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Sunday October 04, 2015
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Island Hopping



The drive from Oklahoma City to Norman is obscene in its tackiness. Once we exited Interstate 55, however, then drove east toward campus, the houses grew older and the tree cover thicker. By the time we reached home, it felt like Camelot. College towns, even ones as conservative as Norman, are comfortable yet cosmopolitan. Norman was equally tolerant of cowboys, storm chasers, and Rudolph Anaya theorists of ambiguous sexuality. I could get into an argument in a bar about almost anything....I could see the number one-ranked college football team in America five minutes from my door or hear a singer from the Metropolitan Opera. But I could also lie on a campus lawn with my son and watch the clouds drift by or wade knee-deep in a river with nobody else around....Nowhere but in a college town could I find such a mix of sophistication and simplicity."

No Ann Arborite has said it better. But Gumprecht also turns a geographer's analytical eye on the towns he loves, particularly at how their neighborhoods reflect their social structure. College towns, he points out, "are highly segregated residentially"--while adding quickly that it's a voluntary and entirely understandable division: "Faculty and other long-term residents seldom want to live near students because of the different lifestyles they often lead." Quiet reading and writing clash with all-night beer pong parties next door.

Every college town, it seems, has an academic neighborhood like Burns Park and a student ghetto of beat-up rental housing. And it's not just in Ann Arbor that the residents' conflicting lifestyles turn the boundary between the two into a political battleground.

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