What follows is our official exit interview with writer, filmmaker, and professional critic Jeff Meyers, who, earlier this winter, escaped Ann Arbor for Palo Alto, California. While in Michigan, Jeff, among other things, was the managing editor of Concentrate Media, and a film critic for the Detroit Metro Times. He also served as the president of the Detroit Film Critics’ Society from 2011-2014.
MARK: Before we get into your decision to leave town, perhaps we should back up a little… What kind of kid were you?
JEFF: Yikes. That’s always a tough one because I come from a pretty messed up family. I sometimes joke that the stuff that went on in my home would make a decent episode of Jerry Springer (or whoever his equivalent is today). But living with that kind of abuse can really mess with you. So, as a young kid, I spent a lot of time living in my imagination. I wrote a lot. I read a lot. I drew a lot. At school I was a pretty good student but easily bored and often got in trouble for “talking back” to the teacher or “acting out.” There were lots of report cards that talked about my potential. In ninth grade I discovered Dungeons and Dragons, which was a great way to check out of reality. I was always the Dungeon Master and realize now that it was a kind of precursor to writing. I was basically telling stories. I also discovered Super 8 filmmaking and recruited friends to act in some really bad historical recreations. I tried a few HS sports (track, swimming) but kind of sucked. I acted in plays, and wasn’t too terrible. Movies were always a part of the mix. After my parents fell asleep I would sneak watch HBO, and caught stuff like A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs and Fellini’s Casanova – stuff I probably wasn’t quite ready to see at 10 and 11 years old. [below right: Meyers in pre-school.]
JEFF: I grew up on Long Island (New York) in a sleepy beach town called Sayville. It was about 40 miles outside New York City and was one of the Ferry Towns to Fire Island… which made for some interesting visitors in the summer as men from the East Village would come out for the weekend via the railroad and have to catch a local cab from the train station to the ferry dock. On Fire Island there was a bar called The Monster, which I guess was quite popular with NYC’s gay weekenders. Because this was the ‘80s, it all seemed very exotic to me – especially the drag queens. While you would see a few pass through during the summer, the annual Miss Fire Island Pageant would bring in big numbers. A good friend of mine lived near the train station, so it was kind of like getting a front row seat to a pretty unique cultural parade. I thought it was weird and cool, but as you can imagine, that was not a popular sentiment among teenage boys of my generation.
MARK: I grew in large part about 40 miles outside of the City in the other direction, in rural New Jersey. The closest we came to drag queens was Lou Reed, who lived nearby for a while, but I think he was out of his androgynous stage by then.
JEFF: Lou Reed? That’s cool. The coolest thing to happen in our sleepy town was a mob hit. Of course, I wouldn’t have had any idea who Lou Reed was while I was living in Sayville. My music tastes were mostly informed by whatever was on the radio. I think maybe I knew the song “Walk On The Wild Side.” In college, of course, I became a huge fan. I think I’ve seen him four times in concert. The New York tour was great. The Edgar Allen Poe tour, not so much.
MARK: What’s your first memory?
JEFF: Period? Geez, I dunno. Actually, I think I do. I was like three, and my parents drove to JFK to pick up my sister (who was adopted). What I mostly remember was the airport and all the lights and planes and runway vehicles. But it’s all kind of surreal, like I was standing hundreds of feet above the airport looking down on everything. I have no idea if that’s a real memory or something I once dreamed and it just became part of my matrix. But it sure feels like a real memory. What about you? What’s your first memory?
MARK: I remember laying in a crib, looking up at a yellow curtain that was blowing in the wind. It must have been in Monticello, Kentucky, where I lived until I was about three or four years old. I just remember the sunlight streaming in, and how warm it felt. And I remember the sounds of summer outside. It’s a good memory. There may have been the sound of a lawnmower in the distance. I also remember watching The Dick Van Dyke Show in that house, and driving with my dad to pick up a big bean bag that we’d put in the basement, just off to the side of a staircase without a guard rail, so you could leap onto it from pretty high up. But I think those two things came later, after the yellow curtain… Do you just have the one sibling?
JEFF: Actually I had two sisters, but one died about twenty years ago. She took her life at twenty three. Like I said, I come from a pretty dark background and while I don’t have a problem talking about it, I try not to burden folks with the details. I will say, however, that since I was adopted, and since my family was violently dysfunctional, I probably make a good case for the nature over nurture argument.
MARK: Sorry to hear about your sister, Jeff… Onto happier things… I want to get to your filmmaking later, but, as you mentioned Dungeons and Dragons, and since I know you have an interest in horror, I’m curious as to what you thought about the Netflix series Stranger Things.
