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Friday, June 14, 2013

When Place Means Flint

A Conversation with Gordon Young, the author of Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City

Journalist Gordon Young escaped Flint, Michigan, and eventually found himself able to purchase a modest cottage (with nothing down!) in overpriced San Francisco. Yet the experience drew him back to his roots in Flint. He began a blog called “Flint Expatriates.” In his new book from UC Press, Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City, he tells the tale of trying to go home again. Place is not always the result of the work of well-intended design professionals. I interviewed Gordon about his book and his hometown.

For more information about Gordon’s book, visit www.teardownbook.com. Gordon’s blog can be found at http://www.flintexpats.com.

Tell me more about how the book came to be. You’ve created a compelling narrative from a lot of disparate threads. Most of your earlier work had been short pieces for magazines and newspapers, right? How were you able to bring all these pieces together? When did you know that you had a book?

Believe it or not, the idea for a house in Flint really emerged because my girlfriend, Traci, and I somehow managed to buy a house we really couldn’t afford in San Francisco back in 2004, just as the real estate bubble was starting to expand. Being a first-time homeowner triggered all these unexpectedly warm feelings for Flint and the house with faded green aluminum siding that I grew up in. I’m not sure this qualifies as a mid-life crisis, but I began to realize that Flint was the center of my authenticity. I still knew every street, building, and landmark. I’d covered large chunks of the city on foot, bike, and skateboard. I still had a deep connection to Flint, even though I’d only been back a few times over the years. It doesn’t matter that I’ve lived in San Francisco longer than I lived in Flint. Flint is part of me, and I’m part of Flint. I wanted to reconnect with the place that made me who I am. It’s also one of the poorest, most violent cities in the country, and I felt an obligation to help it in some way.

Looking back, I can see now that there were easier ways for me to make this happen, but I somehow convinced myself that buying a house in Flint was best way to do it. And I sort of convinced Traci. Maybe it was the prices. Anyone who’s bought property in a big city knows how insane the cost can be. Our 700-square-foot bungalow in San Francisco cost half a million dollars. We bought it with a no-money-down, interest-only loan— the sort of toxic mortgage that would eventually bring the world to the brink of economic collapse. You can buy houses in Flint by the dozen on eBay, like they’re donuts, for about $500 each.

The more time I spent in Flint, the more I realized that what was happening in Flint revealed a lot about what is happening in a lot of other cities around the country. And it seemed like every time I told someone a story about something that happened in Flint, they always said I should write a book about it.

What role did your blog play in shaping the book?

The blog was really my way of thinking out loud about Flint when all these memories of my childhood came flooding back after Traci and I moved into our house in San Francisco. It was a great way to sort out some of my feelings and connect with current and former Flint residents. But the virtual Flint obviously wasn’t the same as the real thing, even though it had better weather and less crime. I needed to go back and re-experience the real Flint.

P-Nut (left) and Aaron (right) with Gordon Young
after a day spent painting P-Nut’s new home in Civic Park,
 just a few blocks away from the house where
Young grew up. (Photo by Sherman McCathern)
Another abandoned house that fell victim to arson
 on Jane Avenue in Flint’s devastated East Side.
 Only a single residence remains on a block once filled
with small homes built primarily for autoworkers and their families.
(Photo by Gordon Young)

What about Flint’s history contributed the most to its decline?

Depends on who you ask. General Motors is an obvious culprit for eliminating close to 80,000 jobs in Flint. Some say it’s the United Automobile Workers union’s fault because the union was too militant and too demanding. Of course, labor agreements are the result of negotiations. General Motors didn’t have to give in to union demands. And union workers didn’t have anything to do with the horrible management decisions General Motors made over the years. Then there are U.S. policies that effectively swapped our industrial economy for the so-called service economy. The middle class withered, but we get to buy a lot of cheap crap at big box stores. Others point out that Flint never diversified its economy, but who diversifies during the glory years? Is Silicon Valley trying to diversify and develop something other than technology right now? So it’s a complicated question, and it’s probably a combination of all those things.

This pattern of corporations using up and wasting towns seems to be a global trend, not just a U.S. one?

Corporations abandon cities to varying degrees all the time. And that is one of the factors creating shrinking cities all over the world. Some of the statistics are pretty surprising. More cities shrank than grew in the developed world over the past 30 years. Fifty-nine U.S. cities with more than a hundred thousand people lost at least a tenth of their residents over the last 50 years. Flint and Detroit are high-profile examples because they lost half their population, but the same thing happened in Buffalo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis. But don’t assume this is just a Rust Belt phenomenon. The Great Recession ensured that cities in the South and the Sunbelt are part of the trend now.

