My complex relationship with Ishpeming and the Upper Peninsula.

Dearest blog readers, I would like to take you on a brief tour of my hometown, Ishpeming, MI. We shall begin with this lovely aerial shot taken by photographer Michael Gregory...hey Michael, if you want me to remove this photo, I will, but I hope you let me post it in return for sending you some traffic to your page of awesome aerial shots of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan...thanks! The central image in this pic is the triple towers of the Cliffs Shaft Mine (another blog about that, soon), which form the distinctive Ishpeming skyline. It's not a big town...maybe 8000 people? You can see my Grandparents Rundman's neighborhood on the shores of Lake Bancroft (on the left of the photo), and in the lower right corner of the shot you can see the parallel homes where my Grandparents Roberts lived (in fact, you can see exactly my Grandpa's house if you know what to look for). As a small kid I lived in the neighborhood beneath the clouds, and as a teenager I lived in the neighborhood that lies just below the bottom of the picture. Downtown Ishpeming can be seen peeking through the clouds on the right...that little belltower is the Fire/Police Station.

I took my kids Svea and Paavo to Ishpeming for a few days last week to relax, swim and sauna, and visit with the extended family. It was heavenly (and "Ishpeming" is a native-American word for "heaven"). Here's a shot of my sleepy children paying homage to our town mascot, "Old Ish." This statue has been sitting on Main Street in downtown Ishpeming since the late-1800s. He's cool. He's even got his own MySpace page...be his friend. Every few years the city hires somebody to re-paint him...he looks particularly neat and precise these days...I seem to remember him looking a bit rattier when I was a kid. I think in the earliest days he was painted all black.

Here's the main entrance to the Carnegie Public Library in Ishpeming, a place where I spent many hours as a child, and where I go on vacation to blog and check email. In my song "Librarian" there's a lyric about giving thanks to Andrew Carnegie, and that line is a specific reference to my home town library. The top level has a floor made of glass, and it always creeped me out to see the light shining below my feet. I've written a ton of songs with references to Ishpeming...here are a few you may recall (or not):
CHURCH DIRECTORY: about my home congregation Bethel Lutheran
NOTHING OLD NOTHING NEW: about my former neighborhood, knows as Westwood Circle
BRAD N.: taking place in West Ishpeming
581: about the county road running South of town
EVERY TOWN'S THE SAME: about the death of Ishpeming's downtown businesses
Plus almost all the songs on The Muckrakers album have Ishpeming references or connections.

I get all sorts of conflicting feelings when I go back to Ishpeming. On one hand, I love it so much I want to pack up my life and move there, buy a house for $12,000, open a music venue, hang with family members, build a sauna in my back yard, and eat once a week at Mama Mia's Italian Restaurant. On the other hand, I'm depressed by the boarded-up Main Street, the pervasive beer-and-guns culture, and the overt racism I've personally heard people express in public just in the last few years. There's just a weird, dark vibe all around that I don't think I could deal with if I had to live there every day.

Here's a picture of the interior of the once-mighty Butler Theater (now an antique store). "The Showplace of the North" it was once called, but it couldn't stay afloat, and closed back in 1990 or so. I love love love this place, and it breaks my heart to know they don't show movies anymore. I remember sitting in the balcony in 1977 with my parents and seeing Star Wars when it was a new release. I remember sitting near the front with my cousin Bruce when we were in high school and laughing ourselves to tears at the Steve Martin / John Candy movie "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles." My high school jazz band set up on that stage and played for a packed house during a community concert. This place hosted the world premier of Otto Preminger's brilliant movie "Anatomy of a Murder," filmed right there in Ishpeming. You can still see the red floral design on the walls that I looked at so many many times before the lights went down. I remember they used to play Paul Simon's "Graceland" album over the PA before the movies were started. Man, what a wonderful place. If I become a zillionaire, I will buy the Butler Theater and show movies there again, even if nobody comes to the show.

Do any of you readers live in Ishpeming? My brother and my parents are still there. My brother would tell you that it's tough being a young adult and living in Ishpeming. But there are wonderful stuff about it, too....it's one of the most staggeringly-beautiful natural locations you'll ever see. As somebody who has seen almost every inch of this country, there is NOTHING like Michigan's Upper Peninsula anywhere else, and Ishpeming itself is a truly unusual town. Like the TV6 news people say: "Someplace Special."

Comments

Steve S said…
Neat Blog entry. I lived there from 1973 to 1978, though I didn't live in Ishpeming, but in Ishpeming Township, not far from the nursing home that had the fire.

I remember the Butler. My mom took me to see Grease when it opened. The only other movie I saw there was with you and Jason Dulany. I believe it was The Great Outdoors with John Candy. I would love to see movies there, again. The glass floor in the library used to creep me out, too.

I was always fascinated by the stories my dad and grandparents used to tell about Ishpeming back in the 30's through the 1960's. I don't know if that was the heyday, but it seemed to be more active.

As for the cultural aspects of that area, I can see what you are talking about. I like to hunt, so the 'guns' culture actually appeals to me (beer, I enjoy once in a while, but I'll take a micro brew over the usual stuff people drink).
Kelly said…
Love this blog entry, Jonathan. I have that same conflicted feeling about Ishpeming. I love it in so many ways, and miss so many things about it, but some things are depressing too...

I always knew that 581 was a reference to Ishpeming, and suspected that Brad N was too, but didn't know about the others. Good to know! I'll have to go and give all those songs another listen.
Jordan Hart said…
"I get all sorts of conflicting feelings when I go back to Ishpeming. On one hand, I love it so much I want to pack up my life and move there, buy a house for $12,000, open a music venue, hang with family members, build a sauna in my back yard, and eat once a week at Mama Mia's Italian Restaurant. On the other hand, I'm depressed by the boarded-up Main Street, the pervasive beer-and-guns culture, and the overt racism I've personally heard people express in public just in the last few years. There's just a weird, dark vibe all around that I don't think I could deal with if I had to live there every day."
Wow, Jonathan - if there was ever a paragraph to sum up how I feel about Ishpeming, this is it. Thanks for writing. I resonate with your observations completely. As a matter of fact - me and Iman are currently in Ishpeming!
Dan Oja said…
Hi Johnathon,

I know what you mean about Ishpeming being a wonderful place, but not being sure if you'd want to live there year-round. For me, it's the winters--way too long!

Winter should be a season, not 3/4 of the year. ;-)

Readers interested in Ishpeming and West Ishpeming, might want to stop by www.sixstarsinthewindow.com, the home site for Ordinary Heroes: Six Stars in the Window, my book about six brothers from West Ishpeming serving in World War II. It's available in print and digital versions, including a free multimedia BookOnBrowser. You can start reading it right now, for free, at http://www.mediatechnicscorp.com/pub/ohbrowser/

It's a compelling, true story of six brothers who are so very representative of the kind of people who live in Ishpeming.

Dan Oja

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