I’d like to tell you the story of a house. A house at 7840 Van Dyke Place.
This isn’t just any house. And it’s not just my house. It’s Nona’s Place.
Nona was a flame-haired beauty who emigrated from London after the first World War. She was a glamorous woman who studied at the Sorbonne and modeled Parisian couture. (That’s her in the photo above!)
She and her husband, Arthur Herzog Jr., owned this house, the one that my husband and I now call home. They entertained here, hosting all of the greats of the jazz and Motown eras because Arthur was a movie man and a jazz pianist. He wrote “God Bless the Child” with Billie Holiday and was friends with Nina Simone.
Their Detroit was the Detroit of the 1930s and 1940s and 1950s. Their Detroit, too, was the Detroit of the 1960s and 1970s and into the 2000s, when Nona finally passed. They were Detroiters who stayed here, lived here, loved here, even after so many others decided to leave.
They stayed here in this house, a 1914 Georgian Revival, on Detroit’s east side because they loved this city and this neighborhood. They loved the homes that make up the West Village – where the Secretary of the Navy once lived – and the people who lived in them.
I know all of this not from history books, or at least not exclusively. I know all of this from the lips of my neighbors, who knew and loved Nona and Arthur. Who wanted my husband, Karl, and I to know the legacy of the family who once lived on Van Dyke Place. To understand our place in this community and what we were buying into when we decided to take on the rehabilitation of Nona’s Place.
They told us stories of Nona’s laugh and her love of roses and peonies. Of the swan figurines that she once had in her garden. They told us of Arthur and his penchant for white linen jumpsuits and late afternoon cocktails. Of how they would frequently wander down Van Dyke Place to dine at the old Van Dyke Restaurant on the corner, the one that sits empty now but awaiting its next heyday.
They told us stories of Nona and all of them – you see, many of my neighbors have been here in the West Village for decades, too – and their vision for a historic district that would preserve this place they loved. In the 1970s, the trend of urban renewal was sweeping through cities and demolishing everything old and blighted. Everyone wanted new. Wanted progress. They didn’t want to see the old, to see where people had abandoned the cities for the suburbs beyond.
And Detroit felt that as bad as anywhere. Between the abandonment before and after the riots/rebellion of 1967, significant numbers of properties were targeted for demolition, lost to the history books, if someone didn’t act to try and save them and the neighborhoods that still existed — including the West Village.
Nona and the women of the West Village – because, honestly, the story of Detroit is often the story of women empowering themselves and their communities – fought to have the West Village designated as a historic district. They had to convince neighbors and policymakers that there was value in these homes, that even if you couldn’t see it at the time, they believed there would be a future here, a time when people would want these places. That the future of the city would be dependent on both its progress forward and the remembering of its past heyday and glorious architecture.
In 1980 they won. The neighborhood was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Each day I look out my window at a small park commemorating that feat.
But today I wonder about the future of this place and so many like them – and so many that would like to organize themselves for historic protection. As I read about the Michigan legislature considering HB5232, which would gut protections for these districts and change how they are formed and overseen, I am stunned.
You see, after Nona passed away, the house passed through a number of hands who either couldn’t or wouldn’t care for her. For a decade, a Florida investor owned her and let her rot. When my husband and I bought this house, we bought a shell. This home had no plumbing, no heating, no electrical. It had been stripped and scrapped and water was flooding in through cracks and crevices. To many people, Nona’s Place was unsaveable. An eyesore. But our neighbors had been caring for this property, trying to keep the lawn cut and the windows boarded for the future when someone would want her.
So what makes me angry is not that there is a historic district in place that dictated what windows we had to put back into her facade or the color we could choose for our front door. No, what makes me mad is that the Detroit Historic District Commission, the body that oversees historic districts in Detroit, had no teeth, no enforcement power, to prevent this house and others like it from succumbing to the worst in humanity and economic crisis.
Why should we, and others like us, have to pay for the sins of the past? The issue isn’t that we have to spend more to put in historically appropriate windows. The issue is that we are having to replace windows and doors in the first place. These properties should have never been allowed to fall to ruin. I believe Nona would be heartbroken to know that even her hard work and commitment wouldn’t’ be enough to protect her own house.
And now we are looking at diminishing that protection even further.
I do not see Historic Districts as special areas where the government has control over my life and my decisions. No, to me, historic districts are a place where we see democracy in action. The people who live in these places decide whether to incorporate as a historic district. On the most local level, we have the control over our homes and our destiny. Naturally, some property owners will dissent. But the nature of democracy is that sometimes we win and sometimes we lose, but we move forward together after the decision is made. I may not agree with a tax, for example, but I still pay it after we, as a people, decided to levy it. I don’t get to say its government unfairly intruding on my life.
I believe in the power of historic districts as a place for communities to have the right to self determination. Where a Nona’s Place can get passed on to me and Karl and we can live among this great lineage of people. So when we needed permission from the DHDC to repair the rear wall with a certain type of brick, I didn’t see that as some government bureaucrat telling me what I could or could not do. It was the women of the West Village, it was Nona, helping me to protect the legacy of this community I now call come.
Did that add costs to our rehab? Of course it did. Significant costs. But special places come with special costs. Did I curse having to pay it sometimes? Yes, of course. But not because I didn’t think it was legitimate, but because I am angry to my core that a home in a historic district was ever allowed to deteriorate to the point where new owners must rebuild walls.
If we didn’t want that burden, didn’t want that stewardship, then we should have – and could have – looked in the dozens of other neighborhoods in Detroit that don’t have a historic designation. Karl and I had the choice. This isn’t about some “other” telling us what we can and cannot do with our property. We bought into this, understanding what would happen. And I would not, as the bill recommends, want to have Nona’s legacy up for renewal every 10 years. That provides little stability for property values. If there is always an uncertainty of what could happen in what was supposed to be a stable community, it would be hard for people to invest.
And we have invested. We bought this house for $35,000 and have put more than $400,000 into it. But being in a historic district has also paid off for us. When we finally got the appraisal for this property, the workmanship and location granted us with a $300,000 valuation, something that would have been unthinkable just outside the West Village boundaries. Historic districts protect communities and act as economic development engines. Look at where home prices are rising in Detroit: Almost every case is in a historic neighborhood.
So despite all of the costs, we wouldn’t’ make any other choice.
Cities are living, breathing beings. They must be allowed to grow and change and find new lives. But part of that living is a respect for our elders and our history. We want to protect those historic communities that speak to where we have come, the beauty and character of who we once were as a people, and having the ability in other areas to show who we are becoming.
We need both types of places. And people who desire to live in both.
Please do not pass HB5232. If you want to address specific issues within the current body of law, let’s do so on a reasonable time frame with input from those who would be impacted from the beginning rather than as a scramble against time after legislation is introduced.
Please, let us be reasonable about how we protect the legacy of our cities and towns and grow to the future.