Monday, May 31, 2010

Flint Reporting Project Update

The Flint Reporting Project has raised $714 from 22 donors toward the $5,000 goal. Thanks to Joe, Lori, Anne, Keith, Bruce, Kristen, Brian, Becky, Jeff, Peter, Richard, John, Sarah, Uncle Buck, Gregory, Aaron, Rick, Richard, Stephen J., John, Chris, Howard and Stephen C.

Donate to the Flint Reporting Project and help Flint Expatriates cover the Vehicle City

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Memories of Home in the Midst of Foreclosure

The newly built home on Rolling Green Drive in 1962.

Expatriate Graydon Forrer of Washington D.C. chronicles the fate of the house he grew up in, reminding us that suburbia has been hit by the foreclosure crisis as hard as urban areas:

Like so many Flint-area expatriates, I recently had the disconcerting experience of seeing the house I grew up in listed at a bank auction site.

The house is located on Rolling Green Drive in the Warwick Hills subdivision of Grand Blanc Township. My father, a physician, had the house build in 1962 when we moved to Grand Blanc from Davison. My father and mother selected what was then a respectable mid-century modern design, brick with clean lines.

I remember as a kid going out to visit the construction progress on the weekends as my parents wandered through the shell of the construction, blue-prints in hand, checking their specifications and the quality of the construction.

When it was being built, it was only the third, possibly fourth house on a block that had only recently been carved out of the woods adjacent to the Warwick Hills golf course. Our few neighbors included Vern Parsell who owned Parsell’s Buick dealership and the owner of Spring’s Drugs located at the corner of Saginaw St. and Burton Road.

I think that my parents paid around $40,000 for the house which was built by local Flint builder Dick Page. The lot, I think, cost about $3,000 and came with a membership to Warwick Hills Country Club. Over the years, they added a screened in back porch, finished the basement and re-modeled the kitchen at least twice.

Eventually, all the lots on the nearly empty street were sold and developed into comfortable upper-middle class homes. But before the transformation was complete, my brothers, our neighbors, and I spent a lot of time playing in the swamp that was in the undeveloped property behind the house, carving bike trails through the woods and taking advantage of the construction of more than one of our neighbor’s houses to obtain building supplies for our various forts, tree houses, bicycle and skate-board ramps and Buick Open lemonade stands.

My parents stayed in the house until 1987 or 1988, when they sold in what was then a down market for a price that is only about $25,000 less than the list price at the bank auction site. They moved on first to Alaska and finally retired to Tucson, Arizona where they reside today. This was the only house they built, however, and for nearly 30 years, it reflected my parents taste and even today, in some small way, it remains home.

Over the years, I have watched Flint and the Flint area’s decline with great sorrow. Stores, restaurants even old familiar gas stations and businesses have all disappeared. Neighbors have retired and moved-on. Indeed, I haven’t been back to the area in more than 10 years. On my last trip, a trip to Ann Arbor to accompany my father to his 50th medical school reunion at the University of Michigan, I took an afternoon to drive with my wife — a California native — north to Flint to visit the old neighborhood and to see what had happened to a once thriving industrial community.

We drove to Warwick and onto Rolling Green Drive and our house (for that it will always be for me) looked pretty much the same even though it hadn’t been our house for more than 12 years. The yard was updated and the front door had been changed. The new owners had a hot-tub in the back yard off the basement door. In spite of all that had changed in Flint, the house was still there, taken care of and the rest of the neighborhood was equally well kempt.(Although all the houses in Warwick seemed smaller, especially in comparison to all the new McMansions that seemed to be sprouting-up in new subdivisions all over the South Saginaw St. end of Grand Blanc Township.)

But it wasn’t home. The neighbors were different. Flint and Grand Blanc were different.

Of course, I’ve no idea how it ended up as part of a bank sale, or why the auction price was so much lower than other sale properties on the block? That a house in Warwick Hills could be at sale as part of a bank auction just underscored how times had changed in Flint and Genesee County .

So there was our house on a bank auction site. In the accompanying picture, the lawn looks as if it hasn’t been mowed for a while. The roof has been redone and altered by removing a vent/skylight that let sunlight into the front family room. Otherwise, the house is a ghost image of what I knew as a child and seemingly as solid as when my father had it built and when we live there. On a Flint area realty site, I saw some interior pictures taken for the sale. Some of the rooms had been altered, hard wood floors had replaced the wall-to-wall carpeting that was a must have for all upwardly mobile homeowners in the 1960s and '70s. There were crown moldings where before the rooms were once decidedly mid-century modern. They were also empty and devoid of my mother’s taste and decorating influence.

