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Pink Houses and Panhandlers
I had arrived in Flint in early June of 2009 after listening to the Tigers game in my rental car during the ninety-minute drive up I-75 from the Detroit airport. I thought baseball on the radio would snap me into a Michigan frame of mind, but the legendary Ernie Harwell, whose distinctive voice had mesmerized me as a kid, was no longer calling the games. It wasn't quite the same. But the game did remind me to stop at a thrift store and buy that baseball bat, a handy accessory for any extended stay in Flint.
I eventually made it to Saginaw Street, the city's main artery, which roughly divides Flint between east and west. As I crossed the river into what was once the thriving shopping district in the heart of downtown, the first of several black metal arches harking back to the early twentieth century spanned the thoroughfare, announcing that this was the "Vehicle City." The rumble caused by the uneven, old-timey bricks that still lined several downtown blocks gave me a jolt of nostalgia, a rush of the familiar that tapped into memories of numerous trips down this bumpy street with my mom, my grandparents, and my friends. It felt reassuring. And although no one would describe downtown as bustling, with its empty storefronts and boarded-up buildings, I saw signs of hope.
There was a crowd at Blackstone's, a new restaurant located in the former home of a fashionable men's clothing store that had folded decades earlier. (Spotting a new business in downtown Flint is as rare as seeing someone driving a new Buick in San Francisco.) The Art Deco splendor of the sixteen-story Mott Foundation Building, scrupulously maintained with the financial legacy of a fabulously wealthy industrialist once referred to as Mr. Flint, would draw attention in any city. There were enough people out and about to chase away the eerie sense of emptiness pervading so many other parts of the city. A few construction projects generated a reassuring racket that indicated something was happening here. The city wasn't dead yet.
I was headed to a vacant house owned by a friend of mine named Rich. Like me, he had grown up in Flint and eventually moved to San Francisco, where we met. He owned three "investment" properties in Flint, although the fact that all of them were empty indicated they weren't exactly generating a lot of income. He had happily agreed to let me crash at one of them. "It's good to have it look like there's someone actually living there," he had told me. "It keeps the thieves from stealing the plumbing."
It took me a while to find the house because downtown still had an inexplicable number of confusing one-way streets, an unnecessary remnant of the days when growth and good fortune meant traffic congestion. I'd also never spent much time in the Carriage Town neighborhood. It was unfamiliar terrain when I lived in Flint, a neighborhood to avoid unless you were in the market for drugs, hookers, or an ass kicking.
Rich's sister, Berniece, was there to greet me when I finally arrived. She still lived in Flint. Although we'd never met, she showed me around the house like I was an old friend, presenting a very practical housewarming gift—a four-pack of toilet paper. She seemed worried about me, offering advice like "Don't let anybody you don't know into the house" and "Be careful who you talk to on the street." I tried to reassure her that I knew how to take care of myself. I was from Flint, after all. But I sensed that my San Francisco pedigree, the new Patagonia shirt with lots of snaps and pockets that I'd bought for the trip, and my teal-striped Pumas were undermining my street cred.
Before I try to pawn myself off as a minor-league George Orwell writing a Rust Belt version of Down and Out in Paris and London, I should point out that Rich's house wasn't as rundown as many in the neighborhood. It was the well-preserved former home of Charles W. Nash, the president of GM in 1912 and founder of Nash Motors. It was just across the street from the Durant-Dort Office Building, the beautifully restored birthplace of GM. Unlike many of Flint's empty structures, the Nash House had luxuries like plumbing and electricity. The water heater was broken, but a cold shower would be better than nothing. Inexplicably, the place was painted pink, destroying any chance I had of establishing myself as some kind of tough-guy writer, a Buick City Bukowski.
The wood floors, wraparound porch, handsome stained glass window, and high ceilings oozed Victorian charm. There was no sign of habitation other than an awkwardly modern glass table in the dining room, a couple of folding chairs, and an expensive-looking Persian rug in the living room. Our voices echoed in the empty space. The bulk of the tour was devoted to the house's four doors and eight locks. The kitchen door had been nailed shut from the inside with a two- by-four after a break-in. The side door was locked and seldom used. If there was a fire, Berniece advised, the front door was my best option, other than the windows.
