Friday, December 28, 2007

Flint Portraits: Erica Firment

If you're not a librarian, a website called Librarian Avengers might not sound wildly appealing, but don't be fooled. Flint's own Erica Firment created the site in 1997 and it's filled with her humor and insight into everything from equality pants to drug screening to rogue sheep. It's so popular The New York Times has taken notice:
With so much of the job involving technology and with a focus now on finding and sharing information beyond just what is available in books, a new type of librarian is emerging — the kind that, according to the Web site Librarian Avengers, is “looking to put the ‘hep cat’ in cataloguing.”
Erica now lives in San Francisco, where she's a user experience designer for Second Life, but she makes frequent trips back to Flint, which allows her to weigh in on some on the vital issues affecting the city:
"Friends, we need to have a little talk. Judging from some of your emails, many of you are Woefully Ignorant of one of the most important debates going on the world today. I refer to the fight between Flint-style coneys and Detroit-style coneys. Apparently there is a place claiming to be "Angelo's" located in shiny Ann Arbor (a yuppie Detroit suburb with delusions of grandeur) selling some vile mockery of a coney dog. I'm here to tell you that this is WRONG. Coneys belong to Flint. Flint invented coneys. Specifically, coneys belong to a little place called Angelo's."

Closing Schools

With room for nearly 35,000 students and fewer than 16,000 enrolled, the Flint School District is struggling to decide which schools will be closed.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Flint's Best High Schools

The best high school's in the Flint area are Hamady High School, Imlay City High School and International Academy of Flint, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Downtown Update

A quick overview of some downtown projects, courtesy of James M. Miller at The Flint Journal:

A building housing the new office for the Community Foundation of Greater Flint is expected to be done in April.

Stores that were once home to Dale's Foods for Health and Baker Drugs are being combined into a multi-use building, with space for a restaurant or commercial use on the first floor, office space on the second floor and loft apartments on the top floor of the former Dale's building.

After the Community Foundation moves to its new quarters at S. Saginaw and First streets, the Flint Convention & Visitors Bureau plans to move to the current Community Foundation building on Church Street.

A new building for Wade Trim, also in the 500 block of S. Saginaw Street, is expected to be done in the summer. The engineering firm will have offices on the second floor, WNEM (Channel 5) will have a studio on the first floor, and other commercial space will be available.

The Rowe building, across S. Saginaw Street, is expected to be complete after the Wade Trim building.

The Rowe and Wade Trim buildings will follow the same development plan as the Community Foundation building, with commercial and/or restaurant space on the first floor, offices on the second floors -- and the third floor of the Rowe building -- and apartments on the top floors.

The three projects are being done by Uptown Developments.

The city of Flint and Downtown Development Authority are working on a new parking ramp, to be built at Kearsley and Beach streets. Construction is expected to begin in May.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Yellow Organdy Dress

More memories of old Flint by a longtime resident...

In the fifties, I was a receptionist at The Coiffure Shop, a popular upscale beauty salon in downtown Flint. We were a close bunch on the job, as well as friends outside of work. One of our endeavors was learning the cha cha cha, which was then the current dance rage. We took lessons from a cute Italian guy named Leonard, which may have been short for Leonardo. When we felt we were the equivalent of Fred and Ginger, we arranged to meet on a Saturday night at the Town Club in the lower level of the Durant Hotel. The Town Club catered to the young hip crowd as opposed to the stuffy, members only City Club located somewhere in the upper floors of the Durant. We often joked that if you didn’t know C.S. Mott you couldn’t belong to the City Club, but members — minus their wives — often drifted down to the Town Club. But that’s another story.

I was excited about the big night and went to Betty Richards, my favorite dress shop, to buy a cocktail dress. Betty was great fun and always interested in where you were going and what you were doing. I told her we were all going to the Town Club to show off our dancing skills and that I wanted to look sexy. I was looking at low cut, tight fitting dresses when she taught me an important fashion lesson, which I have never forgotten: “Sexy is not showing it all but covering it up.”

She held up a pale yellow organdy dress with long sleeves and a full skirt. “You’ll look beautiful in this dress,” she said.

