How Preservation Dearborn utilizes 21st century tech to advocate for city’s history

Welcome to Preservation Dearborn! A fresh, unapologetic advocate for the beautifully diverse historic homes and buildings of Dearborn, Michigan.

So reads the Preservation Dearborn organization’s first Instagram post in December 2021. Nearly 150 posts have gone up since then, and in just over a year’s time. The posts are researched and written by a team of dedicated volunteers in admiration of, well, the beautifully diverse historic homes and buildings of Dearborn, Michigan. Thorough, entertaining, informative, Preservation Dearborn’s posts tell the story of Dearborn, not only through its historic buildings but of its people too, past and present.

The volunteer researchers pair an old photograph, often sourced from the archives of the Dearborn Historical Museum, with a photo of the building as it stands today. And while the photos themselves are enough to garner likes and follows, it’s the captions that really distinguish Preservation Dearborn’s social media presence from your run-of-the-mill historical photo accounts. Meticulously researched and written with a tender touch, the posts go deeper than who-lived-where-and-when. These are short stories about long lives.

“I personally visit the Dearborn Historical Museum at least once a week, exploring the archives up in the McFadden-Ross house — which I encourage anyone else to visit at their leisure. But I also have a number of online resources and historic resources from libraries around the state,” says Ian Tomashik, a board member of Preservation Dearborn and one of those responsible for researching and writing the posts, and running PD’s social media presence.

Born and raised in Dearborn, Tomashik is currently pursuing a master’s degree in historic preservation at Eastern Michigan University. His love for architecture and history come through his posts, but so too does his love for his hometown. It’s one of the reasons that Preservation Dearborn’s social media presence has been so successful. The posts aren’t just about dates and architectural details but families and neighbors.

The catalyst

Preservation Dearborn has its roots in a thus far unsuccessful bid to convince Dearborn City Council to update its Historic District Ordinance. As it stands today, the current ordinance, which passed in 1999, does not comply with Michigan’s language and requirements for such districts, leaving the city’s wealth of historic buildings vulnerable to the wrecking ball.

“I feel like most people don't know this, but Dearborn doesn't have any historic buildings that are really protected from demolition,” Tomashik says. “Local historic districts are the only way to protect a building from being demolished or altered. And it's especially important not only for preserving the character of the built legacy and telling Dearborn’s story, but along with historic designation comes tax credits and grant programs, all kinds of support from the state of Michigan and federal government.”

That a city with as rich a history as Dearborn doesn’t have the tools to protect that history is what spurred Mariya Fogarasi to organize around the ordinance. Born in Dearborn, Fogarasi would spend nearly 50 years living outside the country before returning to her family home in the Arsenal-Riverbend neighborhoods. She was actually going to sell the house after her mother passed away, Fogarasi says, but decided to stay and care for the home in fear of a potential buyer removing its historic charm and character (or worse), acting as much in the service of her neighbors as she was the house itself.

“We can quote 20 other cities in greater Detroit and around the outskirts that all have historic districts, but it's such an irony that Henry Ford's hometown has no historic district. Sure, we have the Henry Ford, the museum complex and Greenfield Village, but we don't have a statute on the books to protect buildings in this town,” Fogarasi says.

Since its founding in 2019, Preservation Dearborn has so far been unable to convince the city to update its ordnance. But that hasn’t stopped them from trying, and they’ll continue to do so. Following this most recent election and several new council members at the table, Fogarasi is hopeful that the fresh faces will lead to a different verdict.

‘An aspiring nonprofit’

Despite their primary objective having yet to be achieved, Preservation Dearborn has accomplished a lot in their own short history. Their social media presence has become something all to its own, and all the while helping to further their cause. They lead popular walking tours throughout the city, which will resume come spring. And a monthly lecture series has been established. Topics have included “A short history of mosques and mosque architecture in greater Dearborn” and “The greenest building is the one already built.” Their next is scheduled for Monday, Feb. 6, at the Dearborn Historical Museum, which will offer a sneak peek at the extensive restoration work happening at the Fair Lane Estate.

This past December, Preservation Dearborn members recently celebrated publishing a new book about the city’s history. Edited by Christopher Merlo and L. Glenn O’Kray, “Stories From the Sidewalk: A Walk Through 137 Years That Shaped Dearborn (1833-1970)” will donate 100 percent of its proceeds to the Museum Guild of Dearborn.

That’s a lot for a group of volunteers that don’t even have the time to formalize their organization as a nonprofit — though that could come soon, too.

“I call us an aspiring nonprofit. We're looking to achieve nonprofit status, but we haven't quite finished the paperwork yet,” jokes Tomashik. “I guess I'd really say that we’re a group of local historians that started as a group of neighbors.”

Visit Preservation Dearborn online and on Instagram at @preservationdearborn to learn more about their work past, present, and future.
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Read more articles by MJ Galbraith.

MJ Galbraith is a writer and musician living in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.