Throughout the city, abandoned houses like this one
 in Civic Park are ravaged by thieves known as scrappers
 in search of any metal they can resell — doorknobs,
radiators, aluminum siding, but especially copper wiring
and plumbing. (Photo by Gordon Young)

Dan Kildee, a Flint politician who advocates the shrinking city model, is now in Congress. In your book, he talks about a “regional tax-base redistribution system.” How well will that phrase work now that he is in Congress? Won’t he be accused of being a socialist?

Dan Kildee’s never been shy about taking potentially unpopular stances. He frequently says that good policy doesn’t always equal popularity. It’s a refreshing approach for a politician, and Kildee’s recent election to Congress shows he has a knack for convincing voters that he has good ideas and is willing to work to make them a reality, even if the voters don’t necessarily agree at first.

He’s a visionary thinker. As a county treasurer and head of the local land bank, he garnered international publicity for refining and enthusiastically pushing what has come to be known as the shrinking-city concept. It basically calls for abandoning irrational hope and moving on. Kildee wants cities like Flint to accept that they aren’t going to recover from population loss anytime soon. Abandoned houses should be demolished and replaced with parks, urban gardens, and green space. Down the line, incentives could be used to lure residents into higher-density neighborhoods that have been reinvigorated with infill housing and rehab projects. Theoretically, Flint could save money by reducing infrastructure costs. It’s manifest destiny in reverse, a radical urban-planning concept that rejects growth as the fundamental goal of cities.

The details of how it works can get complicated. Kildee casually throws around terms like “scattered site cross collateralized tax increment financing” in conversation. But the essence of what he’s created is a system that keeps distressed property away from real-estate speculators. It keeps that abandoned house on Flint’s East Side, where a Buick worker once raised a family, away from some guy in Nevada looking to make a quick buck. Kildee has given cities facing economic decline and a dwindling population a way to control their own real estate outside of so-called market forces. He’s given them a way to control their own territorial destiny.

Now sometimes that means money from Flint’s more prosperous suburbs are used to help the urban core. So far he’s got a lot of communities in the area to go along with the plan. I don’t see any indication he’s going to abandon this approach now that he’s in Congress.

Congressman Dan Kildee, the pied piper of the
 “shrinking city” movement, wants Flint and other troubled
urban areas across the country to accept the reality
of decline and negative growth. (Photo by Gordon Young)

For me, there were two climaxes to the narrative. The first one takes place in the chapter entitled “Home on the Range,” when you lose it at the firing range. Because at that point, I think you realize that you are not the kind of man who wants to own a gun to protect his home. And then of course in “Joy to the World,” when you break down crying following the service in Sherman McCathern’s church.

I went to the firing range with Dave Starr, a retired autoworker who still lives a few blocks from my childhood home with his wife, Judy. They bought their house in 1968 for $14,000, and it’s probably worth half that amount today. But Dave has never given up on the neighborhood. He’s still fighting to save it. I realized that if I were going to buy a house in my old neighborhood of Civic Park, I’d have to take precautions like Dave. That meant carrying a gun. So Dave showed me how to make bullets in his basement. He taught me gun safety. And we went to the shooting range together. That experience, although pretty funny in hindsight, really showed me what it would take to be a part of Flint again.

I came to view Pastor Sherman McCathern as a real unsung hero in Flint, like Dave and Judy Starr. He’s coming up with innovative ways to help the city in the face of overwhelming odds. And he’s doing it with a sense of humor and incredible resolve. He’s also someone who can be very practical but never loses sight of all the emotion that’s wrapped up in a struggling city like Flint, a place that has a real unemployment rate pushing 40 percent. I’m not exactly comfortable revealing my emotions, but the pastor has a way of tapping into what I’m really feeling. And sometimes it’s not easy to acknowledge those feelings. I was sitting in his church one Sunday while a blizzard raged outside. It was the same day Flint tied the record for the most murders in a single year. And all the emotion he brought out in me and the rest of his congregation really made me realize why I had returned to Flint after all those years.