She was right. When I walked down the steps leading to the Town Club, I owned the night.

Cha Cha Cha!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Flint Portraits: Larry O. Dean

Poet and musician Larry O. Dean was born and raised in Flint, where he worked with Michael Moore as an arts editor and reporter at The Flint Voice. He's the author of seven books, including I Am Spam, a series of poems inspired by spam email.

Here's an excerpt from his poem entitled "Are You An Artist? Find out Free:"
"Do you want to know
that badly? Does it even matter?
You're either an artist, or you're not.
No middle ground. If
you don't already know
for sure, admit it,
there are suspicions - signs,
indications, warnings.

And you're worried."
After living in San Francisco, he now teaches poetry in the Chicago Public Schools, gives frequent readings, and is a singer-songwriter, working both solo as well as with several pop bands, including Post Office, The Me Decade, and currently, The Injured Parties.

For more information go to

Monday, December 17, 2007

Learning on the Job

The editor of the The Michigan Times, UM-Flint's student newspaper, has been pushed aside, sort of, for printing a letter to the editor that insulted Muslims. The move comes as the Flint campus ushers in a new journalism degree program.

"Student Amanda Durish, who defended running the letter in September and refused Lewis' suggestion to step down as The Times' three-year editor-in-chief, graduates this year.

Durish has become "editor emeritus" and Mike Stechschulte will become editor in chief next semester. Durish and administrators say the changes are not because of the letter controversy."

Durish just might be the first person in her twenties to earn the "emeritus" title after her name. It makes you wonder what the journalism students will be learning about freedom of the press.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

New Housing

Flint's housing situation seems relatively straight forward. The population has dipped, creating a lot of empty houses. The Land Bank has stepped in to rehab or remove the most dilapidated eyesores, but there are so many empty homes it's hard to keep up.

Seems simple, but then you read in the East Village Magazine about the possibility of infill housing courtesy of Habitat for Humanity:

"The Grand Traverse District Neighborhood Association Secretary Steve Snuske reported he met with two representatives from Habitat for Humanity to discuss infill housing in the neighborhood. They were referred by the Ruth Mott Foundation and may build 12 to 14 owner-occupied houses over a period of three years. The houses would be designed and built to look like surrounding homes and appear as if “they are a part of and always were in the neighborhood.” Snuske said there are not yet any plans to move forward with the project."
Things get a lot more complicated when you start trying to decide which neighborhoods will get more housing, and which will simply be dotted with vacant lots or disappear altogether.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Flint Farmers

One of the many good things the Genesse County Land Bank does is help Flint residents improve vacant lots and and take part in the urban farming movement, which is just a fancy way of describing people in cities who have gardens.

"The Land Bank's Clean and Green Program started as a pilot project during the summer of 2003 in which two community groups partnered in the maintenance of 45 Land Bank owned properties on Flint’s east side. Of these 45 properties, 10 were improved with decorative split rail fencing and raised garden beds. During the summer of 2006 twelve community groups participated in the program. These groups maintained over 600 Land Bank properties and developed 12 greening projects. In conjunction with Keep Genesse County Beautiful’s Beautification awards ceremony, the Land Bank recognized participating groups and awards were presented to the groups with the most outstanding greening projects."
One impressive example is the demonstration garden at 310 W. Home Avenue, pictured above. It was
designed by master gardener Phil Downs and nurtured by a band of residents and volunteers. As Flint Expatriates has already mentioned, these efforts are catching the attention of the national media.

For more information on local gardening in Flint, check out the MCC Gardening Association, the Flint Urban Gardening and Land Use Committee, and the Backyard Herbalist.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Cheaper by the dozen

How bad is the real estate market in Flint? You can now buy houses in bulk. The asking price for 23 houses on the Eastside is $450,000, but something tells me you could get all of them for a lot less. You never know when 23 houses might come in handy. If you don't need that many, there's always eBay. The house above had one bid for 99 cents as of Monday night.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Digital Downtown

Interested in seeing what downtown Flint looks like now? There are loads of photos available at, including this one of construction taking place next to Paul's Pipe Shop. Anyone remember when you could buy Detroit Tiger tickets there? Besides Balkan Bakery, it's probably the best smelling business in Flint.

