Friday, July 31, 2009

The Future of Buick City

After a rousing and, at times, bizarre discussion of environmental degradation and the future of Flint's abandoned factory sites, comes this article by Melissa Burden in The Flint Journal:

Officials have said that an unnamed investor wants to transform the about 220-acre Buick City site into a multimillion dollar rail-to-rail and rail-to-truck intermodal facility, creating up to 600 jobs, plus construction jobs.

"Our hard work may be lost if we don't resolve the brownfield issue," said Tim Herman, chief executive officer of the chamber, which along with other area leaders has spent hundreds of hours on the Buick City project over the past three years.

Herman said at issue is who will have the environmental responsibility going forward on the site. Often times when someone buys an industrial property, the environmental liability transfers to the new owner, Herman said.

"It's not fair to have someone who wants to use this property ... and have him taking on all that environmental responsibility," said Bill Winiarski, chairman of the Genesee County Brownfield Redevelopment Authority.

Strangely, there was no mention of how Star Trek episodes might play a role in the redevelopment projects. (You have to read the first post linked above for this hilarious comment to make any sense.)

More Cash for Clunkers

The "cash for clunkers" program appears to be extremely popular. The LA Times reports:
"With surprising swiftness, the government's "cash for clunkers" program has burned through its $1-billion budget in less than a week as car buyers swarmed dealerships, and federal officials were scrambling late Thursday night to find more money to keep it going."
But the White House vows the popular program will continue. The NY Times reports:
"Robert Gibbs, a White House spokesman, said the administration was looking for ways to continue the popular new program, which offers $3,500 to $4,500 for people who trade in an old car for a new one with higher fuel economy."
Dave McDonald, who sells cars in Flint, has some real-world insight into the program.

This is generating a lot of excitement and moving some iron. So if the customer qualifies they get the $4500 credit, GM rebates, and in most cases a GM discount.

Here are some of the highlights or benefits as I see them.

1. A new car is sold

a. GM gets one sold

b. the dealer gets one sold

c. the salesperson makes money

d. if financed the financial institution makes money

e. the state makes money on sales tax

f. the state makes money on state fees

g. the gas station makes money because new ones get a full tank

h. the oil company makes money and its logistical team makes money

2. A clunker is taken in

a. the dealer makes $50 for disabling the engine ( supplies cost $30 )

b. the junk yard is paid by government to destroy motor/transmission

c. the junk yard parts out remaining parts

d. the junk yard sells the scrap metal

3. A clunker off the road

a. better emissions

b. better gas mileage

c. insurance company makes more money (naturally) now insuring newer vehicle

d. safer vehicle (less medical expenses in case of accident)

Someone needs to share some of this with the lawmakers who feel that GM, Ford, and Chrysler are not far reaching into the economy of the US. We haven't even taken a look at all the suppliers who sell parts, cleaners, solvents, etc. that make all of the above work.

Probably the one industry benefiting the most is the paper industry — the gov't LOVES paperwork. But a few trees are probably worth what this program is producing.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Flint Postcards: Durant Hotel

Flint Photos: Hyatt/Character Inn Lobby

This is from my trip in June so things have probably progressed from this point. I think of this as a happy photo; it's like the fantasy of being a tourist town is finally being obliterated. Here's hoping for better results this time around.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Enlightened Discourse

I know many readers don't bother with the comment section, but you really should check out the feedback on my post about three seemingly mild-mannered, well-intentioned architecture students visiting Flint on bikes. It's fascinating to see how a rational discussion of reinventing post-industrial America can quickly segue into claims that rabble-rousing Ann Arbor types almost handed World War II to the Nazis.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Flint Track and Field

My sister Marty, the true athlete in the family, gets written up in the Tacoma Weekly along with a nice anecdotal lead about Flint:
"When Martha Mendenhall was in the third grade, she would run around in her neighborhood in Flint, Mich., and had a particular appetite for building up a good bit of speed running down a hill and then – this was the best part – jumping over the neighbors’ hedges. Her parents knew early on they had a very “active” daughter on their hands, when she would arrive home after an afternoon of hedge jumping with scratches on the insides of her legs and announce she had beaten all the boys. She’s been competing in track and field ever since – and continues to dominate the competition, as she is currently a 13-time national masters champion in the high jump."
The article doesn't mention it, but she also ran on the boy's track team at Powers since they didn't have a girl's team at the time.

