IMPORTANT NOTE: I’VE MOVED!

Dear friends and readers,

“Loving Traverse City” now has a new address. (It’s a lot easier to remember, too)  You can reach it easily by going to http://blog.traversecity.com/. Or just follow this link.

Thanks!

Mike

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Royal Chef Stars at September’s “Taste of Traverse City” Food Festival

The View from my Beach Chair This Weekend. I Refuse to Apologize.

The View from my Beach Chair This Weekend. I Refuse to Apologize.

IMPORTANT NOTE: I’VE MOVED!

Dear friends and readers,

“Loving Traverse City” now has a new address. (It’s a lot easier to remember, too)  You can reach it easily by going to http://blog.traversecity.com/. Or just follow this link.

Thanks!

Mike

By MIKE NORTON

One of the drawbacks of getting older is that time seems to be speeding up — probably because there isn’t as much of it left in the hourglass as there used to be.

As a kid, I remember how everything seemed to take far too long, especially the school year, most of my classes, and the time between birthdays. These days, things come and go in a bewildering sort of blur, even here in this laid-back North Woods enclave, where the summer feels as though it’s already beginning to slip away. (Then again, maybe it’s just the times I love that go by too quickly; I’m sure January will seem, as usual, about three weeks too long.)

Anyway, it was a perfect Traverse City beach weekend, low on humidity and in the upper 80s, with Grand Traverse Bay nicely warmed up for swimming, so that’s where we planted ourselves. Ah, yes!

Still, there’s no getting around the passage of time. I’m already starting to think about September, when the brand- new Taste of Traverse City festival will be coming to TC.

The three-day festival, scheduled for Sept, 13-14, will include workshops, demonstrations, appearances by local chefs and culinary celebrities, and tastes and sips of the best dishes and libations from area restaurants, caterers, wineries, breweries and other food producers.

Highlights of the weekend will include a “Grub Crawl,” a day-long showcase event on the

Darren McGrady

Darren McGrady

city waterfront, a Sunday Brunch competition, and a Foodie Film Festival of food-themed movies. And I just heard from festival organizer Carol Lewis that they’ve landed a celebrity guest: Darren McGrady, who spent 15 years as Great Britain’s official Royal Chef.

McGrady was personal chef to Queen Elizabeth II, Diana, Princess of Wales and Princes’ William and Harry, has cooked for five US Presidents. His first cookbook titled ‘Eating Royally,’ recipes and remembrances from a palace kitchen is now in its fifth printing. Today he lives in Dallas, and travels the U.S. sharing his recipes and memories.

But Lewis, whose own past accomplishments include several major Detroit automotive shows and a gubernatorial inauguration, insists that she doesn’t want the new festival to be pigeonholed as an elites-only affair.

“You don’t have to have a lot of money to be a foodie, and that’s not the atmosphere I want to promote,” she said. “Traverse City is already being recognized for wonderful food and drink, and we want to bring that to a wider audience. This won’t be a high-ticket event; you can enjoy yourself all day for $20, or have a more intense experience for $50 or $60, but either way you’ll get value.”

It’s no secret that Traverse City has been attracting attention as one of America’s most unique culinary destinations (thanks to fans like celebrity chef Mario Batali) and was named one of the country’s Top Five Foodie Towns by Bon Appetit. But that fame can also be intimidating, and Lewis doesn’t want people to lose the sense of playfulness and fun that should be part of the food experience.

A Little Wine-Tasting...

A Little Wine-Tasting…

“We’re making this as reasonable as we possibly can, because we want people to come,” she says. “And we’re not letting everything out of the bag yet because we want to preserve a certain element of surprise. People should be a little adventurous when it comes to food and wine.”

The Taste of Traverse City festival isn’t entirely without precedent; Traverse City’s reputation as a food destination began to spread during the heyday of an earlier culinary festival, the Traverse Epicurean Classic. Lewis says the Epicurean Classic, which folded in 2012, involved a great many big-ticket events, celebrity chefs and book signings, while the Taste of Traverse City will be much more intensely focused on local cuisine.

She chose the date after consulting with local restaurateurs, winemakers and hoteliers, who convinced her that mid-September was a “sweet spot” between the end of the summer tourism season and the start of fall color touring and the annual wine harvest .  “We didn’t want to compete with anybody else,” she says.