Who needs a budget?

Flint is apparently operating without a valid city budget. Maybe. Well, it really depends on who you talk to about it. Regardless of who's right — the mayor or the city council — the dispute could cost Flint a $1.6 million state grant to convert the confusing one-way streets downtown into more convenient two-way thoroughfares.

The Flint Journal has its moments

I was never a huge fan of The Flint Journal when I was growing up. When I wrote a research paper in grad school on the Journal's coverage of the Flint Sit-Down Strike, I was ashamed to discover the hometown rag wasn't just boring, it had a long history of carrying water for GM. Great newspapers don't toady up to the most powerful business in town. They do just the opposite.

Having said that, Journal columnist Andrew Heller is a must-read for anyone hoping to keep tabs on the city. He's been on the job for 18 years, and he clearly revels in "getting paid to be crabby." He's sort of like Flint's version of Mitch Albom, minus the smarmy platitudes, smug self-assurance, saccharin writing style, and massive bank account. Heller is often funny and insightful, particularly when it comes to his coverage of Flint's Mayor Don "The Don" Williamson. A brief example in the lead up to the recent election:

"Flint, do you know where your Don is? Honest to gosh, where's he been? I see his campaign signs everywhere, so I know he's out there, but other than that, you'd hardly know an election was nigh. This last month is supposed to be the silly season. Where's the Don's customary announcement of some bizarro project that will turn Flint around -- like, say, turning Genesee Towers into the world's biggest haunted house or making the former Forest Park into a hunting preserve?"
And he seems to elicit some very entertaining responses to his work from the public, like this recent missive from Thorgrimm44 reflecting on Williamson's reelection.

"All I know is the sooner I can get out of this nutty town the better. I hate it here. There is no reason to stay and putting this nut back in office is just another example of how low the IQ in this town has gone...You are also correct in saying its going to be a wild ride. God help this city if that goofball gets to re-write the city charter. Next the money will Don we trust...I could go on but I have packing to do."

Indeed, Heller's greatest accomplishment may be putting in print what scores of civic boosters have been unwilling to admit about Flint, an admission that's really the first step in ultimately transforming the place into something better:

Yes, we have a bad image. But it's not an undeserved image. To the contrary, it's very deserved, through little fault of our own.

is ground zero. A nuclear bomb of economic change landed smack upon our formerly fair city. Manufacturing jobs, as they have all over the country, were vaporized in the blast. Nothing new has replaced them.

As a result, we lead the league in a whole host of social ills. Poverty, drug use, crime, obesity, joblessness. You name it.

What's worse is there's little we can do about many of our troubles. Move Toyota or Honda in here, sure, we'd improve quickly. Poverty would drop, crime would fall and so on. But that's not bloody likely to happen, now is it?

Good people don't want to hear it, and smart people should never believe it, but it's true: Our problems aren't going away. Barring a miracle, the Flint you have now is largely the Flint you'll have five years from now.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Roger Smith Dies

Roger Smith, the former head of GM and Michael Moore's quarry in Roger & Me, has died at the age of 82 in suburban Detroit.

“Roger Smith’s tenure was one of the darkest in General Motors’ history, for customers, workers and for residents of G.M.’s factory towns,” the consumer advocate Ralph Nader said in 1995.

Downtown Grocery

Another good sign: Downtown Flint is on the verge of getting its first full-service grocery store in 50 years. The 6,000 sq. ft. Witherbee's Market and Deli will be located at the corner of Martin Luther King and Third Avenue and is scheduled for completion in spring of 2008.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Will the Durant be saved?

Plans seem to be in place to redevelop the historic Durant Hotel. The Genesee County Land Bank has purchased the building and is working with developers to complete an interior demolition. The goal is to create housing for students and young professionals. This sounds a little risky, but it makes more sense than AutoWorld. After all, the place has been vacant since 1973, a decaying reminder of everything Flint used to be.

U.S. Congressman Dale Kildee — an Eastsider who graduated from St. Mary's — is even pushing for $150,000 of federal money for the project.

