Lake–It’s a Shore Thing

In times long gone but not forgotten, excursion ships swept revelers from Chicago’s Navy Pier to the shores and cottages of such beckoning ports as South Haven and Saint Joseph.

Now everyone drives, but the romance is back. Given half a chance to think of itself as paradise regained, the land across the lake has seized it, now encouraged by a magazine devoted to the proposition that everything about the region is fabulous, both the swells of its beaches and the swells you might spot at its fruit stands and antique shops. Lake, not yet four years old, gets fatter and flashier with every issue.

“Pretty much, if people can afford to advertise in it they advertise in it,” says Mary Beth Moriarty, who owns the weekly Times in New Buffalo, Michigan. New Buffalo’s a town on the lake that’s been transformed over the past 30 years by second-home owners.

Lake’s editor and publisher, Pat Colander (once upon a time a Reader contributor), has been sending me copies for the past couple of years. Originally a quarterly, it has expanded to eight issues a year and a controlled circulation of about 32,000. (“Controlled circulation” basically means free–it lives off its advertising.) Frequency of publication isn’t something Lake has ever tried to be clear about, its issues being identified vaguely by the seasons–as in early spring, spring, early summer, summer, late summer, fall.

But no winter.

“In the ‘holiday’ issue we do have stuff about winter,” Colander says. “But you know, people travel. But we’re getting more year-round communities. These are residential communities that are psychographic with Lake magazine, though not necessarily geographic. They’re adjacent to the lake, and people spend time on the lake. But the people don’t necessarily live right on the lake.”

I chew over the meaning of “psychographic” and “residential communities.” You mean towns? I say.

“Well, sure. Some are even cities. Until last year I never went to Grand Rapids. It’s great, it’s great. They have great restaurants, great museums. I saw the Gerald Ford Museum, and it’s really a good museum. And last week I went to Kalamazoo for the first time. I think it’s really cool. Everybody should go up to this museum and see this exhibit. It’s called ‘Millet to Matisse,’ and it’s got Bonnard and Boudin and Cassatt and Cezanne. It was originally curated in Glasgow. They’ve been planning this for a few years. It opens May 22 and it goes to August 15. We’re going to do a story after it opens.

“A lot of these communities,” she continues, “are really doing well, and they’re doing smart things to get more convention business and destination business and home owners who might want to live there. I’m enjoying discovering these places.”

If you studied a map, you wouldn’t necessarily include small inland cities such as Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo within the purview of any magazine named Lake. But Lake is hot, and advertisers far from the water want in on the magic. So its realm has steadily grown, from a short stretch of lakeshore bisected by the Indiana-Michigan state line to a crescent that begins in Chicago, sweeps 165 miles north-northeast to Grand Haven, and reaches east across dozens of miles of pastoral byways in the general direction of decrepit Detroit.

In the early 70s regionhood was in short supply and expressed mainly in negative terms. A string of rustic old lake towns had seen better days, and a rising lake terrified wannabe urban escapists. Some noble old homes on eroded foundations had made headlines by literally falling into Lake Michigan.

But the lake started going down, and Chicago money began washing in. In the late 70s the term “Harbor Country” was coined by Michigan interests to institutionalize the cachet of the real estate along the lake just north of the Indiana line. Harbor Country supposedly stretched through New Buffalo, the local commercial hub, to Sawyer and jagged inland a few miles to Three Oaks, which had a roadside sausage shop too famous to exclude. A few years ago the convention and visitors bureau in La Porte County, Indiana, just south of the state line, began slipping “harbor country” into its own promotional material, and Michigan’s Harbor Country Chamber of Commerce swung into action. Its first move was to trademark “Harbor Country.”

“This action was taken,” explains the official Harbor Country Web site, “in part to fend off nearby locations that were not part of this legacy and wanted to ride the coat tails of the emerging notoriety and success by attempting to expand the Harbor Country name and region into other areas south into Indiana and north to St Joseph/Benton Harbor and beyond. Those efforts were abated.”

“We have to police this really carefully,” a chamber official tells me.

Lake scorns the border war. Editor at large Deborah Loeser Small, who founded Lake, grew up in Skokie, but her parents had friends they often visited in Long Beach, Indiana. “I just had the most wonderful memories of the beach and the dunes,” she says, “and Lake Michigan, on that side of the lake as opposed to by Chicago, was so almost ethereal. It was a whole sensual experience with the lake and the beach. And they were incredible cooks, and they’d make all these wonderful Italian dishes. It was like magic to me–everything about this couple and Lake Michigan and the sensuality of everything.”

Deborah Loeser grew up, became a journalist, and married Tom Small, whose family business, the Small Newspaper Group, owned the daily paper in La Porte and plenty of other papers besides. Unable to get her childhood out of her head, she began to think of starting a magazine for the most primal of reasons–to say to a place, you are a place. “This is a beautiful area that’s in the backyard of Chicago,” she says. “I’ve traveled extensively with my husband, and I think it’s one of the loveliest places anywhere in the United States. Not only in terms of the body of freshwater and the dunes, but the housing is interesting–the old cottages. There’s a certain style and sensibility that’s different, for example, from Cape Cod or Malibu or other parts of the country. It seemed it deserved to have more of an identity.”

