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“Laughing or crying; it’s the same release.”
— Joni Mitchell
I was sitting under a sheltering fir on a bench I made years ago of recycled wood at the edge of a 70-acre wildflower-filled meadow. Thunderheads formed over the 6500′ peaks of Washington’s ancient Kettle River Range which dominate the view to the east. The 100-square-mile/360-degree vista spreads from the National Forest in the mountains down across forested valleys and open south-facing slopes and towards a sun about to set behind a chorus line of ridges to the west. Once it sets and the stars come out, there won’t be a single light marring the extensive view. A light breeze wafted up the tree-lined creek canyon and up over the plateau with its meadows filled with tall wind-swept grasses, blooming lupine, asters, yellow columbine, wild roses, paintbrush, larkspur, mullein, salsify…and yarrow, lots and lots of white-blossomed yarrow. Calls of a dozen species of songbirds floated on the breeze. A flock of nighthawks began their acrobatic patrol.
Here visiting the Yarrow Land Trust, a 165-acre remote non-profit paradise I’ve been associated with since 1974, I was light years away from my 1950/60s childhood in Flint’s inner north side. But Flint, MI was as close as it has been for years; for while I was sitting in the shade there in the sudden 90-degree heat-wave waiting for the cool-down that comes with sunset in the Northwest mountains, I finished reading a book about Flint. I made it all the way to the last chapter of Flint native/now San Franciscan Gordon Young’s book Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City before I finally broke down and cried.
Young’s wonderfully-written, humorous, yet heart-wrenching account of his quixotic quest to purchase a home in the ashes of our, General Motors (GM) and the United Auto Workers (UAW) hometown is a very important addition to the books about Flint’s decline that are written by Flint natives; it’s right up there with Ben Hamper’s brilliant Rivethead.
After Gordon and his partner Traci scraped together enough for an over-priced San Francisco 700-squre foot “mansion,” his thoughts ran to Flint and what he could possibly do to help in its time of dire need…the idea of buying, rehabbing and selling, renting or giving away a Flint home manifested in Young’s mission. Teardown is ultimately about much more than the underlying quest. Young’s real estate search in due course becomes cover for his personal quest to come to terms with what has befallen the once proud, once thriving home to what was the world’s top corporation.
Young finds an array of people in Flint who are committed to Flint; people who refuse to leave their crime-ridden, impoverished neighborhoods, regardless of the fact they never leave home unarmed; people who are attempting to bring back one of Flint’s oldest, most artistic neighborhoods; politicians who are faced with the downsizing of a major industrial city (Flint went from a population around 200,000 in 1968 when GM employment peaked at 77,000; to around 102,000 citizens today with a murder rate higher than Baghdad’s! GM, though still large in the overall scheme of Flint employment, is a shadow of its former self with only 7000 local jobs remaining – many in design, administration, etc. and most factories simply gone); to a wonderful minister and his flock; who, in the face of poverty, stupendous misery and grief, still look for and work tirelessly for the greater good. (If there ever was a worthy cause to donate to: it is the Rev. Sherman McCathern’s Joy Tabernacle.)
Young presents unvarnished overviews of Flint, the people he meets along the way and the many varied attempts (with wildly varied outcomes) to bring the city back from those ashes – an unbiased synopsis that’s very much a Flint way of looking at things and presenting one’s conclusions. You can’t help but come away admiring the “Flintoids” Young comes to know; those who still persist, who know Flint has been given a crappy deal, yet work to salvage – against great odds – as decent and equitable a life as they can for the citizens of America’s most dangerous city.
Most people know of the “crime against humanity” that befell Flint from the marvelous documentary Roger & Me. As Young points out, every conversation a Flint native has about the place eventually comes down to a question of “What do you think of Michael Moore?” (For the record, I think highly of him; many in my family do not.) Moore told the bleak story with a huge dollop of gallows humor and his story stops with GM skipping town – though Moore also did do a great follow-up: Pets or Meat.
Gordon Young’s story, while also full of good humor, gets down to the nitty-gritty of current life in the dangerous, post-industrial, shrinking city; with affiliated shrinking public services and a population in dire need of more, not less police and fire protection – a city with over 750 arsons a year; a city with over 60 murders a year.