Goodbye, Central High: Class of 1938

One in a series of videos shot at the Flint Central High School farewell gathering on June 12, 2009.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

On the Road for Architecture

Three architecture students from UM-Ann Arbor. On bikes. In Flint, Detroit and Saginaw. What could possibly go wrong? Follow their progress and offer suggestions on their Rusty Mitten blog. Here's a sample:
"Many of the sites we’ve visited are now nothing more than vast, empty and windswept concrete fields dotted here and there with small heaps of garbage. Of the abandoned buildings we’ve visited, nearly all of them are in such a state of decay it’s hard to imagine any kind of re-development or renovation being possible.We know, from our own observations, as well as from the various interviews we’ve conducted so far, that these sites are heavily contaminated by years and years of pollution from industrial processes. The clean-up costs for any one of these sites would be considerably high. So the question I find myself asking now is: What should/could be done with these post-industrial sites that have accumulated throughout the Rust Belt?"

Goodbye, Central High

One in a series of videos shot at the Flint Central High School farewell gathering on June 12, 2009.

Citizens Bank Gets Another Bailout

Citizens Bank goes back for more bailout money.

For contrast, here's a story on community banks that did things a little differently. Jim Rendon of The New York Times reports:
"In the midst of the worst banking crisis since the Great Depression, community banks have generally fared well. That’s because they typically shunned the lending practices that led to high default rates. They rarely participated in the securitization of loans, credit-default swaps and other overvalued financial products that put the global financial system in crisis. Instead, they stuck to the fundamentals. They considered the character and history of their borrowers. They required collateral. Without community banks, the current financial crisis would be a lot worse. And even though they operate in a different sphere from global financial giants like Citigroup, some economists now say that they may have a lot to teach our largest institutions."

The Buick Open is Closed

The Buick Open is history.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Flint Photos: Chevy in the Hole

Chevy in the Hole photographed from the Atwood Stadium parking lot during my recent visit to Flint.

Chevy in the Hole photographed from Bluff Street in 1995 by Jar with Most, who has a great collection of Flint photos.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Ann Arbor News, R.I.P.

The Ann Arbor News bites the dust.

Closing Down the Buick Open?

Will the Buick Open be the next victim of the auto industry's woes?

Tim Twentyman of the Detroit News writes:
"When asked about the tournament's future beyond this year, local organizers aren't commenting, and General Motors has been mum about the situation. That only fuels speculation this year's tournament -- July 27-Aug. 2 -- could be the last for Buick."

Flint as Cultural Reference Point

Why is Flint always used as the worst-case scenario when people write about their own cities? Here's Paul Wilham writing about Cincinnati on his Victorian Antiquities and Design blog:
"We are at the tipping point and either those who love old houses, believe in neighborhoods and want this city to 'be something' need to get involved and push the city council and this mayor to get off their 'lazy' and develop a long range plan to develop this city's historic Tourism potential or we will be another rust belt 'has been' city like Detroit or Flint Michigan."

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Goodbye, Central High: Class of 1940

One in a series of videos shot at the Flint Central High School farewell gathering on June 12, 2009.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Red Foxes Return to Detroit

Need more evidence that Southeast Michigan is reverting back to nature as the human population declines? We've talked about Flint's increasingly scenic urban forests and savannas. And don't forget about the beaver that returned to the Detroit River. Of course there's the legend of the giant wolf, not to mention the Village of Wolves in Flint.

Now comes news that the elusive red fox has returned to Motown. The Seattle Times reports:

Found across all parts of the state, red foxes typically stick close to more rural areas. But Detroit's dwindling population has meant less noise and more places for foxes to hunt rats, mice, voles, pheasants, cotton tail rabbits and even pigeons.

Many neighborhoods have so few remaining houses that adjoining lots resemble small prairies and woodlands, and Detroit's extensive freeway system and old railroad connections linking the inner city to less populated areas are now serving as routes for wildlife.

