From Massachusetts, Sara Hathaway keeps a lid on the Ann Arbor Townies ONLY Facebook page.
From the October, 2017 issue
"I'm getting tired of typing this over and over," Hathaway posted on the popular (more than 16,000 members and growing) site in late August. "Address comments to the topic. Keep current political figures and political parties out of your comments ... And I'm surprised I even need to ask people to avoid profanity and insults."
Born and raised in Ann Arbor, Hathaway works at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. (She thinks it may be the namesake of our Pittsfield Twp.) In January 2016, Townies founder Trevor Staples asked her to take over after the death of the previous administrator, Hathaway's uncle Wystan Stevens. Staples told the Observer in 2014 that he started the group "as a tongue-in-cheek way to discuss what it really means to be a townie"--hence the capitalized "ONLY."
While the "Who's a Townie?" discussion continues sporadically, visitors proved more interested in talking about the town itself than in different shades of belonging. People exchange information about lost cats or city projects, and post photos of leaves changing color. Most of all, though, it serves as a portal to the past, a place where people can share memories and photos of long-ago classmates, teachers, sandlot baseball teams, and vanished businesses like Purchase Radio Supply.
Staples set down just three rules: "Post only items unique to Ann Arbor," "Be nice," and "No ads." But more often than she'd like, Hathaway finds herself cracking down on violations, particularly of rules one and two. Though she won't allow comments about national politics, discussions about their local repercussions are allowed--and that's where conversations frequently turn ugly.
A clumsy image of a swastika painted on walls at the Ann Arbor Skatepark drew unanimous condemnation--but tempers rose after someone suggested that it was a mistake to publicize the incident. "If you don't like talking about racism, you're exercising your privilege," one poster huffed before Hathaway cut off the discussion.
She also shut off comments when a woman's complaint about
an aggressive panhandler drew accusations of insensitivity. It's often the reaction, not the post itself, that causes trouble, like the time a man posted about being targeted by a phone scam. "It was not an Ann Arbor topic, but I felt it had happened in Ann Arbor, so I decided to let it go," Hathaway says. But then another member questioned whether it really happened and insulted the poster. "I kicked that person out of the group," she says. (She sometimes lets offenders in again if they express contrition.)
She comes in for her share of criticism, which she leaves online as long as it's not "purely mean-spirited." (She says she grew somewhat inured to "slings and arrows" during a term as mayor of Pittsfield.) "Some days I do feel a little burned out," she confesses. "But I'm still thinking of Wystan. He really felt the townies group was an archive."
As a kid, Hathaway enjoyed hearing Stevens' stories of Ann Arbor. "He was such a great uncle," she says. "I try to be the good niece--trying to keep his passions alive." She remembers the time she emailed him to share the news that George Sedgwick, Ann Arbor's first mayor, was buried in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He responded, "Nice find!"
After her August admonition about civility, members backed off on the political posts, and in September, one member returned to Staples' original question: "You know you're an Ann Arbor townie when you're out running errands on a game day and drop everything to get back" before the game ends, Victor Cardoso suggested. "Like vampires fleeing dawn."
[Originally published in October, 2017.]
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