The festival will open Friday evening with a Downtown Grub Crawl where attendees receive “tasting punches” that can be used for special food and beverage samples at downtown restaurants and bars. The festival’s signature event will be held Saturday afternoon on the city’s waterfront Open Space Park, featuring multiple pavilions and stages dedicated to a diverse selection of culinary fields (plus a “grilling & chilling zone” with live music and local chefs grilling tasty treats.)

A Little Food-Tasting, too...

A Little Food-Tasting, too…

Sunday’s offering is a “Best of the Brunch” culinary throwdown – a competition in which teams of chefs, farm suppliers and beverage creators vie to create and serve the “perfect brunch” to a small crowd of advance-ticket participants at the city’s waterfront Hagerty Center. And on all three days, the Foodie Film Festival will be showing such culinary movies as “Mostly Martha,” “Big Night,” “Ramen Girl” and “Ratatouille” in venues around the dining area.

Tickets to all events are available a la carte or as part of a weekend all-access festival pass, and there is special pricing available for orders placed in advance. (For instance: they’re offering a $10 discount per ticket during July for the Grub Crawl and the Best of the Brunch; the promo code for the Grub Crawl is GC10 and the Brunch is BB10.)

For more information, visit www.tasteoftraversecity.com.

Posted in Fall, Festivals, Food & Drink | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dance with the Girl Who Brought You: More Thoughts about Tourism

The High Rollways on the Manistee River section of the North Country Trail. (Photo by Jacob Norton)

The High Rollways on the Manistee River section of the North Country Trail. (Photo by Jacob Norton)

IMPORTANT NOTE: I’VE MOVED!

Dear friends and readers,

“Loving Traverse City” now has a new address. (It’s a lot easier to remember, too)  You can reach it easily by going to http://blog.traversecity.com/. Or just follow this link.

Thanks!

Mike

By MIKE NORTON

What a splendid summer it’s turning out to be! Great swimming (yes, the Bay has finally gotten warm enough!) and awesome weather for hiking, biking, beer-tasting and al fresco dining.

On Thursday my son Jake and I drove south of town to hike the nearest section of the North Country Trail – a beautiful four-hour walk along the high bluffs overlooking the Manistee Valley. With the stark red pines above us and that wide vista spreading out below, it was an afternoon that helped ease my constant nostalgia for the West. There were times I’d have sworn I was in the Black Hills…

Capped off by a couple of fine microbrews at Mackinaw Brewing and an excellent twilight dinner on the outdoor patio at the Towne Plaza – surrounded by lovely rose/lavender light, the crying of gulls and the murmuring of contented fellow-diners — it was the perfect day for playing tourist in my own home town.

Which brings me to some unfinished business about tourists and tourism. Last week, I laid out some of the reasons why I think the part played by visitors in the prosperity and public culture of places like Traverse City is insufficiently appreciated. At the end, I promised to discuss some of the challenges that face communities like mine, and how those can best be minimized.

A busy summer day at West End Beach

A busy summer day at West End Beach

  1. Seasonality

In traditional, resort-based tourist towns, tourism can sometimes create seasonal deformations in the local economy. People are hired on in peak season (in fact, workers often have to be brought in from elsewhere, as at Mackinac Island) but are laid off when the season ends. That’s not good for the workers, whose unpalatable choice is to either leave town or file for unemployment benefits, and it’s not good for their employers, either. This is still true in many places – the ski towns of Colorado and the beach towns of the Gulf Coast come to mind, as do some of our own neighbors to the north.

Fortunately, Traverse City is not a resort-style tourist town these days – it’s been years since we shut down the place after Labor Day — but there’s still a long way to go. To be blunt, we don’t really need more tourists in July and August. We need them in March, April and November. So the job is to identify groups of travelers who aren’t tied to the traditional school calendar – singles, empty nesters, retirees – and persuade them that there are plenty of good reasons to vacation in Traverse City in the spring, winter and fall. (Prices are lower, it’s less crowded, and people have time to be welcoming and courteous again.)

In recent years the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau has spent a great deal of time and money promoting travel in the non-summer months (this year, 70 percent of its substantial advertising budget was aimed at non-summer travel) and that aggressive effort is showing results. Over the past 15 years, we’ve been able to increase off-peak hotel occupancy by almost 10 percent during the three most difficult months of the year.  The bottom line? Our local economy has become more stable, with fewer seasonal fluctuations and layoffs, and off-season visitors get to enjoy a high-quality experience at a fraction of the cost.