JEFF: I thought it was a great throwback… and exactly in sync with my childhood experiences (sans monsters, of course). Ten hour games of D&D were not uncommon back then. Heck, my game even had a small waiting list of kids who wanted to play. I couldn’t really handle more than seven at a time, so I had to keep some players out until someone’s character died. Eventually, I started running two campaigns. And a game of Traveller. And a game of Vigilantes And Villains (superheros). It was crazy. But I was doing anything I could to check out of reality. The thing about Stranger Things that really appealed to me was how much my kids loved it. It was just the right amount of scary, so we could enjoy it together as a family. That’s not always true with a lot of shows. What did you think? Were you ever a D&D nerd?
MARK: I dabbled, but I never got too deep into it. I spent my adolescence in rural New Jersey, so I kind of missed out a lot of those things that were happening in American neighborhoods at the time. I didn’t have friends next door. I couldn’t ride my bike to anyone’s house. So I think I watched Stranger Things with a bit of sadness. Once I got to high school and started driving, though, things changed a bit. I made friends and started hanging out, having I guess what you’d consider a pretty typical existence, but, by that time, the folks in my circle of friends were growing out of D&D. So it’s something in American culture that just kind of passed me by. [It’s hard to play D&D alone.] For what it’s worth, I also never saw Mork & Mindy, as our television didn’t get that channel. So, yeah, I was deprived in that sense. I just read books, drew pictures, and talked to my dog. [Thankfully no videos exist of me singing to her.] Oh, and I worked on weekends with my dad, who had grown up on a farm. It was kind of understood that I’d chop wood, dig holes, work on cars, and all that kind of stuff.
JEFF: Ah, so you acquired all the skills I wished I had gotten. If the zombie apocalypse ever happens, it’s pretty likely you’ll last quite a bit longer than I will. After all, I’m not confident that my encyclopedic knowledge of film history and comic book lore will prove all that handy. Sadly, my folks, who had few skills and no college education, did little to ready me for the adult world. Well, any world really. So I mostly retreated into my geek fetishes–and writing stories of my own–as a way to tune out the discord at home. The first thing I ever had published was in Junior High, it was a letter in DC Comics’ Swamp Thing. I was pretty bowled over by Alan Moore’s writing. [below right: Meyers in Chicago during the college years.]
MARK: Don’t feel bad, Jeff. I didn’t acquire any real skills to speak of, at least none that would give me a discernible advantage over you when the end times come. I learned stuff while working alongside my dad, but nothing really stuck. I do have a pretty good work ethic, though, which I attribute to my upbringing… Back to you… Given the nature of your early childhood, would I be right to assume that you found the college experience pretty liberating?
JEFF: Yes. But gradually. And it probably wasn’t all that different from any other teen’s experience. Just with a whole lot of financial uncertainty (my folks didn’t contribute). I worked a lot. And at a lot of different jobs. And I had this weird hormonal thing going on where I would fall asleep all the time. Sometimes I’d conk out in one class and wake up in another. I’d try to schedule my classes all in a row to hedge against missing the rest of the day. It rarely worked out. So I was a pretty inconsistent student, getting As one quarter and Cs the next. Eventually, however, I found my divot at school. I worked at the college radio station (which was commercial, believe it or not), had a daily cartoon in the school paper, made a 16mm short film, got into Tae Kwon Do, saw a lot of rock bands and drank (among other things) way way too much.
MARK: And what first brought you to Ann Arbor from the pacific northwest, where, as I recall, you were living just prior?
JEFF: My wife landed a position at University of Michigan after finishing 10 years of training. We had mostly lived in Portland, but spent a few years in Seattle as well.
MARK: And what were you expecting Ann Arbor to be like?
JEFF: Well, I had visited Ann Arbor once before, while in college at U of I in Champaign-Urbana. I went along with a friend because he wanted company on the drive (he was visiting his girlfriend and she was living in a big house, so, you know plenty of couch space). At the time it didn’t seem all that different from U of I’s campus, but a tad more expensive. I mostly remember running out of money and trying to sell plasma to cover my expenses. It wasn’t fun. My wife’s interview process at U-M was the next time I visited. During the housing tour, the woman who drove me around mostly talked about how big the yards were and how the house prices never lost value (this was, of course, before the recession) and pointed out how Ann Arbor Hills didn’t have sidewalks, as if that were a real selling point (no shoveling in the winter!). I immediately disliked the place. Mostly because it seemed like just another suburb to me – albeit, one with a nice downtown. But I had just spent 8 years living in Portland, 3 years in Seattle and 5 years in Chicago (with a 1 year stopover in Minneapolis), so things like walkability, public transit, and bikeability were important to me. And, man, Ann Arbor seemed so white. I mean, Portland is certainly very very white so I guess I can’t be too critical on that score – but the lack of diversity – both racial and economic – was very evident. What struck me most, however, was the stark contrast in cultural offerings. I know some people don’t really give a shit about that kind of thing, but for me, it was pretty important. I grabbed an Observer and a Metro Times (which at that point was still distributed in Ann Arbor) to see what the place had to offer and I was pretty disappointed to see few of the things I liked – unless I wanted to drive an hour into Metro Detroit. I mean, there were a hand full of cool bands playing at the Blind Pig and a few interesting events, but Ann Arbor didn’t have the vibrant creative vibe I was used to (and, frankly, spoiled by). My impression was that people here really seemed to be into Contra dances, because there seemed to be one every weekend. I still don’t know what a Contra dance is. Oh, and we made the mistake of eating at Tio’s, because we saw how it had been rated the “Best Mexican Food” in Ann Arbor by Observer readers. I didn’t realize it was probably the only Mexican food in Ann Arbor at the time.