"I'll try not to burn the place down," I joked.
"It's not you I'm worried about," she answered. Like any city with a lot of abandoned property, Flint houses regularly went up in flames. I decided to bed down on the nice rug. Besides adding a little padding, it was close to the fire exit.
I walked Berniece out to her pickup truck, suddenly feeling lonely and wishing she'd stay for a while. As she was driving away, I saw my two closest neighbors, a man and a woman who looked to be in their thirties, playing with two dogs in their massive yard, which took up about five city lots. I wanted to introduce myself, but it looked like they were heading inside. I started jogging across the wide expanse of lawn that separated the two houses. "Hey there!" I yelled, for some reason deciding to wave both arms over my head to get their attention. "Hey! Hi!"
I immediately realized this was not the way to introduce yourself in Flint. In unison, the couple and the dogs swung around to face me. A consistent and unmistakably hostile look animated the faces of both humans and canines. "What do you want?" the guy demanded, as one of the dogs started to growl. I skidded to a stop, still a good fifteen yards away, far enough that I was almost yelling as I awkwardly explained who I was and offered up a rambling history of my relationship to Flint dating back to 1972, dropping every local name and cultural reference I could muster. I'm not positive, but I may have recited the names and addresses of all my high school girlfriends. "I used to be an altar boy at Saint Mike's, right over there on Fifth," I trailed off.
The dogs were still intent on ripping me to shreds, but the couple turned and looked at each other, apparently trying to decide if I was a harmless oddball, a potentially dangerous criminal, or just fucking crazy. "Sorry about that," the guy said after a long pause. "When someone we don't know runs up on us like that, we're not sure what to expect." We shook hands, but the dogs continued to eye me warily.
Nathan and Rebecca told me they had purchased their cornflower blue, two-story house seven years earlier for $90,000. I was shocked by the high price tag, and they admitted that they'd paid way too much. It was a great place, nevertheless. We walked over to their back deck, complete with a hot tub, and they pointed out their herb and vegetable garden, compost heap, and the fruit trees and berry bushes scattered across their half-acre property.
They had good jobs. Nathan commuted to Lansing, where he worked as an environmental policy analyst with the Michigan Senate Democrats, and Rebecca was the executive director of the Flint Watershed Coalition. "I grew up in Lansing, and when I told people I was moving to Flint, they were like 'Are you frickin' kidding me?'" Rebecca said. "But we never had a lot of apprehension about moving here. When we lived in various suburbs we were never engaged in our community at all. Now we know everybody. You have a hard time getting your yard work done because people stop by to talk. You really feel like you're part of something."
They pointed out that although they'd dealt with crackheads, panhandlers, and various shady characters, the only thing that had ever been stolen from their property was the small metal sign planted in their front yard warning intruders that they had a burglar alarm.
I was growing suspicious. I wondered if these two were operatives planted by the real-estate agents I was planning to meet later in the week. Aside from an abandoned brick building casting a long shadow that nearly reached the healthy clusters of rhubarb in the backyard garden, the conversation could have been taking place in San Francisco, although in that scenario Nathan and Rebecca might become millionaires simply by selling off a portion of their yard. Here was a couple who seemed to prove that you could have a meaningful, fulfilling life in Flint.
Right on cue, a loud, exuberant yelp of either agony or ecstasy cut through the quiet, followed by what sounded like a board breaking and laughter. Rebecca giggled and shook her head. "Ah, that would be the drug house across the street," Nathan said calmly as he continued to survey his property, a smile of satisfaction—or was it resignation?—on his face.
After I said my goodbyes, I cut across the yard to my empty pink house. I didn't exactly know what to do with myself, so I started organizing, attempting to create a makeshift bedroom by sorting stuff from my suitcase into carefully arranged piles on the living room floor near my sleeping bag. That's when I heard a strange, ghostly voice floating through the house. "Oh luke aht this window, so bootiful!" a woman said in what sounded like a German accent.
