The Scramble for Idlewild
By: Micala Evans Cochran, MA.
Walker and Wilson first published a chronological history of the Idlewild community, as it highlighted its’ entrepreneurial foundation, expansion, and continued need for development. It’s compilation, no doubt, served as the entrance for Stephens’ comprehensive book in 2013 that expanded on the successes and failures of Idlewild over the years, which detailed the “rise, decline, and rebirth” of the once-popular resort community. These historical compilations of the African American town have contributed a great deal to how people have learned to understand what Idlewild is and what Idlewild needs. Each book lists a detailed chapter toward its’ end that makes suggestions and recommendations for Idlewild, as any scholarly empirical historical narrative should. Recommendations that could no doubt bring Idlewild back to a position of status, affluence, popularity, and wealth, but suggestions that stem from a narrow line of options when one seriously considers the question of sustainable community development in Idlewild.
Sustainable community development would look quite different than the recommendations put forth by Walker and Lewis over 20 years ago, and even look different than what Stephens proposed almost ten years ago. The recommendations these scholars made were based on the historical knowledge of African American History: Jim Crow, de jure and de facto segregation, and the rise of the black elite in the United States. These unique circumstances are one reason Idlewild came to fruition, as a place for elite blacks to gather, socialize, resort, and relax away from the worry of racism. What these scholars, the community residents of Idlewild, and African Americans have failed to realize is the other “isms” that go into the development of a sustainable community.
As a scholar of Africology and African American Studies, I do not fault my fellow scholars for this oversight. Yet, I see it more as an opportunity to intersect the disciplines and expand upon a historical foundation with a more precise understanding of community needs for Idlewild. Also as a scholar of Sociology, Community Studies, and Education, I intersect multiple disciplines to provide a bigger picture of Idlewild, and more sustainable recommendations for community development than previous works on Idlewild. By opening the canvas of Idlewild to a global perspective of community and culture, this paper argues that Idlewild must become a place for Africans to develop more than just our capitalistic innovations and artistic sensations.
Since the publication of Stephens’ most recent book, turmoil has risen in Idlewild as more people are learning of its unique history and vast opportunity for development. Any person who picks up a book on Idlewild today will instantly learn of the elite blacks who vacationed “Up North” and how they used their money to invest and built a great community - which no longer stands. Upon this realization, people want to visit Idlewild, to see what still remains in this desolate and de-capitalized ghost town. Arriving in Lake County, tourists eat at a restaurant in Baldwin, buy groceries in Big Rapids, and settle at a hotel within a 20-mile radius of Idlewild all for the lack of a local economy in the once-popular resort. Despite any attempt to put on a summer festival or musical concert, Idlewild events are entirely dependent upon outside communities for survival.
Seeing this need for internal commerce, tourists often come to the realization that Idlewild needs to develop its local economy and establish jobs, businesses, and more events to attract more people to “visit” the community. The call for capitalism is clearly made in both Walker and Lewis’ book, as well as Stephens’ depiction of Idlewild.
It is also made clear to any individual with a clear understanding of economics that Idlewild is a blank canvas waiting for the proper resources to develop a work of art. It is a dysfunctional community with a vast array of entrepreneurial opportunities for anyone with a little bit of money. It has been rather unfortunate that this call was answered more by persons living external to the boundaries of Yates township - Idlewild, and hardly to those with deep cultural connections to the historic Idlewild these publications have tried to showcase and highlight. Necessary to say, there has been an influx of people with no cultural ties to the community, purchasing large amounts of property, with prospects of developing homes and businesses in the community, but these people do not have the interest of the community in mind.
Historically, Walker and Wilson remind us that, “there are individuals who are not above allowing their egos to supersede the needs and aspirations of the community. Hence, the tribe continues to suffer.” (p. 230). These people continue to live in Idlewild, return to the party in Idlewild every summer, and continue the tradition of classism and elitism in the community. They seem to be only concerned with their tribe, a more affluent population of residents who obtain more education and skills than other blacks and are often placed in administrative positions that rule over the underachieving class of blacks in the country. This black elite claims a different tribe than the masses of black people, seeking to distance themselves from the poverty and denigration experience by the typical dark-skinned negro through the use of money, power, and property in Idlewild.
Stephens’ reminded us ten years after Walker and Wilson, that Idlewild is “situated in a rapidly changing political and commercial business environment in Michigan…” (p. 328). In 2013, the newly elected Yates township supervisor, Ronald “Big Money” Griffin, was faced with an impeccable challenge of paying taxes on the 220 parcels of land the Township has hoarded for nearly 50 years or relinquishing the land to the state of Michigan. With the installment of a new sewer system, and the mis-administration of a state grant in the 2008-2012 administration, Yates township was facing a surmountable amount of debt, and Griffin did not have the knowledge or understanding of how to handle the situation. Without consulting the people of the community, in 2013, Ronald Griffin turned over 220 parcels of land to the state because the Township could not afford to pay taxes on the properties. Little did Griffin and his constituents know, the state does not handle township properties, they are released to the county to be expeditiously sold and put back on the tax rolls.
