I went to see “Bowling for Columbine” for the second time yesterday. It finally made it to my town of Salem, Oregon. I’d seen it a couple months ago with my brother in Oakland and wanted to see it again with my wife here at home.
With a good friend the day before, I went to my favorite lunch place, the India Palace. While eating our tandoori chicken, a voice from the booth behind me said laughingly, “Well. At least I’m not from Flint.”
Reflexively, I sat up, turned around and, tightly smiling, said, “Well. I am.” Immediately chastened, the guy said, “I didn’t mean anything. Hey. I’m from Anchorage. You can poke fun at Anchorage, if you like.”
What’s it like to have grown up and spent the first nineteen years of one’s life in a town that is a touchstone, if not laughingstock, for so many people worldwide given Michael Moore’s three movies featuring its demise?
I certainly don’t begrudge Moore’s airing of Flint’s laundry so publicly. He’s done an incredible public service exposing it all. I love all three excellent films (“Roger & Me,” “Pets or Meat” and “Columbine.”)
I do have some other beefs with Mike — some important, like his characterization that John Sweeney and Big Labor “shut down the WTO.” I have firsthand knowledge that it was really seasoned forest protection advocates from the Northwest that really did it while Big Labor and Lefty acolytes held a rally and parade miles away from the real action. One of my buddies who was gassed and shot at with rubber bullets along with me got into an e-mail war with Mike about it calling him “the fat, fibbin’ freak from Flint.”
Which brings me to a more minor point. Mike did NOT grow up in Flint. While I was growing up just north of downtown on Mason Street, Mike was coming of age in Davison, a nearby farming community. Don’t believe it? Go back and look at the old home movies he shows in Columbine. That farmland in the background is miles (and light-years) from the decaying blocks along Mason Street. At eighteen, Mike was the youngest member of the Davison School Board, a point he constantly brings up without reference to actual locale. A minor point. But, Limbaughesque stuff like this is why most of the people I know in Flint can’t stand him.
He did live there after high school and run the excellent alternative paper — the Flint Voice, which morphed into the even better Michigan Voice. Now, of course, he lives in a security townhouse full of millionaire athlete neighbors in Manhattan. Once, he misquoted my brother-in-law, Flint City Administrator Gary Bates. When Gary confronted Mike about it, Mike’s response was, “you have to admit it makes a better story the way I put it.” Gary holds no grudge — just distrust, as a result. A couple years ago, they both graced the same table and got along fine as their dad’s were inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame, honoring their having won a state championship back when they played basketball together at the old St. Mary’s High School.
My own father was an English teacher and baseball coach at Flint Junior College. After years of night and summer school, he gained his doctorate and was named president of the college, which now goes by the name Mott Community College, after GM founder and college patron Charles Stewart Mott.
In 1957 when I was eight, my parents and six children moved to the big house on Mason Street. At that time, Flint was a working class bastion. One grew up with an appreciation of the incredible effort that went into unionizing the auto industry. I had friends whose dads were crippled for life by GM’s goons during the organizing effort. Those guys were heroes to us all. GM workers enjoyed one of industrial America’s better wages and working conditions. Some could even afford small cottages “up North” where their families could escape the foul, factory-smogged air of Flint summers.
I walked a mile from St. Michael’s School along Detroit, now Martin L. King Street — often in the dark after I got out of sports practices. Countless times I made the journey to serve Mass or sing in the choir.
In 1958, the first Negro (the term then in vogue) family moved in down the block. Jimmy Johnson and his brother Anthony (Cleo) became good friends with my brother and me. Quickly, white families began to move out and more black faces would appear in the neighborhood. Tensions began to run high. By the time of the Detroit (and Flint) riots of 1967, my neighborhood was about 70 percent Black.
