Ann Arbor's Seven Sisters
Fifty years of low-budget goodwill
by Grace Shackman
From the May, 2015 issue
When President Obama announced in December that he would normalize relations with Cuba, photographer Jack Kenny and retired attorney Kurt Berggren got to thinking about an official visit with Ann Arbor's newest sister city. In 2003, they'd persuaded city council to adopt Remedios, a town of 46,000 in central Cuba. Though both men have since visited, U.S. travel restrictions have prevented the cities from exchanging official delegations.
Most Ann Arborites don't know we have a Cuban sister city, because council didn't want to spend $1,000 to add Remedios to the signs that list Ann Arbor's six other sister cities. Though exchanges over the years have led to close personal and business relationships, the city no longer provides staff support or funding, so it's strictly been volunteer efforts of late.
Contact with Juigalpa, Nicaragua died out in the 1990s. The connection to Dakar, Senegal, began and ended with a single visit in 1997. There hasn't been an official visit with Belize City since their mayor checked out our recycling program in 1999, and the last youth sports exchange with Peterborough, Ontario, was in 2003.
But two relationships, with Tuebingen, Germany, and Hikone, Japan, remain strong. It's no coincidence that both countries were America's enemies in WWII.
Sister cities originated in the People to People program, an outgrowth of a 1956 White House conference that promoted friendship between former enemies. Ann Arbor's involvement started in 1965. Georg Melchers, a Tuebingen city councilmember, visited that December and was serenaded by Ann Arbor High School students singing Christmas carols in German.
Many Ann Arborites trace their heritage to southern Germany, and from the start, local Germans were active in the relationship, hosting events and visitors. City councilmembers were also drafted into the effort. Mary Hathaway, the widow of attorney and councilmember John Hathaway, was dealing with a colicky baby when her husband announced they would be hosting Hugo and Bertl Raiser. The couple didn't speak English, so "I had to reach down deep for the
little bit of German I had inside me," she recalls, but the families have been friends ever since.
In 1969 Carolyn Murphy, a young teacher of German at Pioneer High, visited Tuebingen as part of a delegation. Georg Melchers took her under his wing and introduced her to his son, Christoph. They fell in love, married, and still live in Tuebingen, where Carolyn remains very active in the sister city program.
In 1980 Tuebingen invited Ann Arbor to take part in its music festival. Mayor Lou Belcher recalls that city manager Sylvester Murray was given palatial quarters on the top floor of a hotel, with balconies on all four sides and a fully stocked bar, while Belcher had a cubbyhole on a lower floor with just a bed and a desk. It turned out that the Germans, who have several levels of mayors starting with the Oberbuergermeister or lord mayor, had assumed that the city manager was more important than the plain mayor. When they discovered their mistake they were very apologetic, but Belcher told them to leave things as they were since Murray was getting such a kick out of the mistake.
On the relationship's fortieth anniversary in 2005, Tuebingen's delegation was led by the city's first female lord mayor, Brigitte Russ-Scherer. Mayor John Hieftje led the return visit with his wife, pianist Kathryn Goodson, who gave a concert at a nearby monastery. As they have every year since 1982, Tuebingen high school students also came to Ann Arbor during their spring break, and Ann Arbor students returned the visit after school got out for the summer.
Most of the participants in the 2011 and 2012 exchanges were architects or people involved in city planning. In Ann Arbor, activities included walking tours, visits to landmark buildings, and explanations of our green initiatives. In Tuebingen, Carolyn Melchers enlisted a group of architects--including her husband--to organize a tour of their architectural treasures, from the Middle Ages to the modern.
Tuebingen will send two groups this year. This month, twelve adults with developmental disabilities, plus eight helpers, are coming to Ann Arbor and staying in North Quad. They will be hosted by the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living. An Ann Arbor delegation will return the visit this fall. And on June 1, the Ann Arbor City Council plans to reenact the proclamation they passed fifty years earlier. In the audience will be the latest official delegation from Tuebingen. Councilmembers Steve Kunselman and Graydon Krapohl will lead a return visit in July, and members of the public are welcome.
In 1968, Michigan adopted the Prefecture of Shiga as its sister state. The following year, Ann Arbor partnered with Hikone, a city in Shiga on the eastern shore of Lake Biwa.
The first visit was a big one: a contingent of high school teachers and students and 100 members of the Musical Youth International Band and Choir. But it wasn't until 1982 that an official delegation made the trip. Mayor Belcher led a nine-member group including Hitoshi Uchida, owner of the Kamakura Japanese restaurant, who served as translator.
The highlight of the trip for Belcher was a visit to Toyota headquarters to encourage officials to expand the company's small Ann Arbor emissions lab. He expected to take the train and to talk to one of the company's economic development people. "I was surprised when a limo showed up at my hotel and drove me the 120 miles to Toyota's headquarters," Belcher recalls. "When we arrived I was escorted to [chairman Eiji] Toyoda's office. He dismissed the staff and closed the door and then said, 'So tell me, how are my Wolverines?'" It turned out he was a U-M alum, and he barraged Belcher with questions about U-M sports and various bars. When Belcher brought up the local lab, Toyoda answered, "Well, I think we can do something about that." Toyota subsequently built a major facility in Ann Arbor Township and then an even bigger one in York Township.
Yearly junior high/middle school exchanges began in 1985, organized by Clague teacher Rusty Schumacher. Ann Arbor students visit Japan every other year, and Hikone students come in the opposite years.