A walk on the beach in fall has magic of its own.

A walk on the beach in fall has magic of its own.

  1. Geographic Dispersal

If seasonality is the problem of spreading the number of visitors out over time, it’s equally important to think about ways to introduce them to various locations around the Traverse City area instead of bunching everybody together in the same five or six attractions. We could accommodate twice as many visitors as we have now, without any visible difficulty, if we’d help them get more creative about the places they go. Instead of packing large crowds into spaces where they can’t help but make an obvious visual and auditory impact, we can help them find activities and adventures that allow them to interact more smoothly and pleasantly with each other, with the landscape, and with us.

Some people like to be in crowds, and we’re probably not going to change that, but we can offer them an array of experiences and destinations that take them out of the crowd to enjoy the solitude and peacefulness that most people think of when they hear the words “Traverse City.” That’s why we at the TCCVB have no problem referring visitors  to the other communities on the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas, toward Elk Rapids, Alden and Bellaire, to enjoy their scenery, shopping and dining experiences.

Watching the Traverse City Beach Bums play a night game at Wuerfel Park.

Watching the Traverse City Beach Bums play a night game at Wuerfel Park.

  1. Toward a More Diverse Tourism Product

Another important part of the mix – one that also helps reduce seasonality and spreads people out to a variety of destinations – is to diversify our tourism product.  It behooves us to offer as many different experiences as possible, whether that’s a wine country tour, a shopping adventure, a Beach Bums game, an Interlochen concert, a paddle down the Boardman or a fine meal at a downtown restaurant.

Obviously this is a work in progress, and it doesn’t emerge as a result of central planning, with a shadowy group of “tourism commissars” getting together to design the next  Five Year Plan. It happens when individual entrepreneurs see a possible market for a kind of tourism experience and put their money where their imaginations are. Some will fail, others will succeed. Hopefully, the final result is a richer, more complex tapestry of tourism experiences. And for those of us who live here, it means a richer, more complex tapestry of quality-of-life choices.

An October afternoon at Sleeping Bear Dunes.

An October afternoon at Sleeping Bear Dunes.

  1. Going Forward Wisely

Keeping things “just the way they are now” isn’t an option. The market simply doesn’t allow us that luxury. We can look at other communities that have tried that route; the results are usually disastrous. We have to be alert to new trends, constantly improving our products and services.

Nevertheless – and this is crucial — we must avoid the trap of coming to believe that tourism is a sort of magical industry that can be endlessly expanded and developed without consequences. Any industry – whether it’s manufacturing, forestry, or the provision of public services – can be pushed to the point where it does more harm than good. When this happens with tourism (particularly in a region like ours, where natural beauty, solitude and serenity are such an intrinsic part of our identity) it’s even possible to destroy the very qualities that made us attractive to visitors in the first place.

We must take care not to overdevelop our infrastructure, or develop it so rapidly that it cannot be sustained. We must avoid becoming so obsessed with chasing the next trend that we forget and neglect our existing strengths. We have to remember who we are and where we are, and why people have always loved this place. If we try to be too edgy, too sophisticated and slick — competing with places that we’re never going to be, pursuing new consumers who are never really going to like us anyway – we risk alienating the old friends who have valued us for being what we’ve always been.

I have a favorite saying: “Dance with the girl who brought you.”

And why not, after all? Isn’t she the most beautiful girl in the room?

Let's not mess this up.

Let’s not mess this up.

Posted in Fall, Festivals, Food & Drink, nature, Sleeping Bear, winter | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Tourists: Why I Love Them (And Why You Should, Too!)

Walking in the Cherry Royale Parade -- yeah, that's me under the big beach ball.

Walking in the Cherry Royale Parade — yeah, that’s me under the big beach ball.

IMPORTANT NOTE: I’VE MOVED!

Dear friends and readers,

“Loving Traverse City” now has a new address. (It’s a lot easier to remember, too)  You can reach it easily by going to http://blog.traversecity.com/. Or just follow this link.

Thanks!

Mike

By MIKE NORTON

Saturday was the final day of the 2013 National Cherry Festival – the day traditionally set aside for the enormous Cherry Royale Parade, where 150 floats, bands and marching units file past thousands of onlookers for two to three hours. This year, the Traverse City Visitors Bureau decided to march in the parade — which is how I came to be chasing a giant beach ball down the street in ninety-degree heat.

