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."