But although preliminary engineering reports indicate the building can be saved, the negotiations could still fall apart with Lansing-based real estate developer Karp & Associates. If that happens, Land Bank Chairman and county Treasurer Dan Kildee has made it clear demolition is still an option.

If you're wondering how the hotel named after GM founder William "Billy" Durant is holding up, check out this YouTube video. Warning: The camerman does NOT have a steady hand, and I got a little car sick watching this, but it gives you an idea why this is expected to be a $23 million job.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Malling of America

Anyone remember the South Flint Plaza? My Grandma McFarlane once took me there to buy a Hot Wheels race track. Keith Milford has a website devoted to the malls of America and it includes some photos and information on South Flint Plaza and Genesee Valley mall, which was home of those large frogs that fascinated me as a kid. (You can catch a glimpse of the frog in the top photo; he's lurking behind the two Flintoids in bad suits.) Not sure if the frogs are still there, but the mall does have a menacing Parental Escort Program on Friday and Saturday evenings to promote "a family-friendly shopping and dining environment."
"Youth under the age of 18 who are at Genesee Valley Center after 5 PM Friday and Saturday evenings must be under the direct supervision and control of a parent or guardian, 21 years or older, and all parties must comply with the center's Code of Conduct Policy."
Sounds fun to be a teenager in Flint these days.

UPDATE: Check out this New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell on malls. Thanks to
firedande for the link.

Flint in its prime

Friday, November 16, 2007


Here's a partial list of home foreclosures in Flint, complete with photos.

Uncle Bob's Diner

Once you start talking about mistakes Flint has made related to historic preservation, especially downtown, it can turn into a very long conversation. But I can’t help myself. I have to talk about Uncle Bob’s Diner.

Generations of Flint residents ate at Uncle Bob’s, located near the Capitol Theater. Built in 1947 by the Jerry O'Mahony Dining Car Company, it was a destination for everyone from downtown business people at lunchtime to college kids looking for excitement after GMI formals. It even had a short run as a weird little new wave hangout in the ‘80s. But that was near the end. While the Flint braintrust was building AutoWorld, Uncle Bob’s was closed and decaying.

The good news is that Jerry Berta, a sculptor who specialized in ceramic art related to diners, bought the diner in 1986 for $2,000. The bad news — for Flint, anyway — is that he moved it to Rockford, Michigan.

''People all over knew about Uncle Bob's,'' Mr. Berta told The New York Times in 1988. ''I had a guy from Madison, Wis., write to me, saying he'd spent every night for four years in the ‘50's at this place.''

Berta and his wife, Madeline Kaczmarczyk, an artist, spent $50,000 restoring the place, right down to the original pink Formica ceilings, porcelain enamel exterior and stainless-steel sunburst patterns.

They envisioned an art studio — a diner filled with diner art called The Diner Store — but visitors kept showing up for food. So Berta bought a few more old diners from various places, and started serving food at Rosie’s Diner. In 1993 Berta decided to add a putt-putt course. It was not your average mini-golf setup; almost every hole has a cement sculpture of big food or art. He called the whole place Dinerland.

In 1996, Berta was able to put another neon sign in the window that stated, "Over One Million Served Right!" It went up as Jack Tietsama enjoyed the one millionth meal served at Rosie's in Rockford. The artists sold the diners in 2006 to Randy and Jonelle Roest, who continue to manage the popular attraction.

Flint ain’t Rockford, so I’m not claiming that this could have happened in the Vehicle City. But you never know.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Tower of Power?

Genesee Towers, the county's largest and perhaps ugliest building, is abandoned and, apparently, ready for the wrecking ball. The city is so worried that pieces might start falling off the building that it's restricting traffic around the 19-story eyesore in downtown Flint.

"This could be a catastrophe. This could be a property catastrophe or a human catastrophe," said City Attorney Trachelle Young.

But building owner Kumar Vemulapalli swears everything is just fine on First Street. "My engineers say the building is safe," he said. "I am currently in court with the city and this is just an attempt by them to influence the judge with all of this hoopla."

For some unfathomable reason, the building is featured on the new
Michigan license plate called
“Spectacular Peninsulas," along with scenic portraits of the state Capitol, Detroit’s Renaissance Center and Grand Rapids’ Alticor Building.

