Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Idlewild, Michigan - Paradise Revisited

Our cabin in northern Michigan sits in the middle of a big oak forest. On a summer night the only sounds are the burbling of the cold, fast-moving trout stream that flows in front of the house, the rustling of unseen night animals and the persistent clear and haunting call of the whip-poor-will.

For two nights in July, however, if the wind is right, the night woods fill with the hot and sultry sounds of blues and jazz from the nearby town of Idlewild. It's a small echo of America's segregated past, a time when the town was one of the most popular African American summer resorts in the country.

Idlewild was a sanctuary from the racist Jim Crow practices and laws that African Americans faced in their everyday lives. On a summer day, as many as 25,000 people jammed into Idlewild on roads such as Justice Avenue, Celestial Boulevard, Righteous Road and Wisdom Way. Music could be heard all night long, every night, in the Paradise Club, the Flamingo Club, the Purple Palace and the El Morocco, an after-hours club that closed at 8 a.m.

From the 1930s to the 1960s, Idlewild was the place to perform not only for up-and-coming black artists, but for established ones as well. After a day of swimming, canoeing, hiking or horseback riding, vacationers went from club to club to see such legendary performers as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, James Brown, Sarah Vaughan, Cab Calloway, Sammy Davis, Jr., Della Reese, Bill Cosby and Aretha Franklin.

Founded in 1912, Idlewild gave African Americans the opportunity to buy land in a beautiful setting. Small lots, 25 x 100 feet, were sold for 35 dollars with six dollars down and payments of a dollar a week. The community also acted as a touchstone of black identity and culture. Early land owners included W.E.B DuBois, Charles Chesnutt, and Daniel Hale Williams, who performed the world's first successful open heart surgery in 1893.

The example of these progressive-minded citizens coupled with an alluring advertising campaign convinced many black professionals to buy large pieces of land in Idlewild. In their book, Black Eden authors Lewis Walker and Ben C. Wilson state: "To be able to relax and have a holiday and also be a part of discussions and developments on race was an exciting and exhilarating experience for many."

Today Idlewild is a shadow of its former self. Its famous clubs and most of its motels, shops and restaurants are gone. When segregation legally ended in 1964, African Americans began to frequent places previously denied to them. Idlewild businesses found it difficult to compete in this changed environment and the slow decline of the town began.

The natural beauty remains and the lakes are still lined with neat vacation cottages, many owned by people with memories of forty, fifty and even sixty Idlewild summers. The town is much smaller and poorer than it was in its heyday, but there are signs of revival. One of them is the annual Idlewild Music Fest, a celebration of Idlewild's musical heritage.

This year's festival, the sixth annual, will be held on July 9 and 10 on Williams Island on Lake Idlewild. As a publicity flyer says: "Back in the day, everybody who was anybody made an appearance by the lake and people in the know had front row seats." We've already bought our tickets.


To see my photos of present-day Idlewild, click here.

For historical photos of Idlewild from the Archives of Michigan Digital Collection, click here

To read about Idlewild's fascinating history, I recommend the following book:

Black Eden, The Idlewild Community
by Lewis Walker and Ben C. Wilson
Michigan State University Press, East Lansing, 2002.

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A Paris Love Story Leads Us To Umbria

Spello, a medieval town not far from Assisi, sits resplendent on its Umbrian hill. It's not a famous travel destination, but it is one of those Italian towns that makes me want to buy a small stone house on a terraced hillside. There I'll sit on my shaded arbor, looking out over my thriving olive trees and grape vines. Neighbors will stop by to talk and I'll open a bottle of my award-winning wine. Maybe they'll stay for dinner - something simple - a soup made with locally-grown farro and fresh vegetables, a salad dressed with my own pungent olive oil and for dessert some pecorino cheese from the neighbor down the hill.

The town of Spello is beautiful, but it's possible that this urge to stay forever was enhanced by the sheer relief of having survived the four hours of challenging driving on the various Italian roads and autoroutes that lead from Pisa to Spello. Why we were in Spello is another story and goes back more than 20 years to a clear October evening.

We were in Paris that year and my younger sister came to visit for a month. Early in her stay, she and our then 13-year-old son decided to go out for dinner. I suggested a small Italian restaurant nearby. As fate would have it, in the kitchen was a young Italian chef. Their eyes met and well, you know the rest... except that he only spoke Italian and French and she only spoke English.

She came home from dinner that night, told me she had a date at midnight and needed to take our son along as translator. "No," I said. "He's a great guy, Mom. He's going to be my uncle!" "Don't be ridiculous," I said to my son. "This guy is not going to be your uncle."

So here we were, 23 years later, in Spello visiting my sister, my 21-year-old niece and my son's Italian uncle, who has family in Spello and nearby Spoleto. He is a great guy and boy, can he cook. It turns out his whole family can cook.

In between meals - pasta with truffles, gnocchi with fresh tomato sauce, risotto with porcini mushrooms, wild boar stew, homemade prosciutto, and in a nod to Paris, crepes with chocolate sauce - we even managed to see a bit of the wonderful art and architecture of Spello. With the family eating schedule, we'll need at least a couple of more visits to see the whole town. I can hardly wait until next year.

To see photos of Spello, click here.

For my brother-in-law's gnocchi recipe, click here.