Vanishing City or Phoenix from the Ashes?

Published October 18, 2018 in Warp & Woof


Vanishing City or Phoenix from the Ashes?

Flint Series, Chapter 6
William Sundwick
Gordon Young published Tear-Down in 2013. It’s his memoir of returning to Flint as an adult after presumably leaving the city forever to pursue a journalism career in San Francisco. It was written before the Flint Water Crisis (2014 – to date).
Young describes the Civic Park neighborhood of his youth, his strong family ties and social engagement shared by most in the city during the seventies and eighties.  He knew about the massive depression enveloping the city after the departure of General Motors; the unemployment, the crime, and, most of all, the collapse of real estate values! That’s what motivated him to buy a reno house for $3000, close to his old neighborhood, abandoned and in need of major repairs (stripped of its copper plumbing, among other things).
Through the course of working on his house, he met many of the figures who might begin to make Flint a real city again. He was impressed by what he encountered. But, in the end, he gave up and returned to San Francisco. It was “too heavy a lift,” he decided. The resources required for scaling his efforts up to make a significant dent in the blight were too great. Hence, his subtitle: “Memoir of a Vanishing City.”
Yet, even with the Water Crisis seemingly adding another nail in Flint’s coffin, a little bit of online research (and my own 2014 visit to Flint) points in a more positive direction. It may not be cause for unbridled optimism, but the replacement of pipes and mains throughout the city is still scheduled to be completed sometime in 2019, and the water source has been switched back to safer “Detroit water.” There are still nearly 8000 GM jobs in Flint (a far cry from the 80,000 jobs of forty years ago, but still). And, some downtown renovation is apparent, a thriving farmers’ market, and a vibrant arts scene encouraged by local community organizations. The Flint Cultural Centeris still a going concern sixty years after its founding with C.S. Mott Foundationlargesse.
As the population of the city declined, and private or charter schools arrived, Flint Community Schools dwindled as an institution. This makes me sad, but it should not be considered an unmitigated negative. Even in my day, some of Flint’s brightest lights were products of the strong parochial schools in the city (see: Michael Moore’s memoir, Here Comes Trouble, 2011). In the mid-sixties, there were four public high schools in the city, now there is only one – Southwestern Academy (formerly Southwestern High School).
The brain drain experienced in Flint over four-plus decades is no different from that of any other rust belt city in decline. Job marketscontrol demographics for the better educated even more than for the unskilled, who often don’t have the means to leave. Additionally, “white flight” to suburban locations was no less a factor in Flint than many other cities in mid-century America.

Yes, it’s largely about racism. Flint did have one of the first open housing ordinances in the country (1967), and one of the first African-American mayors (Floyd J. McCree, 1966). During this period new GM plants were built in the suburbs – before closing completely! Genesee County’spopulation didn’t decline nearly as much as the city over that forty-year devolution of Flint.
In June 2014, I returned to Flint for a Sundwick cousins’ reunion (no aunts or uncles left by then, except one in Traverse City, who couldn’t travel). The Flint water supply had already been diverted to the Flint River by then, but none of us knew it. We didn’t drink city water, anyway. My cousin Carol, who hosted the reunion, lived in suburban Grand Blanc. Cousin John was kind enough to take me on a tour of the city, such as it was by that time. We saw downtown, we saw Civic Park, we saw the East Village and Cultural Center, we saw Carriage Town, the birthplace of General Motors more than a century earlier.
And, we saw the house on Winona Street  where I grew up. It was clearly occupied, as were most in the Ballenger Highway neighborhood. In fact, if anything, the neighborhood was more attractive than I remembered it from the sixties – the trees were more mature, offering plenty of shade on that summer day. Houses were generally well-maintained, with fresh paint, landscaping, mowed lawns. But, nevertheless, when I suggested getting out of the car and walking, John was quick to say, “I don’t think that’s a great idea.” Why? It was the middle of the day on a Sunday, seemed peaceful enough, although I don’t recall seeing anybody on the sidewalks. I believe John’s fears were based on us being white! That hadn’t even occurred to me at the time. It seems so bizarre to me, having lived in the cosmopolitan, diverse world of Northern Virginia more than half my life now.
But, John had different experiences. They were, unfortunately, more akin to my father’s fears of 1965 when Dad declared, “We have to move outside the city. You know they’re almost to Welch Boulevard!?”  No need to explain who “they” were. My parents sold the house, for about the same price they had paid 12 years earlier, then moved to Flushing as soon as I graduated from high school. They didn’t even wait to find another house – we lived in a rental apartment for a few months, before they moved into a new townhouse development (back in the city, but behind a wall and gate!). Their paranoia about crime and property values was the final straw for me. I went off to college in Kalamazoo that fall, cured of any desire to return to such unpleasant dynamics.
The city did experience a long, slow decline. But, somehow, through it all, there has consistently been a core of community activists and concerned citizens who have insisted on making lemonade from lemons. The Flint Public Art Project (FPAP) has been sending volunteers to turn abandoned houses into works of art. A developer has converted the historic Durant Hotel in Downtown to loft apartments. The rococo Capitol Theatre downtown has been renovated and reopened. Farmers’ Marketreopened in 2014 and has become a community gathering place in the center of Downtown. University of Michigan-Flint has an active Resource Planning and Social Work department where students have been imagining Flint futures, especially for the Civic Park neighborhood. Public organizations have raised funds to renovate and rehabilitate some grand old Victorian homes in Carriage Town. Kettering University, at the base of the Carriage Town neighborhood, is a respected engineering school, formerly known as General Motors Institute.

The indoor

It would be unrealistic to expect any future population growth for Flint. The industrial framework that supported tens of thousands of unskilled workers will never return. But, perhaps there is an even more noble future for this city – one that grows organically from deeper roots in that former logging transit across fords on the Flint River.
Some will stay. They will provide a different kind of growth for Flint. It will be growth in spirit and heart. The factories are gone, but they were the transient parts of my Flint experience, anyway. Something else is still there. It is Flint’s soul.

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