The Hesitant Visionaries
Entire Flint blocks are empty, some with but one occupied house. We are introduced to Genesee County Treasurer Dan Kildee who pioneered the Land Bank “Shrinking Cities” idea of just salvaging what one can and then tearing down abandoned, unfixable houses and buildings in the city. The Land Bank also renovates buildings that can find a useful second life. And, the end goal is to get people living in that one remaining home to move to a more consolidated neighborhood, so the city can save on dwindling services.
The amount of heat Kildee garnered from people who are, understandably emotional about it and not willing to move and those (also understandable) unwilling to even acknowledge the problem – those who dream of unicorns, GM’s return or some other, usually cockamamie, savior scheme – did not prevent him from being elected to Congress in MI 5th District in 2012, replacing his retiring uncle Dale Kildee, who held the position for 36 years.
Current mayor Dayne Walling has had to walk a fine line on the “shrinking city/teardown” idea. Flint’s first Rhodes Scholar has pushed a downtown redevelopment plan with a heavy emphasis on Flint as a college town, given its 28,000 college students at Mott Community College, the Flint campus of the University of Michigan, Kettering University (General Motors Institute) and Baker College. Ann Arbor it definitely is not.
And, indeed, downtown has seen a slight renaissance. The Land Bank has renovated some important downtown buildings; the close-in Carriage Town neighborhood has seen a number of beautiful Victorian homes restored and Young introduces us to the visionaries behind Carriage Town’s (shaky) renewal. New shops have sprung up around the UofM campus.
But Walling’s time is mostly spent dealing with how to provide public services and avoid more lay-offs of police, firefighters, sewer and water workers, garbage collectors…on down to basically non-existent Code Enforcement officers.
Young calls the Flint Mayor’s job “The Toughest Job in Politics.” My former classmate Woodrow Stanley was the mayor when GM pulled the plug. My brother-in-law Gary Bates was Flint City Administrator at that time – the “toughest” job imaginable under Flint’s then-City Manager governance style. (Gary and family can be seen in Roger & Me at an event burning copies of Money Magazine, which had put Flint, as it does annually, at #300 out of their “Best Places to Live” in America list of the top 300 largest cities in America.)
African-American Stanley was rewarded for his tireless, yet ultimately impossible efforts to hold back the tide with a Recall. He was replaced by a wealthy, white former felon, Don Williamson, who resigned while under scrutiny for a raft of alleged malfeasances and costly city settlements he brought on. Walling was defeated by Williamson on his first attempt and then succeeded him in what well may still be an impossible task, no matter how good a face the ever optimistic, nerdy, now-reelected Walling reflexively puts forth.
Many know of Flint’s idiotic boondoggle AutoWorld theme park from Moore’s documentaries. The 1984 $80 million dollar white elephant closed after being open less than a year. It was razed and the land along the river is now part of the University of Michigan downtown campus. And there have been other desperate efforts thru the years.
The Land Bank gets most of its abandoned buildings after slumlords run them into the ground and fail to pay taxes. Even Flint’s tallest building was condemned after large pieces of concrete started falling to the (now-closed) sidewalks below and faces the wrecking ball after numerous never-corrected major code violations.
Many Flint empty homes have sold on E-Bay for a pittance. Few are ever rehabilitated; just flipped over and over again. Some have sold for less than $1000. A package deal was offered on E-Bay for 58 houses for $92,800. With few code officers, as long as the owners pay their taxes, it matters little what condition the house is in. “Scrappers” – many are addicts, but also many are young parents desperate for any way to raise funds – strip anything of value from the abandoned houses – wiring, pipes, water heaters, furnaces…even the aluminum siding.
We also meet some good-hearted Flint ex-pats who have unrealistically invested in Flint housing for the right reasons – wanting to do good and provide affordable housing, hoping to see Flint rebound.
