One beautiful afternoon last summer I decided to ride my bike down a shady lane.

In truth it’s just a street, but Shady Lane is also a remarkable neighborhood. The entrance off Packard is guarded by a towering, lush, magnificent willow–a glorious tree so overpowering that from a distance the whole street seems to be filled with willows, though in fact there’s only one.

Shady Lane looks like a dark path into the woods of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale as it enters a small wooded area, curves around to form a cul-de-sac, and then exits, a perfect, unbroken circle of asphalt. There is no concrete here, not even sidewalks, and the houses fit themselves in among the trees, rather than the trees making way for the houses. The street itself is barely wide enough for two cars to pass each other, let alone park, but it’s perfect for walking or biking.

The houses are small–most appear to be well under 1,000 square feet–modest and cottage-like. The landscaping is similarly homey. This cul-de-sac has never left the era when it was okay to leave tricycles and yard tools on the lawn, when old barrels and tubs were used as planters because they were available rather than stylish, when homemaking activities like canning, crafting, and car-washing were done in the front yard. The unpretentious cheeriness includes features such as an aged Bonneville with a roped-down hood, a yard filled with plastic planters, and outdoor tables still covered with the remains of past meals. The opulent greenery makes the street feel almost luxurious, like a cluster of upscale summer vacation rentals. Put this neighborhood near the shore of Lake Michigan, and people would line up to rent these cottages.

Shady Lane may feel out of place as well as out of time in Ann Arbor, and, technically, it really isn’t in Ann Arbor. According to a 2010 city map, it is a “township island,” one of a number of “parcels which have not been annexed to the City in the course of its growth.” Island residents pay taxes, and vote, in Pittsfield Township.

My own neighborhood, Kimberly Hills, was also once part of Pittsfield. It still has bits and pieces of those days, including dusty unpaved streets, rundown brick homes, and mailboxes perched on poles at some distance from the houses. But Shady Lane is not a relic but a viable neighborhood, within Ann Arbor geographically, yet not in spirit.

Thinking of Shady Lane as an island has reinforced my sense that the line between Ann Arbor and Pittsfield, and the present and the past, can be blurry. When I look at Shady Lane, I think of my own neighborhood’s pre-Ann Arbor years. The place where my house now stands was probably a cornfield.

The houses on Shady Lane don’t look so old, either–perhaps fifty years or so. But that willow, guardian of Shady Lane, is ageless.

The following Calls & letters item was published in the September 2012 Ann Arbor Observer:

Taxes and trees on Shady Lane

To the Observer:

We are too Ann Arbor!

I have been a tax paying City of Ann Arbor citizen since 1998 and most of my neighbors on Shady Lane have followed suit [My Town, “The Willow,” August]. Only two or three properties on the street are still Pittsfield Township. Please check the facts using up-to-date maps, not ones from 2010(!).

The house described as unpretentious with the items strewn about in the yard has previously been reported to the city standards office, and is out of character with the rest of the properties on Shady Lane.

Please consider a follow up on the rest of the nicely maintained houses, with no inoperable cars in the street and nicely manicured lawns.

Also the willow tree lost about a third of its mass this past week when one of the large branches broke after a small sprinkling. The author was lucky she wasn’t underneath it!


Jake Del Rio