An ornate "painted lady" on Traverse City's West Side

An ornate "painted lady" on Traverse City's West Side


I wasn’t expecting to create a fuss last week by posting several photos of 19th century Traverse City homes on our Facebook page. But a fuss is what ensued.

The truth is, I hadn’t shot any new pictures recently, and here was this stack of images from last year sitting in the computer gathering metaphorical dust. So I put them up on the page, figuring they might give people something interesting to look at until I could get out to capture more shots of well-tanned teens playing beach volleyball, well-tanned couples strolling downtown and other iconic scenes from summer life in Traverse City.

To my amazement, people loved those old “painted ladies,” the brightly decorated Victorian homes from Traverse City’s Central Neighborhood. The comments section under the photos filled up with appreciative responses from across the country.

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People asked about home tours, former residents shared their nostalgia, and many expressed their appreciation for the homeowners who had obviously taken such care of these dignified old places. The only grumblings I saw were from people who wanted to know why their own favorites (or their own favorite parts of town) weren’t mentioned. But what really surprised me was the number of visitors who said they always made a point of walking or cycling through the city’s old neighborhoods to gawk at all the old houses.

Wow, I thought. It isn’t just me.

And of course, I really shouldn’t have been surprised. Last summer I was escorting a German television crew through the Traverse City area. We went to the Sleeping Bear Dunes, we drove up and down the Old Mission Peninsula, we visited the Village at Grand Traverse Commons, and finally they turned to me and asked me to show them “where the people live.”

Which people? I asked.

“The people who live in Traverse City,” they said. “We don’t want to film any hotels. Hotels all look the same, no matter where you go, and that’s not what makes a town unique. We want to see where you people live.”

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So we spent the next half-hour shooting video on Washington Street, in the Boardman Neighborhood, explaining to passing motorists and buggy-pushing moms just what we were up to.  It was a lot of fun, and I understood immediately what they meant. But I have to admit that when I show visitors around town, I still tend to aim for a half-dozen high-profile spots: the dunes, the wine country, the Commons, the downtown shops, the beaches, the lighthouses. Who has the time or inclination to look at neighborhoods.

Plenty of people, it seems. And that’s encouraging.

After all, I know folks who’ve been coming here for a decade or more who still think of Traverse City as little more than a strip of highway, with beaches on one side and restaurants on the other. They’ve never ventured beyond the downtown business district to see the lovely neighborhoods that lie just a few blocks inland, to walk the shady sidewalks beside gardens and homes – some well-to-do, some much more modest. The picture they carry away is predictably one-dimensional.

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But, of course, Traverse City is far more interesting that they could every imagine, even though its history only goes back as far as 1847, to the small but growing community that formed around Capt. Boardman’s little sawmill. In 1852 the little town was christened Traverse City -- but until the first road through the forest was built in 1864 it remained a remote outpost, accessible only by water.

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It must have been a prosperous outpost, to judge by the number and size of the homes and public buildings that were built in the waning years of the century. The Boardman Neighborhood (along Boardman Avenue and Washington Street) preserves some of Traverse City’s oldest and most ornate homes, many in the fanciful Queen Anne style, while the turn-of-the-century mansions of Sixth Street (known as “Silk Stocking Row”) include the immense 32-room house built by Traverse City founder Perry Hannah in 1893.

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Of course, not everyone in 19th-century Traverse City was a millionaire. The city’s west side – known at various times as Baghdad, Little Bohemia or Slabtown – was home to mill workers and skilled woodcarvers, including a substantial community of Bohemian immigrants who built tidy cottages for themselves out of scraps from the sawmills. Many of their homes are still standing, too.

This is all easy for me, because I love to walk around and snoop into things. But it makes me feel good to know that other people share the same love of brick-paved streets and leafy lawns, who can enjoy the sight of a stately home without being envious at the people who live there. And who can perhaps begin to appreciate the communities they visit as something more than scenic backdrops where they act out the fulfillment of their mass-produced, media-generated fantasies.

May their tribe increase!