MARK: And what’s your sense of Ann Arbor now, having spent some 13 years here?
JEFF: Complicated. I really grew to like and even admire some things about the community. I think there is a neighborliness and pride of place that is somewhat unique to the Midwest, but Michigan in particular. And if you can find your tribe, so to speak, it’s very supportive of your efforts, and genuinely cares about who you are and what you are doing. Of course, once I plugged in, I developed friendships that can’t ever be replaced. It’s also a community filled with a lot of smart people. It can be easy to take that for granted. Finally, it’s really changed over the last decade – for good and bad. Culturally, there’s a lot more going on. The restaurant scene is certainly better. The beer scene too. I developed a deep appreciation for Ann Arbor’s public library system – which may be one of the best I have ever encountered. On the other hand, I also developed deep deep frustrations with the region’s inability to meaningfully change… and, more importantly, the way it expresses open hostility to change. I’m glad that density and mass transit and affordable housing and sustainable practices are no longer the dirty words they were when I first arrived, but man they are a long way from being embraced with any vision or impact – and, in fact, because the community keeps having the same dumb fights over whether something should even happen, they’re not having the debates that are needed to develop the best way for those policies and practices to be implemented. That means the process is rife with poison pill agendas, weird compromises and no real benchmarks for success. Instead of learning from other communities around the country and embracing their successful ideas (while avoiding their failures) there’s an attitude here that somehow Michigan is completely unique and must develop its programs on its own. I also think that the state is greatly compromised by truly terrible leadership, as well as some unfortunate aspects of its political and constitutional DNA (Home Rule and the parasitic impacts of the townships being a big part of that). I also think there is a particular mindset here that is hard to break: and that’s the way people, communities, cultural groups, etc are all very silo’ed. It may be the natural evolution of a state that fostered that thinking on a municipal level or maybe it’s always been a part of the Michigan culture, but it seems to me that very few communities (and I mean that in the broadest sense) know how to work and play with each other. You can join someone’s ‘thing’ but it will remain their ‘thing’ until they decide to stop. There isn’t much passing of the torch or sharing of resources or collaboration with others who do similar ‘things’. That seems to extend beyond municipalities and school districts to various subcultures as well. Perhaps the biggest exception to this (that I’ve noticed) is the music community. They seem a bit healthier in that regard. I was once chatting with Tamara Real, who ran the Arts Alliance at the time, and she asked me about my experiences with the Portland and Seattle arts and literary communities and how they compared with Ann Arbor. I answered that it seemed like Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti had lots of artists (visual, theater, film) in the community but no real arts community. Everyone was just kind of their own entity. But mind you, this was a few years ago.There are some recent examples of that changing, at least, a little. The Festifools brings some creative folks together. And, of course, all the stuff you were involved in Ypsilanti. So, things are evolving, I suppose.
MARK: And how did you spend your time here?
JEFF: Hmmm. Let’s see. Well, I spent roughly the first two years unemployed because I was told my resume was simply too odd. I had been a Microbiologist for around a decade before becoming the Creative Director at a video production startup while living out West. When I interviewed for positions here I kept getting asked why I didn’t just take the Creative Director position off my CV and go back into research (which I absolutely did not want to do). This was my introduction to Michigan hiring practices, which seemed very oriented toward HR departments checking certain boxes. I had some promising job leads outside Ann Arbor – namely in advertising – but I didn’t want to commute to Troy or Sterling Heights because… well, who the hell wants to do that? Plus I had a one-year-old and a wife working 70-80 hours a week. Eventually -because I had reviewed theater for The Stranger in Seattle (and film for a weekly called Tonic in Portland)– I was hired by the Metro Times to review the films the main two critics didn’t want to bother with (mostly horror movies, docs and the occasional arthouse flick). Eventually I became their lead, then only, critic and wrote something like 700 reviews over 9 years (or there abouts). I picked up some freelance writing gigs for national magazines, led local film appreciation classes, and around 2006 was hired by IMG – first just to write stories but eventually as the managing editor of Metromode and then Concentrate. I also had my second child, directed a couple of plays for the A2 Civic Theater (All My Sons, A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and started collaborating with Keith Jefferies on short films. We made five shorts before he moved to Los Angeles. [below right: Meyers and Jeffries]
JEFF: He’s doing great, slowly plugging into the industry. He’s an amazingly talented guy, so I have no doubt people out there will catch onto that. Now that I’m only an hour plane ride away we’re planning new projects. The thing that is amazing to me is that Keith and his wife have decided to live in LA without a car. A decade ago that would have been inconceivable. But they moved downtown, use the ever-expanding subway system, take Uber when needed and rent a car when necessary. Keith says that financially they come out ahead (compared with having to own a car in Michigan). That’s quite a statement about how things can change when people are offered the opportunity of change. I mean, no one thinks this stuff will significantly alter the insane car culture that dominates L.A. today. But they are seeding the ground for change later. Which brings me back to my frustrations with Michigan – how little and absurdly long things take to change.
