“All the world’s a stage” is a fitting speech delivered amidst the greenery of Nichols Arboretum. As You Like It, the lighthearted love story being performed as part of the Shakespeare in the Arb series, now in its tenth season, has me and the rest of the audience follow players through the woods and into tall meadow grasses. For the troupe, performing means climbing trees and rolling down grassy hillsides on their natural stage. Where else but Ann Arbor would a play’s audience need bug repellant and walking shoes?

Almost anywhere in Ann Arbor you can, as the Beatles had it, feel as if you’re in a play. In this city of students, world-class doctors and artists, passionate activists of all ilks, foodies, intellectuals, musicians, and nearly 20 percent foreign-born residents, the overarching vibe is one of acceptance. Wear what you want, say what you want, believe what you want; it’s all OK here. I can let my freak flag fly because this stage is one where anything goes.

For me, settling in Ann Arbor was part of a process. Just off three years of vagabonding around the world, I searched for a place to call home. A list of cities was narrowed to two: Spain’s Barcelona and Ann Arbor. The contest went to Ann Arbor because it has vitality, diversity, and high thinking with a healthy splash of counterculture thrown in. And unlike Barcelona, with its frenetic tourist crush, Ann Arbor is a manageable and homey place with a tight sense of community.

A walk around downtown brings me first to the West Side Book Shop on Liberty St., a travel-back-in-time adventure reminiscent of the book stalls along the Seine in Paris. Inside the shop, the smell of aged wood and paper prompts quiet intellectual pursuits. A beautiful antique lawyer bookcase with taped-up leaded glass cautions “Open Carefully.” A gentle touch on the glass reveals fragility, and I respect the desire to preserve this beauty.

I amble east on a very crowded sidewalk toward Main St., the smells of freshly cooked dinners filling the air. Thirty-six restaurants vie for my attention on this three-block stretch, many with sidewalk seating, making this the place to be and be seen. What strikes me is the energy of this city. A street performer folds her Transformer costume into a vehicle and circles the sidewalk as onlookers snap camera phones. On an adjacent corner stands Violin Monster, a musician in a scary Wolfman mask. After several sightings around town, I had friended him on Facebook and found him to be a sweet man, so tonight I wave. He answers with his signature howl, nose pointed to the moon. At different times I have seen eccentric dress of all kinds on Ann Arbor streets, including Doctor Frank-N-Furter, the transvestite character from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And I’m looking forward to my first FestiFools in April of 2015 (see Entertainment/Annual Events), where participants sport huge whimsical papier-­mâché costumes as they parade down Main St.

This evening is balmy and welcoming, but all year long Ann Arbor exudes a wonderful conglomeration of zany intellect and solid foundation. The very bones of this city, I’m learning, speak of an intelligent history. Great cities are not accidents, but rather a result of good decisions. University of Michigan presidents Henry P. Tappan (1852–1863) and James B. Angell (1871–1909) implemented changes to the young institution in the form of expansion and forward-thinking policies such as encouraging foreign enrollment and coed learning, actions that broke free from previous university models.

I soak up this information from the historical street exhibits, attractive sidewalk information boards situated around downtown. Looking through the clever glass panes, I see historic photos superimposed onto what exists today. My favorite is called “A Second Shopping District” on the southeast corner of State and North University. I learn about the 1915 vision Tom Nickels had for constructing an Art Nouveau alley of shops where his father’s meat market stood. Those were heady days of commercial expansion back then, reflected now by the stunning architectural result of the young man’s efforts—Nickels Arcade—a glass-­ceilinged beauty rare for a city this size. Here and along State St., merchants opened businesses that appealed to both students and longtime residents, creating a meeting place for “town and gown.” The border between campus area and city neighborhoods blurs, and students and townies are separate, but not isolated.

I’m not the only newcomer who finds that appealing. “I like the mix of adults who live in Ann Arbor and college students,” says U-M student and Florida native Lizzy Critchlow. “It’s not too divided.” And even as they complain about the congested streets and parking around campus, many townies admit to drawing energy from the crowds of young people who arrive at the start of each new academic year.