Larry Dishman, who organizes the exchanges through the Rec & Ed department, says that Hikone has a city employee in charge of sister cities. Though visitors stay with families, the city gives them rail passes and money for travel and lodging when they travel to Hiroshima and other cities. "On our end, we have the kids pay $2,000," Dishman says, "and then raise more money patchwork style."
Like Hikone, Tuebingen has a staffer who keeps track of their partnerships. The German city also provides funding for cultural events and a travel budget that will pay the way for their mayor and two councilmembers to this year's fiftieth anniversary celebration.
In contrast, Ann Arbor eliminated all regular funding during budget cuts ten years ago. This year, its only financial contribution to the Germans' visit will be some bag lunches, and everyone making the return trip will pay their own way.
Relying entirely on the volunteers means that relationships ebb and flow depending on people's changing interests and commitments--especially if the sister city also has limited resources.
That's what happened with Belize City. The relationship was approved in 1967 at the urging of the local People to People chapter. Former mayor Louis Belcher recalls that the late councilperson Jerry Bell, a fan of Belize steel bands, also championed the connection.
A group of Boy Scouts from Belize City subsequently stopped by while in the United States for an international scout jamboree. But a suggested return visit to Belize by a young people's choir and orchestra was politely discouraged in a letter explaining that the city lacked the resources to host such a large group.
In 1968 five Ann Arborites, including then-state senator Gilbert Bursley, visited. Return visits included their national director of libraries in 1969 and a steel band in 1973. In 1975, the relationship was memorialized with the creation of Belize Park at the corner of Fountain and Summit. But there appear to have been no visits since 1999. As former mayor Ingrid Sheldon explains, "It's really people to people--it takes people to keep things going."
The 1983 partnership with Peterborough was inspired by Doug Walker, then head of the Ann Arbor Recreation Department, who suggested the cities set up a Junior Olympics-type exchange. At its height, the Arborough Games brought six or seven busloads of middle school students to Ontario to compete in soccer, baseball, track, volleyball, and basketball, followed by a return delegation from Peterborough the following year. Participants stayed in the homes of the opposing team and enjoyed a big party after the games.
"It was the gem of the recreation department," remembers Larry Dishman. "When it first started, so many kids wanted to participate that we had to have tryouts." But as more opportunities to play sports opened up in Ann Arbor, interest waned. Toward the end "we were so frustrated we would practically hustle kids off the streets of Ann Arbor and tell them they didn't have to pay, just come," Dishman recalls.
The partnership with Dakar, Senegal, was suggested by Richard Ross, who got the idea while visiting a niece who worked for an ambassador in the west African country. City council approved it in 1997.
That October an official delegation visited Ann Arbor including Dakar's mayor, Mamadou Diop. Mary Hall-Thiam, a member of the hospitality committee and the wife of a Senegalese, recalls that the local Senegalese community sponsored a reception in the group's honor. While in Ann Arbor, the delegation observed Ann Arbor's educational systems, economic development, and environmental protection.
An attempt to organize a return visit foundered when Ross couldn't raise enough money. But the connection is not totally dead. Hall-Thiam says the local Senegalese community is planning to organize a twenty-year reunion in 2017.
The partnership with Juigalpa started with a ballot proposal. Activists concerned about American foreign policy in Central America, collected signatures for a proposal to create a sister city in Central America. In April 1987 it won by a two-to-one margin, and council appointed a task force to select a sister city. Several members had been to Nicaragua and had contacts there, so they consulted with the Sandinista government, which suggested Juigalpa.
In November Ann Arbor sent a seventeen-member delegation, including mayor Ed Pierce and state rep Perry Bullard. The group brought twenty-five boxes of gifts, mostly medical or educational supplies. When asked what else the city would like, the mayor suggested a small garbage truck.
After much research, the committee found a company that made the right kind of truck in Alberta. Initiative organizer Gregory Fox picked it up there and drove it to Ann Arbor, where three other members of the original delegation, Kurt Berggren, Tom Rieke, and Kip Eckroad, took over for the two-week trip to Nicaragua. The volunteers took turns with two in the cab, driving and navigating, and one holed up in the back, able to communicate using a walkie-talkie that Eckroad borrowed from his kids.
There were a few later delegations to Juigalpa, but interest died out. "In the '90s, Juigalpa's citizens voted to replace the Sandinista group in city hall," Rieke recalls by email. "People in Ann Arbor did not know the new leaders, who probably thought that we were just Sandinista puppets." However, the garbage truck "was used for about ten years around the clock," says Berggren. "This was in spite of the fact that parts were hard or impossible to get, so they had to somehow figure out ways to make repairs. Finally it ended up as a flatbed truck used for other things."
Berggren got involved in Remedios after seeing Jack Kenny's work on Cuba. Kenny fell in love with the island after visiting with friends in 1996 and returned frequently to photograph its vintage automobiles, crumbling architecture, and people. The book he published in 2005, Cuba: Photographs by Jack Kenny, shows Cubans, although clearly not rich, enjoying life--playing chess, getting their hair cut, riding bikes, or just hanging out.
"Remedios is an untouched, well-preserved colonial city," explains Kenny. It's in the middle of the island, about a six- or seven-hour drive from Havana. When Berggren visited, he played chess with their mayor--Remedios has the main chess school on the island.
Since the thaw in diplomatic relations, Kenny and Berggren have been working to confirm that officials in Remedios support the partnership to clear the way for an official visit.
"If we put a group together we could do it," says Kenny, "but first we have to make sure we are recognized in Cuba. This is the time to see Cuba, before it gets overrun."
[Originally published in May, 2015.]
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