MARK: What can you tell us about the films you and Keith made together?
JEFF: Through our production company, Corrugated Films, we co-directed four shorts (you can watch three of ‘em here, here and here) and then I wrote and directed one where Keith was the editor, gaffer and, of course, co-producer. It was a kind of learn-by-doing film school. And we really developed as creative partners, which is always cool. The most recent short, The Blood Of Love, just finished up a two-year festival run, having played in over 50 festivals and winning about a dozen awards (including the Best of Fest Short at the East Lansing Film Festival). Keith and I hope to tackle another project out here in California.
MARK: What is it that made you gravitate toward horror when you started making your own films? Had it been a favorite genre of yours, or is it just that you saw it as being a less complicated point of entry? And, by less complicated, I don’t necessarily mean easier. I mean that horror doesn’t require the budget of sci fi, or maybe the precision of comedy, right? And, of course, there’s a big, built-in audience that’s shown itself over the past few decades to be both enthusiastic and supportive.
JEFF: Oh, boy, that’s a loaded question. I could write an entire dissertation on why I think horror is uniquely positioned to confront social issues and themes in ways that other genres would struggle to achieve. After all, can you think of a better film than Rosemary’s Baby that dissects the fear and alienation that accompanies a first-time pregnancy? Or how about the insidious and codified behaviors of liberal racism on display in Get Out? But, yeah, I think it’s safe to say that the barrier to entry is a little easier in horror. It isn’t necessarily my favorite film genre, but I think it offers unique and exciting ways to explore characters and stories. It also allows me to move laterally as a filmmaker and writer into other genres like thrillers, dark comedies, sci-fi and even action. Whereas comedy can become a kind of professional dead end. I actually wrote a comedy script with a friend that placed in the Academy’s Nicholl Screenplay Fellowship Competition and it attracted a lot of interest from agents and managers. And they all kept asking us the same thing: “What other comedy scripts do you have?” They wanted to present us as a comedy team in order to get movie and television assignments. And I had to decide if that was what I really wanted. For, like, ever. Because once the industry brands you, that’s pretty much what you are, ad infinitum. Ultimately, I decided that my sensibility and affinity was for darker material, and that I wanted to work in drama and horror and just about every other genre of film. I didn’t want to dedicate 6-8 months writing another comedy and then shackling myself to the laugh train for the rest of my life. Which probably sounds a bit nuts to anyone who loves comedy. But I’ve reached the age where I don’t want to spend time on shit that doesn’t consistently excite me. Of course, it wasn’t like anyone was dangling a huge payday in front of us–everything was speculative at that point. Who knows what kind of choice I would have made if faced with a six-figure check and a major studio credit?
MARK: Did you find your film criticism changing at all after having produced a film of your own?
JEFF: Hmm. Not really. I mean, you certainly see how hard it is to translate what’s in your head onto the screen, and it becomes clearer how easily things go wrong. But my criticism tended to contextualize film within the medium or within the culture and politics at large. I do, however, think that writing screenplays has had an affect on my criticism. Digging into script theory and craft made me very cognizant of how a film could be congenitally flawed at the writing level, and no amount of flashy direction or scene-chewing performance was going to make it work. [below right: The Blood of Love.]
JEFF: It’s tough for sure. But mostly because of the shallow depth of talent and crew. Which is not to say that there aren’t talented, professional film folks in Michigan. It’s that there aren’t enough of them. Because why would they stay? The state GOP has made it clear that they’re neither interested nor care about the industry or any of the indirect impacts it may have. It’s sad, really, because you look at a state like Georgia and the incredible successes it’s had with the film and television industry and it’s not hard to imagine that it could have been Michigan. I kind of think this all circles back to Michigan’s underlying pathologies, which is to be suspicious of change no matter how dysfunctional things have become, and never entrust anyone with the freedom to experiment. The first failure often becomes the last failure because there’s always a chorus of high-placed folks shouting, “See, we told you it wouldn’t work.”
