Blog: Melissa Milton-Pung

When it comes to architectural style, historic is the new black. Melissa Milton-Pung, project manager for Washtenaw County, draws on her research and travels to make a case for infill development and why preservation means green for your pockets and the environment.

Lessons From the Back Seat

Many people think of history as something to be visited in a museum, usually far away, mysterious and sepia-toned.  
That's not the whole story.
There is a lot more to history beyond artifacts in a box.  History isn't merely something you go visit in a museum – it's more tangible than that.  And right here, in our community, one part of history is how buildings and their surrounding context weave together to create a larger record of our collective mark on the landscape.  Some of our largest artifacts make up the built environment.  We're living in and around them every day.

My own story was a driving reason why I chose to work in historic preservation, literally, since I grew up in the backseat of a car. After starting out in Kentucky, my family moved all over the country following my father's contract work in the aerospace industry.  Between the ages of 4 and 18, I moved 20 times.  We crossed the Mississippi half a dozen times before I was in middle school.  No, I'm not talking about racking up frequent-flyer miles.  I'm talking about kickin' it old school from the back seat of a 1984 Datsun hatchback with your legs stuck to the hot vinyl.
We saw some incredible landscapes, visited some amazing towns, and lived in some spectacular places – like Savannah, Seattle, and southern California – and many places in between.  It's quite a study in contrasts, moving from the high desert of California with Joshua trees and adobe houses to the pattern-book brick homes of Zeeland, Michigan during a rainy spring and subsequent explosion of Tulip Time. Upon arrival in Michigan my poor cat, to whom grass was a foreign substance, literally freaked out and walked on her tip-toes.  Thanks to this incredible childhood, the textures of each place, each regional identity, even some of those bizarre experiences, remain emblazoned on my memory.
One of the things I learned from the back seat is that places transform into another slowly over time, then suddenly reveal themselves to be distinct. The terrain slides from flat as a pancake to rolling hills, then from foothills to mountains.  Edge cities crop up on the horizon, then the neon highway strip, the suburbs, and then you're there in the heart of that city place.  Each place had its own distinct vernacular, both in architecture and in way of speaking. 
Or, at least it did.  There's the rub – they had texture and regional identity, but now so many of our cities are becoming beiged.  Genericized. Vinylated.  Pick your term, you know what I'm talking about. Authenticity of place, or lack thereof.
"Not Savannah!" you say.  Yeah, not Savannah.  (Or Seattle, or many other real places I've lived.)  Do you know why?  That's right – because much of it has been covered in protective ordinances to help retain community character.  They have helped keep that city's heart recognizable, vibrant, and a damn popular place to shoot movies.  They've been wonderful economic development tools, tourist-attracting magnets, and the pride of many local businesses.  (Shhh! Don't mention these wonderful tools are called "historic districts.")

Historic districts help local communities determine their part of how the American landscape will appear in the next few decades.  There are many historic districts in Washtenaw County, and they are one piece of the puzzle, one tool in the toolbox, that work with other efforts toward maintaining our community's character and sense of place.  They are part of the reason why Depot Town's iconic store fronts are symbols of thriving businesses.  They are part of the reason why Manchester Village, the city of Saline, and downtown Chelsea retain their picturesque appearance, and they are why Gordon Hall's stately edifice still looms over Dexter Village.  And, historic districts are the #1 reason why Ann Arbor's South Main Street was named one of the "Great Places in America" by the American Planning Association.
It's more than just beautiful architecture and the restaurants scene.  It's about wise investment, too.  As mentioned in a report published by the Michigan Historic Preservation Network, dramatic evidence can be seen in the case of Kalamazoo's downtown commercial historic district.  This report states that over the course of 30 years, beginning when Kalamazoo's commercial local historic district was designated, "property value growth far outpaced that in a similar, undesignated downtown area.  While property values in the local historic commercial district grew about 385%, those in the non-designated comparison area grew just 72%" in the same period of time. 
History is closer than you think.  It's something that we live with in our communities every day.  It's the buildings that we use, care for, and add to over time.  We have the opportunity to work together to revitalize our communities and participate in strengthening our economy without compromising our sense of place.  Through my work in historic preservation, I know I'm not driving this car, but I can at least help give direction from the back seat.