The auction site’s encouraged potential bidders to bring some “sparkle” back to the property. All the sparkle, however, seems long gone.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Calls for National Guard to Help Flint

Vera Rison and Brenda Clack asked for help from the National Guard to combat Flint's soaring crime rate. Instead, Gov. Jennifer Granholm authorized an increased state police presence in the city.

Kristen Longley of The Flint Journal reports:
The governor has authorized the Michigan State Police to triple its presence in Flint after the city has seen five homicides in six days, including a fatal shooting this morning.

Mayor Dayne Walling made the call for help yesterday to Gov. Jennifer Granholm's office, and she responded:

"Public safety is our top priority, and we stand ready to assist our local partners to ensure that citizens are protected and remain safe," Granholm said in a statement released at a City Hall news conference this morning.

Buick and the Artistic Possibilities of the Valve-In-Head Motor

Flint Expatriate Michael W. Freeman — not to be confused with Michael Freeman of Carriage Town fame — spotted this poster graphically illustrating the work of Buick and the Vehicle City in the war effort at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Flint Postcards: Flint Park Dodgem

Flint Park has come up in the comment section, so I thought I'd re-post this item from June 4, 2009. Thanks to Randy Gearhart for this classic postcard.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Lunch Time at Flint Central High School in 1939

Judith Collins provided this 1939 photo of her mom, Alma McArthur Youmans, running the register at Flint Central High School during lunch hour. Alma was a student at Whittier at the time, and she's 87 now and still in great health.

Adventures in Grass Cutting

To put Flint's grass-cutting problems in perspective, I give you Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where a local judge is accused of having county workers maintain his yard with county equipment.

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Familiar Equation

Flint + summer + budget shortfalls = uncut grass.

Fighting to Save Flint

I'm not sure if it's a good thing or a bad thing that General David Petraeus’s 2006 manual “Counterinsurgency" often has passages that — with just a little tweaking — seem to apply to Flint:

Another tendency is to attempt large-scale, mass programs. In particular, Soldiers and Marines tend to apply ideas that succeed in one area to another area. They also try to take successful small programs and replicate them on a larger scale. This usually does not work. Often small-scale programs succeed because of local conditions or because their size kept them below the enemy’s notice and helped them flourish unharmed. . . . Small-scale projects rarely proceed smoothly into large programs. Keep programs small.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Greece Channels Flint, Michigan

Greece's economic troubles may have different origins than Flint's ongoing problems, but the solution sounds strangely familiar.
"Prime Minister George Papandreou said this week that Greece needs to see strong investment in order for the austerity program to work," write Peter Boone and Simon Johnson in their Economix blog. "While the government cuts fiscal spending, he said, it needs new private business to employ the dismissed workers so that they are productive, can pay taxes and do not need unemployment benefits."
Hey, how hard can that be to pull off? Perhaps Greece should consider a theme park celebrating the ancient philosophers. They could call it SocratesWorld.

Cities Struggle to Pay Pension and Healthcare Benefits Public Employees

What do Flint and Grand Rapids have in common with New York City? They all struggle to balance their current budgets while covering the increasing cost of generous pension and healthcare packages for retired city workers.

Mary Williams Walsh and Amy Schoenfeld of The New York Times report:

And the problem is not just in New York. Public pension costs are ballooning everywhere, throwing budgets out of whack and raising the question of whether venerable state pension systems are viable.

In fact, the cost of public pensions has been systemically underestimated nationwide for more than two decades, say some analysts. By these estimates, state and local officials have promised $5 trillion worth of benefits while thinking they were committing taxpayers to roughly half that amount.

The use of public money for outsize retirement pay really stings when budgets don’t balance, teachers are being laid off, furloughs are being planned and everything from poison-control centers to Alzheimer’s day care is being cut, as is happening in New York.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Buick City Clean Up

Money is on the way to clean up the Buick City site. David Shepardson of The Detroit News reports:
An $836 million plan to prepare 90 former General Motors Corp. sites for new economic life will boost nearly four dozen Michigan properties, including the polluted vestiges of Buick City, Pontiac Assembly and Willow Run.

The program, announced by the White House on Tuesday, includes $161 million for the restoration of 47 sites in 14 Michigan communities. Many are along the I-75 corridor -- the backbone of Michigan manufacturing -- in communities such as Detroit, Flint, Saginaw and Bay City.