"As we move out, wildlife moves in," said Matthew Walter, a fox researcher at Antioch University's New England campus in New Hampshire. "Nature heals the cuts that we've made. As long as they can survive there, and as long as they can raise young and if the hunting is good, they will stay there indefinitely."

Just to clarify, the red fox returning to Detroit should not be confused with the Machus Red Fox in Bloomfield Hills, the last place Jimmy Hoffa was seen alive.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Goodbye, Central High: Class of 1982

One in a series of videos shot at the Flint Central High School farewell gathering on June 12, 2009.

Goodbye, Central High

One in a series of videos shot at the Flint Central High School farewell gathering on June 12, 2009.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Shrinking Flint: Federal Money to Get Smaller

We've been wondering where the federal money is to tear down abandoned houses in Flint. Well, it's on the way.

Cathy Shafran at WJRT ABC 12 reports:
"The city and the county both learned this week they'll each be getting about $1.2 million in federal stimulus money for demolition.

That $2.4 million will take care of about 300 of the 5,000 abandoned homes in the community.

That money, combined with another potential $15 million that the county has applied for, has the head of the land bank pushing harder than ever for the community to come up with a master plan on how to spend it.

"As the federal money comes in, we need to make sure we're making the best use of that money and not just throwing it at the wall and tearing down houses here and there or creating community gardens where it makes sense at the moment," said the Genesee County Land Bank's Dan Kildee.

Before you get too exited, let's work out the numbers. If it costs about $8,000 to tear down a house, and the city and county get $17.4 million, that works out to about 2,175 houses disappearing if all the money goes to demolition. So even in a best-case scenario — if that's the right term for this process — that still leaves 2,825 vacant houses in Flint. But that's better than 5,000, right?

The two candidates for mayor — Brenda Clack and Dayne Walling — differ on the issue of shrinking Flint, although both acknowledge city will be getting smaller.

Thanks to J.L. for passing this news along.

UM-Flint Worthy of MSU Scorn?

The concept of Flint as a college town must be getting some traction. The evidence? Spartan fans are debating if they should hate UM-Flint as much as UM-Ann Arbor.

Flint's Unemployment Rate

Flint's official unemployment rate?

27.3 %.

And keep in mind the real unemployment rate is much higher because you aren't counted as out of work if you've been looking too long or have simply given up.

It's bad enough for Journal columnist Andy Heller to suggest that Michigan be declared a Federal economic disaster zone.

Flint Photos: Coney Connextion

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Ben Hamper Remembers Jack Gilbert's Wayside Inn

Jack Gilbert's Wayside Inn at the corner of Pasadena and Lawndale. (All photos by Ben Hamper.)

I just got an email and some photos from Ben Hamper, the bestselling author of Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line, one of my favorite books. Combine Rivethead with Theodore Weesner's The Car Thief, and Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis, and you've got an impressive triumvirate of Buick Town literature.
For a few days a week in the seventies, Ben drove a contingent of Civic Parkers across town to St. Mary's for school. I remember me, his brother, sister, and daughter in his AMC Pacer.

"I was raised in the Civic Park area," Ben writes. "Specifically, I grew up on the corner of Dayton and Lawndale. I went to grade school at St. Lukes. Once I hit 9th grade, I also used to catch the bus downtown to go to St. Mike's. I would either grab the Dupont bus, at the corner of Dupont & Dayton, or the Civic Park bus, in front of the laundromat at Dayton & Forest Hill. When Powers opened, I went there -- graduating in 1973.

