Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Need for Narrative

This got me thinking about Flint, and all the stories written about the place, by me and many others.
"As far as I could tell, stories may enable us to live, but they also trap us, bring us spectacular pain. In their scramble to make sense of nonsensical things, they distort, codify, blame, aggrandize, restrict, omit, betray, mythologize, you name it. This has always struck me as cause for lament, not celebration."
— "The Red Parts" by Maggie Nelson

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Streets of San Francisco: GMC Diesel

If you're going to own a GMC Diesel like this one in San Francisco, it goes without saying you better have some serious parking skills. And the ability to climb out the rear window when you're done.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Flint Photos: Jim Cunningham's Retirement from Buick

When Jim Cunningham retired from Buick, they gave him a starter motor mounted on a plaque, like the thousands he had bolted on to engine blocks every week for 32 years at Factory 36. Thanks to Joe Cunningham for the photo of his father.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Alvin Chang at Vox explores those who stay in their hometown and those who leave.
Those who stayed in their hometown tend to be less educated, less wealthy, and less hopeful. 
They tend to be less open to other cultures and less open to immigrants. 
Ultimately, they tend to be more likely to support Donald Trump. 
But putting those sentences next to each other implies there is something wrong with people who don’t leave home. After all, there’s nothing wrong with people who want to stay close to their family and friends — people who “really value kinship and close ties," as Cromartie put it. 
Still, there are real disparities — political and economic — that emerge from the decision to move away from home, or not. And like so many other disparities, this split is the culmination of several systemic factors that sort us into these groups.
Read the rest here.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Flint Fashion

The Flint Expatriates editorial team always finds some good stuff in San Francisco's consignment shops. Flint fashion for babies.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Flint Photos: Comber's Market in Civic Park, Late '50s, Early '60s

You remember this sort of winter day in Flint. There are a lot of them every winter. Comber's became Double D Market, then a vacant lot. Now it's an urban forest, a ghetto palm arboretum.

Thank you to Bill Comber for the photo.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

A Fire on Dayton Street

P-Nut, Gordon Young, and Aaron at the house on Dayton Street.

If you read Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City, you may remember P-Nut. Pastor Sherman McCathern at Joy Tabernacle Church introduced me to him after I had given up on buying a house in Flint. It turned out that P-Nut was moving into a house donated to the church, and I was lucky enough to get to know him and help out as he fixed up his new home, which just happened to be the house Ben Hamper, author of Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line, grew up in.

I recently learned, via Ben, that P-Nut's house on W. Dayton Street caught fire and is totaled, like many houses in Civic Park before it. P-Nut and his family are safe and they have a place to live, so by Flint standards this could be a lot worse. Nobody died.

I've included the epilogue from Teardown that tells P-Nut's story and provides a brief history of the house. 

 An all-too-common fate of houses in my old neighborhood of Civic Park. P-Nut's home after the fire.

Summer 2012

It was still drizzling after we ate lunch at McDonald’s, so P-Nut and I ditched our plans to paint the exterior of his house on West Dayton Avenue and decided to get started on the interior of the small first-floor sunroom instead. That meant scraping off several decades’ worth of old paint and taping the windows. Painting prep is one of the least satisfying home improvement projects, but I was happy to be there. So was P-Nut. He had all the energy and determination you would expect of a twenty-three-year-old first-time homeowner who feels like he’s working toward a brighter future. He also had a practical incentive. He was sharing a single room with his girlfriend, Raevyn, and their three young daughters at his father-in-law’s home until his two-story Civic Park Saltbox was fit for habitation. He needed more space. Fast. “I want my family to have a real home, so I’ve been doing something at the house every day,” he told me.

P-Nut had already tamed the wild, overgrown yard, cleared the house of debris, pulled up the worn carpet, fixed a few broken windows, and painted the living room a rich red color. The floors still needed refinishing, and some plumbing and electrical work remained to be done, not to mention all the holes in the walls that needed patching. But as abandoned houses in Flint go, this one wasn’t too bad. He brought his little girls—who were ages three, four, and six—over on weekends so they could play while he worked. Despite the summer weather, he’d even burned some wood in the fireplace, just because he could. “I’ll be saving some money on heat in the winter with all the wood you can find around here,” he said as he attacked a window sill with a putty knife. “It heats up the whole house.”