The idea behind the massive cleanup effort in 14 states is to "revitalize and redevelop old, shuttered GM facilities, preparing them for new industries, new jobs, and new opportunity," President Barack Obama said.

The Detroit News learned that Buick City in Flint, shuttered in 1999, will be the first project funded through the program because the cleanup plan for that site has already been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. The official announcement is expected today.

That's good news for economically ravaged Flint.

"The city of Flint was built around the central General Motors sites, but they've been in the deep freeze through GM's financial challenges," Flint Mayor Dayne Walling said in an interview.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Tracking the Elusive American-Made Auto in San Francisco

Like a birdwatcher spotting a rare Raso Lark and a Madagascar Pochard on the same day, I was shocked to discover not one but two relatively late-model American made cars parked on my block in San Francisco on Sunday. And they weren't SUVs or trucks! One even displayed the colorful cream, orange and black plumage known as a Giants sticker. This is the first time I've ever witnessed this astounding event. While purely anecdotal, the close proximity of an elusive Ford Focus and a seldom-glimpsed Chevy Aveo — mingling with the Toyotas, Hondas, Minis and BMWs — must surely herald the recovery for the domestic auto industry.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Flint Photos: Chevrolet Engine Plant Badge

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Vegas Keeps Building Despite Empty Homes

While Flint searches for cash to tear down vacant houses, Las Vegas is gambling on what appears to be a long-shot bet to combat the foreclosure crisis.

David Streitfeld of The New York Times reports:
Home prices in Las Vegas are down by 60 percent from 2006 in one of the steepest descents in modern times. There are 9,517 spanking new houses sitting empty. An additional 5,600 homes were repossessed by lenders in the first three months of this year and could soon be for sale.

Yet builders here are putting up 1,100 homes, and they are frantically buying lots for even more.

Las Vegas is trying to recover by building what it does not need. It is an unlikely pattern being repeated in many of the areas where the housing crash was most severe.

The Sofas of San Francisco

Flint has its abandoned houses. San Francisco has its abandoned couches.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Flint Photos: Angelo's Coney Island Sign

If you're in the market for a visual metaphor of Flint's decline, look no further than this shot of Angelo's from a few year's back by Ben Hamper, author of Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line. And I never pass up an opportunity to quote from Rivethead:
"Which is to say that being a factory worker in Flint, Michigan, wasn't something purposely passed on from generation to generation. To grow up believing that you were brought into this world to follow in your daddy's footsteps, just another chip-off-the-old-shoprat, was to engage in the lowest possible form of negativism. Working the line for GM was something fathers did so that their offspring wouldn't have to."

Sunday, May 9, 2010

An Interveiw with Urban Planner Terry Schwarz about Shrinking Cites, House Flippers and the Future of Flint

Urban planning has traditionally been all about growth. As cities grew ever larger, planners figured out ways to manage increasingly complicated streetscapes, infrastructures and housing grids. But the shrinking city phenomena has changed everything. What happens when a place like Flint or Detroit or Cleveland has too many houses and not enough people or jobs? How do you gracefully and humanely downsize a city? Terry Schwarz, interim Director of the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative at Kent State University and creator of the Shrinking Cities Institute, has been grappling with those questions for most of her career. In a wide ranging interview with Flint Expatriates, she discusses the death of cities, house flippers, the Genesee County Land Bank and more.

Why does Europe seem to have a head start in dealing with shrinking cities?

In Eastern Europe, they experienced a dramatic population exodus and shift in demographic and economic strength, but they experienced it in about ten years whereas throughout the post-industrial midwest and northeast in the U.S. these trends have been in place since the 1960s. The speed with which the population shift took hold in Germany after reunification [in 1990] made the trend rise to the forefront as an urgent priority. If the population is dwindling away over a long period of time you don’t notice it in such an acute way.

Are other regions looking at the problem?

Right now in Japan there’s actually this whole growing field of study around shrinking cities as well. It’s for population loss that hasn’t exactly happened yet. Demographically they’re looking at trends that show a very low birthrate combined with strict immigration policies. They see their population sliding off the edge of a cliff in the next 30 years.

How is the shrinking city situation in the U.S. unique?