The last third of the book focuses on Young’s childhood neighborhood (and mine from birth until I was eight-years-old). Civic Park was built by GM for worker housing. 4,600 workers built 950 houses in nine months in 1919-20. A school, a couple parks and more housing followed. It was a once-thriving working class enclave described by Ben Hamper in Rivethead as, “Our neighborhood was strictly blue-collar and predominantly Catholic. The men lumbered back and forth to the factories while their wives raised large families, packed lunch boxes and marched the kids off to the nuns.”
Now Civic Park has entire blocks of abandoned homes. We are introduced to the Milbourne Avenue Block Club, the sole block left with “actual people visible on the street.” They keep things up and hold social gatherings, though they never leave home unarmed. (Shooting ranges are one of Flint’s few growth sectors.) The street isn’t dead yet, but the Milbourne Avenue Block Club is like the boy with the finger in the crumbling dike holding back decline. My good buddy Tim Burton, whom I’ve known since I was five, grew up on Milbourne Avenue.
The final, incredible chapter is about Civic Park’s Joy Tabernacle and its dedicated pastor – Incredible; in that it is somewhat astounding to hear of people with hope in such a disaster zone. One cannot help to be uplifted and I say this as one who is a former Catholic, like the author. This former altar boy/seminarian still finds the Sermon on the Mount to be excellent how-to-live advice and has little use for what passes for Christianity these days. These Christians walk their talk under the most extreme circumstances.
Race and its Implications
“You do not fight racism with racism…you fight racism with solidarity.” — Bobby Seale
Young doesn’t shy-away from addressing race and how that plays into Flint’s decline. What Hamper’s quote implies is that Civic Park was also an ethnic white enclave. But, now, it is almost entirely black and poor.
My closer-to-downtown Flint neighborhood around now-shuttered Cook Elementary School was one of the first to succumb to White Flight and shift in a matter of years from white to mostly black back in the 60s. Like its larger shrinking city neighbor Detroit, America’s most segregated city, Flint had been and still is one of the most segregated communities in the land. As the Cook School environs changed overnight, it became a very dangerous place for a teenage male – black or white. I, my siblings and friends – black and white – all carry scars – physical and internal – from the many ever-escalating brawls, assaults and attacks that were based solely on the color of our skins.
The first African-American family to move in down the block was the Johnson’s. Jimmy and his brother Anthony (Cleo) were the same age (11 and 8) as me and my brother Mark. We became quick friends, sharing interests in sports, music and, not-so-oddly really, injustices towards Native Americans. Jimmy and I played on a very good basketball team that had five white guys and five black guys from the neighborhood. It was so unusual that someone from the city did a slideshow documentary on us. Cleo is a family hero as he single-handedly saved my sister from a serious assault.
I, like Young, had a family that believed/believes in Integration and the collective prosperity that would come from it. My uncle Dr. William Donnelly was instrumental in the Open Housing movement which outlawed “redlining” in Michigan – the segregationist practice of providing or denying mortgages in areas solely based on race. Uncle Bill lost a lot of his suburban pediatric clientele over it. He responded by opening an Inner City office and becoming the head of pediatrics at Pontiac’s public hospital. He helped many young black students, many he attended the births of, to get into his Alma mater: University of Michigan.
The family’s views were undoubtedly influenced by the tale of how the Indiana Ku Klux Klan had come across the Michigan border near the Donnelly homestead and burned a cross in my hated-by-the-Klan Irish Catholic great-grandparents’ barnyard when my grandfather was a child in the late 1800s. The Donnellys recognized discrimination when they saw it and actively worked to combat it.
One time it really hit home when I and Jimmy went to St. Mike’s to pick up my youngest sister from kindergarten. I had just graduated from the school. A nun I did not know saw us approach, locked the door and disappeared. I saw another nun I knew approaching and she opened the door, but made us wait outside for Kate. It wasn’t fear of teen males; it was racism. I left the Church shortly thereafter.
Civic Park’s turn came later, after Urban Renewal – i.e. “negro removal” – displaced hundreds from the African-American St. John neighborhood for the building of a freeway. Local black pastors – a political force never to be underestimated in Flint – naively went along with the scheme; thinking it would lead to integration of the city as a whole. It led to more white flight and increasingly poor, predominantly black neighborhoods. Young chronicles the end result.