Sherman McCathern was the reason P-Nut and I were working together on a June afternoon in 2012. I’d stayed in touch with the pastor, and during one phone conversation he mentioned that a local real-estate agent had donated a house to the church. In turn, the pastor had given it to P-Nut, a member of the congregation who was trying to turn his life around. McCathern had made the decision after receiving another one of his famous communiqu├ęs from God. He had sat P-Nut down for a long talk to ensure that he knew a house was a huge responsibility and would require a lot of hard work to make it a home. The problem now, as usual, was money. They needed funds to fix up the place.

The solution seemed obvious to me. I could donate the money I had set aside for a house of my own in Flint to finance the rehab. This small gesture would have immediate, tangible results. I’d be reaching out to a guy who was roughly the same age I was when I left Civic Park. I’d be doing my part to help the pastor in his uphill struggle to transform the neighborhood. And unlike my earlier plans, this one wouldn’t make me an accidental slumlord, saddled with a second home I couldn’t afford to maintain. I knew one house wasn’t going to magically fix Flint, but I was still determined to assist the city in some way. I didn’t like the way I’d left things between me and my hometown. Traci thought it was a great idea, one of my rare epiphanies related to real estate in the Vehicle City.

Reverend McCathern, a survivor well schooled in the art of raising money, happily accepted the offer. “It’s providence,” he declared, not for the first time. He suggested that I fly out to meet P-Nut and his family, maybe earn a little sweat equity in addition to my donation. So I was back in Flint, a few blocks from my old house, just a short walk from Dave and Judy Starr’s place on Milbourne Avenue. It turns out I was no stranger to P-Nut’s Band-Aid beige and brown house on the corner. It happened to be the childhood home of writer and former shop rat Ben Hamper. I’d stopped there dozens of times over the years when I carpooled to Saint Mary’s with Ben’s younger siblings. He had described the old Civic Park in Rivethead: “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 buckets and marched the kids off to the nuns.” Obviously, times had changed.

P-Nut was far more organized than I ever was when I tried to fix up my house. He had the painting supplies neatly arranged on a drop cloth in the living room, like a surgeon preparing to operate. He planned to get the entire sunroom prepped and painted in one day. He was wearing unwrinkled jeans and an oversize T-shirt that closely matched the red color he had chosen to paint the walls. His black baseball cap was emblazoned with his nickname in gold script. “Everyone said my head looked like a peanut when I was a little boy and it just stuck,” he explained.

While we worked side by side, P-Nut told me his story. He had followed a trajectory similar to many of the young men who had grown up in Civic Park and landed at Joy Tabernacle. His desire to create a home for Raevyn and their kids was driven by the fact that he’d never really had a home of his own. His parents were divorced, and his mother had a drug problem. The courts eventually intervened, and P-Nut was sent to live with his grandparents. His grandfather taught him how to “fix on cars,” and he was an accomplished mechanic, skilled enough to get arrested for auto theft when he was thirteen. Seeing over the steering wheel was a bigger challenge than busting the steering column to start the car. He was sent to a juvenile correctional facility in Pennsylvania until he was seventeen. Both grandparents died while he was incarcerated. “I got to come home for the funerals,” he said.

When he was released, P-Nut met Raevyn back in Flint, and they rented a house together. He earned a little money working on cars, but not nearly enough to support his growing family. He wasn’t above breaking into empty houses in search of anything he could sell, especially copper plumbing and wiring. He was a scrapper, the scourge of Flint’s troubled neighborhoods, and his voice got softer when he tried to explain. “It was wrong, but I had kids, no job, and no money,” he said. “I didn’t want to sell drugs or go out and rob somebody.”

In fact, P-Nut and some friends had once targeted the house he now owned—the very house we were working on at that moment. They ran off when a burglar alarm sounded. But P-Nut admitted that his partners had gone back later and stolen the water heater and some electrical wiring in the basement.

Things had gotten worse when the police raided a neighborhood garage where P-Nut was repairing cars. A spare transmission was identified as stolen property. P-Nut maintains he had no idea it was hot, but he did a year in county jail nonetheless. Raevyn could no longer afford rent on their house, so she moved back home with the kids. Visitors under eighteen weren’t allowed at the jail, so P-Nut didn’t see his daughters while he was incarcerated. “That’s when I knew I had to change things when I got out,” he said. “I had to take care of my family. I had to do things the right way.” His brother was a member at Joy, and P-Nut became active in the church after his release.

Our conversation was soon interrupted when the sound of someone rattling the back door echoed through the empty house, followed by loud pounding.

“Who there?” P-Nut yelled, tensing up.

“You know who there. Let me in!”