In Europe and Japan, you’ve got shrinking cities and shrinking countries. While here in the United States you’ve got shrinking cities and a growing country. The U.S. population is expected to grow at a really rapid clip. So the dynamic we’re working with is fundamentally different. And it’s spatially different because a lot of American cities — especially Cleveland and Detroit — were lower density to begin with. You really notice the physical ramifications of population loss very immediately here. The cities just feel very different.

Do smaller cities like Flint and Youngstown face longer odds as they try to reinvent themselves compared to bigger cities?

Here in Cleveland, we still have one operating steel mill, but compared to what it was a hundred years ago there’s virtually no steel production. On the other hand, from a biomedical standpoint, the Cleveland Clinic is ascendant. So even though sometimes it feels like the downs outweigh the ups, the city has multiple things moving up and down at the same time. I don’t want to say it but in a city like Youngstown or Flint, where you’ve got less to work with from the get go, it may not be possible to begin to put a more restorative process in place. And there are examples of cities nationally and globally that just sort of stopped and ceased to exist. I think it’s rare though.

What role does eliminating or repurposing vacant properties play in the overall recovery of a city?

This is one tiny little element of helping cities recover. Locally and nationally when people look at the shrinking cities concept it seems logical. A smaller city. Smaller infrastructure. Reduce the city’s footprint. Green this place up. But if you push on any of those things very much, you realize it’s just very complicated.

Let me guess. It all starts with the economy.

Job loss is what’s hurting these cities. People are not going to move to a city just because it has a good green space system. It’s an amenity and it will affect the decision, but you go to a place where you can work in a way that generates enough income that you can support yourself and your family. That’s why people choose a city. So we can make Cleveland heaven on earth with urban design strategies, but if there’s not something for people to do here, if there’s not a functioning economy, it’s all for nothing.

How do you differentiate between a city that is having temporary economic problems and one that is fundamentally shrinking?

There are cities that experience dramatic ups and downs in response to the micro economies that impact them. Then there are cities that have had this long, slow meltdown. I met Robert Beauregard — one of the pioneers in the ways cities decline and respond to population loss — a few years ago. He used this phrase that years later still smarts. He called a few cities the perennial losers. He didn’t mean to be insulting. He was just pointing out that sometimes even as the economy of the nation grows, certain cities shrink. No matter what’s happening at the national and international level, there are cities that have persistently lost population and lost economic activity and become increasingly distressed. St. Louis, Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia…the cities of pain.

How do real estate investors and speculators play into this equation?

They buy the property thinking they can’t lose when it only costs $500. Then they discover that they’re going to have to spend $10,000 to demolish it or $20,0000 to rehab it, so they walk away and then it gets foreclosed again. So there are all these properties across cities that are in total limbo and every time a property changes hands somebody makes money. And it’s not the right somebody. I’m not against the private sector making a profit, but flippers are predators. They’re trying to bleed whatever value is there and take it away from a place like Flint rather than investing in it.

Dan Kildee has attempted to break this pattern with the Genesee County Land Bank by using the tax foreclosure process to acquire property. What role do land banks play in helping shrinking cities?

Dan’s model is nothing short of a regional land use strategy, even though they never call it that. Dan’s found a way to get this chaotic real estate turmoil under control and in the process managed to develop a revenue stream that would slowly and incrementally and progressively begin shifting resources to where they are most needed. With Dan’s model, whatever value is left in the properties stays in Genesee county, instead of letting those properties waste away into private hands. So Dan has inserted the public good into this equation and the value that comes from properties changing hands gets put back into the property.

In a lot of discussions about shrinking cities, the idea of relocating residents to a more viable central core is the ultimate goal. How feasible is this concept?

There’s a huge amount of uncertainty. The American Institute of Architects did a study in Detroit, and they made these diagrams that made it all look so clean and neat. You push these people over here, and then you push those people over there and then decommission all the infrastructure. Well, it’s not so easy. We don’t know for sure which neighborhoods are going to stabilize and which ones may tip one way or the other. The complexity of it is stunning.

Along with relocation is the idea that cities will save money by removing unnecessary infrastructure. It seems like a logical idea.

But you have to spend capital dollars now to remove infrastructure with the hope of an aspriational savings sometime down the line, maybe 20 years later. I defy you to find the public service director who would be willing to make that bet. If you weren’t 100 percent sure, or pretty close, that the neighborhood is not going to need that power line, water main, sewer line anytime, ever, you wouldn’t take it away because then if market demand starts to bubble up around that spot again you have to put it back in. And that’s really expensive. And with powerlines, my gosh, there are easements and once you give up the easement you don’t get it back. So you have to be sure, and I’ll tell you that very few people are sure about anything in terms of the changing urban morphology of declining cities. That’s my soap box about infrastructure.