Actually, it was a lot of fun. Sweaty, sticky work, of course – but at least I was wearing shorts and a polo shirt, unlike some of those high school band kids in their black polyester uniforms who were right behind us. And I loved the interaction we were able to have with the crowd: the kids laughing and smiling, the grownups waving at us, the good-natured kidding going back and forth.

For me this is a big deal, because sometimes I don’t think people in this town appreciate how much they owe to the millions of visitors we get each year. Which is strange, when you realize that tourists bring nearly $1 billion a year to our area, support employment for nearly 14,000 Grand Traverse County residents  — 27 percent of our population – and directly support over 800,000 square feet of retail space in Traverse City.

But I’ve spent a lot of time listening to people’s concerns and thinking about them, and I think it comes down to a few issues that are probably common to most tourism areas. Here are the ones that come to mind most easily:

There are just too darn many people here. Especially on the roads.

I can relate to this one, because I’m not a crowd person. I like to hike, bike, sail and swim without a lot of companionship. That’s why I live here, and when the beach by my house gets too crowded I stay home and work in the yard.

But here’s an interesting factoid – since I live by the beach I can see the license plates on the cars – and most of them aren’t from out of town. I’d say in the height of summer maybe 10 percent of the people at that public beach are tourists. Think about it. Most tourists are staying at hotels that are already on the beach, and they’re paying handsomely for that private spot – they don’t need to go to a park they have to share with us, unless there’s a special reason to go there.

It’s the same thing with the traffic on the roads. When I’m driving to work in the morning this time of year, I can see the lights of cars backed up on Three Mile Road to Hammond and beyond. Hundreds of them.  It’s the same on M-72 and M-22 to the west, and US 31 to the south. Hey, it’s 7:30 in the morning – those people aren’t tourists – they’re us! There’s a lot more of us now than there used to be – and our transportation system hasn’t changed to keep up with that development, but that’s a different story.

There are times and places when the crush of tourists is pretty noticeable, though. I think the corner of Union Street and the Parkway during the week of Cherry Festival is an undeniable example. Nobody likes to get stuck in THAT traffic! But it’s really one week a year, at one – maybe two – intersections. Just think what it’s like at my office, where we have the only public flush toilets for miles.

Friday Night Live in downtown Traverse City. Yeah, that's a lot of people...

Friday Night Live in downtown Traverse City. Yeah, that’s a lot of people…

They don’t know how to drive.

Yeah, sometimes tourists drive too slowly. Sometimes they stop dead in the middle of the street, or go the wrong way down a one-way or act as if they don’t know where they are. Because they’re lost, or they’re trying to find someplace they’ve never been before. Just the way we are when we’re in an unfamiliar town. Sheesh.

They say dumb things and ask dumb questions.

Yep, they do. People come to the end of the Old Mission Peninsula and ask where the ferryboat to Charlevoix is. People ask about whale-watching trips in the Bay. Well, this is like the driving – sometimes they’re just honestly ignorant, and sometimes they’ve been made the victims of local folks who think they’re being funny. Either way, we could see ourselves doing or saying stuff like this if we were strangers in somebody else’s town. Everybody’s a visitor somewhere.

They create a big financial burden on local government.

It’s true that visitors don’t pay property or income taxes to local government. But the hotels, restaurants and shops they use — hotels, restaurants and shops that wouldn’t be here without them – do pay taxes. An estimated $3.1 million to the city of Traverse City and an estimated $9.8 million to Grand Traverse County in 2006 – the last year we studied. You think those guys pay their taxes out of their own pockets? Of course not – they pass the cost along to their customers. The tourists.

And except for driving on our roads, tourists use almost none of the services our tax money pays for. They don’t have kids in our schools, they don’t take books out of our libraries, they don’t ride the BATA buses, they don’t have housefires that need to be put out by our firefighters.

Far from being a drain on local government, tourism actually generates far more tax revenue than it requires in infrastructure and services. Over a 20-year period, we estimate that Traverse City receives a $4 million annual net surplus from the tourism industry, while the county receives an estimated $11 million annual surplus. The average county property owner, as a result, pays on average $232 less a year in local taxes because of tourists. City property owners do even better: they pay an average of $667 less per year because of taxes paid by tourists.

They’re rude, they litter and they’re bad for the environment

Some tourists are rude, it’s true. They make unreasonable demands, are abusive to hotel and restaurant employees and toss their trash around. So do some locals I know.