MARK: As a screenwriter, I think you might appreciate this next question… If you were to tell the story of your time in Ann Arbor in a two-minute montage, what would it look like? What would you include?
JEFF: Well, as a screenwriter (and former film critic) I tend to hate montages. They always seemed like a cheat when it comes to storytelling. And, man, no one should be subjected to watching me on screen. So, assuming I have some cool actor playing me, geez, I don’t know – mostly me doing stuff with my sons. I think that’s kind of the thing about being a parent; even when you have a life of your own, a lot of your perspective is filtered through your kids’ experiences, opportunities, successes and disappointments. With that in mind, it’d probably make for a pretty good promotional reel for Ann Arbor and Ypsi and the region, since we spent so much time downtown, participating in local events (Art Fair, Shadow Art Fair, Festifools, Owl night at the Leslie Science Center, canoeing on the Huron, visiting the DIA and Henry Ford, painting the ‘rock’ etc). Halloween would be a centerpiece – because our neighborhood and my house was ground zero, drawing between 800 and 1000 trick or treaters. Maybe my unsuccessful run for city council or shooting my short films (which included a lot of awesome local talent). And, of course, long periods of sitting in front of a computer screen and writing. I don’t lead a particularly exciting life, and despite being opinionated as hell, tend to feel uncomfortable when put in the spotlight.
MARK: So what kinds of film-related projects are you working on right now?
JEFF: One cool thing that has come from the last short I directed is that I was hired to write the sequel to Doug Schulze’s Mimesis: Night Of The Living Dead movie. It was, I think, distributed by Anchor Bay. Anyway, it always seems to be playing somewhere on cable. My script is inspired by Nosferatu, which is a fucking classic. Did you know Murnau was the one to invent that vampires are destroyed by the sunlight? That wasn’t part of the lore or Stoker’s Dracula. Doug finished shooting in January and the film should hit the film festival circuit sometime in the fall. It stars Allen Maldonado (Blackish, Straight Outta Compton), Lance Henrikson (Aliens… and a whole lotta other stuff), and some really fine Michigan actors. I also decided to formalize my screenwriting craft by earning an MFA in Creative Writing and Screenwriting. I’d like to teach, and the degree (and the professional connections my program has fostered) will help. I graduate in December.
JEFF: Yup. And the Cable Commission. Both were interesting experiences. On the Cable Commission I advocated for placing city council and commission meetings online in such a way that they were easily searchable and excerptable (is that a word?). Obviously, things are pretty much like that now, but eight years ago there was a lot of push back. The city just didn’t see the value in such an endeavor and the final transition happened far too slowly in my estimation. Again, it was often an issue of trust. The same could be said of the Public Art Commission. I came on a bit after the hubbub over the Herbert Dreiseitl piece outside City Hall. Was the process handled the way it should have been? No. But it was the first project from a first-time organization that hadn’t found its feet. They were doing the best they could with very little guidance. Building a commission and program from scratch is fucking hard. Unfortunately, the backlash from folks who philosophically opposed the program was absurdly vicious and, again, in line with what I was talking about earlier. Failure of any kind was presented as proof that nothing worthwhile could ever be achieved. And the accusations and attitudes of those who opposed the funding of public art was truly toxic. As a result, city administrators and members of council took a highly defensive approach to everything the commission attempted to do. And the public, which was at first supportive, turned hostile. But, hey, if Trump can convince a significant portion of the public to oppose Meals On Wheels, the EPA and Head Start, it shouldn’t surprise me that allocating money for public murals and sculptures would be an easy target.
MARK: A few years ago, as the editor of Concentrate, you asked me to host a live exit interview at Connor O’Neil’s in front of an audience. Among those on the panel was Newcome Clark, who, at that time, was on his way out of town, headed to Chicago. He talked a quite a bit, as I suspect you’ll recall, about how adverse Ann Arbor is to change. “This City wants to be better,” he said to me in a later discussion, “it just doesn’t always want anybody to do it. Because better means different, and different means change, and change is scary, when the here and now isn’t all that bad.” Given what you’ve said thus far, I’m assuming you’d agree with him on Ann Arbor’s willingness to change…
JEFF: I agree with Newcombe’s sentiment. I used to joke with him that Ann Arbor – Michigan really – prefers familiar but broken over different and fixed. But Ann Arbor has a particular issue in that it is not just a comfortable place to live (if you can afford it) but it is also convinced that it is already far above the grading curve when it comes to progressive issues – even if it is not. I think of it as the ‘good on paper’ syndrome. There are certainly plenty of laudable policy examples to point to. But when you take a wider view and account for the impact on the city as a whole and then the even wider adjacent community, things don’t look quite as rosy. That said, Ann Arbor is very very pleasant place to live… if you can afford it.
