Monday, July 26, 2010

Maywood, California: How to Fire a City Government

Note: I'm re-posting this item that originally ran on July 21 because the comments are really worth reading. As readers have pointed out, the comparison between Flint and Maywood isn't that useful, but the discussion of city budget's in the comment section is useful and thought provoking. Here's the original post...

Like many cities across the country, Flint is struggling to maintain city services; hang on to police, firefighters and other city workers; and still maintain a balanced budget with a declining tax base and increasing legacy costs for retired workers.

But what if Flint simply fired all city workers and outsourced their jobs? Maywood, Calif., located southeast of Los Angeles, did it.

David Streitfeld of The New York Times reports:

While many communities are fearfully contemplating extensive cuts, Maywood says it is the first city in the nation in the current downturn to take an ax to everyone.

The school crossing guards were let go. Parking enforcement was contracted out, City Hall workers dismissed, street maintenance workers made redundant. The public safety duties of the Police Department were handed over to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

At first, people in this poor, long-troubled and heavily Hispanic city southeast of Los Angeles braced for anarchy.

Senior citizens were afraid they would be assaulted as they walked down the street. Parents worried the parks would be shut and their children would have nowhere to safely play. Landlords said their tenants had begun suggesting that without city-run services they would no longer feel obliged to pay rent.

The apocalypse never arrived. In fact, it seems this city was so bad at being a city that outsourcing — so far, at least — is being viewed as an act of municipal genius.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Flint Photos: Wigs, Disguises, Herzogs and Bishop Airport

In the late seventies, the Herzog family had a tradition of meeting friends and relatives at Bishop Airport in getups like these to amuse and confound them.

Stephen Herzog: Pinball wizard and toupee aficionado.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Doors of Perception in Flint

It was bad enough when the house next door to Matt Schlinker on Kensington was abandoned after a foreclosure, but it was even worse when the lender decided to board up the front door. Not exactly what you expect to see off East Court. So Schlinker got creative with some spray paint and stencils to create the illusion of a door. And this story has a happy ending; the house is now occupied.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Dan Kildee: Addenda, Extras and Outtakes

There's never enough space to use all the material you gather on a story, and my profile of Dan Kildee in Slate was no different. If you enjoyed reading about the pied piper of the shrinking city movement, here is some additional info about Kildee, Jane Avenue, H.U.D., and unofficial White House tours, along with some of the photos I took along the way.

Addendum: Jane Avenue Memories
"I have a lot of memories of Jane Avenue," Kildee writes in an email. "That street, to me, was my grandmother. She lived there for 60 years, from 1934 until she died in 1994. Even then, many of the families on the street had been there for decades. That neighborhood in my early years seemed like a collection of families more than a typical neighborhood. The family names were familiar across generations — the Kildees, the Wests, the Lotts, the Beauchamps, the Griffins. Jane Avenue and the whole 'old east side' was a neighborhood in the way we don't see anymore. It reached across generations.

"Going to my grandmother's house was like going to the family museum — it actually felt like we were going back in time. Of course, inside her house was this treasure of family pictures and other reminders of our family history — like her furniture which never changed throughout my whole life. But even the neighborhood was a reminder of past decades. The neighbors knew me even though I didn't know them — I guess the grandmothers kept one another informed. When I started running for office and would campaign in that area — even though I moved to the west side at age four — I had to plan for long conversations on the porches of east-siders, and they told me stories of my family. Of course many of those stories were the ones I never heard at home or at Grandma's house. I learned a lot about my grandfather, who died before I was born.

"For me the saddest part of being there now is not so much that the houses have deteriorated or are gone. I miss that connection to my own past."

Addendum: Federal Influence

Kildee has found a receptive audience at the federal level as well. After he helped draft a transition memo for Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, Kildee was offered a H.U.D. job shortly after he got Community Progress up and running. He turned it down. As a politician who won a school board seat when he was 18 and had been in public office ever since, he welcomed his new-found freedom.

“It was pretty clear to me that I’d quickly gotten used to being able to speak my own mind and follow my own policy instincts at Community Progress,” he says. “It would have been hard for me to do that in a relatively senior position at H.U.D.”

You don’t have to spend much time with Kildee for him to illustrate this point. He calls a local state senator who opposes his views a “moron” and describes Van Jones’ speech at the Michigan Summit as “sort of interesting but kind of like something you’d hear in eighth grade.” Despite the unenthusiastic review, Kildee still found time to snap a photo of Jones with his smartphone and post it on his Facebook page.