Kelly Chesney, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, said she could not confirm if the square building with a protruding square on the roof is, in fact, Genesee Towers, but she said the agency asked the artist to incorporate Flint’s skyline in the drawing.
No word yet on why it's called Genesee Towers (plural) when there is only one building.

UPDATE: A friend informs me it's plural because the architect claims there are two buildings stacked on top of each other, with an open-air gap in the middle.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

GM Losses Big

General Motors reported its largest quarterly loss ever today — $39 billion — after it took a huge noncash charge to write down deferred tax credits. Yes, that's $39 BILLION!

“Things are bad and getting worse,” Peter Nesvold, an auto analyst with Bear Stearns, wrote to clients this morning, assuring them that the number was “not a typo.”

Saturday, November 3, 2007

New Housing in Flint

Amid the doom and gloom about the Michigan economy, there are definitely signs of hope in Flint.

"Stone Street — located in Flint's historic Carriage Town neighborhood — once was part of a bustling city neighborhood. Although it stands empty now, victim to disinvestment and neglect, the old street is poised to recapture its residential vibrancy, thanks to the Genesee County Land Bank Authority. Plans call for construction of several new, historically sensitive homes that will increase the housing stock available in one of the city's oldest neighborhoods.

"An additional five units of housing -- donated by the Carriage Town Historic Neighborhood Association and the Atwood Authority -- also will be redeveloped by the Flint Neighborhood Improvement and Preservation Program. Altogether, this will account for $2.8 million in investment, 13 new homeownership opportunities, nine affordable housing units and two completely restored city blocks of housing in the Flint River District area, according to Amy Hovey, interim director of the Genesee County Land Bank."

Friday, November 2, 2007


Okay, these photos don't make it look so appealing, but sometimes we just really miss Angelo's Coney Island. Especially after a few drinks. And what could be healthier than fries with gravy and a side of cigarette smoke?

Waana Glassa Melk?

Eric Weaver, a Grand Rapids native now working as an ad exec in Seattle, has put together an impressive online guide to the Michigan accent, complete with a pronunciation key and a section on unique words and phrases.

"A little bit Fargo, a little bit Nasal Chicago, and a little bit Canadian, the Michigan Accent was derived from a lot of the linguistic influences of its early settlers: Irish, Finnish, Welsh and Dutch. In some areas, particularly around blue collar parts of Detroit, hordes of poor Southerners who came up the Dixie Highway to work on the assembly lines in the early-to-mid 1900's have also injected a bit of Southern twang into our Northern European heritage.

"The resulting mix is similar to a pirate from Kentucky with a head cold... something my friends give me a hard time about quite frequently."

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Chrysler Job Cuts

Photo via

Chrysler announced today that it's cutting 11,000 jobs and dropping the PT Cruiser, the Chrysler Pacifica, a crossover vehicle dissed for being too big and too pricey for family buyers, and the Dodge Magnum, which looks a bit like a stylish hearse. It's not a direct blow to Flint, but it's not good news for Michigan.

Unemployment by the Numbers

If you just want the numbers, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has a concise rundown of Flint's employment statistics.

Fire Defense

Flint firefighters change their tactics as they deal with blazes in abandoned structures.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Country Livin' in Flint

The Genesee County Land Bank is emerging as the darling of the national media, and with good reason. It's a positive step for dealing with the abandoned and ramshackle houses that afflict Flint as the city downsizes, to use an unfortunate term. Now National Public Radio has jumped on the bandwagon and done something we didn't think was possible — link Buick Town with rural America:

"As Flint shrinks, it's taking on an oddly rural quality. Most streets are rundown, but there are also ambitious vegetable gardens springing up under the tender care of the new owners of double lots.

Mary Lymon sits at her patio table, overlooking her new yard that boasts a cheerful flower garden, a trellis and a swing. It's a big change from the days she worried about drug dealers coming and going at the abandoned house that once stood there, she said. Once the house was gone and the land was hers.

"I just really enjoyed coming out with my coffee — felt like I was in the country," said Lymon."

Turn Out the Lights?