My 45th Flint St. Michael’s High School Reunion was last year. We are an illustration of this dynamic. I received a list of 95 classmates. Out of 95 of us, none are black; one is Latino, most are of Irish, French, Polish or Italian descent. Only 9 still live in Flint proper. 58 live in nearby Michigan communities, 15 of us live out-of-state and 13 are deceased…Flint also has had an inordinate number of cancer deaths.
I know a number of white Flint ex-pats who feel they could help and would like to help, but the danger holds them back. I give Young a lot of credit for actually doing it.
Charles Stewart Mott, Charles Donnelly and Flint’s Pioneering Community Schools
While the surreal scenes in Roger & Me dominate what most people visualize when they hear the word “Flint,” you really can’t talk about Flint without looking at the life of C. S. Mott, perhaps America’s least known civic booster/benefactor. The author is even-handed in illustrations of Mr. Mott and his examples of Mott’s “power and influence.” (All Flint kids my age grew up knowing him as Mr. Mott; often he could be seen walking around town, stopping to talk with people he met – talk about a different era! “What do you think of Mr. Mott’s latest?” was the pre-Moore Flint question for decades.)
Young writes about how Flint is in some people’s blood, regardless of how long they’ve been away. Some people catch the bug after only a short time in Flint. Mott came to Flint in 1907 and stayed until his death in 1973…at age 97. Throughout, he was intimately involved. He was on the board of General Motors and its largest shareholder. He served as Mayor twice. Without the efforts of his Mott Foundation, Flint would be in even direr straits. It’s hard to imagine how bad. To this day, Mott’s $2 billion dollar-endowed foundation mostly funds efforts in Flint. Young notes that many of today’s better-paying jobs in Flint are held by employees of the Mott Foundation.
Mott and his top lieutenant/buddy Frank Manley are credited with starting the Community Schools movement. At one time anyone wanting to get into school Administration sought to get a post in Flint on their Resume. All of us growing up benefited from Mott Foundation-sponsored sports leagues, a summer residential camp, after-school programs of all kinds and summer day camps for visual arts, music, movies, guest experts and, of course, wood and metal shops and car design workshops…not to mention, year-round activities in the ground-breaking Community Schools.
The Community College that bears Mott’s name is built on land Mott donated from his farm/estate. My father, Dr. Charles R. Donnelly, was the first president of the Community College – one of the nation’s first – having shepherded it from K-12 School Board control to an independent entity with its own tax millage, an effort he repeated throughout his lifetime across the US. Dad got the president job largely because of Mott’s influence.
Years earlier, after World War II, my Depression-era farm boy father used the G.I. Bill to get a Master’s Degree in English at the University of Michigan and soon got a job as a young instructor/first baseball coach for Flint Junior College which was in the process of moving from an old Sanitarium to new buildings on the nearby land Mott donated. Dad got the job partly because he had been a good baseball player at Hillsdale College and was charged with creating and monitoring a sports program for German POWs during the war.
Mott donated his sheep pasture along Gilkey Creek to the school; and coach and team – some members, also WWII vets, were older than their coach – built their own diamond. Mott’s yellow barn became their field-house. Mott sometimes used to watch the games with his two Dobermans out behind the left-field fence between the field and his estate…when not puttering around his collection of exotic apple trees.
Starting when I was around ten, if a ball was hit over the fence, I would, as batboy, go out and one of the dogs would deposit the ball in a dip under the fence for retrieval. I always got a lecture on thrift from the famously miserly, Corvair-driving (when not walking) multi-millionaire. A few times, when older, I was sent to get something from Mott and Manley in their small office in the Art Deco Mott Foundation Building downtown. They had back-to-back desks, no air conditioner, a fan in the open window and one single light bulb on a cord hanging down from the ceiling.
Years later, Mott and I walked around the campus and commiserated – not long, as Mott was, if anything, practical – over the impending loss of the ball diamond, as the area was needed to build parking ramps for the ever-increasing commuter college student body – now around 12,000. A new state-of-the-art diamond was built a few miles away.