"At that time, the Civic Park area was a wonderful spot to grow up in. I used to haunt many of the places you or your readers mention — Bassett Park, Haskel , Dayton Pharmacy, Double D Market (my class E baseball team was sponsored one summer by Comber's Market, its original name), the Civic Park library, Balkan Bakery, the barber shop that switched into Ski Haus, and later on, Jack Gilbert's Wayside Inn and the Civic Park Lounge. Fine memories, all.
Like many in the neighborhood, Ben spent some time at Jack Gilbert's Wayside Inn. My family often went there on Fridays during Lent for fish. I still remember an old guy teetering on his bar stool to give me a quarter one time.
"Ah, good old Jack Gilbert's," Ben writes in his email. "That place was always like a magic mystery land to me while I was a student at St. Luke's. I always craved to know what went on in there. Many of our fathers hung out there but they weren't much on information. Fortunately I got to experience the place for myself a few years later. Great fish & chips! I always ordered the frog legs & battered potatoes. Will include a photo of the place I took a couple years back. I still recall sitting there sucking on a beer on a lazy Saturday afternoon when I got the call to report to GM."
This seems like a perfect time for an excerpt from Rivethead:

I wasn't home the day GM finally called. It was a Saturday and I was planted on a barstool up at Jack Gilbert's Wayside Inn. I didn't expect to get called in on a weekend, so I left the house with no instructions to where anyone could reach me. My little brother, a real wiseacre, told them that I could be reached at any number of North Flint area bars. I'm sure this tickled them pink.
Fortunately, I had given GM my in-laws' number as a backup and my sister-in-law came racing into the Wayside where I was in the process of getting shit-faced with her boyfriend Rick.
"Ben. BEN! GM just called you! They want you to come to work."
"Shit," I hollered, "it's about time those bastards rang me.
On a weekend, no less. That gives me and the old Ricker here time to do some much-deserved celebrating. Did they mention what time they needed me on Monday?"
"No, no, no! They want you to work TODAY! The said to be there at four and to wear some work boots if possible."
"TODAY? Saturday? It is Saturday, isn't it? Four o'clock? WORK BOOTS?"
"Four o'clock," my sister-in-law repeated. "Work boots if possible."
This was some heavy shit. To be called in during the middle of the weekend smelled like an emergency. GM was now in the midst of one of their all-time boom-boom quota years, so I supposed reinforcements were needed on Saturdays, Sundays, Salad days- any time was the right time. This also marked the first time I ever remembered being asked out on a Saturday night by a corporation.
"I better move out," I told Rick. "Musn't keep Papa Jimmy waitin'."
"Wear something sexy, ratboy," Rick laughed. "And don't forget to write."
I hustled home. I didn't have any work boots, so I just threw on a pair of old Converse hightops along with a T-shirt and a pair of filthy jeans. My head was reciting all the advice my distant aunt had filled me with: Keep your guard out for troublemakers. Don't be coerced into drinking. Be on time. Do everything you're told, try to do extra, don't engage in horseplay, address your supervisor as "sir." Check, check, check.

Ben was the host of the radio show "Other Voices" in Flint in the eighties. It later became "Take No Prisoners" and expanded to TV. It was one of the few options for punk, alternative or music you'd never here on Live 105. He still has a show up north on WNMC. You can listen to it on the internet on Fridays from 9-11. Or if you want the classics, Aaron Stengel has an amazing supply of old shows and samples at the Flint Underground Music Archive.

"I curently live in Suttons Bay, 20 miles north of Traverse City," Ben writes. "I go down to Flint every other month or so. I always tour the old neighborhood. It's a dismal cascade of drek, but it's still home."

Flint Photos: Tree Versus Fence in Carriage Town

Flint Postcards: W.A. Patterson Residence

If you can abandon it here, you can abandon it anywhere

Dan Kildee and the shrinking city concept continue to get coverage in the national media, including USA Today and NPR. With his expertise in abandoned property, perhaps Kildee can give New York City some pointers:

"As property owners run into trouble paying their mortgages, neighborhoods around New York City have been witnessing a disturbing consequence: Small and large apartment buildings are being abandoned in a state of disrepair, leaving tenants in limbo without basic services or even landlords," reports Manny Fernandez and Jennifer 8. Lee.

"In the Bronx, anybody can walk into a four-story building on East 178th Street near the Cross-Bronx Expressway. Someone took the front door off the hinges and sold it for scrap metal. Drugs have been sold out of vacant apartments."

“'A nightmare,' said Cesar Guzman, 29, who lives in the building. 'I can’t describe it as anything else.'”

