Milestone: Starting Small, Thinking Big

How a New Year's Eve bash might build a stronger community

Editor’s note: The monthly milestone column, which appears on the second day of each month – the anniversary of The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s Sept. 2, 2008 launch – is an opportunity for either the publisher or the editor of The Chronicle to touch base with readers on topics related to this publication. It’s also a time that we highlight, with gratitude, our local advertisers, and ask readers to consider subscribing voluntarily to The Chronicle to support our work.

Cross Hands

Not long after midnight, the Kerrytown neighborhood was treated to several tunes played by a group of folks Joe O'Neal had gathered up. Among the songs was "Danny Boy," performed by Chronicle editor Dave Askins. Joe's daughter, Heather O'Neal, guided performers by pointing to the notes as they played.

The Chronicle spent part of its New Year’s Eve – the midnight part – at a small gathering in Kerrytown Market & Shops. Owner Joe O’Neal credits Mary Cambruzzi, proprietor of FOUND Gallery, with the idea: Open up the building for a few people to toast the new year with champagne or sparkling juice, and give people a chance to ring in 2012 by playing the carillon.

We were able to join the small event, because earlier in the day on New Year’s Eve, I happened to run into Joe at the Ann Arbor farmers market.

As Joe and I chatted, he showed me a new alcove outside the building – with benches and a plaque – honoring Ginny Johansen, a former Ann Arbor city councilmember and farmers market supporter who died last year. We also talked about the success of this year’s KindleFest, which on one night in early December drew several thousand people to Kerrytown. The regular stores stayed open late, and the farmers market was filled with vendors – selling everything from holiday greenery to glühwein. The energy of the crowds was exhilarating, and made me wish for more events like that.

In that context, Joe mentioned the New Year’s Eve gathering later that night, and invited us to drop by and play the carillon. Though it’s been a small affair for the past couple of years, he sees the possibility for more. His vision 10 years from now is to draw 10,000 people to Kerrytown on New Year’s Eve. Maybe someone could build a sort of reverse Times Square ball, he said, that would shoot up instead of dropping down. There could be fireworks. And carillon-playing, of course.

His vision made me think of how some of the most special things in this town start small, with one or two people thinking just a little bit bigger. So in this month’s Chronicle milestone column, I’d like to share a few thoughts on that as we head into the new year.

Making Connections

Since launching The Chronicle in 2008, I’ve been struck by how our publication’s narrow focus – covering local government and civic affairs – actually cuts across a relatively large cross-section of this community. At some point, even people who have no ongoing interest in local government have some reason to brush up against it.

That interaction with government might stem from dissatisfaction about some action the city council or staff has taken – like eliminating the service of Christmas tree pickup. Or it might be prompted by someone’s desire to encourage the city council to take future action – like maintain funding for public art.

People who might otherwise never contemplate attending a public meeting might be drawn to attend a forum to find out what changes the city staff have planned for their neighborhood park. Folks who would ordinarily never show up to listen to city council deliberations might find themselves at a meeting being recognized with a proclamation honoring their achievements.

As we arrived at Kerrytown near midnight on New Year’s Eve, I thought about the cross-section of the community we typically chronicle. Joe is not exactly a usual suspect at public meetings, but we’ve encountered him for at least two reasons over the last three years. In his role as owner of O’Neal Construction, he was drawn to the community discussion of the future of the Argo dam – he was vocal about the fact that the concrete and steel dam his company reconstructed back in the early 1970s was still in good condition. Joe is also a driving force behind the Allen Creek Greenway Conservancy, and serves on its board.

The conservancy board’s president, Jonathan Bulkley, also attended the New Year’s Eve gathering at Kerrytown, along with his wife Trudy. Bulkley had been honored at a Sept. 6, 2011 city council meeting – the mayor read a proclamation honoring Bulkley’s contributions to the University of Michigan, the state of Michigan, the Great Lakes region and the nation. And Sept. 9, 2011 was proclaimed Jonathan Bulkley Day in Ann Arbor. Trudy has made her own mark in town – as “Mother Goose,” she regularly holds children’s storytelling events at Kerrytown Market & Shops.