Mott was a genius at getting his industrialist cronies to pony up money for the college and connected Cultural Center buildings. Flint has had a very fine Planetarium since the 60s. It has a very nice Art Center and a superb Performing Arts Auditorium among other results of Mott’s arm-twisting. The college has an array of classroom buildings, library, indoor pool, laboratories, a basketball field house for Mott CC’s many National Championship basketball teams, an excellent Student Union building, beautiful courtyards…
When the Junior College Dean (president’s) job came up in the 60s and my dad had already gotten a doctorate after years of night and summer school and commuting to Ann Arbor and had already shifted to administration, Mott interceded on his behalf; telling the K-12 School Board to “give the local boy a chance.”
Like Mott, Chuck Donnelly was also one of those who never gave up on Flint. He first left in 1970 to successfully establish a network of five Community Colleges in Nevada (Howard Hughes asked Mott who would be best suited and Hughes provided $250,000 in seed money). In 1977, Donnelly went back to Michigan as president of Alpena CC. He also served as president of the Association of Community College presidents and helped accredit Community Colleges across the country. After he retired from Alpena, he went back to Mott College as interim president for a year, as they searched for a new president. He stayed on longer as vice-president to help deal with the large fiscal issues the college, like all Flint institutions faced. He died at age 80 from a car accident while on his way to a Mott CC fund-raiser. He is enshrined as a “Distinguished Nevadan.” Mott CC has a courtyard dedicated to him. Alpena CC has a building named after him.
Donnelly was in on one of the earliest Flint downsizings: he was on the Diocesan School Board that closed the numerous dwindling enrollment parish-connected parochial high schools in the late 60s and built the consolidated Powers Memorial Catholic High School that Young attended. Dad and his many allies saw Community Colleges as one of America’s best efforts at leveling the playing field – “it’s where the action is” in education was his motivation. A die-hard Roosevelt/Kennedy Democrat he had no problem allying with Republican civic boosters like Mott (or even the reclusive Hughes). Throughout their collaboration, any worthy project my father could raise funds for, Mott would match dollar for dollar; a deal Mott would make with others who cared about the city and had good ideas to make it better.
Mott saw to it that health clinics were built in GM plants for the workers and families. He oversaw the creation of stores that gave out winter clothing to workers’ children. As a top, and obviously paternalistic, industrialist, C.S. Mott may not have liked the seminal 1936-37 Sit-Down Strike (and Young includes an especially nasty quote about the striker’s deserving to be shot that Mott gave Studs Terkel about the heroic strikers); but Mott (and GM) learned to live with Collective Bargaining and even saw it as a “good thing” in the end…after all, GM was the top corporation in the world for 40 years after the strike’s settlement and his beloved Flint profited greatly, as well.
Mott Community College has been, and continues to be, one of Flint’s brightest spots…and Community Colleges and Community Schools across the country have benefited enormously from Mott and his allies’ efforts. And that’s just a couple of Flint-centered innovations that contributed mightily to American culture. Some even say the now-endangered American Middle Class was born in Flint. Certainly, Collective Bargaining led to those secure jobs that allowed for those single-wage-earner families Hamper wrote of. The victories of the UAW and the Union Movement, in general, led to a 40-hour week, overtime pay, health care, pensions… and intangibles like a sense of ownership of one’s work. And Flint’s contribution to the defeat of the Axis Powers in WWII cannot be understated. For four years GM didn’t produce any cars from the company’s extensive network of Flint factories. The iron that would have gone into vehicles was forged in Flint into the tanks, trucks and plane engines that fueled the Allies’ victory.
The Ecological Cost
Obviously, I can’t even write a review of another’s book (sorry, Gordie) about Flint without interjecting my own and my family and friends’ stories, so I can’t let another major aspect go unremarked upon. Of course, as a Gaian, I know that automobiles/internal combustion engines are likely the most deadly environmental scourge of all. So how can I bemoan the fate of Flint and GM? Downsized, automated GM is rebounding quite well with its government bailout. GM was incorporated in 1908 and went bankrupt in 2008 – the quintessential 20th Century corporation. It remains to be seen how the bailed-out 21st century version works out.
