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Ann Arbor's Sister City Program ~ Friendship, Education and Controversy

Grace Shackman

Since 1965 Ann Arbor has established six sister city relationships, two of which are still very active. To document almost fifty years of these exchanges, the Ann Arbor District Library’s Old News archivists have scanned articles and photos covering Ann Arbor’s affiliations with Tubingen, Germany; Belize City, British Honduras (later Belize); Hikone, Japan; Peterborough, Ontario; Juigalpa, Nicaragua; Remedios, Cuba and Dakar, Senegal, plus an almost sister cities: Aix-en-Provence, France.

The sister city program was started by the Ann Arbor chapter of People to People. The national People to People organization was the outgrowth of a 1956 White House conference in which President Eisenhower suggested, as quoted in the Ann Arbor News, “Not among nations – but among people – are the true seeds of lasting peace sown.” The local People to People group was formally organized in May of 1965. One of its first actions was to send a delegation to Missouri where they, along with delegates from other chapters, met with ex-president Harry Truman as well as officials of a number of national organizations interested in international relations.

Visitors from Tuebingen Tours Parks

Tubingen, the first community invited to be a sister city, was compared to Ann Arbor by someone who had lived in both places “like twins raised in different countries. There is the university, the students, the river, the mills.” On December 9, 1965 the official charter of the partnership was presented to City Council, followed by a concert of Christmas carols sung in German by Ann Arbor High School students. Honored guest, Georg Melchers, head of the Max Planck Institute of Biology in Tubingen, joined in. Visits between the two areas started as soon as the decision was made.

In 1967 Belize City, then capital of what was then British Honduras, agreed to be Ann Arbor’s second sister city, shortly after the state of Michigan asked British Honduras to be their first sister state. Carl Zwinck, president of the local People to People chapter, explained that whereas Tubingen had many similarities with Ann Arbor, that Belize was the opposite where “primitive conditions remain in the wake of modern advancement.” However he said the goal was the same, “to develop understanding and fellowship through personal contact and cultural exchanges.”

The first visit from Belize occurred a few months later when nine Boy Scouts and their two leaders, who had been at a jamboree in Idaho, came to Ann Arbor a few days, staying with local scouts. The next year a delegation of Ann Arbor scouts stayed at a Boy Scout camp in British Honduras. Larger group visits were more of a problem. When was it was suggested that a choir and orchestra from Ann Arbor visit, Belize officials answered that they would welcome small delegations but couldn’t handle ones of that size.

The next year, in February 1968, five Ann Arborites attended a conference in Belize. One of the members, Shata Ling, took the opportunity to look for specific ways Ann Arbor could help. For instance, a play was performed for the delegation using a curtain made of rags. She noticed that the school for the blind didn’t have enough braille books and that the libraries could all use more books written in Spanish. In November Michigan sent a convey of six trucks to British Honduras with contributions from all over the state including curtain material, school supplies, and hospital equipment from Ann Arbor.

In 1969 Hikone was approved by city council to became Ann Arbor’s third sister city. Again it followed a state action when Shiga, Hikone’s prefecture, became Michigan’s second sister state. The local People to People committee worked with Junko Sugie, a Univeristy of Michigan music student from Japan, to make the arrangements. Evidently Hikone had no objection to large groups as the first visit was 100 members of the musical youth international band and choir.

Displaying Flags of Sister Nations

In the 1970s and 80s, the newspaper is filled with reports visits back and forth between the Ann Arbor and their three sister cities, mostly with Tubingen and HIkone, but with a sprinkling from Belize. In 1975 a neighborhood park at Summit and Fountain was named for Belize, after which no more reports of visits in either direction were reported. Visitors ranged from high ranking officials to school children. Flags and keys to the city were presented, exchanges of children’s art were put on public display, music and dance was performed. Tours of the town, the university, public schools were arranged to fit with whatever the visitors were interested in. More informal comparisons could be made during dinners and receptions.

In 1983 Ann Arbor added a fourth sister city, this time in nearby Canada, in Peterborough, Ontario. The exchange was centered on yearly athletic contests called the Arborough Games, between school age participants of both communities. It was described as “cultural exchange and friendship through athletics.” The young athletics took part in track, soccer, baseball, and field hockey, while being guests in their competitor’s homes. It was not unusual for the other family members to become friends with their guest’s family.