But when it comes to environmental damage, some strong words need to be said in defense of tourists. Remember, I live across the street from the beach; on summer mornings I go out to pick up the trash — and I know where that trash comes from. I know who has the late-night parties. It ain’t the tourists. There are always exceptions, but it’s almost never the tourists.

Think about it for a second. Who’s most likely to trash a place – somebody who’s seeing it for the first time and is completely blown away by the beauty and splendor of it, or somebody who’s grown up here and doesn’t even notice anymore how beautiful it is? I find our tourists much more respectful of their surroundings – even the teenagers – than many of the locals.

The other thing is to remember that almost everyone in the tourism industry is committed  to a business model that values sustainability and natural beauty. This whole wonderful tourism mechanism only works as long as people want to come here and experience the natural beauty and purity that we enjoy. Any business model that threatens the environmental quality of the area threatens the source of our prosperity. It’s not rocket science – local business leaders understand this.

From a strictly environmental standpoint, in fact, tourists are the ultimate renewable resource. They’re not a factory belching smoke; they’re not a forest you have to grow for 30 years before you can harvest it; they’re not a mining operation that leaves you with polluted water or a hole in the ground. They arrive every year, cheerfully give us their money and then go back home to earn some more so they can come back and give it to us all over again.

Lunch at the Jolly Pumpkin in Old Mission.

Lunch at the Jolly Pumpkin in Old Mission.

They take up all the good seats in the restaurants.

Here’s a thought: your favorite bar or restaurant, your favorite concert series, retail store, coffee shop or bookstore, probably wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for tourism. By itself, Traverse City’s population is too small to sustain the cultural, culinary and social amenities we’ve come to enjoy. They exist here because tourists add their numbers to the mix and make those amenities financially viable. We get to enjoy an elevated quality of life because tourists come here.

What this all comes down to, of course, is that most of us originally came from someplace else. We came here as tourists ourselves, decided we liked the place, and moved up. And like most parvenus, we’re more than a little uncomfortable with our status. We want to fit in and act like locals – and what better way than to complain about tourists? It’s like we’re finally the cool kids, and they’re the nerds.

But if these problems aren’t really such big problems, what are the major sticking points in the relationship between locals and visitors? I can think of a few — and I’ll talk about those items next week.

Posted in Festivals, Food & Drink, summer, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Food Trucks Arrive with a Roar on Traverse City’s Culinary Scene

Gibbeyville, home of fragrant (and mostly fried) festival food.

Gibbeyville, home of fragrant (and mostly fried) festival food.

IMPORTANT NOTE: I’VE MOVED!

Dear friends and readers,

“Loving Traverse City” now has a new address. (It’s a lot easier to remember, too)  You can reach it easily by going to http://blog.traversecity.com/. Or just follow this link.

Thanks!

Mike

Ah, Cherry Festival Week!

I love all its sights and sounds – the concerts, the fireworks, the parades with their marching bands and floats, the shrieks from the midway, the shouts of the vendors. Dogs launching themselves into the air. Kids planting their little faces into plates of cherry pie.

But mostly I love the smells of festival food. Elephant ears, brats with onions and peppers, smoked turkey legs, funnel cakes, and deep-fried foods of all kinds. Can’t eat it much these days, but at least I can sniff it on the wind in all its artery-clogging deliciousness.

Local restaurants serve up specialties at the festival food court.

Local restaurants serve up specialties at the festival food court.

Every festival requires food – especially the kind you can walk around with. And now it looks as though we’ll be able to enjoy portable food all the time — not just during festivals. (Healthier food, too!)

By now everybody knows that TC has also been attracting attention as one of America’s most unique culinary destinations, thanks to fans like celebrity chef Mario Batali, who helped it get named one of the country’s Top Five Foodie Towns by Bon Appetit. But for all its restaurants, wine bars and brewpubs, our town has lacked one key ingredient of a vibrant urban food scene: good, cheap street food.

Until now.

After months of heated debate, local officials agreed this spring to make it easier and less expensive for mobile food vendors to operate in the city. Almost immediately, a half-dozen food truck operators announced that they were setting up shop in Traverse City’s shady downtown district — and a pair of transplanted New York restaurateurs has even opened a bar whose parking lot serves as a base for the trucks and their customers.

Food trucks at lunchtime on State Street, near the post office.

Food trucks at lunchtime on State Street, near the post office.

