Striking a Blow Against One-Dimensional Tourism

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!

8 thoughts on “Striking a Blow Against One-Dimensional Tourism

  1. Sherry

    When I get to go somewhere, which isn't often, the neighborhoods are what draw me. Businesses are for business. The customer conducts business as much as the proprietor so it is really no surprise that people get tired of being downtown. Neighborhoods give your eye (and brain) a rest and are a good place to catch your breath. When my cousin went to the family village in Germany he shot the houses as much as the tourist traps... if not more. And my German pen pal and I talk about our houses more than we talk about anything except the music that made us pen pals in the first place. In fact, her first vacation shots she shared we not the beach or shopping district... it was of the house that she rented and the neighborhood it was in. Which, for those keeping score.... was one of those two story brick jobs that populate the city of Dearborn.

    Gives us ideas about things we can do with our own homes, color, bay windows, bunting or plantings, walking neighborhoods does. But it also lets us see how similar we are all. True, we would probably never take a tourist to the Eastfield area of town. We do have our own prejudices after all. But the residential areas are really where you get to meet the people of a place since the people downtown are most likely tourists as well. What can one tourist tell another that they don't already know?

  2. Barb Polzin

    I love these photos. I cruise the neighborhoods to see the beauty and uniqueness of homes when I have a chance. Thank you for this. I love the purple house. I drive by that one often.

    1. Cheryl Humphrey

      I love to cruise the neighborhoods, too, Barb! It is always interesting to see what people are doing with these older homes. The newer homes have no character!

  3. Nikki Doom

    we love to take afternoon drives and see the old houses-we did it alot more when the kids were younger;teens aren't so willing. We drove around Traverse City,Petoskey and Charlevoix not to the shops or downtown but to look at the wonderful old houses. We moved up in 2005 from Florida where most of the wonderful old homes have been destroyed. I think there are more that love looking at old buildings and houses than we realize.

  4. Carol Wheelis

    I love these photos! I have only been to Traverse City once, many years ago, but hope to go again. You see, my ancestors left Traverse City in 1896 for Los Angeles, and I am still here. They lived on Washington Street, and my great-great grandfather was a doctor in town...Dr. Francis Corbin. His daughter Viola Maude married Clinton Lackey whose parents also lived there in T.C. also. My great-great grandfather's little sister Callie Lackey married J.W. Milliken. His older sister married into the Ashton family. Oh, I could go on and on...I have lots of history there! That's why seeing these photos is so wonderful!! Thank you so much!

  5. Bill Kruse

    I have been taking pictures of these homes for the past few is nice to see more people taking notice

  6. Barb Ritchie

    I owned a home on the 500 block of Sixth Street for 5 years. Loved sitting on the wrap around porch in the evening just watching the traffic go by. Now I am one of the cars that always drive down the street checking out what is happening and checking to see who is painting or improving. I love how they are restrictive to keep anything new being added on has to meet standards so everything stays the same and not to "modern". I love this area!

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