Two years later, citizens were enraged to find out that parcels of Idlewild were being sold, and new neighbors were popping up seeking their claim to the community. Abandoned garages were revamped into cabins and illegally rezoned to meet property size conditions. People were swindled out of the unbuildable property for selfish gain, and some were sold unbuildable lots. It was not until a single unbuildable lot - Gassius Point - on Idlewild Lake had its trees cut down when Idlewild residents realize there was a land bank of the property being sold around them. Page after page of property filled the land bank document, filled with pages of property available in Idlewild for as little as $50 a lot or $300 per parcel. The property previously hoarded by the Township and withheld from the ordinary citizen’s knowledge. The property that produced a massive opportunity for land capital and mass development. It appeared the entire community of Idlewild was up for grabs - at an extremely affordable rate - by anyone who knew about the opportunity.
I wish it were only a moment in history or a figment of time that this incident came and went, and Idlewild would remain the same, but unfortunately, the days of wishing for a better Idlewild have come to an end. Idlewild is dead. It has no longer survived the years of waiting for a return to mecca. Idlewild is being divided up, sold, and conquered by individuals just as Africa was divided and conquered by Portugal, Italy, France, Britain, and Europe. Just as only invited countries could participate in the exploitation of Africa, only knowledgeable invited persons can get a piece of the Idlewild pie today. There is not a better way to say this than to put forth it directly. We need all persons of African descent to purchase property in Idlewild, Michigan, to save it from land capitalization, denigration of sustainable resources, and exploitation of human and natural resources of Africans - again.
I applaud and cherish the works of previous scholars who have documented the history of the community and shared the information with the world. The need to know about Idlewild is as strong as the need to share African history with the world. Yet, to do so, irresponsibly will expose the community to more harm than good. With the rise of globalization and capitalism as options for survival, many people cannot see the humanitarian and ecological needs of the community of Idlewild. Growing up in the community as an impoverished, former affluent class shifted youth, I learned to recognize the problems and needs of the community from a different perspective than the historical and elite scholars, administrators, and supervisors.
Idlewild, for many of my peers and me, offers no place for development. I’m not talking about business development but personal development. Our community first lacks housing to meet our most essential basic need - shelter. Idlewild presents no plan to feed us either. With the closest grocery store situated at least 10 miles from Idlewild, the community is entirely dependent on other communities to eat.
Additionally, there is not a place to grow, produce, or process food in the area that can sustain the population. The first thing that Idlewild needs is to establish the psychological need for its residents; to provide for the basic ne
eds of food and shelter to sustain a population. Without these two essentials, Idlewild is not self-sufficient and has no foundation.
Safety and Love are next on the hierarchy of needs, where Idlewild has no place for people to feel safe and no place to feel loved by other community members. The only place of gathering is at the township hall building, and the amount of hostility witnessed there is enough to make one shy away from feeling secure and happy about the place they live. Since originally writing this article in 2015, there have been some updates.
Williams Island is the central gathering place for everyone in he community, of every spectrum. The opening of
the Baldwin DNR Idlewild Lake Access park has also provided another space for people to gather and enjoy the natural beauty of the community. A bike rental business has opened up and helps to provide boats and bikes for short term entertainment, which has been a big help to the presence of the community. There has also been some new business mined folks coming up with new creative ways to bring people to explore the Idlewild community. While all of these efforts are applauded, and I do not wish to minimize their efforts, it must
be stated that these efforts are not enough.
I moved to Idlewild when I was just 9 years old, and now at 35, I’ve seen the changing of the guard many times. I also have lived through the best and the worst of times from 1990 – 2020. After decades of failed development ideas and thousands spent on feasibility studies, Yates Township offices still has not come up with a viable economic development plan for the community.
My business, Historical Idlewild Tours and Services, LLC. Has been promoting the health and sustainability of the Idlewild community since we began in 2006. We operate more like a non-profit, because we serve our community enthusiastically. The main goal with HITS is community sustainability. I hope to accomplish that through my tourism, workshops, and educational blogs. I hope to share knowledge and news of the community, so that all who are interested can be informed, and perhaps take action!
If you want to help save Idlewild. If you want to create a new Idlewild, If you want to see a sustainable Idlewild, then partner up with us! Together as a community, we can shape Idlewild into the historical Black Eden tourist want to see, and the sustainable year-round living community for people who have been here and those who want to be here. Please visit our website www.idlewildtours.com/donate to see what projects we are working on that you could help with. And if you see this type of stuff happening in your Black community, email me. It’s important that we not remain isolated in these fights for a self-determined and self-sustained community.
Micala Evans Cochran
Micala is a Ph.D. candidate at Eastern Michigan University, and is expected to graduate some time in 2020. She has studied Idlewild since starting undergraduate college at Ferris State, where she majored in Sociology. She started Historical Idlewild Tours and Services, LLC. (Idlewild Tours) as a way to educate the youth in the community about their beautiful historical community. Micala has obtained a Masters of Arts and is currently finishing up her dissertation at EMU, and seeking donations to continue her mission to Save Idlewild. You can reach her via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org