The community’s first food truck, Roaming Harvest, is operated by Simon Joesph, a passionate advocate for locally-grown cuisine and street food. Like a farm-to-table restaurant, its menu changes daily and features local breads, meats, dairy, fruits, vegetables and jams. Buoyed by the city’s new acceptance of what he calls “mobile restaurants,” Simon has bought a second vehicle, named Little Yella, that will offer lighter items — simple sandwiches, salads and curries — than its older brother.

Other pioneer food trucks include King Wubbz Pita Dubz, the brainchild of local foodie Brian Welburn and Curbie, a 1946 Ford drafted into service in 2012 by Sam Porter, organizer of the Traverse City Microbrew & Music Festival and several other food-themed events. (The brightly painted truck is operated by a staff of student interns, serving locally made sodas, ice cream and dishes from whitefish tacos to paella, at special events and downtown festivals.)

947311_631669290194980_760954942_nThose early arrivals operated in uncertain waters, never sure if they were about to be regulated or taxed out of business, until city officials hammered out an agreement this spring that gave them more permanent status. The new regulations established regular hours of operation, delineated zones where the trucks can operate, and reduced permit fees from $100 a day to as little as $725 annually.

The new policy wasn’t embraced by everyone in the city’s culinary establishment. Owners of some downtown restaurants complained that the mobile eateries had an unfair competitive advantage, since they were exempt from high property taxes and could simply shut down when cold weather thins out the pool of customers.

But even before the policy was hammered out, Gary and Allison Jonas – who created the popular Brooklyn eateries Sycamore and The Farm on Adderly before moving to Traverse City, announced that they were turning a former party store into The Little Fleet, a full-service bar whose food service is being largely provided by the food trucks they’ve invited to open up shop in their parking lot.

Summer afternoon at the Little Fleet on Front Street.

Summer afternoon at the Little Fleet on Front Street.

The Jonas’s customers will be able to buy meals outside – from trucks or from nearby restaurants – and either bring them indoors to the bar or enjoy them in an outdoor patio. With heat lamps and other amenities, the couple is even hoping to keep the street food scene chugging along through Traverse City’s sometimes harsh winter months.

“We think it’s going to bring a lot of spirit to our city,” they said.

Almost all the new food trucks involved the venture are owned or operated by existing Traverse City restaurateurs. They include:

Pigs Eatin’ Ribs, from chef Adam Kline, who pioneered the street food scene in neighboring Charlevoix. Kline  intends to present a revolving menu centered around favorites like St. Louis spare ribs, pulled pork, brisket and probably a chicken item of some kind.

The Dragon Wagon, an Asian-flavored entry from Dan Marsh, owner of Red Ginger. Marsh’s signature Asian influences at work in dishes like duck confit quesadillas, sushi, bao buns and gourmet “sliders” featuring crab cakes and seared tuna.

Anchor Station from Michael Peterson, owner of Siren Hall and Lulu’s Bistro, which has already made a few festival appearances. The new truck will pair some festival favorites with dishes including blackened fish, burgers, falafel and Dirty Fries (French fries tossed with smoked pork belly, Asiago cheese, scallions and herbs.)

EZ Cheesy, a Jonas-owned truck operated by Kim Ryan, formerly of  The Cooks’ House and the Om Café that will specialize in upscale grilled cheese sandwiches, featuring locally sourced cheese and bread, as well as unique sides and rotating specials.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Cherries Start to Ripen — and Thereby Hangs a Tale

Ripening cherries above Grand Traverse Bay

Ripening cherries above Grand Traverse Bay

IMPORTANT NOTE: I’VE MOVED!

Dear friends and readers,

“Loving Traverse City” now has a new address. (It’s a lot easier to remember, too)  You can reach it easily by going to http://blog.traversecity.com/. Or just follow this link.

Thanks!

Mike

By MIKE NORTON

It’s amazing what a few days of good, hot summer weather can do.

For weeks, Traverse City’s cherry crop has been languishing on the trees – small, green and hard — thanks to a long, cold spring that has kept the fruit from ripening. And since the National Cherry Festival is supposed to start this Saturday, the usual crowd of Monday-morning quarterbacks has been writing, posting, tweeting and snarking that there won’t be any local cherries for sale this year. (As if the festival organizers have any way to predict when a given year’s crop will be ready for harvest — and as if there’s anything wrong with bringing fruit in from farmers a few miles to the south of us.)