Pastor Sherman McCathern on the altar of Joy Tabernacle Church
in Civic Park, where he leads a congregation beset by crime,
 unemployment, and heartache. “I told God that if I can’t help
these people create jobs and opportunity, I can’t stay here
and just preach to people and get them all dressed up
 with no place to go,” he said. “And that’s what I believe
 God has promised me.” (Photo by Gordon Young)

I found this a surprisingly spiritual book. The story is about big ideas like Kildee's, but also small deeds and people taking a stand that is within their means. You come across as a lapsed Catholic who is still affected by his religious upbringing. One of your challenges in the book reminds me of what Dorothy Day talks about. Altruism is rarely selfless. You are fairly open about how you need to get out the way of giving to actually give.

At best, I’d say I’m sort of a cultural Catholic now. But I’m still guided by a lot of the big lessons the nuns taught me in the Flint Catholic school system. You should help out when help is needed. And you should feel guilty—very guilty—if you don’t. Without really realizing it, I definitely had this misguided notion in the beginning that I would somehow show up in Flint, buy a house, and spur the recovery of the city. I was trying to help the city on my terms. I wanted to be a combination of the prodigal son and a conquering hero. After spending a lot of time in Flint and getting to know dozens of people there, I eventually figured out that this was a pretty selfish approach. And the reality of Flint forces you to be very practical. There is no magic bullet. No quick fix. It will take a lot of time, hard work, and small individual efforts that combine to improve the city. I think I found a way to do my part, but it required me to let go of all the plans I had cooked up back in San Francisco. I never imagined my return to Flint would turn out the way it did.

What did your family make of the book?

They love it, but that’s their job, right? Four generations of my family lived in Flint, and my mom told me the book captured the city she always loved but always longed to escape. My goal was to reveal the spirit and allure of Flint, without sugarcoating the reality of life there. This isn’t a sappy, nostalgic book. But it does reveal the powerful hold that the place where you grew up can exert on you.

What is your next book?

I’ve got three ideas for new books. I’m in the process of fine-tuning them and deciding which one makes the most sense for me at the moment. Writing Teardown was a very emotional process for me. It took four years to complete. I want to make the right choice. And I still have a lot of work left in Flint.

What’s next for you in terms of Flint? The book may be out in the world, but I don’t think your story in Flint is finished.

Without giving away too much of the book, I’ve forged strong friendships with many people in Flint. I talk to them almost daily. And there is no shortage of projects that can help the city. I’m trying to show other Flint expatriates how to connect with the city in some way. I’ve heard from a lot of people who have read the book and want to know how they can get involved. I hope that my experience can help some of the other people who left to create a bond with the city again like I did.

All photos courtesy http://www.teardownbook.com

In 1954, more than 100,000 people crowded downtown
 Flint for a parade celebrating the 50 millionth car
produced by General Motors. A “milestone car” — a gold-colored
Chevy with gold-plated parts — rolled off the assembly line
 to mark the occasion. (Photo courtesy of The Flint Journal)


Elizabeth Meyette said...

I applaud your efforts in Flint, Gordon and I totally understand the pull of your hometown. Although I've lived in mid-Michigan since 1978, my home is still Rochester, NY.

Anonymous said...

I also went to Civic Park and am so sad about what has happened to my city. My house on Hamilton near Dupont doesn't look too bad and the tree my dad planted in the back yard is still there. The area all round looks bad. I believe Flint can come back but in a different way. Getting rid of all the bad looking houses and making green areas is a start but some how jobs need to be found for all those out of work.

Dave Starr said...

Gordon's book portrays the situation in Flint very accurately. He's also good at hiding his feelings. I never knew what he felt at the range until I read the book. By the way, Gordon, for the first time shooting, you're not a bad shot.

Anonymous said...

I use to live on Jane ave and it was scary even in 1979. When I came back to visit my parent's from out of state we drove by Jane St. I couldn't beleive it looked like a war zone. I would never take that chance of ever visiting the Eastside of Flint, Mi again. Scary!

Gordon Young said...

Hey, thanks Dave.

Charlotte from Italy said...

A terrific interview. Fascinating. I can't relate personally to Flint, but I can relate to how economic and political forces destroy what we know. Am fascinated by the shrinkimg city concept. It parallels the backlash against useless consumption. Living with less. Trying to live better with what's left. It's not just cities that can't ceaselessly grow. It's economies in general. The idea of managed shrinking gives me hope and makes me feel less of a cog, individually.

theChurchGuy said...

I appreciate Gordon putting into words his thoughts and feelings for Flint--many of which I share. It's hard to look back at the city knowing what it once was, but, at the same time, considering what can be done to make it a special place once again.