Friday, July 14, 2006

Idlewild and Australian Bicyclists

I never know what to expect in my line of work as a TV news photographer. I try to keep most of it out of this blog for ethical and professional reasons, but today was something special, so I'll share.

My assignment today was to shoot a story to be aired next week on the history of Idlewild, Michigan. It was a resort town for blacks during segregation, but more on that later.

On the way up to Idlewild, which lies about 90 minutes north and west of Grand Rapids, my reporter and I decided to stop for a bite to eat. I've been following the Tour De France, and biking was on my mind when I spotted out of the corner of my eye two bikes loaded up with gear and their owners. Since the topic of our discussion had been a nearby trail and whether it was fully paved (and therefore navigable by road bikes) I thought I'd ask these two guys who had just stopped for a break at a McDonald's. We drove up and I asked out the window where they were headed.

"Boston." One replied in a fresh Australian accent. I was astounded.

"Where'd you start?"

"Portland! Portland, Oregon, 31 days ago."

A few years back it was a dream of mine to cross the country by bicycle. I got as far as buying a used road bike and reading a book by Lance Armstrong. Naturally, I wanted to jump out of our news Jeep and join these two fellers. I had some questions, and the four of us spent a few minutes chatting about their adventure.

They said they were covering about 100 miles a day. They were pretty scrawny guys, but definitely in good spirits. Looking to be in their 50's, they were impressed with the courtesy of American drivers and the high quality of the American roads, both much better than Canberra! They were averaging of $6.50 per night in lodging costs, staying cheap at campsites, mostly, and shared a few travelers' tales of the random kindnesses of American strangers they had met.

The talkative (and older, I think) of the two wore a Team Discovery riding shirt. When I asked him about the Tour, he said he hadn't seen much, as they've been riding and camping most of the time. The only time they see TV is in a place like McDonald's when they stop to eat. He did add, however, that Americans seem to be fixated on politics much more that Australians, as its all that seems to be on the rare TV he does spot.

I got their e-mail addresses and wished them good luck. We parted ways, but a part of my heart stayed with them. Maybe one day it will be my turn.

After we got our lunch (a footlong Veggie Delight from Subway for me, thank you) we were off to Idlewild. Idlewild used to be a favorite summer destination for wealthy African Americans during segregation. Sadly, with the successes of the civil rights movement came the downfall of Idlewild, for there was little reason for blacks from across the Midwest and as far away as Mississippi to seek out this haven when other doors were opening. The blacks stopped coming, and no one else took their place. Today the landmarks of 50 years ago sit mostly unused and overgrown with weeds.

Small motels, Individual bungalows, Wilson's Grocery Store, the Flamingo Club, and the Casablanca Hotel; all closed, most in a state of total disrepair. This was a place were performers like The Four Tops and Jackie Wilson would play. Sammy Davis Jr. is often mentioned, and Della Reese was a regular. I talked with a woman named Maryellen, looking fresh at 80, who has been coming to Idlewild for decades. She owns a home right on the lake and she invited us in talk about the history of the town. Her basement walls are lined with party decor from years past. Here were humorous hand drawn cardboard cartoon cutouts of folks like Bill Cosby, Lionel Richie, and Billy D. There, on the other wall next to the bar, more cutouts of party girls dancing the night away. A poster depicting a young couple of color, sans clothing, reading "Black is Beautiful." This was a party spot, and Marryellen was obviously a social kingpin in her day. She showed us pictures upon pictures of the Paradise Club parties, Flamingo Club dances, and even a few taken right there in her basement, many years ago. All showed black folks having fun. Young blacks with a urge to party called themselves Idlewilders and came from Chicago, in particular, in droves. It sure did seem like a magical place.

Today there is a newly built historical center, which was closed for our visit. The beach is still used, and every year there is an Idlewild Music Fest. It actually will be taking place this weekend, and one of my favorite local jazz combos, Organissimo, is scheduled to play. But the place still carries the air of a ghost town. It seems to be populated mostly with nice black folks and white trash, but populated might be too strong a word. Most of the narrow cottage roads go only between abandoned shacks, and the only commerce to speak of is the Road Runner convenience store, owned and operated by Maryellen's daughter, Denise.

But Denise is also the organizer of the Music Festival and one of Idlewild's loudest cheerleaders. She wants to see the town make a resurgence, and honestly, I think it might happen. The lakes are still beautiful, the location still rustic enough to be an escape, and there is plenty of cheap land available by the looks of it. As I drove down those dirt roads, it occured to me that it wouldn't take much to see Denise's dream come true.

There is a long-neglected blog dedicated to Idlewild which is still online here. There is also a movie called "Idlewild" starring the members of Outkast currently in production. Imdb says of the film:
musical set in the Prohibition-era American South, where a speakeasy performer and club manager Rooster (Big Boi) must contend with gangsters who have their eyes on the club while his piano player and partner Percival (André Benjamin) must choose between his love, Angel (Paula Patton) or his obligations to his father (Ben Vereen).
There is also a book called "Idlewild: The Black Eden of Michigan" available at amazon.com, in which Maryellen appears more than once.

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