Not that Kildee’s outspokenness is hurting his access. He mentions that Derek Douglas, the special assistant to the president for urban affairs, summoned him to the White House in May to talk shop for a couple hours.

“That’s like going to Carnegie Hall for me,” Kildee says. “I lived my whole life basically doing recitals, and now I have a chance to be in a place where really important policy is being made.”

After the session, Kildee realized he wasn’t going to be escorted out of the building. He had a security badge, so he decided to go on a random 20-minute self-guided tour. “I’m just this kid from Flint but here I am at the White House,” he says. “I just walked around like I knew where I was going.”

Addendum: Working with Other States

Local and state governments are embracing Kildee’s approach. He assisted the Ohio legislature on a land bank bill that recently passed with bi-partisan support. Similar legislation is expected to be approved in New York with Kildee’s help. Pennsylvania State Rep. John Taylor, a Philadelphia Republican, is currently sheparding a land bank bill through the state legislature after working closely with Community Progress.

“You can’t understand land banks without talking to Kildee,” says Christine Goldbeck, executive director of the Pennsylvania House Urban Affairs Committee. “He paved the way for Pennsylvania and other states to implement these laws.”

Addendum: A Certain Irony

There’s a certain irony in the notion that a former high school hockey player from Flint — a factory town that practically invented the concept of planned obsolescence and grew prosperous on General Motors’ rapacious lust for an ever-expanding market share — might successfully export the notion that cities can save themselves by repurposing land and accepting negative growth.

Addendum: Feuding with Rush Limbaugh

Rush Limbaugh even took notice, lambasting the shrinking city concept for several minutes of air time last summer. “I'm seeing things happen in this country that I thought I would never, ever see,” Limbaugh declared. “These are the kind of things that happen in totalitarian regimes.” Kildee was delighted.

“Rush went crazy for a few days, but it was the best thing to every happen to me because a couple million people heard it,” says Kildee, who admits he soon grew weary of the mocking calls to his home and office from Limbaugh’s “dittoheads.”

Monday, July 19, 2010

A Tale of Two Shootings

Somehow these two shooting incidents — one in Flint and one in Grand Blanc — manage to illustrate the seemingly ever widening gap between urban and suburban life in Michigan.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Dan Kildee and the Incredible Shrinking City

Slate covers Flint's latest export:
Dan Kildee is driving with his knees and talking with his hands as his rental car pushes 80 mph on a stretch of Interstate 69 near East Lansing, Mich. But that's not what scares me. What really gets me nervous is how he insists on eye contact as he discusses his plan for saving the rest of America from the sorry fate suffered by our shared hometown of Flint. "It really comes down to getting people to stop assuming that expansion is always desirable," Kildee says. "The important thing is how people feel about their city when they stand on their front porch in the morning, not how many people actually live in the city. It's just irrational to simply pursue growth."
Read the rest of the Slate profile of Dan Kildee here.

Flint Portraits: Lloyd Copeman

Lloyd Copeman contemplating the boot that inspired one of his greatest inventions.

Like many great inventors, Lloyd Copeman didn't limit the scope of his imagination
when he was living at 1416 Calumet off East Court in Flint. He is credited with inventing a self-extinguishing cigarette, an early form of the microwave oven, and the first electric stove. Along the way he revolutionized how we make toast and patented dozens of other ideas.

Copeman's best loved invention may be the flexible rubber ice cube tray, which earned him $500,000 in the late twenties.

"Copeman had been gathering sap 'just for the fun of it,' and slush collected and gradually froze on his boots," Anita K. Clever wrote in a 1954 Popular Mechanics profile. "When he returned from the jaunt he sat down and dreamily regarded his footwear, an act of contemplation, which lead to the ice-cube-tray idea. It was one of the many to be conceived by Copeman which would ease the daily burdens of the house-wife and others."

Copeman brought a touch of class to a familiar Flint pastime — drinking — with this beer chiller. A center cylinder filled with dry ice released carbonic gas through the beer.

Copeman, who once admitted that
“some of my neighbors are certain I’m balmy," was fond of using family members to refine his inventions.

"After buying his wife a new car for Christmas, Copeman proceeded to cover the exterior with a coating of rubber latex, cutting the latex out of the windows," writes Marsha J. Davenport. "For the life of that car, it went everywhere with the mud colored coating of latex. Perhaps it was due to the unseemly appearance the latex lent to the automobile that the process never received a patent, but for whatever reason, this was one of Copeman’s inventive ideas whose time had not yet come, due perhaps to inadequate technology."