But as I drove in to the office this morning, I noticed that some of those little cherries were starting to ripen – getting nice and red after a weekend in the 80s and 90s. It was a welcome sight, if only because they’re a part of who we are. In fact, with the possible exception of the Garden of Eden, it’s hard to think of a place more closely linked to a particular fruit than Traverse City is to cherries.

We don’t just have a Cherry Festival. Everything in Traverse City seems to have a cherry theme attached to it, from the Cherry Capital Airport, the Cherry Tree Inn and the Cherry Bowl Drive-In to the Cherryland Electric Cooperative, the Cherry Bomb Lacrosse Tournament and the Cherry Hill Boutique. It’s a rare restaurant that doesn’t have at least one cherry-laced sauce, dessert or entrée, and a rare gathering where bowls of dried cherries aren’t on hand for snacking.

DSC_7282

Michigan’s cherry-producing region starts about 100 miles down the Lake Michigan coast, in the area around Hart and Oceana County, but it gradually intensifies as you get closer to the communities around Grand Traverse Bay, which is really the heart of cherry country. The coastal counties of Benzie, Leelanau, Grand Traverse, Antrim and a bit of Charlevoix are far and away the most productive cherry country in the state.

For over a century, the inhabitants of the Traverse Bay region have regarded these bright little fruits as a sort of botanical mascot. They’ve been part of the Traverse City experience ever since the first cherry tree was planted here in 1852 by the Rev. Peter Dougherty, a Presbyterian missionary to the local Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.

No one expected Dougherty’s tree to survive so far north. Instead, it flourished – and it wasn’t long before arriving settlers began planting cherries of their own. What they discovered was that this region’s unique geography — gentle hillsides surrounded by lakes and bays of deep cool water – play a crucial role in moderating spring and winter temperatures.

Learning to bake a cherry pie at the Cherry Festival

Learning to bake a cherry pie at the Cherry Festival

Over the years, cherry orchards began to spread across the hills of the Old Mission and Leelanau Peninsulas, and today the Traverse City area produces over 75 percent of the world’s tart cherries. Back in 1923, local churches began a tradition known as the Blessing of the Blossoms, to pray for a successful crop. That simple blessing gave birth to an even larger celebration: the National Cherry Festival, now in its 86th  year. Each July, the week-long festival draws hundreds of thousands for parades, music, fireworks, games and competitions — including cherry pie-eating and pit-spitting contests.

But the heart of the festival is still cherries. Its organizers constantly work to come up with new and unusual uses for the area’s favorite fruit, whether it’s in a familiar dessert, a basting sauce or even on pizza. In fact, in Traverse City you’ll find cherries in everything from beer and wine to cherry vinaigrette salad dressing, bratwurst and beef patties. The week-long festival, now includes a multitude of wine-tastings, food samplings, and  competition for cherry-based recipes. And there are orchard tours, too.

Cherries at the Cherry Festival

Cherries at the Cherry Festival

There’s a reason for this ceaseless creativity: American tastes are changing, and people are eating less pie. If cherry farmers are to survive, they know they have to find new markets for their products. One of the earliest pioneers in this effort was Leelanau butcher Ray Pleva, who first mixed cherries with meat back in the 1980s. His Plevalean burgers are now served in school cafeterias in 18 states. Today Pleva is heading in yet another direction, marketing skin care products that blend cherries with natural oils.

In fact, the cherry industry is devoting a good deal of attention to health and beauty products, trading on the nutritional and anti-inflammatory qualities of cherries.

An awe-inspiring panoply of cherry items can be found in Glen Arbor, home to the original Cherry Republic store, which sells more than 150 cherry products from soda pop and wine to ice cream and salsa. (The Republic also has an “embassy” in downtown Traverse City, where many stores sell cherries in one form or another – whether it’s the preserves and sauces at American Spoon Foods or the chocolate-covered dried cherries at Old Mission Traders/The Cherry Stop.)

CherryStop__1946

Another wonderful way to encounter cherries is the way we locals do: at a local farm market or U-pick orchard. (Two good ones to try are McManus Southview Orchards, just south of  town on Garfield Rd., and Gallagher’s on M-72 just west of town.) Standing in the orchard, with a glimpse of sparkling blue horizon visible between the heavy-laden branches, it’s clear that cherries chose a special place to make their own.