On the grassy Diag, the corner-to-corner walkway in the university’s central quadrangle, I find a group of sport enthusiasts who’ve strung a rope between towering trees and to practice the art of slack-lining. A casual crowd gathers as one-by-one the gymnasts perform acrobatic feats. A short walk past Michigan Union brings me to “Endover,” the two-ton, fifteen-foot-high sculpture that everyone calls the Cube. A passerby says, “Everyone who walks by has to give it a spin.” So I oblige.

Meandering back over to Liberty, I spy the storefront of Robot Supply & Repair. Behind the chuckle-inducing name is a noble and vital purpose—to tutor kids age six to eighteen in writing—and the essence of what makes Ann Arbor a success. The name invites curiosity, a trait treasured in this town, and though you’ll find other 826 tutoring centers hiding behind storefronts in a few other cities, this is the one and only robot-repair shop.

I conclude tonight’s walk at the Michigan Theater for a film and am delighted by the pre-movie performance on its Barton pipe organ. Vaudeville and silent movies were the original performances seen on this stage in the 1920s, a fact easy to imagine while experiencing the rich sounds of the organ, also known as a “unit orchestra” for its ability to sound like violins, flutes, oboes, trumpets, and clarinets. The number of people who can play the old movie-theater organs numbers only in the dozens, I’m told, and we’ve got four of them here in Ann Arbor.

What strikes other people when they’re new to town? In 2012, Ed Feng and his family moved to Ann Arbor from California. His impressions of the city are shaped by past experience in his former hometown, Palo Alto.

“You can’t walk into a coffee shop in Palo Alto and not hear the word ‘equity,'” Feng says. “Everyone is very money-driven and they want to build equity. They want their one-in-a-million shot at becoming a billionaire through their stake in the company. And it’s just not like that here. Everyone is much more laid back. I never want to move back to that culture.” He and his wife plan to stay in Ann Arbor and raise their two young children here.

Newcomers Katie Housman and her husband Josh took positions as assistant professors at the Ford School of Public Policy at U-M last year, moving from Berkeley, California. Katie recalls being shocked by an encounter with a complete stranger. “People are so friendly,” says Housman. “I was running late for a meeting. I’d only been here a week. And so I was running across campus, out of breath on a really hot day, and this girl pulled up beside me and said, ‘Do you need a ride somewhere?’ I thought, ‘I’m not in California anymore!'”

Another recent transplant, fresh-faced Insa Keilbach, moved here in October of 2013 from Germany as a design intern at Q Ltd. “There is a huge sense of community here,” says ­Keilbach over a taco lunch. “I am really amazed by how much people here try to support the community.”

If Shakespeare could expound on the virtues of our city it might go something like this: “Fair metropolis of Ann Arbor, thou art a pearl. Not blinding as the weighty diamond on a maiden’s finger, wagged for all to see, but as the glow of the wise woman who lets all else shine, learned and confident is she in her position on life’s stage.” He’d find a place that’s been called twenty-five square miles surrounded by reality, it’s true—but also a small city not quite like any other.

Showing Off the Town

Marcie Greenfield’s forty years as an Ann Arbor resident don’t qualify her as a newcomer, but her Savor Ann Arbor walking tours cater to visitors, businesspeople, and newcomers alike. Her vivacious nature and fact-filled tours won her a place in Midwest Living magazine’s “Top 4 food tours to take in the Midwest.”

“I love this town,” Greenfield says. “I read all about the history. I love the spirit of Ann Arbor. I mean, people decide to start their own Brinery”—an artisanal pickle-maker whose slogan is “Stimulate Your Inner Economy.”

The enthusiasm flows both ways. Once, giving a tour to a group from the Council on Aging in Port Huron, Greenfield took the group to the front steps of the Michigan Union, where she told the story of how John F. Kennedy proposed the Peace Corps there during his 1960 presidential campaign. One of the women on the tour recalled how she had been there that night, and heard the future president speak.

“Yes there’s Zingerman’s,” says Greenfield. “You can’t not talk about Zingerman’s! But I want to show off everything else here. If people hear about the history and background, they’ll feel good about spending their money here and they feel a connection to the business owners. Every place has a story.

“The guy who owns Kosmo—the little Korean place in Kerrytown—used to go there when he was five because his mom worked there. He swore he would always own a place there, and now he does.”