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Invasion of the FIPs: boom time in southwestern Michigan 

These Parts

The southwestern tip of Berrien County, Michigan, about 75 miles from downtown Chicago, goes by many names. Some call it Michiana, for its proximity to the Michigan-Indiana border. Others call it New Buffalo-Lakeside, after two of the area's better-known municipalities. The local chamber of commerce has dubbed it "Harbor Country," a name rarely used outside their promotional literature. Journalists have compared it to more famous resort areas, calling it the "would-be Hamptons," "Chicago's Cape Cod," and "Chicago's Jersey Shore"; Channel Two news even called it "Chicago's Riviera." A local real estate salesperson, specializing in selling to Chicagoans, calls it a "money tree." A local skeptic--tired of the hype and the growing trendiness of the area--has called it Lincoln Park East.

Whatever it's called, this once-forgotten resort area, which used to be characterized by raggedy wooden cabins and boarded-up motels as well as by its wild, bluff-lined beaches, is undergoing a dramatic case of the res: rediscovery, reinvestment, rehabilitation, redevelopment, and, to a certain degree, resettlement--mostly by Chicagoans--and resentment on the part of some locals.

Even casual readers of Chicago real estate pages have heard about the Harbor Country real estate boom--about $6,000 shacks being resold for $60,000, boat slips selling for $15,000, and harborside condominiums for $300,000 and up. The influence of Chicagoans on this slightly populated, almost rural section of Michigan--full-time population 7,000; summertime population 25,000 to 35,000--is formidable. One local newspaper estimates that Chicago-area residents, all of them nonvoters, make up more than half the area's taxpayers and pay more than 60 percent of its local tax load. Out-of-pocket spending by Chicagoans just for the 14-week summer season can be conservatively estimated at $15 million to $25 million, or $2,000 to $3,500 per capita for each permanent resident. Chicago tourists and second-home owners are quite clearly the area's biggest industry.

The impact goes beyond economics, of course. The issues raised are similar to those that accompany the revitalization of any neighborhood or area, and just as hard to get a handle on. Trying to get your social bearings is as difficult as trying to predict the future of the ever-shifting lake. Last year Lake Michigan's pounding waves were eating up the beaches and threatening lakeside homes. This year the waters receded, adding up to 200 feet to some beaches. Likewise, the invasion of Chicagoans is welcomed by many locals as a long overdue gift, but resented by a few who fear it represents a threat to their future.

Some local teens have taken to calling the weekend tourists FIPs--short for "Fucking Illinois People." One can even buy a FIP T-shirt in, of all places, a New Buffalo clothing store owned by radio comedian Steve Dahl. Beyond the summer people/local people cultural clash--inevitable in any resort community--there is some concern that the Chicago invasion could get out of hand, overrun the beaches, tear down the forests, gentrify the nearby fruit farms, unbalance the economy, and bring in an ugly invasion of fast-food franchises and other tacky tourist trappings like those marring Cape Cod. To date such businesses have made few inroads in the largely unspoiled Michigan area. This summer eyebrows were raised when a Pizza Hut appeared right next to Redamak's in New Buffalo, one of the area's most popular family restaurants, but the threat of lopsided, uncontrolled overdevelopment seems distant to many--local residents and Chicagoans alike--who regard the rediscovery of the area as a welcome return to its heyday in the 1930s and '40s, when even more Chicago families spent their summers here.

Old-timers like Joe Bavra, now 67, recall how the small town of Union Pier was filled with Chicago families renting summer cabins; the men commuted on weekends, while the wives and children spent the whole summer. "People who think this area is crowded on summer weekends now should have seen it then--bumper-to-bumper traffic on every road, cars scattered everywhere. Every conceivable cabin, whether near the beach or two miles away, was occupied. The town now has only two stores; then there were a wide variety of stores--a dry-goods store, you name it. Stores now that are boarded up were busy."

Most of the summer people were Jewish, Bavra said. They lived in apartments in the city, and they came to southwestern Michigan to escape the heat and congestion. But they stopped coming when the kids grew up, moved out to the suburbs, and got air-conditioned houses and yards of their own. The settlement of Skokie coincided with the decline of Union Pier as a resort area, Bavra said.

A retired soil chemist who worked with the World Bank and has spent most of his adult life elsewhere--including Morocco, Madrid, and Rio de Janeiro--Bavra returned in 1982 to his Michigan home, the very building where he was raised. He wasn't sure at first if he would stay in the area, but the renewed interest by Chicagoans has encouraged him to remain and to rehab his parents' old home. To him, the recent land boom is "encouraging, positive, stimulating. You hear some grumbling," he said, "but so far as I can see, the increases in taxes and land values aren't driving people out. They're bringing new life to a lot of old deserted cabins."