Copeman knew Edison, Ford, C.S. Mott and J.D. Dort, but his granddaughter is also a household name — Linda Ronstadt.

In his later years, Copeman turned his creative energies to birdhouses.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Flint Under Glass

A model of the UM-Flint campus in the lobby of the old Water Street Pavilion.

Public Assistance in Flint

Khalil AlHajal of The Flint Journal reports:
The average number of Genesee County households that relied on government food assistance during the first three months of this year was 23.2 percent higher than it was during the same period last year, while the number of people on cash assistance has increased by 15.7 percent, according to statistics from the Michigan League for Human Services.

One in four Genesee County residents depended on government food assistance, compared to one in five last year, while only Muskegon County had a higher percentage of its total population receiving cash assistance during the first quarter of 2010, with 5.3 percent compared to Genesee County’s 4.7 percent.

“It’s staggering. It’s just really amazing,” said Sheryl Thompson, DHS director for Genesee County, about the rising numbers. “The caseloads are just constantly going up.”

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Imagine Flint Without I-475

The humble beginnings of what was once called the Buick Freeway. With no more Buick, does Flint still need the freeway? (Photo courtesy of Thomas Wirt)

I hear a lot of valid complaints about I-475 whenever I return to Flint. It chopped up neighborhoods; demarcated downtown from the cultural center area; and all but eliminated some traditionally black sections of town. (Disclosure: The construction site did provide a fantastically dangerous place to play as a kid.) Today, the worst blight in the city is found along the I-475 corridor.

I couldn't help wondering if all the stimulus money currently being used to repair the highway wouldn't be better spent eliminating parts of it instead. This is purely anecdotal, but it didn't seem like it was getting a lot of use. I-475 felt like a ghost highway within the Flint city limits.

The idea is not unprecedented. San Francisco, Milwaukee and Portland have all removed major urban highways.

The San Francisco waterfront before and after the double-decker Embarcadero Freeway.

The Sheridan Expressway in the South Bronx might be next. Sam Dolnick of The New York Times reports:

The Sheridan carries roughly 50,000 vehicles a day, according to state officials. It provides a route for truckers to reach the major food distribution center in Hunts Point but also acts as a physical barrier between local residents and the Bronx River. 
Removing the Sheridan would open up 13 acres of open space along the river, land that advocates want to connect with some 15 other acres of service roads and riverfront property to create 1,200 affordable housing units, commercial and industrial space, and amenities like playgrounds, swimming pools and soccer fields. 
“This proposal is really rooted in the environmental justice battles that low-income communities have been fighting for decades,” said Joan Byron of the Pratt Center for Community Development, a member of the campaign to remove the Sheridan. “If you look at globally competitive cities, they’re all looking at the spaces they gave over to highways decades ago, and they’re rethinking those decisions.”
I'd love to hear from some Flint residents about the role the highway plays in the city in 2010. How often do you use it? What would happen if it were gone? Traffic patterns matter, of course, but there are also the psychological implications; would this be viewed as another sign that Flint is disappearing from the map?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Flint Photos: Alternate View of the Capitol Theater

When you spend a little time with Flint's Joel Rash, you end up seeing the city from a different angle.

Flint Mystery Photo

Every time I try one of these mystery photos, someone identifies it almost instantly. Maybe this one will be a little more challenging. Who can fill us in?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Flint Photos: Flint Iron & Welding on Saginaw Street

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Flint Photos

Is it just me, or have the posts lately come dangerously close to the equivalent of a vacation slideshow that a neighbor forces you to watch?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Flint Photos: Leatherman on Saginaw Street

Flint Photos: Northbank Center Viewed from the Durant Hotel

Monday, July 5, 2010

More Farmer's Market

Flint Photos: Applegate Chevrolet

Thanks to Dave McDonald for a tour of the only new car dealership in the city of Flint.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Flint Photos: Saturday Morning at the Flint Tennis Club

Friday, July 2, 2010

Durant Hotel Before and After

For a little contrast with this post, here's a shot of the Durant lobby pre-renovation. Thanks to Ann Richards for the photo.

Citizens Bank Weather Ball

The sequencing is a little off on this one, but you get the idea.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Flint Artifacts: Darby & Son Realtors

Special thanks to Joel Rash and Verne McFarlane for this one.

Flint Photos: College Cultural District

Getting tired of abandoned building porn? Yeah, me too. Here are some of the College Cultural District's finest.

Capitol Clouds

Durant Hotel Renovation