Also participating in the Kerrytown gathering was Amy Kuras, an accomplished cellist who also rocked the carillon on New Year’s Eve with Auld Lang Syne. But regular Chronicle readers will probably recognize Amy’s name from our coverage of the park advisory commission – as a city park planner, she often gives reports to the commission at its monthly meetings. She also frequently leads public forums for special parks project in the city, like one held last year in preparation for work at Riverside Park.

The Next Big Thing?

So the cross-sectional slice of the community that Chronicle readers encounter isn’t as narrow as you might think, given the narrowness of our focus to local government and civic affairs. But events that include a wider swath of the community are invigorating, when people come together who might not ordinarily cross paths. That’s the appeal to me of events like KindleFest. It’s also the appeal of Joe’s vision – that a fairly intimate gathering to play the Kerrytown carillon could grow to a public New Year’s Eve celebration at Kerrytown.

Last year’s Water Hill Music Fest is an example of something that started with a small concept, and turned into an absolutely inspiring phenomenon. Paul and Claire Tinkerhess had a vision for a joyful neighborhood celebration, but their efforts crescendoed into a major community event. The day-long festival drew hundreds of people to that area to hear musicians who lived there perform on their front porches. It became an “instant classic” – it earned Paul and Claire one of The Chronicle’s inaugural Bezonki Awards. It also gave their neighborhood a name that both reflects and shapes its unique identity. And you couldn’t walk down the streets at Water Hill Music Fest without running into someone you knew – even if you didn’t live there.

I’m not a believer that big is inherently better. That’s one reason why I like the concept of Small Giants, Bo Burlington’s movement that encourages companies to be great instead of gigantic.

But a sense of connectedness – important for a strong, healthy sense of community – requires shared experiences. And I’m guessing that, for the most part, I won’t be able to get everyone in Ann Arbor to share the experience of sitting on a hard bench through an entire city council or county board of commissioners meeting.

So instead, I hope Joe follows up on his vision for a public New Year’s Eve bash. I’ll try to find a way to help make that happen.

About the writer: Mary Morgan is publisher and co-founder of The Ann Arbor Chronicle. The Chronicle could not survive to count each milestone without regular voluntary subscriptions to support our coverage of local government and civic affairs. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!


  1. By Linda Diane Feldt
    January 2, 2012 at 12:22 pm | permalink

    What a fabulous idea for New Year’s. Yes, let’s make it happen! My fantasy would include small fire pits scattered here and there, each with a small group of strangers getting to know each other.

  2. By Ruth Kraut
    January 2, 2012 at 1:01 pm | permalink

    There was also a “flash mob” 4-mile run through downtown Ann Arbor this past New Year’s Eve. I could see a New Year’s Eve run becoming attached to a New Year’s Eve event at Kerrytown, ending with hot cider and champagne… In NYC there is a very popular New Year’s Eve run through Central Park that begins shortly before midnight, and the runners run past the midnight fireworks.

  3. By Dan Smith
    January 2, 2012 at 9:22 pm | permalink

    How about a New Year’s Eve concert from the A2SO?

  4. By Joan Lowenstein
    January 3, 2012 at 1:55 pm | permalink

    Wasn’t there something a few years back (maybe more than a few) in Ypsi for New Year’s that was a kind of moveable feast of cultural events all around Depot Town? A Downtown Ann Arbor event would be terrific.

  5. By Robert Deleware
    January 4, 2012 at 8:49 am | permalink

    Ms. Lowenstein, the Ypsilanti event was free, family friendly and inclusive. As someone who went out to dinner in downtown A2 on New Year’s Eve and then to the Ark for a show, and ended up spending eght dollars for a few hours of parking, I’m sure you and your friends on the DDA will do everythihng you can to make such an event in Ann Arbor elitist, exclusionary and expensive, if your record as an elected and appointed official is any indication. Terrific is probably not the right word.