While the revitalization is spurred mostly by weekend visitors who have boat slips or second homes in the area, increasing numbers of Chicagoans have resettled here--some refugees from the crime and grime, some seeking to escape the hectic pace of city life. Some of the refugees have become "locals" who are themselves beginning to wonder about the pace of development. Others find that they're too busy earning a living or fixing up their homes to enjoy the beaches and natural features that attracted them here in the first place.

This latter irony is central to the life of Ron Miller, who gave up a glamorous but exhausting career as an international correspondent for ABC and Ted Koppel's Nightline to move to Lakeside six years ago. Miller says he became a convert to the area as soon as he saw the wild waves of Lake Michigan crashing on the cliff-lined beaches. He said it reminded him of the Atlantic Ocean and New Jersey Shore of his youth.

But Miller did not go to the beach once this summer. The last time he went was in February. He works as many as 14 hours a day to maintain the elegance and exacting standards he demands at his and his wife Trisha's Union Pier restaurant, Miller's Country House.

Like the condominiums and "dockominiums" in nearby New Buffalo, the restaurant symbolizes the opulent aspect of the Chicago invasion, the arrival of Gold Coast sophistication to a neglected lakeside backwater. The restaurant used to be a raunchy biker bar; state police told Miller that bottles and patrons were often thrown through its windows. Miller's crisp northern-California-style dining room, which overlooks an immaculate woodsy garden, is a bit more sedate and civilized. It looks more like a country club than a country inn.

In an effort to maintain city-style service and standards at his establishment, Miller occasionally brings his staff to Chicago's better restaurants. For the opening of Miller's in 1985, he even brought in an Oak Street stylist to cut his employees' hair.

"How can they provide the service I expect, if they have never experienced it themselves?" said Miller. "We offer Pan-Asian food. Without seeing or tasting it, they wouldn't know what it was. Most of them thought Pan-Asian meant Chinese."

Despite his workaholic hours, Miller contrasts his life in Michigan with the frantic, nearly crazy pace of his old job and the continuing frenzy of Chicago. "Last time I was in Chicago, I was nearly run over on Michigan Avenue by a guy running a red light in a Cadillac with vanity plates that said, 'Dealmkr.' Now, that dealmaker is taking himself much too seriously. He needs to slow down. Here it's much more tranquil. I can look out the restaurant window and see this red fox going about his business. No deal that dealmaker can make can equal the experience of watching that fox."

Not all Chicago transplants come to the area as entrepreneurs. Another ex-Chicagoan who has settled here, Harold Dancy, is a refugee from what he called "the west-side gang wars."

"I grew up in the midst of the gang wars, and it was never something I enjoyed. Even after my parents and I moved further south, to Calumet Park, gang wars started out there too. I got tired of running from gangs; I just wanted a peaceful life. So when I got laid off of my job, I moved here. I had visited before and liked it. It was pretty peaceful. There weren't a whole lot of people around.

"And in Chicago, there are a whole lot of white people who refer to you as a nigger," said Dancy, who is black. "Here I have yet to be called a nigger."

The area is one of the few in the Great Lakes where blacks own lakefront property. Prominent Chicago blacks--judges, athletic stars, entertainers, and radio stars--have been coming to southwestern Michigan for years. The black population peaked in the 60s. Now it appears to be in decline. It's not that blacks are being forced out as much as that many are just abandoning or selling their homes, and not being replaced by others.

One longtime black resident says the land boom has raised local taxes to the point where less affluent summer-home owners--many of them black--no longer can or want to vacation here. He says he knows at least six black families that have sold their homes in the last year.

Dancy, who is a year-round renter, worries that he and his family may be forced out by rising summer rents. Although he still likes living in Union Pier, he says he's bothered by the influx of newcomers. "We get a lot of knuckleheads that come out of the city that think they own everything and that they can just run over people who are here because they're from Chicago," he said.

The real estate boom has been accompanied by an increase in economic activity and the creation of new jobs. One realtor says the area has seen at least 50 business start-ups in the past year, not just restaurants but also clothing stores, boutiques, antique stores, and art galleries. Like many revitalizing areas--in and out of the city--southwest Michigan has also begun to attract artists, designers, and architects. Local Color, a Union Pier store that sells the work of local artists on consignment, started three years ago with 5 artists; it now offers the work of 70.