Girl Picking Cherries

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Striking a Blow Against One-Dimensional Tourism

An ornate "painted lady" on Traverse City's West Side

An ornate “painted lady” on Traverse City’s West Side

IMPORTANT NOTE: I’VE MOVED!

Dear friends and readers,

“Loving Traverse City” now has a new address. (It’s a lot easier to remember, too)  You can reach it easily by going to http://blog.traversecity.com/. Or just follow this link.

Thanks!

Mike

By MIKE NORTON

I wasn’t expecting to create a fuss last week by posting several photos of 19th century Traverse City homes on our Facebook page. But a fuss is what ensued.

The truth is, I hadn’t shot any new pictures recently, and here was this stack of images from last year sitting in the computer gathering metaphorical dust. So I put them up on the page, figuring they might give people something interesting to look at until I could get out to capture more shots of well-tanned teens playing beach volleyball, well-tanned couples strolling downtown and other iconic scenes from summer life in Traverse City.

To my amazement, people loved those old “painted ladies,” the brightly decorated Victorian homes from Traverse City’s Central Neighborhood. The comments section under the photos filled up with appreciative responses from across the country.

003People asked about home tours, former residents shared their nostalgia, and many expressed their appreciation for the homeowners who had obviously taken such care of these dignified old places. The only grumblings I saw were from people who wanted to know why their own favorites (or their own favorite parts of town) weren’t mentioned. But what really surprised me was the number of visitors who said they always made a point of walking or cycling through the city’s old neighborhoods to gawk at all the old houses.

Wow, I thought. It isn’t just me.

And of course, I really shouldn’t have been surprised. Last summer I was escorting a German television crew through the Traverse City area. We went to the Sleeping Bear Dunes, we drove up and down the Old Mission Peninsula, we visited the Village at Grand Traverse Commons, and finally they turned to me and asked me to show them “where the people live.”

Which people? I asked.

“The people who live in Traverse City,” they said. “We don’t want to film any hotels. Hotels all look the same, no matter where you go, and that’s not what makes a town unique. We want to see where you people live.”

IMG_0700So we spent the next half-hour shooting video on Washington Street, in the Boardman Neighborhood, explaining to passing motorists and buggy-pushing moms just what we were up to.  It was a lot of fun, and I understood immediately what they meant. But I have to admit that when I show visitors around town, I still tend to aim for a half-dozen high-profile spots: the dunes, the wine country, the Commons, the downtown shops, the beaches, the lighthouses. Who has the time or inclination to look at neighborhoods.

Plenty of people, it seems. And that’s encouraging.

After all, I know folks who’ve been coming here for a decade or more who still think of Traverse City as little more than a strip of highway, with beaches on one side and restaurants on the other. They’ve never ventured beyond the downtown business district to see the lovely neighborhoods that lie just a few blocks inland, to walk the shady sidewalks beside gardens and homes – some well-to-do, some much more modest. The picture they carry away is predictably one-dimensional.

TraverseCityHouse&GardenBut, of course, Traverse City is far more interesting that they could every imagine, even though its history only goes back as far as 1847, to the small but growing community that formed around Capt. Boardman’s little sawmill. In 1852 the little town was christened Traverse City — but until the first road through the forest was built in 1864 it remained a remote outpost, accessible only by water.

CherryFest09 077It must have been a prosperous outpost, to judge by the number and size of the homes and public buildings that were built in the waning years of the century. The Boardman Neighborhood (along Boardman Avenue and Washington Street) preserves some of Traverse City’s oldest and most ornate homes, many in the fanciful Queen Anne style, while the turn-of-the-century mansions of Sixth Street (known as “Silk Stocking Row”) include the immense 32-room house built by Traverse City founder Perry Hannah in 1893.

Slabtown2Of course, not everyone in 19th-century Traverse City was a millionaire. The city’s west side – known at various times as Baghdad, Little Bohemia or Slabtown – was home to mill workers and skilled woodcarvers, including a substantial community of Bohemian immigrants who built tidy cottages for themselves out of scraps from the sawmills. Many of their homes are still standing, too.

This is all easy for me, because I love to walk around and snoop into things. But it makes me feel good to know that other people share the same love of brick-paved streets and leafy lawns, who can enjoy the sight of a stately home without being envious at the people who live there. And who can perhaps begin to appreciate the communities they visit as something more than scenic backdrops where they act out the fulfillment of their mass-produced, media-generated fantasies.

May their tribe increase!

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