michigan’s Boom Town.” But the evidence is hard to miss, especially if you’ve just driven from the war zone that is Detroit. (United States murder capital for years running.) On the outskirts of Ann Arbor there’s a lot of what a horticulturist I know calls “landscraping.” On what were once working farms, builders are spiking down high-tech research parks and townhouse subdivisions in the pricy nouvelle-Williamsburg mode. Downtown, smart European cars pull away from the Laura Ashley shop. The drivers seem oblivious to the occasional bumpersticker on a tradesman’s van:

Built By, Driven By,
Paid For By
An American

But that’s in keeping with Ann Arbor’s rise in the era of the Rust Belt. The city was never betrothed to the state’s auto industry. It has long refused suitors, and now it has health and wealth to show for its independence. Lots of imaginative people and small energetic companies, most of which you’ve never heard of, have a stake in the new prosperity, as do special research divisions of large corporations, such as Schlumberger and Chrysler.

Entwine all these in the scientific and professional tentacles of the University of Michigan, and you get stability. Yet, for all this, Ann Arbor seems reluctant to acknowledge, let alone be proud of, its recently elevated station. It is as if the city and citizens would rather suppress their birth pangs than celebrate new life. Living here for two years, I’ve come to wonder why.

It’s easy to admire Ann Arbor’s modesty about its business life and the sentiment that says, “Well, if you’re looking for name recognition, you’d better go elsewhere.” But you have to take exception the minute you turn into a big corporate complex just off Plymouth Road.

There stands the world headquarters of Domino’s Pizza. Tom Monahan, the founder of this fast-food empire, has faithfully projected the architectural style of Frank Lloyd Wright onto a building the size of several airplane hangars. In the remote theology of American architecture, Monahan has no doubt committed heresy. But to us regular blokes, the thin, deeply red brick, the long slices of windows, and the corrugated copper roof are fresh and pleasing.

Again, overall, Ann Arborites don’t seem much taken with the local boy’s making good. Tom Monahan seems a trifle obsessed, not only with Wright but with sports, public life, and antique automobiles. Monahan’s passion for sports extends from his ownership of the Detroit Tigers to an insistence on regular athletic events—and clean living—for all his employees. And Monahan could hardly be more active in mainstream civic life, especially during the Christmas holiday season.

It is true that the pizza magnate spent over $8 million at auction on Ettore Bugatti’s personal limousine, a yellow and black, hand-built, 16-cylinder road locomotive. But the Domino car collection, open to the public at low cost, is otherwise marked not by ostentation but a decidedly catholic taste. Alongside a vintage Packard town car sits a World War II Willys, a 1920’s delivery truck, and a tiny red BMW Isetta—like a rounded icebox with its front-opening door. (Monahan is now making bold to restore an AMC Pacer, one of the few distinctive cars of the 1970’s.)

But, as I say, all this doesn’t sit well with certain Ann Arborites. As a point of pride they will even order pizzas from rival firms—local small fry whose pies aren’t as varied, dependable, or good as Monahan’s fare. For the local elite that prides itself on being above profit and spectacle, Tom Monahan’s orange and blue dominos will remain a symbol of A2’s unwelcome new phase, while for the rest of us, Ann Arbor seems like a city for the 1980’s, big enough for Monahan and everyone else.

The Ann Arbor contingent that is so reluctant to celebrate the city’s boom would be familiar on sight to anyone who has recently lived in a university town. A vast number—easily thousands—of Ann Arborites emphatically do not live in the 1980’s, but in the 1960’s. In a nonacademic town they would have molted and kept the faith in harmless ways like listening to Byrds albums, but here their colony is so large and noisy that they need not shed a thing.

Ann Arbor’s unsteady balance of the 1960’s and 1980’s—let us say, of the life-rejecting and life-affirming—probably explains why this healthy spot in a declining industrial region remains bashful and uncertain of its identity. At this writing it is hard to imagine a reconciliation between the city’s New Left hangers-on and the ambitious newcomers. But the two flocks do mingle, mainly at the Farmer’s Market in antique Kerrytown, the city’s only certified yuppie district. There the Nicaragua activists rub shoulders with the BMW set, and to complete the irony who should be watching but the most original Ann Arborites of all, the ones lately being displaced by the condos and tech centers—the Midwestern farmers and their wives and children. One may wonder what the farmers think as they pocket dollar bills from the boomers and the doomers alike. Probably they don’t care a pea, as long as land taxes stay low.

The special qualities of the Ann Arbor’s Farmer’s Market suggests a cure for the clumsiness of the growing city. For starters, this farmer’s market is the real thing. It happens only twice a week, only local farmers are allowed to rent stalls, and they can sell only what they themselves grow. No docking at the Detroit food warehouses and loading flats of California tomatoes. The tomatoes, therefore, and the broccoli, the strawberries, and the cider, actually have flavor, and the local grower alone takes home local money.

This, of course, is in almost every particular the food-sector opposite of the Domino’s pizza empire. But acceptance of the inconsistency is central to Ann Arbor’s—even America’s—coming of age. For beneath the agrarian model of the marketplace and the corporate model of Domino’s delivery truck is the foundation of individual effort and commitment to superior quality. Once effort and quality are assured, materials themselves must dictate the ideal means of distribution. Good strawberries don’t ship well; good pizzas do.

This lesson, which could deliver Ann Arbor from its cultural schizophrenia, will be lost on the socialists at the Nicaragua table at the Farmer’s Market. They will go on hectoring passersby, giving money and putting on street theater to support Juigalpa, which was once Ann Arbor’s sister city in Nicaragua. But in this—particularly in the “was”—one finds cause for hope. Last year, the citizenry woke up and elected a Republican mayor who promptly terminated the A2-Sandinista connection.

At first I thought the vote was a fluke. But I see now that it was of a piece in a city that simultaneously houses new research centers, the Farmer’s Market, socialist collective living cooperatives, fresh-clipped newcomers, and the enormous and diverse University of Michigan. The more these forces respond to each other, the more mature the city will become, and the less it will seem to command that one pick between 1960’s gloomtown and 1980’s boomtown. Ann Arbor offers both in a big way. But it is growing up. It’s due for a new pair of shoes and pants soon—and howzabout a suit and tie this time around?