I slowly pulled back the curtain of the window closest to the voice and was face-to-face with a meticulously made up elderly woman who was peering intently into the house. She had on lavender-tinted glasses and was wearing a long cotton nightgown and slippers. With her bright red nail polish contrasting with flashy gold rings and bracelets, she reminded me of an aging Hollywood legend padding around the grounds of her mansion. She tapped on the window with a well-manicured index finger. "Oh, hello there!" she said and unsteadily weaved her way toward the backyard.
I'm ashamed to admit that I briefly considered grabbing my bat before I ventured outside to investigate. Sure, she appeared to be a sweet little old lady, but she was wiry, and those polished nails looked sharp. What the hell was wrong with me? I needed to cool it with the security measures. I went outside—unarmed—and introduced myself.
It turned out to be Rich and Berniece's mom, out for a drive with a friend. They had stopped to look at the purple and yellow irises blooming in the yard. I gave them a tour of the house and told them my plans. I mentioned that I had gone to grade school at Saint Mary's, and I could tell that the connection meant something to Rich's mom. It was her parish. Before she left, she gave me a hug in the front yard. "You woot be happy if you came back home," she whispered to me.
Once again, I was in the front yard waving goodbye, this time as my two unexpected visitors drove away. A shirtless guy down the street saw me, waved back, and made a beeline down the block. I considered hustling into the house to avoid the encounter, but he was fast. "My man, you have to help me out," he said, rubbing his head with one hand and imploring me with the other. "I just got robbed. You know what it's like to get robbed on your birthday? That shit is messed up!"
I was used to being panhandled in San Francisco, but it had never happened in my front yard before. Rich had warned me to never give anyone change in the neighborhood, but I didn't want to be too harsh with this guy since he knew where I lived. "Happy birthday," I said, trying to sound firm yet friendly. "I don't have any money."
"Come on, man!" he said, taking a step toward me, suddenly angry. His face was inches from mine.
"Sorry, but I can't help you out," I said, getting a little pissed off myself and regretting the decision to leave my bat in the house.
"Cheap-ass muthafucka," he yelled before abruptly turning, crossing the street, and cutting through the parking lot behind the Durant-Dort building, no doubt covering the same ground that GM's creator, Billy Durant, had traversed numerous times about a hundred years earlier.
I took a deep breath, found a shady spot on my front steps, took out my phone, and called Traci in San Francisco. She reported that our cat, Sergio, had invaded the neighbor's house again, peeing in their basement, then sacking out on one of their beds and refusing to leave. He was relentless in his quest to acquire new territory, an impulse I was beginning to understand. The previous night Traci had gone to a party filled with other writers and reporters that had degenerated into the typical group lament over dwindling jobs, bad editors, and low pay—the sort of unrestrained bitching that often defined our lives as journalists.
I tried to explain how one day in Flint contrasted with the cold, superficial friendliness of San Francisco, where I sometimes felt like I could go long stretches without making a real connection with anyone besides her. I'd already been fretted over by Berniece; confronted, scrutinized, and ultimately accepted by Rebecca and Nathan; embraced by Rich's mom; and called a muthafucka by the birthday boy. It was all a visceral reminder that the anonymity of big-city life in San Francisco and the stereotypical laid-back character of California had their drawbacks. If you weren't careful, you could float along on a sheen of lovely views and trendy pop culture distractions. Ironic roller derby matches at the Kezar Pavilion, graffiti masquerading as art in the Mission, and the mesmerizing fog rolling over Twin Peaks. At the risk of sounding like a touchy- feely Californian, somehow Flint felt more real, like I had permanent ties here that I could never make in San Francisco. This must have come off as an overly enthusiastic endorsement, because Traci cautioned me to give Flint a few weeks before I came to any big conclusions. "I miss you," she said before we hung up. "The house seems empty without you."
I lingered on the front porch, resisting the urge to go inside and needlessly rearrange my belongings. There was nowhere I needed to be. I tried to sit back and appreciate the fact that after all the planning, worrying, and soul searching, I was really in Flint, well on my way to buying a house. But I couldn't quite silence the small voice in the back of my head whispering that this was a very bad idea.
