Ann Arbor, Michigan

BEST PLACE TO RAISE A FAMILY

Outside

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Population: 114,000
Annual Household Income: $40,000
Median Home Price: $160,000
Climate: Spring and fall more than make up for the extreme seasons.

So it's come to this: family is now the top priority. Suddenly phrases like "day care" and "student-to-teacher ratio" pack serious heft, and the brands of beer a restaurant offers on tap matter less than whether it provides a decent selection of crayons at the table. Your vision of an ideal town is edging toward Bedford Falls, but with more bookstores and fewer slaphappy pharmacists. You're interested in nesting down in a place with, say, Ann Arbor's almost alarmingly wholesome midwestern ingredients list: safe, leafy neighborhoods, rock-solid schools, clean air and water, reputable doctors, even low teen-pregnancy rates. Fold in a healthy local economy, mix with a generous helping of woods, parks (more than 100 inside the city limits), and ball fields, add the University of Michigan's stock of Big Ten athletics, erudition, and urbane ambience (including ethnic grub and hipoisie nightlife), and you're onto something.

THE HOME FRONT: Northside, just above the Huron River, mixes newer ranches and some student apartments with colonials and Georgians getting their second or third wind; a nice starter-home can be had for about $120,000 and up. The small-towny and highly sought-after Old Westside is on the National Register of Historic Places and full of modestly sized, postmakeover Victorians ranging from $135,000 to about twice that. If your figurative ship comes in, you can literally dock it out back in Ann Arbor Hills, stately confines of the tenured and/or two-upper-incomed.

THE BACKYARD: Craving high-peaks wilderness? Book a flight to Anchorage. But the rough-and-tumble woods of the Upper Peninsula are within a five-hour drive; the dunes and cottages overlooking Lake Michigan are even closer. Nearer still, 20 miles or so north of town, the Pinckney and Brighton Recreation Areas offer lakes and trails for highly sociable hiking and cycling. Within Ann Arbor proper, running is the official addiction and the Ann Arbor Track Club the main fix-provider, staging four major races and countless minor ones a year. The Huron River moves many to wet a line or a paddle, though you'll want to about-face your canoe before eddying out in one of Detroit's industrial-waste lagoons.

NINE TO FIVE: Quite healthy, overall. Not surprisingly, U of M tops the list. Other employers of note include Borders bookstores and Domino's Pizza, both headquartered here; Parke-Davis pharmaceuticals; Pall Gelman Science (medical equipment); and the obligatory college-town entourage of smallish software and other techy outfits. Quite a few upper-echelon auto execs still put their pedal to the metal here, commuting the 40 minutes into Motor City or closer Ypsilanti.

ON THE TOWN: Standard college-town mix, but in spades. Plenty of movie screens and music clubs, including name-brand acts at Hill Auditorium; an indie film festival; and a quirky mix of restaurants. Caribou Cafe and Cava Java attract mostly the predegree crowd in search of brownish liquids; Sweetwaters and Cafe Zola, the white-collar working stiffs. For art and live theater, your best bets are Jeff Daniels's Purple Rose Theater Company in nearby Chelsea or pilgrimages to Detroit. For the kinder, there's the Hands-On Museum, the Ann Arbor Art Center's get-dirty emporiums ArtVentures and Feat of Clay, a roster of visitor-welcoming farms and orchards, the University's Exhibit Museum (for the inevitable dino phase), the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and conservatory (for winter blahs), and the annual Michigan Challenge Balloon Fest in nearby Howell.

THE PRICE OF PARADISE: Positively Dantean Saturday afternoons in fall, when one of the 100,000 well-oiled Wolverines fans is likely to mistake your hubcap for a urinal cake.

DON'T BE SEEN WITHOUT: Maize and Blue.

BEST OF THE REST ITHACA, NY: Upstate utopia for upstart literati. HILLSBOROUGH, NC: Only one thing left to chance: Will little Johnny be a Tarheel or a Blue Devil?

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