Small launched Lake in 2000 and put out four issues before moving to California with her family. She needed a successor. Colander, whom she’d known years earlier when they both were Chicago journalists, had moved to the Miller Beach section of Gary and spent most of the 90s working for the Times of northwest Indiana in various capacities, including managing editor. In 2001 Colander was trying to get a community arts program along the lines of Chicago’s Gallery 37 up and running in Gary; she called Small looking for ink. She got it, and then an invitation to work for Lake part-time. The next thing Colander knew, Small was asking her to take over. Entrepreneurial, creative, experienced, ornery, and blessed with a million contacts, Colander and Lake “were like a match made in heaven,” says Small. “Pat and I either exchange e-mail or a phone conversation every day, but she’s very strong in writing and editing so she has a lot of freedom. She also has a tremendous drive. She’s taking it in a slightly different direction, but she’s actually opening it up more. She has a great variety of people there, from socialites to tattoo artists as well as literary people. When I was beginning, this was a little more on the guidebook side. There’s still that part of it, but she has expanded it to a publication you want to take with you to the beach and read, in addition to it telling you which beach to go to.”

Colander showed off in her first issue by interviewing Donald Trump, who happened to control the Miss USA pageant in Gary. And Colander’s friend Denise DeClue told the yeasty story of the days when Nelson Algren and Simone de Beauvoir were shacking up in Miller Beach.

Lake refuses to be shackled by conventional editorial logic. The new spring issue offers a story on Chicano art, an exhibit in Indianapolis providing the excuse to run it. DeClue, a Lake regular, offers “Toora Loora Loora,” a look into Irish folk music. WLS news reporter Andy Shaw, “who lives part time on the Lake in Bridgeman, Michigan,” gave her a reminiscence about a Chieftains song often played at the late O’Rourke’s pub on Chicago’s North Avenue, and John McHugh, formerly of Chicago and O’Rourke’s but now of Three Oaks, named his own favorite tune. Locales like O’Rourke’s–for that matter, Chicago generally–function in Lake as the Old Country.

Lake was printed first at the Small Group’s Herald-Argus in La Porte, then at its Daily Journal in Kankakee. The newsprint was pulpy, the photos blurry. But since late last year Lake’s been a full-blown, super-size glossy magazine (printed in Saint Joseph) that does full justice to the endless pages of color snapshots taken of glistening locals at their soirees and art fairs. With all due respect to Chicano art, these pictures are the straw that stirs the daiquiri. As Mary Beth Moriarty observes, “People like to see themselves in print.”

By now Colander is so indigenous she’s married to Gary’s deputy chief of police. Many a Chicago celeb is also a fixture. Which celeb did the most to stamp the southeastern shore of Lake Michigan as the place to be, I wonder. “I think it’s got to be Roger [Ebert],” Colander says. “He’s been here so long. He used to throw those big Fourth of July parties. Hundreds of people came to those. And didn’t Siskel have a place up here too?”

He did. And so did many others.

“A lot of people who’d never heard of La Porte heard of La Porte because of Oprah,” she says. She mentions Father Andrew Greeley.

I mention the Daleys.

“Don’t forget the Shaws,” she says.

Last year’s late-summer best-of issue put Bill Kurtis and Donna LaPietra on the cover as the “best Lake Michigan couple.” Colander confides, “A lot of people we’re trying to interview aren’t sure they want it known they have places around here. Like Dennis Farina. Do people generally know that Diann Burns has a house up here?”

I can’t help her on that one.

“So you didn’t know that,” she muses. “Marc Watts. He was on CNN. And Laura Caldwell. She’s a novelist. She lives up here, so she’s a celebrity, I guess. And oh, John Landecker. He’s fairly recent. He moved out here from Lincoln Park. I learned he lived out here from his radio show. He talked about driving his tractor around Michigan City on weekends and how much he loved it. So he’s a new celebrity.”

News Bites

Chinta Strausberg, who’s covered City Hall for the Defender for 22 years and sometimes seemed to write the paper singlehandedly, is reluctantly leaving to take a job with Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn. She’s being replaced by the Defender’s only white reporter, Joe Ruklick, who also writes editorials, and by police reporter Ferman Beckless. Beckless’s appointment was announced after a demonstration was held outside the Defender protesting Ruklick’s.

Strausberg wouldn’t discuss her relationship with Defender editor David Milliner, but she made it clear she hadn’t been happy. “The job offer’s been there a year, and Pat was pressing me,” she told me. “I guess I was having a very bad day and I said yes. The newspaper, the Defender, has been my first love. It’s been my life, and I’ll miss it. I worked seven days a week. I took no vacation. I don’t take lunch or breaks. I work at my desk. I live it, I love it, but like a divorce, it’s time to say good-bye.”

Ruklick, a former NBA player who’s been with the Defender five years, told me, “I am thrilled with the opportunity….My loyalty is to those principles of journalism that are exemplified at Medill, where I spent a fortune to get a master’s degree.”

“Unrest kills 8 Americans”–headline in the April 25 Tribune. And that’s after disquiet and indecorum killed 700 others.

When editor Karen Jurgensen resigned under fire at USA Today in the wake of the Jack Kelley scandal, publisher Craig Moon declared in a staff memo that her “retirement opens the door to move the USA Today brand forward under new leadership.”

Should bosses who refer to the place where their people work as a “brand” wind up sleeping under bridges?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.