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Flint Freakonomics

Stephen Dubner's Freakonomics column in The New York Times has an interesting discussion of what happens when family members have to decide whether to turn in a relative wanted by the law. One example involves Flint and features a quote from the Journal:,
Kelley Thomas’s 23-year-old son, Kelly Carter, escaped from a Georgia jail in April and shortly thereafter allegedly showed up at his dad’s doorstep on E. Lorado Avenue in Flint, Michigan. Now, Thomas has been charged with harboring a felon. What’s a parent to do? It’s a difficult question, even to Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton. "The fact that he’s the father was discussed by my staff, and we will take that into consideration as the case progresses,” Leyton said. “It’s hard to turn your back on your own flesh and blood.”

Monday, July 13, 2009

Whaley Park Revisited

A drive up Franklin Avenue to Whaley Park can be a sobering experience these days. The St. Mary's football team used to jog up Franklin in full pads for football practice. The Wildcats also played their home games at the park. This was where Coach Sam Isaac held sway. It's good to know the goal posts are still standing, even if one of the crossbars is made out of yellow twine.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Flint Postcards: Walli's Drive-In

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Call of Nature

A guy from Flint invents a toilet for dogs, a worthy project that will render my hard-hitting investigative journalism pointless.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Happy Days for G.M.?

To commemorate General Motors emergence from bankruptcy, let's look back to before the beginning. These are shots of the the "ribbon wheel" that still resides in the Durant Dort Carriage Company Building, the birthplace of G.M. It's a unique, homemade keepsake that the carriage company created to honor its employees — many of whom have streets named after them in Flint.

Tell Fritz!

Reading The New York Times story on G.M.'s emergence from bankruptcy, two seemingly minor paragraphs jumped out at me:
1. "[CEO Fritz] Henderson announced several new ways that G.M. planned to reach out to customers through the Internet. A Web site called 'Tell Fritz' will let consumers offer suggestions directly to Mr. Henderson, and the company will experiment with selling vehicles through the online auction site, eBay."
Thanks for the empty P.R. gesture, G.M. Do you think potential customers really believe Fritz will take regular breaks from saving a corporation on the brink of extinction to peruse random email suggestions? This reveals a lot about how G.M. regards the public. At best, the company is out of touch with its customer base. At worse, the G.M. executives think we're all a bunch of idiots.
2. "Robert A. Lutz, a G.M. vice chairman who planned to retire at the end of the year, will stay to oversee marketing and communications. Mr. Lutz, 77, is responsible for the improvements that G.M. has made in vehicle design recently, with notable examples such as the Chevrolet Malibu and the newly revived Chevrolet Camaro."
Do you really want a 77-year old, regardless of his management skills, in charge of marketing a company that is notoriously alienated from the younger demographic?

UPDATE: Anyone remember Chrysler's ill-fated "Ask Dr. Z"?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Flint Photos: Buckham Alley

Flint Photos: Riverbank Fishing

Vote for the Flint Farmer's Market

Farmer's Market photo courtesy of sarrazak6881.

Care2 and Local Harvest are having an online contest to pick the best farmer's market in the county, and Flint is currently in first place. Cast your vote here.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Flint Expatriates on WDET 101.9 FM

I was a guest yesterday on WDET 101.9 FM, the Detroit NPR station based at Wayne State University, discussing the concept of Flint as a "college town" following my recent article in Slate.

You can listen to the complete podcast here. The Flint coverage begins at about the 27 minute mark with a report on conservative radio show host Rush Limbaugh's take on plans to shrink Flint. Stan Blood of the Genesee County Chamber of Commerce discusses recent Flint development projects at about the 32 minute mark. I chime in at about the 42 minute mark.

You can listen to a shorter version on the player below:

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Flint Bloggers at Work

Flint bloggers Gordon Young (left) and Gerry Godin (right) relax in the private club accessible only to those who blog about the Vehicle City. (Well, technically, the owner of the house, along with his friends and relatives, are also allowed access.)

Many readers have asked what it's really like to be a Flint blogger. They've no doubt heard some exaggerated tales about the booze, the pills, the cash. None of that is true, although after a few nights sleeping on the floor in Flint I was over-indulging in ibuprofen.

