Bus routes along the Washtenaw wealth gap

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This past year, I’ve spent an almost uncomfortable amount of time waiting for the bus, running after the bus and, finally, riding the bus. It takes around a half-hour to get from my Pittsfield Township apartment to downtown Ann Arbor, and I spend the majority of this time stuck in a locked gaze, inspecting both inside and out of the wide window panes. Each ride is a new mix of personalities — some are quiet, some rowdy and some strictly full of discomfort. The Pittsfield scenery tends to be more uniform, with only business closures and outlandish weather provoking new curiosity. But there is one clear and unchanging linearity I see when riding the bus from Ypsilanti to Ann Arbor — the poverty lessens, and the homes and businesses become more extravagant.

Most often, I take route five. Across from my apartment, the bus stop waits on the other side of Packard’s potholes and faded dash lines. Extending from Ann Arbor to Ypsilanti, even Packard begins to crumble as it moves away from Ann Arbor’s wealth. Immediately upon stepping out, the outside air reeks of gasoline and cigarettes. The road is crumbled and well-littered with the only bits of beauty being a handful of sturdy maple trees. There is no sense of comfort or humanity, just impersonal and uniform suburban-brutalist street planning. Here, the world simply looks cement-gray and holds nothing but bleakness. This is an area built to hold the working class, their workplaces and their cars, not to build community or enrich the lives of its citizens.

These types of underfunded communities are not scarce in Michigan, but Ypsilanti’s economic position is situated uniquely in comparison to the adjoining city of Ann Arbor. With Washtenaw county resting at a lowly 80th of 83 Michigan counties for income equality, the significantly above-average economic disparities practically define the area. The main divide exists between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti — the former being closer to a standard homogeneity of the well-educated and white upper class, and the latter being a more diverse group of working-class individuals. One city is allowed the resources to flourish above the basic necessities, and the other is barely given enough to survive, if that.

***

Washtenaw has a visible wealth inequality problem — this is inarguable.

Even in the businesses I see, there is a clear assumption about the locals being made: Ypsilanti is built for low-income groups and Ann Arbor pushes a high-end narrative. On route four, I see Big Lots turn into Whole Foods, and General Dollar into Lululemon. This business divide impacts food as well: Ypsilanti holds a plethora of cheap fast food options whereas Ann Arbor leans into a higher price tag and higher quality options. As a poor commuter, if I don’t pack a lunch then I simply cannot afford to eat. The biggest difference between storefronts and production, however, stems from the simple existence of business — in Ypsilanti, there are significantly more barren buildings, broken windows and crowded housing options.

Once the bus stops at the Blake Transit Center, the buildings slowly turn from rotting wood to beautiful planes of brick, the nature almost built into the city planning. These two stops sit in completely different worlds — my low-income apartment and surrounding area were not built for beauty and comfort in the same way Ann Arbor is. Libraries, restaurants, public museums and outdoor areas are all reflections of the investment in quality of life that Ann Arbor gives to its residents. Often, it is rated one of the best places to live not despite its cost, but because of it. The high price-tag investments create a colorful city that only its target demographic, affluent students and professionals, can afford. This community investment contrasts heavily with Ypsilanti. Despite also housing a university, Eastern Michigan University, it is not afforded the same cushions and living standards as wealthy Ann Arbor residents are. It is simply built to physically house poor residents, nothing more and nothing less. Ann Arbor is built as an individual-oriented city, but only for those who can afford it.

As potentially the most influencing factor in creating Ann Arbor’s population demographic, the University of Michigan implicitly enables and perpetuates this predicament.

Among public universities, the University has one of the highest proportions of students from the top 1%, but is also deemed as one of the most affordable for poor and rural Michigan students because of the Go Blue Guarantee, which offers free tuition and tuition support for families with incomes below $65,000. In many ways, it can be difficult to sit with this dissonance: The technicality of funding is there, but the entire system and culture of the University are screaming at its poor students to leave. Overall, the wealth disparity is what fuels the pushing-out of poor students from campus culture, opportunities and expectations.

As a transfer student from Michigan State University, the Go Blue Guarantee has made college more accessible and affordable to me. Despite this, the wealth culture has made my experience here infinitely more isolating and emotionally taxing than my year at State. Mark Schlissel, the now-disgraced former University President, even contends no school can completely eliminate the social and cultural chasms that can accompany class divides. 

In the simplest words I can write, being poor at the University of Michigan is hard — it is suffocating, and it is a constant weight on the chests of all poor students.

***

Upon admittance to the University, my celebration was brief. I FaceTimed my closest friends to share the news, but it took a great amount of restraint to confront the realities of accepting the offer. Before I was able to tell my parents about the acceptance, I felt the weight of the University’s price tag. I knew I qualified for the Go Blue Guarantee, but need-based aid is notoriously unstable. Even once I knew my first year was covered, I also knew I would still exist in a liminal space of never knowing if I could afford my next year, a feeling that wouldn’t go away until I finally graduated.

Once I accepted my offer of admittance, my next crisis was finding affordable housing in the Ann Arbor area. Having the quintessential dorm-room experience was completely out of the question — I was not the type of student who could afford housing and a meal plan. It is no secret that Ann Arbor is an impossible place to call home if you don’t come from wealth — the city is consistently ranked in the top 10 most expensive housing markets in Michigan.

Ann Arbor’s beloved high-rise apartments were never an option either, given that the average monthly rent cost is $1,789 for 878 square feet. The University may have made my tuition uniquely affordable, but the city it resides in was not built to accommodate poor students like myself. Even as a work-study student, there is no number of realistic hours I could work while studying that could offset this cost. Housing is built for students with parental wealth, not the low-income students the University claims to want more of. Living off-campus, there is close to no kinship felt with the University; rather than feeling like a student, I feel like a cloaked visitor moving through the wealthy students’ playground.

It is this very housing crisis that has made me dependent on these Washtenaw bus routes, and that adds a physicality to not belonging to the U-M campus.

***

Even outside of financials, being poor at the University is alienating in every capacity. With the average student coming from the 80th income percentile, being working class creates social pariahs out of otherwise “standard” students. There is no time to participate in social outings, friendships and the more enjoyable parts of college while balancing work and academics — especially when the ability to eat is dependent upon the number of hours worked. Even within student work there is a hierarchy of shame; many work-study jobs cater towards hiring poor students and rely upon serving wealthier students, such as dining and housing services. There is an almost repulsive twinge in allocating work-study funds almost exclusively to these types of jobs, as though poor students are replacing the maids and cooks that wealthier students are accustomed to.

Repeatedly, I have been told I’m more of a publicity stunt than a valid Michigan student — after all, to whom else would the highly-marketable Go Blue Guarantee and work-study funds go? Regardless of how much maize and blue I bleed, I will always be seen as a bloodsucking leech in the eyes of this wealthy institution. I find my location between these two worlds to be a reflection of this — living in Pittsfield Township is like living in the gray area between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, and it mirrors living between my school’s wealth culture and my working-class background. The bus is what connects the disparities within Washtenaw and my life of locational duplicity.

Statement Columnist Ava Burzycki can be reached at burzycki@umich.edu.

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