And now for something completely negative. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy has a sobering take on the overall Michigan economy using United Van Lines info along with census data to track the outward migration of Michiganders. It's nothing you haven't heard before — people are leaving Michigan, no duh — but the details are interesting. For example, in 2006 Michigan was tied with North Dakota for the number one departure state in the country.

North Dakota! Is it really that bad? Apparently, yes.

And where do most people go when they leave the Wolverine State? Florida, which gathered more than 19,300 people from Michigan.

Warning: After the article lays out the numbers, it devolves into the usual dubious argument that high taxes and unions are the cause of all this woe. No mention of GM and Ford management decisions.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Flint Rises Again?

How often do you hear good news about Flint in the media? A recent piece in The Economist claims that the rust belt, including Flint, just may be coming back from the dead.

"But there are glints of progress, and not just because GM is building a new factory. Construction workers are beginning to transform the downtown area. There is a heated contest for mayor: Dayne Walling, a Flint-born Rhodes scholar brimming with good ideas, is challenging Don Williamson, the incumbent, in November's election. Flint is trying to chart its own course. And it is not alone. A faint spirit of change is wafting through some of the rustbelt's grimmest streets."

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Flint Portraits: Christopher Paul Curtis

Read or listen to Tavis Smiley interview Flint author Christopher Paul Curtis as he discusses everything from literature to hanging doors on Electra 225's.

Deuce and a Quarter

Speaking of Buick Electras, this is the two-door convertible version of my first car, courtesy of my Grandma McFarlane. It's a fantastic Flint ride from a time when aerodynamics and gas mileage took a backseat to style. The paint color? Bamboo Cream. Sounds like a drink that would give you a bad hangover. And I guess this car is emblematic of bad times for GM. The lovable land yacht was rolling off the line when the energy crisis hit in the seventies. But at least GM learned their lesson and didn't repeat the mistake of making huge vehicles in an era of rising fuel prices. Oh, wait, strike that last sentence.

Claire McClinton, GM worker
"We thought we were living the American Dream."
Claire McClinton, third generation GM autoworker, Flint, Michigan

The BBC takes a depressing look at the impact of globalization on cities like Flint with the help of Claire McClinton.

In the 1950s the Detroit area had the highest median income, and highest rate of home ownership, of any major US city. But times are very different now.

GM, under pressure from its competitors, is no longer making money in the American car market - and it has been closing plants all across Flint.

Now there are only 6,000 GM workers in Flint, compared to 100,000 at the peak, and the town and workers are suffering.

The Genesse Institute

If you're just dying to know what land banking is and how it can help Flint, the Genesee Institute is the place to start. The Reports and Publications link on the site has some fascinating, albeit very unsexy, material.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Flint Tropics

After Roger & Me made Flint famous, or perhaps infamous, how do you follow up Michael Moore's tale of industrial and economic decline? With a movie about a semi-pro basketball team in Flint starring Will Ferrell, of course.

Flint on YouTube

This is the hard-hitting journalism you expect from The Flint Journal. On an apparently slow news day, a reporter looked up Flint on YouTube and here are the results. Hey, at least it's not yet another piece on the faults of the UAW.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Flint and the "Cowboy Economy"

What does Flint have to do with the "cowboy economy"? University of Michigan's Robert M. Beckley explains:

"Flint's most recent master plan was created in the 1960s and projected Flint would grow to 250,000. But instead the cowboy economy caught up with Flint. Since that projection Flint has been used up and discarded by the industrial revolution. A town that once housed more than 190,000 people and was projected to grow to a quarter million now holds fewer than 120,000."

Surreal Estate

Check out the "field dispatch" on the Archinect website by Wes Janz, author of the forthcoming book One Small Project, and colleague Olon Dotson as they undertake what they called the "Midwest Distress Tour."

"Detroit, Flint, Gary, Chicago, East St. Louis, and Cincinnati are worlds where most if not everything we know as architects is wrong, or useless. Everything we know, all architectural knowledge, becomes secondary, or disproved, or of little or no use. From almost any perspective—sociological, economic, political, and architectural—these are abnormal places that are now normal. There are problems so deep, lives so destroyed, neighborhoods so defunct, buildings so deteriorated, that one comes to understand that nothing can be done. Nothing. And this is normal."

