Old West Side Homes Tour
The Seinfeld of historic neighborhoods
by Sally Mitani
From the September, 2014 issue
If you're new to the community, and this time of year so many are--welcome!--the Old West Side Homes Tour is a good way to inhale the aroma of one of Ann Arbor's most iconic neighborhoods. For a lot of people, the very essence of Ann Arbor is its Old West Side.
The Old West Side Association dates to 1967. What's so special about the OWS? Well, in some ways, nothing. It's the Seinfeld of neighborhoods. The founding members targeted this area for historic preservation not for its showy mansions, but because it was representative of the nineteeth-century Midwestern neighborhoods settled by working-class German immigrants. Why are there ugly mid-twentieth-century buildings in the district? Because their construction helped give the preservation drive impetus, and when the neighborhood was freeze-framed, they got to stay. The point was to capture a neighborhood, not to cherry-pick individual grand, picturesque houses. There are a few of those, too, and hopefully one will be included in the tour this year on September 21.
If your interest is sociological, rather than historical, these days the OWS is the tweedy, comfortable ground zero of the lower ranks of professordom. Catch a glimpse of them in their natural habitat: they're likely to be wearing Dansko clogs on their way to a yoga class. The tour starts at St. Paul Lutheran Church, where you buy a brochure that will get you into a half dozen houses and one business. You can walk it, drive it, take a tour bus, or do all or any part of it and in any order.
Incidentally, Dansko clogs, or some kind of slip-on shoes, are a practical thing to wear on this outing. Whether you decide to walk from house to house, as many people do, or drive (note that the parking can get a bit dicey), you'll be asked to leave your shoes at the door or carry them with you as you follow a designated trail through each home, where docents
are standing by to point out period details: Darco brick, Pewabic tile, and so forth. There are rules, and if you don't read the brochure carefully, you may gently be informed, for instance, to refrain from photographing interiors. Or you may be not so gently informed: one docent raced to my side and barked "don't touch!" when I reached to examine a knickknack on a bookshelf on the 2012 tour. Another snapped at a small group bucking the established traffic pattern even though there weren't enough people in the house to make a difference. (By the way, there was no 2013 tour, if you're wondering how you missed it last year.)
If your energy begins to flag, and you need to cut it short, the obvious place to skip is usually the commercial address, which is open to the public anytime, but this year's business is a particularly interesting brand-new one. The Argus Farm Stop, once a gas station, is a year-round farmers market for meat, dairy, produce, and artisanal goods. It is just steps away from another former gas station that just became the Blank Slate Creamery--a good place to end your tour with an ice cream cone.
[Originally published in September, 2014.]
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