Restaurateur Miller, who says he employs 100 people, claims the boom has caused a labor shortage in the area. He says more than 350 people applied for jobs when his restaurant opened, but now he gets few if any responses to the ads he puts in local newspapers.

"I am convinced that there is a job for any local person who really wants to work," Miller said. "To fill the latest opening, I had to recruit a 75-year-old retired woman. She's terrific, by the way."

Harold Dancy says that many local people feel unqualified to handle the new jobs offered. "They feel they can't do half the stuff that the ads call for," he said. "They don't feel they have the education. Some can't read. They are too discouraged to apply for these jobs. They feel they can't cut it."

The brighter young people leave the area, either to go to college or to work elsewhere. The traditional belief is that there are no jobs locally. But a part-time Chicagoan and area entrepreneur, Jean Lawrence, who has owned and operated the Pebble House, a Lakeside bed-and-breakfast inn, for the last three years, says that development has provided new jobs for local people who would have moved otherwise.

"I have talked to dozens and dozens of men looking for work as handymen, men who were laid off at a factory in Benton Harbor. For them, the new development has given them job opportunities that weren't there before. I'm very pleased that the area is not as poor as it was. All kinds of new businesses--not just tourist-related businesses--are showing an interest in the area.

"But while I'm pleased with the growth, it doesn't mean I'm always pleased with the form that the growth takes. The area needs a plan, an economic development plan. We need to know what we want the area to look like, so we can do things like control the fast-food restaurants, so that we can save public open space before it's too late, and so something can be done about the very difficult situation here regarding the beaches."

Battles over the area's magnificent and abundant beaches are growing. They are not new to the area: the late Charles Chew, former Illinois state senator, owned a lakefront home near the public beach in Union Pier and often called township police to arrest people who strayed onto his patch of sand; old-timers say that in the 1920s, some of the first lakefront property owners cordoned off their beaches with barbed-wire fences. More recently, though, the area has had a tradition of tolerance and sharing. Beach rights have been enforced mostly to control the party animals who would often tear down young trees for their beach fires and leave mountains of beer cans and litter the next day.

But renewed interest in the area is bringing back the beach wars. One Chicagoan who owns a north-side bar sued a family that had been coming to the area for years because they dared to use his beach. Some home-owners' associations hire private guards to politely but firmly keep nonowners off their beaches. One lakefront owner--a local, by the way--goes so far as to patrol his beach himself, stalking the bluffs like a desert general or the chief of the Blue Meanies. Using binoculars, he watches potential interlopers as they walk past his Lakeside property. If they keep walking and stay close to the water, he can do nothing. But if they pause to sit on the sand or walk more than 15 feet away from the water, he bellows from the bluffs; humiliation is his weapon, and he uses it successfully.

The irony of the beach battles is that most of the time, the beaches are empty. A breathtaking sunset last Saturday drew only nine people down to a one-mile stretch of beach between Union Pier and New Buffalo. Even on busy summer weekends, no beach is a tenth as crowded as Oak Street Beach. And on summer mornings and evenings the beaches are virtually empty.

Another irony involving the beaches is that some of the newest lakefront residents, though fussy about other humans using their property, have themselves done much to despoil the bluffs and uglify the shoreline. They do it not with the mere beer cans and potato-chip bags strewn by the trespassers, but with gigantic rocks, corrugated iron fencing, sacks of concrete, and other so-called "riprap" meant to retard erosion.

For example, new residents, building on a 400-acre patch of woods between Union Pier and New Buffalo, first placed expensive houses too close to the fickle lake's edge, then panicked during the high-water onslaught in 1986-87 and dumped their riprap--which one ecologist calls "concrete vomit"--on some of the area's most beautiful unspoiled beaches.

"The veteran residents here--who have just as much to lose from beach erosion--have more respect for the beaches," said Dori Jacobson, a Chicago college teacher with a summer home near the new development. "First they don't panic. They know that the rise and fall of the lake and the beaches is a cyclical phenomenon. And if their buildings are threatened, they make elaborate plans to raise and move their homes, not dump ugly boulders all over the beach."

Jean Lawrence believes some effort must be made to open up beaches to the public. She also wonders whether the new interest in southwest Michigan is a passing fashion. "It worries me when something gets too trendy," she said. "I've seen restaurants like the Dixie Bar and Grill [in Chicago] when they were overrun by long lines of people practically begging to get in; now it's not there. What if some arbiter of public taste were to come around and say it is no longer fashionable to buy in New Buffalo? Would people sell and leave or not?"

For more information, see the Visitors' Guide in this issue.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.

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