Flint Portraits: Ben Hamper

For any exiled Flintoid longing for a taste of home, look no further than "Rivethead," Ben Hamper's brilliant and profane look at life in the auto factories of Buick City. Here's an excerpt, courtesy of Michael Moore's website:

I was seven years old the first time I ever set foot inside an automobile factory. The occasion was Family Night at the old Fisher Body plant in Flint where my father worked the second shift.

General Motors provided this yearly intrusion as an opportunity for the kin of the work force to funnel in and view their fathers, husbands, uncles and granddads as they toiled away on the assembly line. If nothing else, this annual peepshow lent a whole world of credence to our father's daily grumble. The assembly line did indeed stink. The noise was very close to intolerable. The heat was one complete bastard. Little wonder the old man's socks always smelled like liverwurst bleached for a week in the desert sun.

Ballad of Flint Bars and Fake I.D.s

The Copa's second home in the old Vogue store. (Photo by Tom Cheek/The Flint Journal)

When I was 15, I possessed what had to be the worst fake I.D. in U.S. history.

On the advice of my girlfriend, I used makeup to conceal the final digit of the 1966 birth year on my Michigan license. I took a piece of Scotch tape and lifted a "zero" out of the phone book, stuck it inexpertly where the final "6" had been, and used a razor blade to cut away the excess tape. I didn't have a light touch, and I cut an imperfect square into the license around the new number. Those grooves, coupled with the elevation caused by the makeup and tape, created a 3-D effect that drew the eye directly to the altered date. It looked like I'd spray-painted a tiny zero on a piece of Plexiglas and stuck it to my license with Bond-O. But in my hometown of Flint — a hard-drinking factory town with more bars than jobs — my new license worked like a charm.

Things are tougher today for young drinkers. An older drinking age means college kids are now scheming the way high-schoolers used to. Worse, bars actually seem to check I.D.'s in the San Francisco Bay Area where I now live and frequently turn potential customers away. Flint was not the kind of place that would deny someone the right to drink simply because they were underage, and I had many rivals for the "Worst Fake ID" championship. One girl I knew, who was black, managed to secure the ID of another friend's 21-year-old sister. There was only one problem: the sister was white. When she nervously presented her fake ID at a bar for the first time, the bouncer did a double take, then calmly said, "Nice tan. Go on in."

There was no shortage of bars to sample in Flint: Mona's Cocktail Lounge, The Torch, Augie's Garden Glow, Vechells, the Fifty Grand Cocktail Lounge, The Ambassador, Rube's, Ivor's Place, The Embers, The King's Armor, and a cleverly named strip club called the Treasure Chest, which competed for customers with a classy little joint called Titty City, to list just a few.

But there was really only one place my friends and I frequented in high school. In a rough town with lousy weather and bars called The Wooden Keg and The Rusty Nail, we hung out at The Copa. As the ridiculous name indicates, The Copa was not your average Flint bar. In a city suffering through an economic meltdown of epic proportions memorialized in Michael Moore's mockumentary 
Roger & Me, The Copa was a business miracle simply because it was located downtown on North Saginaw Street and it was actually open.

Bill Kain opened The Copa in 1980, and diversification was the secret to his success. While Flint lived and died with the auto industry, Kain catered to just about everyone. The Copa was primarily a gay bar, but Thursday was officially straight night and the crowd was mixed on many evenings. In fact, the only people coming to Flint instead of leaving it in the '80s were gays and lesbians visiting The Copa. In a largely segregated town, The Copa was racially mixed, playing funk and New Wave in a market that made Foreigner, Styx and Billy Joel rich. It was the only bar in town where dancing to the Tom Tom Club or New Order wouldn't warrant an ass-kicking. (Asses still got kicked at The Copa, just like any bar in Flint, but not for dancing. It had its share of shoot-outs and brawls.) There were house music nights, male strip shows — attended primarily by straight women — and rap acts.

Kain was an outspoken critic of the hare-brained schemes to revitalize Flint with auto-themed amusement parks and high-end shopping projects, but the fact that he had a thriving business didn't give him much pull at City Hall. When Kain died in 1991, he was dismissed with a tiny, three-paragraph obit in The Flint Journal.

