In the fall ofÂ 1993, when I moved to northwest Michigan,Â Poppycocks was the only decent place to eat on Traverse City’s Front Street. The cityÂ had plenty of surface parking lots where buildings once stood,Â a delapidated State Theatre on Front Street, andÂ a ghostlyÂ 100-year-old psychiatric asylumÂ on its western boundary.Â On the sprawling outskirts, the Grand Traverse Mall had just opened and the South AirportÂ ringÂ road at the mall’s doorstepÂ was so fry pit-ugly and congested that it was a metaphor for what people feared theÂ city and region would eventually become.Â
Traverse City is a much different place today. New homes and office buildings are replacing the parking lots. Front Street is host to bars and restaurants and coffee shops and specialty food stores too numerous to name. The state hospital, where one of the largest historic restoration projects in the United States is under way,Â is being turned into a mixed-use village of homes, shops, and offices. To be sure, the mall is thriving and South Airport Road is busier than ever. But citizens and non-profit groups, including the one I work for, killed the highway bypass and bridgeÂ that would have been the next junked-upÂ ring road, and replaced it with a federally-financed plan to make sure we are smarter about how to use ourÂ natural assets.
Traverse City, in other words, has stepped across an economic and cultural threshold.Â The distinctive ingredients of neighborhood, history, geography, and good tasteÂ are beingÂ mixed in very new ways.Â Perhaps none of the manyÂ events that now mark the city’s busy calendar reflects this new era more than the Traverse City Film Festival, which ended tonight.
The festival, of course, is the handiwork of Michigan native son, author,Â and documentary film makerÂ Michael Moore (see pix), who several years ago built a house on nearby Torch Lake in Antrim County and embraced the Traverse City region as his home.Â On Saturday nightÂ I was one of the thousands of people carrying lawn chairs and blankets toÂ the Open Space on the lakeshore to watch a freeÂ outdoor showing of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Before the show, Moore spokeÂ to an enthusiastic audience and without any trace of irony described the decency, neighborliness, and community he found in Traverse City, and how those valuesÂ were so throughly woven into the festival’s motto of “just great films.”
Moore’s comments struckÂ me as intensely personal.Â I don’t know Michael Moore and only met him once when he spoke a decade or so ago at the annual awards meeting of the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council.Â But an ambitous 53-year-old man who’s used his brain, mouth, and story-telling skillsÂ to become a genuinely influential figure of his timeÂ also needs a place to feel safe. In Traverse City he found that and more.Â
“Just great films” is an apt summary forÂ why the festival is so successful. Moore’s knack for choosing movies that are funny, provocative, intelligent, and tell great storiesÂ is almost flawless. Â
“Just great films,” though,Â Â also saysÂ justÂ as much about Moore’s needs.Â It’s a not so subtle reminder that in Traverse City, Moore isn’t interested in being the national figure, the activistÂ pushing back against an inept president, an unfairÂ system, and his critics, as he did on CNN last month. HeÂ has no desire toÂ roil the political waters here and does not want to beÂ a pariah in his new community.Â
But make no mistake. This is an ambitous Academy Award-winningÂ director who likes to make a point.Â With the help ofÂ two well-known and well-liked local guys– author Doug Stanton (“In Harm’s Way,” Owl Books, 2003) and photographer John Robert Williams –Â MooreÂ craftedÂ a week-longÂ film experience that fits its place; a city of stable neighborhoods, hard working entrepreneurs,Â and welcome optimism.Â The Traverse City Film Festival isÂ a prominent statementÂ aboutÂ whatÂ it takesÂ for a newcomer, a developer if you will, toÂ build something enduring that people love instead of fear.Â
The three men accomplished this trick byÂ usingÂ the civic resources at hand. The film festival’sÂ venues are a restored city opera house, an existing community playhouse, an auditorium in a neighborhoodÂ school, and the partially restored State TheaterÂ downtown, whichÂ hadn’t shown a movie in years. By deploying existingÂ assets to show 63 films in 98 screenings to a collective audience of 80,000 viewersÂ this year,Â the festival strengthenedÂ Traverse City, not weakened it.Â Â
How rare that is in a fast-growing region contending withÂ out-of-scale, out-of-context,Â community-disfiguringÂ development that makes people here flinch,Â whether it’s the $600 million Bay Harbor gated community south of Petoskey, the billion-dollar-plus proposals for new coal-fired electrical generating stationsÂ in Midland and Rogers City,Â or the monster amusement park that a developer wants to cut fromÂ state forest land in Grayling.
Two otherÂ essential ingredients also wereÂ mixed into the festival’s successful formula — civilityÂ and volunteers.Â Moore and his colleaguesÂ appear intent on instilling a heartland culture that displaysÂ no interest in attracting the glitz and glamor andÂ publicity of better-known film festivals.Â For the moment, and hopefully for many years to come, the Traverse City Film FestivalÂ will continue to be as courteous and approachable as its famous principal founder.Â
Lastly, the film festival operates with the financial help ofÂ dozens ofÂ local sponsorsÂ and roughly 1,100 volunteers. Nothing is more valuable than a person’s time. In a city of 14,300 residents,Â a volunteer swarmÂ that size indicates that people find tremendous meritÂ in this new and evolving community event.Â