MARK: As, like Newcombe Clark, you ran for Ann Arbor City Council and lost, I’d like to pose the same question to you that I posed to him in his exit interview… “As many of my readers know, you waged an unsuccessful independent bid for Ann Arbor City Council not too long ago. I’m curious as to how your view of the city, and its inhabitants, changed as a result of this experience.”
JEFF: I had a good experience actually. You have to remember, unlike Newcombe who grew up in Ann Arbor, I was a transplant from Portland, OR and fairly new to the community.I had no enemies or allies. People seemed to regard me as a curiosity. And even though I lost (by roughly 150 votes), I did well enough that they started to take me seriously. Ultimately, my reason for running had more to do with changing the prevailing narrative. I heard far too many Ann Arborites say this or that policy couldn’t possibly work (in terms of development, density, transportation or sustainability) and yet, I had lived for eight years in a city where similar (or even identical) ideas were the long established norm. People who are uncomfortable with change like to convince themselves that their community is somehow singularly unique, unable to learn from or adopt the successful policies of other cities. “Because what works in Portland or Boulder or Santa Cruz won’t work in Ann Arbor. We have snow! Or too-flat of a landscape. Or too many transient students. Or we’re too far/too close to Detroit. Or any of a dozen lame fill-in-the-blank reasons.” And no matter which comparable city you hold up as an example, they’ll find a way to exclude it, to draw a distinction between it and them. It’s a way of avoiding the conversation, of dismissing the unfamiliar or expressing their discomfort. But when you talk to policy leaders from around the country, you begin to understand just how many other cities have a similarly vocal minority who insist that their community is also singularly unique. There is always a percentage of people who will oppose change, no matter what the form or function.
MARK: And, now, you’ve moved to Palo Alto, as your wife, who had been a professor of surgery at U-M, has taken a new job at Stanford, correct?
JEFF: Yes, she’s still a surgeon, but now she is a vice-chair at Stanford and the director of an outcomes research group. The city is quite pleasant (if you enjoy suburban living) and the weather and natural environment can’t be beat (there are an endless number of fantastic hikes within a ten mile radius). And the public schools are impressive. But I’m quickly learning that Palo Alto has many of the same troubling issues Ann Arbor does (affordable housing, walkability, public transportation)… if Ann Arbor’s economy was on steroids. It’s such a weird place. The racial makeup of the community is less white (61% compared to 73%) …but the economics are truly jaw-dropping, with a seemingly unbridgeable chasm between the haves and have-nots. And the traffic can be nightmarish. Luckily, the bike lane situation is pretty awesome. The bike rack situation less so.
MARK: What are you most proud of have accomplished while you were here?
JEFF: Hmmm. There’s part of me that thinks I didn’t accomplished all that much. I mean, from a creative standpoint, I’m proud of the films I shot. I greatly enjoyed being a film critic. I won three SPJ’s, which was nice. And validating. I sincerely tried to do more than just review films. I embraced the idea of being a critic. But if I let my ego run rampant, I suppose I can claim some credit for influencing the narrative about where Ann Arbor is headed. As editor of Concentrate I was determined to puncture some of the bubble that surrounded the community and address topics it didn’t really want to address.When the city boasted about its stratospheric residential recycling rates, I wanted us to talk about the nearly non-existent commercial recycling rates. When the city touted its bike-friendly credentials, I wanted us to talk about the lack of lane protection and well-planned routes. We wrote about renewable energy, public art, density (and downtown living) and mixed use development and affordable housing and ADU’s and tried to remind Ann Arborites that Ypsilanti was a vibrant community too, and how park spaces need to be thoughtfully planned and resourced (not just plopped down where people ‘feel’ they should be). These weren’t conversations the public was openly having when I started. Heck, the idea of Zip-cars and dog parks was considered radical. Part of that was the actual publication, part of that was our public speaker events, and part of that was personal advocacy. It was perfectly fine that people disagreed with how these things could be achieved, but there was a noticeable shift in the way these topics were discussed – which is to say, the conversation used to get shut down before it began. I wouldn’t say we were always on point with this and there were plenty of stumbles along the way, but there are some things I’m proud we did. And, more importantly, many of those subjects are given serious consideration today. Hopefully, the next stage will be thoughtful innovation and implementation.
JEFF: I would hate that. So, I can’t even begin to imagine it. I don’t deserve or want a statue. I’m fine with fading from history after my death.
MARK: Oh, you can do it. You just need to open your mind up to the idea… How about sitting alone in a dark seat at the back of the Michigan Theater, reading a copy of the Stranger?