Coming from a family that knew all about racism, my parents weren’t about to move. (The KKK had terrorized my Irish Catholic grandparents in the 30s down in Michigan’s Bible Belt Hillsdale County.) About the same time, my uncle, Dr. Bill Donnelly, lost his comfortable suburban pediatrics practice in Pontiac when he became a loud proponent for Open Housing laws. He opened an inner city clinic in response.
Soon, the tensions boiled over. I was stabbed twice, just for being white. (Moore claims in his book Stupid White Men to have never had any race-related run-ins like this, proving again that growing up in Davison was a lot different than in Flint.) The fact that I played on integrated baseball and basketball teams probably saved me even more such grief. When Cleo Johnson had to intervene to save my younger sister from an assault, my parents finally moved in 1970 — first a few miles away and then to Reno, where my Dad got the job of creating the Nevada Community College System. I left for Michigan State University and have seldom returned.
But that doesn’t keep me from getting annoyed when encountering talk like that in the restaurant the other day. It also doesn’t keep me from crying each time I see my devastated old neighborhood in one of Moore’s films. And, every day, I carry around a little guilt at how I am enjoying life out here in Oregon when a lot of my old cronies are back there dealing with it all or are prematurely dead.
I admire my brother-in-law for sticking it out and working for the city under unbelievable circumstances–GM’s abandoning of its hometown, in my mind, is the greatest corporate crime. His boss, longtime mayor and my former community college classmate Woodrow Stanley, fought hard for the citizens and was rewarded with a completely unfair Recall last year. I admire my sister who has been a Flint public school teacher for decades. My heart goes out to Principal Hughes and her overworked teachers at Buell Elementary School, where the six-year-old was shot by a classmate. Star basketball player and one of our childhood champions, Justus Thigpen, returned to Flint and has run rec programs that have produced many scholarships for Flint athletes who otherwise could never have gone to college. MSU basketball coach Tom Izzo has said he “never would have won an NCAA title” were it not for the efforts of Thigpen and others who tirelessly ran those dilapidated Recreation Centers — now-threatened with closure due to deficits. These folks are better people than I am.
The City and School District are broke. The state has taken over and put the city in Receivership. Overcrowded schools are closing. Martin L. King Street is a dirt track due to a bankrupt sewer project, where once Detroit Street was the neighborhood commercial center. It was home to Matson’s Drugstore, where black and white youth alike gathered to socialize and swill fountain drinks after sporting events. Matson’s and its entire block can be seen as a panorama of boarded-up storefronts in “Roger & Me.” The factory site of the famous Sit-down Strike that led to the modern Union movement — the place I worked summers during college, a place that should be a National Monument — is long gone. The huge Buicktown complex looks like Sarajevo as the dozers chop it into oblivion. White Flight continues in the first city of over 100,000 to elect an African-American Mayor–way back in the 60s. Flint’s decay is so counter the major urban issue faced where I live today — Sprawl.
It’s painful to see Flint fall on such hard times and to have it the butt of jokes. Not only is Flint the birthplace of Labor, it is the birthplace of Community Schools and Community Colleges. My Dad always thought the decline began back in the mid-60s when GM rescinded its requirement that its executives live in Flint.
To his credit, C. S. Mott never left, though he left a huge legacy with his support of schools and children, in general. Where are such philanthropists today? A Bill Gates, Jr. could write a check and eliminate the city’s $30+ million debt and the School District’s similar deficit. Some of those star athletes like Andre Rison, Glen Rice, Mateen Cleeves and others could easily fund the Rec centers, as Damon Stoudamire is doing in his hometown of Portland. Michael Moore doesn’t mention it in his film, but he funded a computer center for the very Buell Elementary School long before the tragic events there.
I know. Easy for me to say living comfortably two thousand miles away. My parents passed away last year and my siblings and I set up a scholarship fund for Flint students in their name. After seeing Moore’s latest film, I know I must do more. I’m going back this summer to see what I can do. Damn it all, Mike. You really got me this time. We’re ALL from Flint. Thanks.
MICHAEL DONNELLY lives in Salem, Oregon. He can be reached at: email@example.com