How can I, someone who has dedicated his life to preserving wildlands and spends as much time as he can in them, ignore the huge eco-costs? I can’t. Yes, I recall how the air in Flint in the morning when I was delivering newspapers tasted metallic. I recall when Cleo and Jimmy’s cousin Wally slipped and one foot went into the industrial sewer called the Flint River and a couple of days later his Chuck Taylor high–top disintegrated. We were bored and checking out trying to cross the river on the girders under a downtown Grand Trunk Railroad trestle. (Yes, it’s where Flint rockers, Grand Funk Railroad, got their name. Come on, Rock Hall of Fame…vote them in!)
Sometimes we’d hang out by a cement trough behind one of the Chevy plants. It dumped diluted acids down a slope right into the river. We’d take sticks and poke them through the mesh cover and marvel when the sticks disappeared as the only part left was what we were left holding on to. We’ve exported those toxins elsewhere, along with the jobs. The nation’s largest Brownfields are former GM factory complexes in Flint.
In 1988, when I was the vice-president of the grassroots conservationist group Oregon Natural Resources Council (ONRC), I and James Montieth, the ONRC executive director, were in Michigan at my parents’ place for a meeting with representatives of the DC Big Green groups. We were pleading our case for help in our Ancient Forest Protection efforts. In fact, Montieth had just recently coined the very term “Ancient Forest.”
After the somewhat grueling meeting, before James and I headed to D.C. to testify on former Rep. Mike Kopetski’s Opal Creek Wilderness Bill (Kopetski is the unsung hero who finally got Nuclear Testing stopped!), I drove Montieth on a tour of my childhood haunts in Flint. We looked very out of place – two 40-year-old white guys and one of them sporting a cowboy hat, sports coat, boots and jeans with a huge buckle. The woman behind the bullet-proof glass at the station where we stopped for gas couldn’t stop staring at the aliens.
I kept getting more and more depressed; fighting back tears about it all. Homes of many of my childhood friends were gone, boarded-up or torched and sitting scorched and empty. Whole blocks were overrun with head-high weeds. Trees were growing up through the now-abandoned Johnson family home’s front porch. Meanwhile Montieth, who grew up on an Oregon ranch, was getting excited and happier; “Don’t you see! This proves it! Mother Nature will take it back!”
There are now fishing derbies on the Flint River! Canoe regattas! Sad as all the rest makes me over what has happened to Flint, this is the one silver lining to America’s Deindustrialization.
Canary on the Assembly Line
Ultimately the fate of Flint awaits all industrial-based cities. It’s not really that unique, other than timing and scale. Blue-collar family-wage jobs are disappearing across the landscape. The lumber mills I worked at in the Northwest in the 70s are all gone (rightly so for the ancient forest-devouring ones) – just vacant cracked-cement brownfields, like the enormous former Buick City complex and Chevy-in-the-Hole – the site of the Sit-Down Strike – where I joined the now gravely diminished UAW and worked for the now gravely ethically diminished GM when I was in Community College. There are ghost towns of all kinds – various resource-extraction-based towns – all over the West…and impending ones all over the Midwest Rust Belt.
Gordon Young’s book does a great service by showing straightforward what the shift from an Industrial Economy to a Service Economy means in human terms. When the impact hits more communities, they can always look to the intrepid, pioneering efforts of those who are already dealing with deindustrialization’s aftermath in Flint. Whether they will have succeeded or not against such stiff odds is still a question.
Gordon ended up helping restore none other than Ben Hamper’s childhood Civic Park home. The stripped house was given to Rev. McCathern who passed it on to a young couple with three young daughters who are doing the sweat equity to restore the place and live in it. Young has said he’ll donate some proceeds from the book (hopefully, not another Flint pipedream) to similar projects.
The people Gordon Young interacts with in this book are as real as it gets. Flint is as real as it gets. Buy this book. Read this book. It’s meaningful.
MICHAEL DONNELLY is who he is because of Flint. Part of him has never left. He has life-long friends dating back to their Flint childhoods together. He believes that Industrial Collapse is the only hope for reversing Terracide. He can be reached at:firstname.lastname@example.org