Ann Arbor v. Cambridge

by James Somers, September 12, 2009

I went to school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and recently spent the summer in Cambridge, MA, working for a small software company. A friend asked me to compare the two cities (making sure I leave Boston out of my analysis). Here’s what I came up with:

Cambridge feels more like a real city. The school doesn’t flow into the town like the U of M does; there are big gates surrounding it, for one, but there’s also a large subway station, normal stores, etc., that aren’t obviously targeted at college students. By contrast, State St. and South U. feel very much like extensions of the university.

Cambridge also feels older and less undergrad-y. That could just be because I was there over the summer; in the last few days, as kids were moving in, there seemed to be more of a “college town” feel.

I didn’t go to many bars in Cambridge but my hunch is that Ann Arbor wins that battle, since the crowds there are likely younger and the prices are better. Also, as far as I know Cambridge doesn’t have an Ashley’s equivalent, and Ashley’s is one hell of a place.

The Co-op and the Harvard Book Store clearly beat out Borders and Shaman Drum.

People talk about Cambridge having an “intellectual” feel but honestly it feels more business-y than anything else. It felt like there was more reading and thinking going on in your average Ann Arbor coffee shop than in Cambridge. Again, though, I’m willing to chalk this up to my being there over the summer.

Because Cambridge has more regular stores—CVSs and shit—it’s a more convenient place to live. You can eat better because there are actually good supermarkets within walking distance.

One of the more notable features of Cambridge that you definitely wouldn’t get in Ann Arbor is all of the tourists. It’s very strange—why do they all go there?—and somewhat distracting. By that I mean it seems to make the campus and surrounding area seem less real, and less livable.

Ann Arbor’s typical undesirable student, the fratty football fan, has its Cambridge equivalent in the spoiled Polo douchebag.

Harvard students complain about the girls there but they’re overall more attractive than Michiganders; this probably has something to do with income.

And of course there’s the whole “Harvard student” complex. Like anywhere else they tend to claim for Harvard the kind of desirable features (of students, classes, the town, etc.) that more appropriately belong to good universities in general. So when you remark to one of these kids that such-and-such is impressive, they’re likely to say something along the lines of, “Yeah, Harvard is absurd/ridiculous like that,” or “there’s a lot of that here.” This probably has something to do with having tourists ogling them all day.