JEFF: As long as the statue weren’t covered in pigeon shit. But maybe I’d be taking notes or arguing with a statue of someone like Perry Seibert or Corey Hall or Rob St Mary about a particular film. Of course, none of them were Ann Arborites so it might be weird to include them. And, frankly, Ann Arbor never really embraced me as a film critic the way the rest of Metro Detroit did. But, hey, I’m sure the statue of David looks nothing like the real David. But seriously, no statue, okay?
MARK: Do you remember the website Ann Arbor Is Overrated?
JEFF: Oh yeah. It was a welcome respite from the self-congratulatory don’t-change-anything persona of the city. And tempered by the right amount of ‘nice.’ I wouldn’t say it quite lived up to its name (I tend to like a little more bomb throwing in a blog) but I liked the overall commentary and vibe. The problem with most blogs of this nature, at least from my observation, is that critics who advocate for change tend to burn out quickly. Even if they bring with them a certain amount of snark. Pushing against the status quo is a tough slog (particularly here) and often brings out some very nasty oppositional thinking. Blogs like AAIO tend to be penned by younger -let’s call ‘em pundits- with less disposable time. They’re people who are just starting their careers or building a household or, I think in AAIO’s case, still in grad school. Or don’t have kids… which is like having a second full time job. Meanwhile, the nimbys and preserve Ann Arbor in amber folks and boomer landlords and long time residents who pop a neck vein every time density or mass transit or affordable housing or funding public art or decreasing surface parking lots or giving cyclists room on the road can be relentless. They fill the comments section of AnnArbor.com and dominate public comment time at council meetings, etc. because they have the time. And they’re often fueled by the sense that they’re losing something. That’s not a smack on them exercising their rights. It makes sense. If you’ve got the time, of course you’re going to use it to advocate for what you want. It’s just a bummer that younger voices are dismissed as uninvolved or less committed to an issue simply because they don’t have the time and bandwidth to offer a counter narrative. And the lack of respect for other points of view or expertise on a particular issue can be despairing.
MARK: The reason I asked about Ann Arbor is Overrated is because, like you just mentioned, I don’t know who’s even attempting to tell the counter narrative these days, at least in a public way. Maybe I’m out of the loop, but I don’t see a lot of pushback.
JEFF: I agree. But look at where the power is and how it is challenged (or not challenged, as the case may be). Local media coverage is abysmally inadequate and what little there is is dominated by an older generation who has a completely different view on quality of life issues and faces few of the challenges folks under-40 are contending with.
MARK: I’ve asked you a lot of questions. Is there anything that you would like to ask me?
JEFF: Hmmm. Well, I have always wondered why the Shadow Art Fair (and Krampus Ball) came to an end. It seemed like they were events that both artists and audiences enjoyed. And they seemed to help to define what is special about Ypsilanti. I totally get why you (or anyone else) would burn out on running them, but could it have set up to continue without you?
MARK: The simple answer, in both cases, is that they ran their course. The more complicated answer is that they became less of a priority for everyone involved. When the Shadow Art Fair started, it was something completely different. It was a visceral response to the Ann Arbor Art Fair. It had energy. And it was happening at a time before the explosion of “indie” art fairs we’ve seen over the past decade or so. And it was fun. We weren’t picking participants based on who was producing the most sellable work, or who could pay the most for their table space, but who was doing the most interesting, compelling, and engaging work. And I liked that. I like that people, over the years, started pushing themselves, trying new things at Shadow Art Fair, pushing the boundaries. But it became more difficult over time, and life starting pulling all of us founders in different directions. In the end, we had a choice. We could run it like a business and grow it, or we could move on. We chose to move on. And the Krampus Ball grew out of that. We decided that we’d rather have a big, monster-themed dance party than host an art fair. And that also ran its course. Now, there are a bunch of Krampus events across the country. Better to move on and break new ground, I think… So, on the subject of giving things up, why did you give up microbiology?
JEFF: I kind of reached a point where it just didn’t satisfy me. I considered getting a PhD or MD, and concluded that neither was right for me. I love to write and love the art of storytelling and so when the opportunity was presented to jump ship into another, more creative industry, I did. The weird thing is, I still tend to be very deliberate and evidence-based in my approach to things. As a result, I’m not a particularly sentimental or nostalgic guy (except when it comes to close friends and family). I think it’s a by-product of my training. I hate to make decisions based on emotion and, most especially, on faulty facts, logic or evidence. And I get embarrassed when I do. That has made for some interesting revisions of positions, sometimes putting me at odds with otherwise like-minded folks.
MARK: Shall we talk a bit about the Ann Arbor – Ypsi divide and economic segregation?