Looking back, the desire to own property in Flint was rooted in my decision to buy a house in San Francisco. Despite the yawning economic, geographic, and meteorological gap between the two places, they were united by one thing: I didn't have any business owning property in either place. By nature, I am deeply skeptical when it comes to most things that involve spending money. A few friends have jokingly used terms of endearment like "cheap bastard" and "tightwad" to describe me. (At least I think they're joking.) But my frugality seems to disappear when it comes to real estate.
Traci discovered this six months after we gave up our respective apartments and moved in together in 2003. We had a nice two-bedroom flat up a steep flight of stairs on the western slope of Bernal Heights, with built-in bookshelves, an elegant nonfunctioning fireplace, and a back deck, all set to a soundtrack of muffled salsa music that drifted up from the bars on nearby Mission Street. At $1,850 a month, it was reasonably priced by the outrageous local standards. We were happy. We were in love. Why mess with this arrangement?
Well, I couldn't help thinking about all the money I'd handed over to the landlord of my previous apartment on Potrero Hill, roughly $130,000 in rent over a decade. And I'd always felt a little like a visitor to San Francisco. I liked the idea of Traci and me becoming official residents with a real stake in the city. I was in my forties, and I wanted to be a homeowner. I foolishly believed that by combining the meager incomes of two journalists we might have a shot at owning in one of the world's most expensive markets. Our household income was around $90,000. Starter homes in the San Francisco neighborhoods we found acceptable started at around $500,000. Neither of us did that well in math back in school. We were writers, after all.
Our friendly landlord at the time, Michelle, was a real-estate agent who was, of course, very encouraging. She thought my plan was brilliant, especially since we wanted her to be our agent. Her husband was a lawyer who grew up in Muskegon and wore U of M T-shirts, so there was a Michigan connection. Already I was basing housing decisions on extraneous emotional attachments.
Excerpted from Teardown by Gordon Young. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Posted May 24, 2013
I can think of two types of person that might enjoy this book. People who don't live in Flint and want to understand the place, and people who do live in Flint and want to understand how people on the outside see our fair city. Author Gordon Young is part of an increasing number of people that fall into both camps; he grew up in Flint and, like so many Flintstones, left the place for greener pastures.
Now a San Francisco journalist, Young is best known in Flint for his Flint Expatriates blog. It's an extensive, wide-ranging, and evocative collection of anecdotes, archive, history, and armchair analysis, and many of us have been hoping for years that Young would share his own observations in a full-fledged book.
Teardown does not disappoint.
The book is a memoir, following Young's personal quest to buy a house in his hometown, fueled in large part by fond and complicated memories of his own childhood there.
Despite his extensive blogging, Young is surprised by a Flint that has changed drastically in the almost thirty years since he left. Budget shortfalls and public safety cuts coincide with skyrocketing crime. Many blocks are filled with abandoned houses, and hundreds burn down in arson sprees. Defiant homeowners in Carriage Town pump many times their house's value into renovation, while equally determined holdouts in the impoverished Civic Park neighborhood fight to keep a single block from falling into decay. The city is in crisis, and has been for decades. Most of Flint's residents live in a perpetual state of damage control as one calamity follows another.
Now I should pause for a moment, because the above paragraph could really describe any number of accounts of Flint.
Ben Hamper's Rivethead, written in the midst of decline, well conveys the sense of a town's psychological disintegration. Various academic studies portray depopulation and poverty in stark numbers. The Flint Journal and many others have provided illuminating histories of Flint, enhanced by photos and primary sources. And Michael Moore's "Roger and Me," released in 1989, still expresses abandonment vividly (even if the number of abandoned homes has since multiplied many times). So in several ways, Young is operating on well-trod territory.
Here is why Teardown is unique among all the others:
Despite being framed by the very personal narrative of Young's home-buying quest and his own memories, Teardown is by far the most balanced and circumspect encounter with Flint that the world-at-large is likely to get.
First, among the characters he encounters -- from well-connected politicians, to frustrated homeowners, to a determined clergy, to young parents trying to make a fresh start in the midst of entrenched policy, everyone is given a moment to speak, and their views are presented eloquently and sympathetically. So when would-be town-downsizer Dan Kildee encounters an Eastside resident on Jane Street (where Kildee's own family had once lived), the man says, "somebody needs to fix these houses up, not just let them fall down!" '"Fix them up!" he yelled without looking back, pointing into the air for emphasis as he waded into the shadows.'