It was the voice of Reverend McCathern, and P-Nut hurried over to let him in.

“Why you locking me out?” he asked as he came up the back steps into the living room, followed by Aaron, who had taken in the winter scene with me in the church parking lot that snowy Sunday more than a year earlier when I decided not to buy a house in Flint.

“Security,” P-Nut said a little sheepishly.

“Don’t make me cut you,” I said to the pastor, brandishing my spackle knife.

“Shoot, you don’t scare me, son,” McCathern said, laughing as he lightly grabbed my shoulder and gave me a push.

Just as the pastor had definite plans for Civic Park, he also had some well-defined ideas about home decorating, and he wasn’t shy about sharing them. He suggested a vibrant green for the trim in the small kitchen, holding up a can of Glade air freshener as an example. “Now isn’t that a beautiful color?” he asked. 

“You want each room to be distinctive and different.” A discussion ensued about the relative merits of removing a front window to prevent break-ins versus preserving the window and installing security bars. “You need some natural light in here,” the pastor explained as he slowly turned to take in the living room. I felt like I was in a home-decor reality show, Flint-style. P-Nut mentioned that he was thinking of a small chandelier for the sunroom, but the pastor wasn’t going for it. Instead, he recommended a ceiling fan and “that straw kind of furniture.”

“This is like your patio,” he elaborated, sweeping his hands forward to encompass the sunroom. “This is where you sit and drink tea.”

There was a brief pause before Aaron and P-Nut burst out laughing.

“Okay, I need to step back now, don’t I?” McCathern said, shaking his head and looking at P-Nut. “This isn’t my house, is it? It’s yours.”

After a short tour, the pastor and Aaron left. P-Nut and I went back to work for a half hour before Raevyn arrived with the couple’s three daughters—Mariah, Kamira, and Jheniya. The little girls had matching braids and appeared to have cornered the market on pink, lavender, and pale blue clothes. They quickly headed for the front yard and were soon racing around the house, yelling and laughing.

By now, we were ready to paint, and Raevyn joined us in the small room with a brush. She was twenty-five, and it turned out that we had gone to the same high school, albeit twenty-one years apart. She told me she’d been skeptical about the house at first, wondering who would just give it away to someone. She also worried about its condition when she learned it had been vacant for a long stretch. Now she was looking forward to moving day. “I’m glad we’ve been able to fix it up ourselves,” she said. “It’s good to do something from the ground up. It gives you something to be proud of.”

As we painted, talk turned to the future. P-Nut was part of a pilot program that the pastor had brokered with Baker College to help church members get college credit and job training. It was connected with the city’s Clean and Green program, so P-Nut and several other members of the congregation got paid for mowing and maintaining dozens of yards and vacant lots in Civic Park. Raevyn was on public assistance, and P-Nut also earned a little extra money fixing cars on the side. The family of five lived on $1,200 a month. P-Nut’s goal was to earn his GED and get certified as an automotive technician, building on the knowledge his grandfather had passed on to him before he died. “I know he would have liked seeing me earn a living from the things he taught me,” he said.
I wanted everything to work out for P-Nut and Raevyn, but I knew the odds were against them—a young couple with a large family and few resources in a city that faced monumental, perhaps insurmountable challenges. Yet they had not given up yet, and that was an accomplishment all by itself.

And they were not alone. Reverend McCathern and the members of his flock. Mayor Dayne Walling. Dave and Judy Starr and the other diehards on Milbourne Avenue. Dan Kildee. The urban homesteaders of Carriage Town. They were all tough people fighting for Flint in their own ways. And I could fight alongside them in my way. I could keep writing about the city. I could keep coming back and stay connected to the place that meant so much to me. I could donate time and money to the individuals and organizations determined to create a new Flint. Maybe not the city it was in the fifties, a bastion of the middle class, but a different place that still had pride and dignity.

Instead of viewing my time in Flint as a failure because I hadn’t bought a house, I realized as I stood next to P-Nut and Raevyn—looking through the windows at a row of abandoned houses across the street—that it had been a success in all the ways that really mattered. I was part of the city again. I had new friends in my old hometown. And I had a measure of hope for the future.

P-Nut was reaching up to coat the wall above the windows with red paint, and I noticed a series of dates tattooed in black ink on his arms. I asked him what they meant. “These are my daughters’ birthdays,” he told me, “so I don’t forget what I’m here for. So I don’t forget my life has a purpose.”

A recent shot of P-Nut, Raevyn, and their girls.