John Milan pronounces his name MY-lin, not ME-lahn like the Italian city. He’s also not from Italy, he’s from Brooklyn, Michigan but he’s lived in the Detroit area for thirty years. For twenty of those years, John has lived in Woodbridge.
Over the last eight years, John has worked almost exclusively in Woodbridge as a contractor/painter, and for the last year has worked on numerous projects with Live in Woodbridge properties. Like many of the subjects of this interview series, John Milan is not only a worker of Woodbridge, he’s also a part of the community and like those other workers, John finds a real sense of satisfaction from the work he does in the neighborhood.
I sat with John and his dog Scoot on the steps of his back porch and asked him a few questions on the work he does and what restoration means not only for the property owners, but for him as a member of the neighborhood.
TL: A lot is happening in Detroit right now. It’s safe to say that in that regard, it’s unlike any other American city. Have you experienced anything like this before?
JM: No. It’s pretty cool. It’s amazing to be here and to be part of it — to be so engaged with it here, and these different properties. I feel like it’s an honor, really. Every time I get to go in one of these properties, to work on them, to put my stamp on them; it’s a real honor.
TL: What is it like to do this type of work in the place you live?
JM: This last summer, starting in late-May, early-June, with the exception of one little job, I never had to work more than two blocks from my front door. I’d get done working every day and I come and grab my dogs and go for a walk. I get to walk past house after house and see — I redid that column on the front of that house, I redid that windowsill, I painted that house. There’s a real satisfaction that comes with that. It also keeps you honest.
TL: With all of the people I’ve interviewed for this series, they all have that sentiment in common.
During the conversation, John and I walked over to his garage which he uses as part workspace and part emporium for pieces of Woodbridge houses that have been discarded or salvaged. One whole wall in the garage was dedicated to moldings, columns, window parts and other historical scraps of Woodbridge neatly stacked and sorted. What might have ended up as forgotten parts of the neighborhood’s rich history of craftsmanship, John has cataloged and maintained for future use and restoration.
JL: Over the years I’ve collected a few columns from a porch that had fallen down or someone dragged to the curb because they didn’t really know what to do with them, or moldings that were being thrown out (etc.) I was working on some houses this summer with Dan Mercer and his crew, who by the way is an incredible contractor, and there were some moldings that had to be replaced. You can’t just go buy these moldings; they have to be specially made. However, because over the years we’ve been collecting scraps and pieces of different houses in the neighborhood that were being thrown out, all of sudden I can say let me go check my stock and sure enough I’ll go into the garage and there’s a match. There were craftsman 100 years ago building these houses and they didn’t build just one; they did many of them. It’s interesting working on some of the houses because you’ll start to recognize the craftsman’s mark on some of the ornate pieces.
TL: What do you see for the future of Woodbridge, as Detroit enters this new chapter?
JM: This neighborhood wasn’t built with all owner-occupied houses or all rentals. It was built with a mix. I don’t think it’s going to move away from that. Commonwealth has a lot more rental properties than Avery. Avery is a lot more owner-occupied, single-family homes. There are a lot of people who want to move here for that but with the proximity to Wayne State, there won’t ever be a lack of people wanting to keep these houses as rentals. They’re already built as rentals, many of them.
I think what’s going to happen is that the neighborhood is just going to get better and better in general. Is that going to affect the price of rent? Absolutely. It’s bound to. How could it not? Does that mean it’s going to price some people out? I don’t have answers to that. I can tell you that the work that’s getting done here has got to be done, or they won’t last. It’s got to be done. Comparatively, it’s still affordable, especially when you look at the actual quality of these houses. When you go into them and they have the original wood floors with ten-inch oak moldings, nine, ten-foot ceilings and original tile-work that’s 100 years old. Where are you going to go and get that and not pay anything?
Little by little, neighborhood by neighborhood, we’ll see what happens.
You can reach John via email at firstname.lastname@example.org