Young allows his characters dignity in their crises; the very element missing from Forbes' "worst cities" lists, and uniting Flint's citizens despite their many issues and disagreements.
Second, following even deeper veins, Young manages to capture the paradoxical current of both hope and despair so many express about life in Flint. Other accounts have hinted at this contradiction, but none have ever come so far in bringing it to life.
"It's impossible to spin, sugarcoat, or sanitize Flint's fate," he writes toward the end of Teardown. "Flint demands mental compartmentalization, the ability to absorb bad news while simultaneously ferreting out encouraging signs." And so his quest begins with Rich, a California real-estate agent who happily jeopardizes his own finances by buying up houses in Flint, under logic that seems increasingly shaky as time goes by. Michael and Dave and Judy and Jan and Sherman all look to the future with a feverish determination that could be called impassioned, even if it is not optimistic. And Young himself, drawn back toward the neighborhood where he grew up, and discovering it blighted and empty, is encouraged in his search by the sight of a faded mural his sister had painted decades before. All the while, bad things keep happening: serial homicide, arson, falling revenue, and failing services. Flint is a desperate place, and a weird place, but it is a place that somehow draws intense loyalty and even obsession from those who live there by choice and necessity. Young has expressed this contradiction in a way that no one else has.
Teardown is a couple hundred pages long, but with short chapters and focused episodes, it's also a quick read. In many ways, Flint is a small town; Flintstones reading Teardown will recognize many characters (Disclaimer: Indeed, a neighbor of mine features, and is part of the reason I was asked to read and comment on an early manuscript of the book), but the anonymous characters are just as compelling, in some cases appearing naked and threatening, or in others simply asking obvious and unanswerable questions. One man, arriving unannounced at the mayor's office, simply says: "I've given up on Flint, and I wanted to see if he could give me a reason not to give up on it."
Considering all this, you should read Teardown.
If you don't live in Flint and want to understand the place, then read it.
If you do live in Flint and want to understand how people on the outside see Flint, then read it.
And if you don't know a thing about Flint, and don't know why so many words and thoughts would be spent on a place filled with such evident misery, you should read it too. We all confront crises in our lives, and accounts of the confrontation of crises are both universal and timeless.
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Posted May 7, 2013
As someone who grew up in a suburb of Flint and fled as fast as I could in 1991, I felt as if the author wrote what I had been feeling the last few years. A tremendous sense of pride of the history in Flint (3 generations worked at Buick), a tremendous sense of sorrow for what has become of the area, and a never ending feeling that I want to help or be a part of the new Flint to come.
It doesn't matter if you know Flint, as I believe there are a lot of "hometowns" in America that have suffered the same fate with those of us not there who still have a longing for the old days while growing old in a city that doesn't quite have the same feel of connectedness. A well written search for home again.
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Posted June 10, 2013
This book appears to have been written by a dilettante who really doesn't have a clue as to what caused the decline of Flint. It spends too much time talking about politicans who are as clueless as the author, and not enough on the crime and filth that pervades this city in every corner. Flint was in its death spiral long before GM pulled up and left and this book addresses this only briefly. A big disapointment...
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Posted June 4, 2013
This is NOT a book about Flint, Michigan. This is really just a book about a guy who secretly loves his hometown, wants to help it, and finds some amazing characters who are doing a better job of helping his hometown. This story could have been written about my hometown in Connecticut, my cousin's hometown in Arizona, my wife's hometown in South Dakota, my boss's hometown in California, my buddy's hometown in Florida, my aunt's hometown in New York, my grandmother's hometown in Massachusetts, my co-worker's hometown in Virginia or my other co-worker's hometown in Texas. Gordon Young didn't do anything amazing here but he found some amazing people who also love their hometown and have found ways to deal with some of the major problems within our country today: real estate speculators and house flippers causing long-term problems in our communities and residents who cannot change their lives as fast as companies change their business strategies. Gordon Young just found some colorful, compassionate and insightful people who illustrate what live is like in much of America and who are taking unique approaches to living the modern American dream in the changing landscape of this country. Very cool story. Very funny. Very touchingWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.