So what made The Copa so enticing to 15-year-olds armed with fake I.D.’s and Flock of Seagulls hairdos in Flint, Michigan? Why does anyone become a "regular" at any bar? The reasons go way beyond the simple lure of alcohol.

Madelon Powers, a history professor at the University of New Orleans, is what you might call a saloon scholar. In her 1998 book Faces Along the Bar, she explores life in the old-time saloons of pre-Prohibition industrial America, but many of her observations still apply to today's bar scene.

"At a time when various groups from Bible-thumping evangelists to profit-hungry industrialists were busily hatching paternalistic schemes for reshaping working-class leisure habits, the saloon offered its predominantly male clientele a place to work out their own solutions to their needs," Powers writes. "Drink, food, shelter, and companionship have ever been the tavern's stock-in-trade. Since many saloongoers lived in substandard tenements with few home comforts, the saloon in comparison seemed a most appealing prospect."

Basically, saloons in 1870 offered patrons something they weren't getting elsewhere, and bars today do the same thing. In Flint, if you didn't want to drink with unemployed autoworkers twice your age who played "Dust in the Wind" on the jukebox, you went to The Copa. Most of my favorite bars don't provide the "luxurious" surroundings available to pre-Prohibition drinkers, but they offer the chance to escape certain things nonetheless. At Sadie's Flying Elephant in San Francisco, it's rare to hear a conversation about modems or options or downloads. Cell phones don't seem to ring. That's a rare luxury anywhere near Silicon Valley — a factory "town" just like Flint, but without the heart or the swagger. A loud cell phone conversation wouldn't get you tossed at Sadie's, but it wouldn't be welcome, either.

Powers points out that bars have always had certain codes of behavior. "Just as churches had their congregations, so most saloons had loyal constituencies of perhaps 50 to 60 'regulars' who kept them in business," she writes. "Like their counterparts in medicine, politics, and athletics, they observed certain regulae of their own — the venerable traditions of drink culture — which boosted their esprit de corps and encouraged honor and order in their dealings with one another."

At the same time, I would never align myself with a bar where everyone was just like me — several of my ex-girlfriends probably have nightmares about entering such a place — let alone one where everybody knows my name. The fictional bar on Cheers seems like the kind of homogenized, locals-only place I hate. The lure of The Copa, like any good bar, was that it had so many people who weren't like me, but I could somehow relate to them just by being there. The fact that you sought the bar out and made it inside said you had some redeeming qualities.

But let's remember that one of the obvious reasons people go to bars is to drink, and I keep a mental Rolodex of bars and what I drank there. I remember the amazing pitcher of Pabst Blue Ribbon I had with my buddies in a little place in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan one summer when our truck broke down. I cringe when I recall sitting in the Latin American Club in San Francisco drinking a White Russian and a margarita at the same time. But nobody who's on the right path goes to a bar just to drink. They never have.

Send me a postcard

One of the strangest feelings for an expatriate on a visit to Flint is the discovery that many of the city's landmarks aren't there anymore. That's what the frequently misinterpreted quote by Gertrude Stein about Oakland — "There's no there there" — was really about. It wasn't meant to imply Oakland lacked substance. It was a reflection of Stein's dismay when she discovered the city of her childhood no longer existed. At least we have these vintage postcards to remind us of what Flint once was.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Losing Your Job at the Unemployment Office

The Onion reminds us that things could be worse in the Great Lake State:
In another devastating blow to the state's already fragile economy, the Unemployment Insurance Agency of the state of Michigan permanently shuttered its nine branch offices Monday, leaving more than 8,500 unemployment employees unemployed.
Announcing the closings at a press conference, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm called them "a tragic coda" to a once-vibrant industry that until this week defined the Michigan economy and served almost one-fifth of the state's employable population.

"This is a sad day for the people of Michigan," Granholm said to a crowd of part-time reporters and former assembly-line workers Tuesday. "Our state has a long, hallowed history of unemployment, and with these closings, we have lost a vital part of our economic and social fabric."