JEFF: Oh gosh, people should never stop talking about it, because it is illustrative of the economic violence and virulent disparities that haunt our entire nation. The notion that, in the end, money has no political party is as close to gospel truth as you can get. And being an affluent community, Ann Arbor does more than its part in perpetuating those disparities and injustices, despite its belief that it is a liberal, socially conscious community. You can’t fight tooth and nail to protect the ‘character’ of your neighborhood, undermine affordable housing discussions and then turn around and claim you are a defender of social justice. You can’t boast about your A.P. classes and world class jazz band and dedication to high school excellence if you have minority students struggling to graduate or eat a healthy lunch. Actions are as important as words. Policies are as important as votes. What you prioritize counts. If you choose to dedicate budget to, say, a 3D printer when a free-to-use washer and dryer would prove invaluable to at-risk students, then you are making clear whose interests you favor. There is no shortage of privileged individuals advocating for their preferences and self-interest. Who is advocating for those who are marginalized? I’m not saying I know what the best solutions are. The issues are far too complicated for me to begin to articulate what the best path is. But I do know that every idea should be on the table, and the comfort level of the already comfortable shouldn’t be the priority. Also that table better include a whole lot chairs for those people the system has left behind, excluded or ignored. If you look around the room and mostly see your neighbors, folks that look like you talking about what’s best for others, you aren’t serious about solving the problem. You’re creating theater.
MARK: Please finish the following sentence, “In another ten years, Ann Arbor will be…”
JEFF: Much the same. The interests and opportunities for those at the top of the pyramid will probably grow. The long term townies will enjoy even bigger returns on their once-modest and no longer repeatable real estate investments. Everyone else will probably be struggling with the same issues and lack of resources. Mind you, I am well aware that I would probably be in the demographic of those who benefit most from Ann Arbor’s successes. And, frankly, that’s not fair. We should be building a better community for folks at every economic level, not helping to perpetuate the economic, educational and social disparities.
MARK: Since you left, we, the American people, elected Donald Trump our President, in part based on the vote here in Michigan, where he won by just a little over 11,000 votes. I’m curious as to how, if at all, that fact might affect your view of Michigan.
JEFF: I can’t begin to express the depths of my disappointment. Though, honestly, I wasn’t wholly surprised. Clinton’s tin ear for what was going on in the state, the rabid and petulant anti-Clinton rhetoric that was voiced by Bernie supporters (of which I was one), and Michigan’s inherently conservative leanings made it ripe for Trump to eek out just enough votes to take the votes. What’s so profoundly troubling is that this is not a divide between Conservative and Liberal values. Trump has no true ideology, he is a demagogue devoted only to his own interests. It is, however, a demonstration of how little respect or understanding a large portion of the American public has for democracy, common decency or the rule of law. Trump and the GOP waged a particularly mean-spirited campaign that enshrined personal interest above all other considerations. Scorn and suspicion became the underlying tone of their rhetoric. And people deemed that acceptable. Trump admitted to committing sexual assault on mic. And that was not enough to disqualify him for office. Trump was literally supported by white supremacists and Nazi-sympathizers and that wasn’t enough to raise alarms bells. And it wasn’t enough to worry third-party voters. Liberal purists actually convinced themselves that the possible election of a man who diametrically opposed every single position they supposedly held sacred was preferable to a politician who despite the fact that she wore her ambitions on her sleeve and endlessly triangulated her positions, voted in sync with their principles 80% of the time. It was a selfie-stick election, where how people felt their vote made them look was more important than the ramifications of their vote. Look, I was very unhappy when Bush became president. Twice! And I feared for what my democracy might do under his leadership. But I never once feared whether my democracy would continue to exist. That is no longer the case. We have a allowed a man and a party to begin to dismantle the very foundation of our republic. We are only 90 days into Trump and the GOP’s reign and we have already seen cabinet members lie before Congress without repercussion, Trump flagrantly disregard the Title of Nobility Clause and the Logan Act (of 1799) (impeachable acts btw), the GOP eliminate the 175-year-old Senate filibuster rule,Trump’s arguably illegal appointment of family members to government posts, and meaningful evidence that members of his administration have significant ties to a rival nation’s leadership, and lied about those ties. We are in truly perilous times …and it goes beyond whether one is conservative or liberal. For instance, Evan McMullin’s politics couldn’t be further from my own, but I have deep respect for his call to action against those who currently endanger our democracy. He has put his country before his party and I commend that.Trump and most of the GOP have been unabashed in their attack on what it means to be American. That Michigan helped to create this mess grieves me deeply. California, for all its excesses and issues, actually reflects many of my values. And it (mostly) puts its money where its mouth is. While my wife’s and my vote would have meant more in the Mitten (though not enough), I’m glad I was able to vote alongside citizens and neighbors who were aligned with my world view. Nevertheless, I miss my Michigan friends every day.
[Curious as to why people are leaving this place we call home? Check out the Ypsi/Arbor Exit Interview archive.]