One of the appealing aspects of the shrinking city plan for may people is that it seems to provide a bold, easy-to-grasp master plan for dealing with decay. But once you get past the obvious need to eliminate vacant properties, the process gets very complicated.

It comes back to city planning traditions. Not to blame my people, but we feel like we have to make these big moves. But the work I’ve been advocating for here in Cleveland is more parcel based. You develop a citywide or regional strategy for the repurposing of vacant lots and then you implement it as those properties become available and we have this great luxury in Cleveland of the city land bank and the county land bank. These are tools we can use to get some control. We’re never going to — at least in the near term — have these giant, several hundred acre parcels of land to work with where we can put a big thing in place. Instead of erasing parts of the city and moving people around, what we’re really trying to do is implement a vacant land strategy that integrates and sort of insinuates itself around anything viable that remains.

Happy Mother's Day

Saturday, May 8, 2010

AutoWorld and Penguin Parks: Tourism at Home and Abroad

I was reminded of Flint's brief but expensive flirtation with tourism in the eighties when I read Hiroko Tabuchi's story in today's New York Times about Kyoto's attempts to attract vacationers:
A dolphin pool, a penguin park and a giant wave pool could soon join the imperial-era townhouses and ancient Buddhist temples in Kyoto, Japan’s former imperial capital.

As early as June, work will begin on a mammoth aquarium complex in central Kyoto, in leafy Umekoji Park at the center of the city. A brainchild of the Orix Real Estate Corporation, the project could breathe new life into Kyoto’s tourism industry by attracting more than two million visitors a year, developers say.

But to opponents, the proposed aquarium, set to open in 2012, is a misguided enterprise that threatens to destroy Kyoto’s historic ambience. Adding to the disgrace, they say, is Orix’s plan to showcase dolphins in a 19,000-square-foot pool at a time when the nation is under fire for hunting thousands of dolphins and porpoises each year.

In the postwar period, Kyoto has shown little concern for preserving the traditional neighborhoods that would most appeal to foreign tourists, he said. The pace of destruction gathered speed in the 1990s; more than 40,000 old wooden homes disappeared from central Kyoto that decade, according to the International Society to Save Kyoto.

Though ancient temples and gardens remain in the city, they are overwhelmed by the sprawling mass of gray buildings and neon signs that dominate the skyscape — the product of ineffective zoning policies in the city, Mr. Kerr said.

If you've forgotten the misbegotten experiment called AutoWorld, here's a video reminder:

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Flint Fires: Arson Close to Home

A house fire that threatened Guy Merritt's home on Flint's east side. For more photos go here. (Photo courtesy of Guy Merritt)

Flint resident Guy Merritt describes a harrowing experience on the arson frontlines:
All I can say is "Lemme outta here!" We've got two houses, across the street from each other, on Flint's east side. Two weeks ago three guys pulled up in front of one of our houses (where my wife's kids and grand kids sleep) and shot the hell out of it. It was the top of the news on WJRT. Luckily, no one was injured. (One of the perpetrators was angry with my wife's 22-year-old granddaughter.)

This morning, at about 6 a.m., a homeless guy was beating our door down screaming, "Get out, get out, you gotta get out!" A vacant house next door — about 15 feet away from where we were sleeping — had been set on fire.The fire dept. was screaming at me to move my truck from the driveway and I was terrified — the heat was incredible. I was sure the house would go. Luckily, the fire dept. has some automated sprinkler-type things they threw in our driveway.

I can't take anymore. I'm losing it, here. Here are some pics. This was my morning, and I'm supposed to go to work today — just not up to it.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Ernie Harwell, R.I.P.

Detroit Tigers broadcasting legend Ernie Harwell died today at the age of 92.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Guns and Gardening

Sometimes yard work can yield some unexpected finds in Flint. Take the tree trimmer who discovered a loaded sawed-off shotgun on Forest Hill Avenue. Or the woman who unearthed 20 live rounds of ammunition in her garden on Josephine Street.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Scarcity and Abundance of Space and Housing

An earlier post juxtaposed the lack of housing in North Dakota with Flint's abundance — if that's the right word — of vacant homes and buildings. Now architect Gary Chang shows us how to create a hyper-efficient home in one the most densely populated places in the world — Hong Kong. Somehow this all seems connected.