By Andrew Schwab
Allow me to state the obvious: Flint, Michigan is not a popular getaway destination. The city’s stubbornly high crime rate and widespread blight issues continue to attract the worst kind of attention from national media outlets. In almost every sense possible, Flint’s population continues to bleed. Flint is the poster-child for post-industrial decay, the headstone of Michigan’s I-75 trail of tears, and, generally speaking, most consider the Vehicle City a terrible place to live.
But not Gordon Young.
Young grew up in Flint, established himself in San Francisco, and chronicles his search to reconnect with his hometown in his new book Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City. Young’s work shines the spotlight on a lot of the good happening in Flint but doesn’t shy away from its current reality or uncertain future. It’s an interesting and informative read.
As a fan of his book and his blog–Flint Expatriots–I dropped by one of his recent book signings; he was kind enough to answer a few of my inquiries.
The positive impacts of replacing burned out and abandoned homes with green spaces seem blindingly obvious, but the plan isn’t without problems. Given the reality of Flint’s declining revenue, how do you see those spaces being maintained or re-purposed?
The spaces where abandoned houses and derelict buildings once stood can be used for everything from green space to urban gardens to infill housing. Someday, sections of land might be used for more large-scale development. But the vital thing right now is simply removing the abandoned homes and chronic blight that mars the city. These empty buildings are crime incubators. They attract illegal drug activity and are targets for arson. Worse, they often give nearby homeowners who are trying to save their block one more reason to give up. I profile several people trying to turn things around, and the abandoned houses are extremely discouraging to them. It’s important to remember that he shrinking city plan isn’t an economic model. It sets the stage for possible economic growth down the line. It’s the first step in turning the city around, but the process certainly doesn’t guarantee economic growth. It just gets us to a place where the city has some possibilities.
We all know that the Flint of the future will be smaller, but in your estimation, just how small? Can Flint provide a relatively uniform high quality of life for its citizens at 30,000 people? 60,000? 100,000? When and where does the city’s population finally level off?
Good question. I’m not sure anyone knows. The city has shrunk from 200,000 to less than 100,000. Flint’s been losing an average of 5 residents every day over the last decade. There’s no indication that those trends will change anytime soon. But as Congressman Dan Kildee points out in Teardown, it’s not the size of the city that matters, it’s the quality of life in the city. It’s how residents feel about the place where they live when they stand on their front porch in the morning. So a growing population isn’t necessarily the only sign of success in Flint.
There are many examples in your book of homeowners who lost a lot of money on their homes. Do you get the sense that Flint’s real estate market is beginning to stabilize, or is buying a house in Flint still a guaranteed financial loss?
The Flint housing market is a confusing thing. In some ways, it’s not really a functioning “market” as most people understand it. The law of supply and demand starts to break down when the equivalent of one-third of a city is completely abandoned. Many houses have no value whatsoever. And the presence of housing speculators makes prices seem almost random at times. But like the dropping population, I don’t think Flint has hit bottom yet in terms of home values.
Teardown touches on several of Flint’s surrounding communities, but the City of Fenton wasn’t mentioned much. As a current resident, I’d appreciate any thoughts you have on the relationships between Flint and Fenton.
I grew up a Flint kid in a household where money was tight, so I didn’t have much experience with Fenton growing up. But like other suburban areas in Genesee County, Fenton will be helped by a healthy, more functional Flint. We need a regional solution to Flint’s problems because they can spread to places like Fenton, Grand Blanc, and Flushing. The Genesee County Land Bank has been able to harness some of the prosperity of the areas surrounding Flint to demolish houses in the city and spur some development like the Durant hotel project and a few others. I believe that improving conditions in Flint will benefit the entire area.
What are the best ways for non-residents, like myself, to support Flint and engage with its communities?
One of the easiest ways to help Flint when you live outside the city is to simply go there and spend money. Go to the Flint Institute of Arts. Get lunch at one of the restaurants downtown. Attend one of the Art Walks in the summer. Get a drink at The Torch. I’m also a big believer in connecting with individuals and groups working to make the city a better place. There are lots to choose from. For me it was Joy Tabernacle Church on Dayton Street in my old neighborhood of Civic Park. I donate time and money to the church as it battles crime, blight and out-of-state speculators who don’t take care of their property. I feel I owe something to Flint even though I’ve lived outside the city longer than I lived there growing up. But Flint made me who I am. I’m not giving up on the city.
Lastly, please list your top five favorite non-fiction books.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning by Jonathan Mahler
The Magical Stranger by Stephen Rodrick
Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley and Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick
Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life by John Lee Anderson
Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line by Ben Hamper