Juiglapa, Nicaragua, Ann Arbor’s fifth sister city was welcomed with much fanfare. It started in the April 1986 city election when voters, by a two-one margin, approved a resolution condemning U.S. Military involvement in Central America and approving setting up a sister city in the region. Many in Ann Arbor sympathized with the Sandinista government, formed by the rebels who had overthrown long-time dictator Somoza, who were being challenged by the Contras with CIA help. A sister city task force was appointed and after consulting with the Nicaraguan government asked Juigalpa if they would form a partnership. It was formalized in September when Mayor Edward Pierce received a letter from their mayor, hand delivered by an Ann Arborite who lived in Nicaragua. “This is a very poor country –it’ll be much more us toward them than them toward us,” said Pierce, echoing the report when Belize was chosen as the second sister city.

Edward Pierce, Sister City Delegation

From Nov. 1-10 a seventeen member carefully picked delegation of officials, representatives of various groups, and people with specialized knowledge visited Juiglapa to learn how they could help and to deliver supplies, especially medical. They also had smaller items, such as aspirin and t-shirts contributed at the sendoff party that was attended by 130 people. The visit became front page news when a Sandinista leader died in an ambush during the delegation's visit. The events were well documented by a reporter and photographer sent by The Ann Arbor News who sent back regular reports. The independent Ann Arbor newspaper, Agenda, also gave the partnership full coverage.

After their return, the group decided to tackle the first item on Juigalpa ’s wish list which was that they would like a garbage truck. After doing the necessary fund raising to buy one, three people agreed to drive it down, eventually reaching Juigalpa in spite of a delay at the Mexican border. The endeavor garnered national attention and added to Ann Arbor’s liberal reputation. The 1990 elections resulted in the Sandinistas having to share power with another party, but the task force members said that that was no reason to stop the sister-city relationship. However, it did ebb as no more articles about Juigalpa appeared in the paper until 1995 when a piece about all the sister cities mentioned that the garbage truck was now being used as a pick-up truck.

In 1997 Dakar, Senegal became the sixth sister-city, spearheaded by Ann Arborite Richard Ross, who got the idea when visiting his niece who worked for an ambassador there. “African descendants who live in Ann Arbor and the United States need to foster an understanding relationship,” Ross said. The sister city status was approved at a February city council meeting attended by representatives from Dakar. The following October Dakar’s mayor and several other officials from Dakar visited to learn what they could about Ann Arbor’s water system, police, fire, economic development, and schools. The partnership seems to have fizzled out after that. Three years later there was an attempt by Ross to organize a trip to Dakar but he couldn’t get enough funding.

Sendoff of the Sister City Trip to Juigalpa, Nicaragua

The archives also contain articles about several also-ran sister cities. In April of 1980 Mayor Lou Belcher announced that he was in contract with leaders from Aix-en-Provence, France who were interested in establishing a sister city relationship. In September their deputy mayor came for a visit to firm up details. A picture in the Ann Arbor News shows the French visitor being wined and dined at the Gandy Dancer. This was the last reference.

More recently, in 2003, council approved Remedies, Cuba as a sister city. The article in the newspaper says “so much for the U.S. prohibition against travel to Cuba. Now Ann Arbor residents can say they are visiting a relative.” The city attorney assured them that it was legal and mentioned that 17 other American cities have Cuban sister cities. However, after this one article, it is not mentioned again.

Throughout this whole period, the only sister cities to appear consistently in newspaper reports were Tubingen and Hikone. The vast majority of the articles tell of student visits both ways, with official visits sprinkled in periodically. In 1997, when Dakar became a sister city, Mayor Ingrid Shelton warned that “this is truly a volunteer effort and requires commitment from the community in doing it.” There is never an article of a sister city relationship being formally ended; it appears that when there were not enough volunteers to sustain relationships that they just faded away.

Even if most of the city sisters are inactive, they are still good memories for those who participated. “It View all articles about the Ann Arbor's Sister City Program.

View all photos about the Ann Arbor's Sister City Program.