But that's not to say Flint bloggers don't have a good time when they get together. Gerry Godin, who publishes the astounding All Things Buick blog stopped by in his Park Avenue while I was in Flint, and we had the kind of day you'd expect of two guys who spend large amounts of time writing about Flint. I'm reluctant to even post this because the lives we both lead are so extravagant, but I feel we owe it to our readers to give them a glimpse into our world of privilege.

We began the day taking in the great outdoors at Oak Park, which happens to be right next to the now-demolished Buick City plant where Gerry worked for many years.

Gerry attempts to fathom the logic behind GM tearing down a neighborhood to create more parking for their factory, and then building a park for the neighborhood they had just leveled. For good measure, G.M. then closed the factory but left the park.

Tennis at Oak Park is particularly challenging.

Just what the Michigan economy needs right about now.

Next, we toured some Flint factory sites and discovered that even though all the jobs are gone, the security guards remain. We we're told to get lost by one guard who clearly didn't know who we were.

Fine food is one luxury we enjoy as Flint bloggers. Although we could have sat in a private area at Angelo's, we chose seats near the counter.

Gerry demonstrates excellent coney-eating technique acquired by years of practice.

My technique...not so good. When the onions fell in my lap, I started to panic. Luckily, Gerry's old union president, who was eating at the counter, didn't notice me.

I tried to impress Gerry by wearing a t-shirt with a childlike drawing of a car engine on it. It's the sort of thing considered cool in San Francisco, but Gerry put me to shame with an amazing shirt commemorating the last car made at Buick City on June 29, 1999.

Next we paid a visit to our friend Bill who owns the Hardwood Smith house.

Gerry gets under the hood of Bill's 1956 Buick Century.

Who says old Buick hood ornaments weren't pedestrian friendly?

Thirty years of Buick craftsmanship and paint jobs that look a lot like primer. The '56 Century next to an '86 Century.

After a long day of all things Flint, Gerry rests on his Park Avenue and has a smoke while the birthplace of G.M. looms in the background. Notice the inexplicable one-way street sign in the background. Yes, Flint still has all those maddening one-ways. It's good to know some things don't change.

Flint Photos: Moon Over Grand Traverse Blvd.

Actually, the moon is a little tough to spot.

Monday, July 6, 2009

I'm a Loser

Ahh, the joys of being savaged in the comment section of The Flint Journal:
"Who cares what some guy that leaves town for 20 years thinks? Does he have some sort of credentials relating to Urban Planning? If not, Why the heck is this guy's opinion even news-worthy? Because he has a blog about living in Flint 20 years ago? What a waste of space."
I often ask myself the same questions and reach the same conclusion.

Buick City for Sale

Anyone interested in buying a sprawling, weed-strewn example of deindustrialization? GM is planning to auction off the old Buick City site.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Disco Demolition Anniversary

We're getting close to the 30th anniversary of one of the Detroit Tigers most memorable victories — the infamous "Disco Demolition" double header in Chicago.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Rolling on Flint Wheels on the 4th

This is what happens when you let friends ride your bike in Dolores Park in San Francisco on the 4th of July. Now what does this have to do with Flint? The bike that Mr. Big Glasses is riding — while descending a steep incline and holding a helmet in one hand — is the Schwinn Le Tour Luxe my mom bought for me in the spring of 1984 back in Flint. It's covered a lot of miles in the Vehicle City. It's still rolling along and even managed to survive this test run.

Warning: Professional Tecate stunt rider. Do not attempt this maneuver.

Kearsley Park on the 4th of July

I usually spent the 4th of July in Kearsley Park when I lived in Flint. My grandparents' house was around the corner on Illinois Avenue, and we'd all head over to the park with blankets and sparklers. I took these photos a couple weeks back just after a torrential downpour that temporarily turned Kearsley Park Blvd. into Lakefront property.

If you look hard enough, you can almost see Safetyville.

The steps down to the park near the intersection of Kearsley Park Blvd. and Olive Street. Gypsy Jack lived just a few blocks north.