Saturday, April 30, 2011

If Only It Were This Simple

Flint Photos: Flint from the Air in 1954

This is a 1954 press photo of Flint. Not quite sure what part of town we're looking at here. Note the water tower in the upper left. Any thoughts? (Click to enlarge.)

My Apologies

Sorry for the lack of posts lately. I've been training for the Ironman Triathlon and my workouts have really cut into my blogging. That was a lie. I've just been swamped with work and life in general. I've also gotten depressed by all the bad news coming out of Flint. But enough excuses.

The Energy Crisis: The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same

Ah, memories. Susan Straight remembers the gas shortages of 1979 in The New York Times:
The crisis rolled on through the summer. Irrationality set in. All over the country, people wasted gallons of gas waiting in line for the gas they were afraid wouldn’t be there the next week. The crisis was the only news story anyone cared about. A protest outside Philadelphia turned violent. People stood guard beside their cars at night against thieves who siphoned out fuel. A board game came out called Gas Crisis, in which players had Large Cars or Small Cars and moved the action along with cards like “Oil Sheik” and “Walked to Work.”

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

How to Pay for More Cops?

A few days ago I asked a question in the comment section. How you fund Flint police at their current pay and benefits packages and balance the budget, without increasing the retirement pay out so a mayor down the line has to deal with the cost? More than 70 percent of the general fund is dedicated to public safety. Not sure how you put more cops on the street with their current pay and benefits, continue to do things like pick up the garbage and mow the grass, and balance the budget. Without raising taxes on an economically devastated city. (Please note that I'm not taking a stand on the current labor battle between the mayor and public safety unions; I'm looking for actual answers to solve this dilemma.)

I got a few responses. On the micro level, anonymous suggests:
Privatize garbage. City will become a stinking landfill, but you'll theoretically have a few more cops. Make police pay scale the highest possible pay scale. Noone in city hall makes more than a cop with the same years of service. including the mayor. you'll have a few more cops. Shutter/sell/dismantle atwood. sad but time. play ball games at northwestern n swa. maybe get a few more cops out of that, it might be deeded or something tho so maybe not. and outside of a select few (like a handful), pull up the signs from the city parks and end what minimal maintenance is done on them. nature parks now. squeeze a cop or two out of those savings. beg, plead and steal federal law enforcement assistance. still not enough? sorry, all i got.
JWilly offers up a big-picture solution:
Everyone knows the problem is driven by drug marketing. Everyone knows that Flint can't afford to manage ongoing petty crime, and has no constitutionally permissible tools to do anything about drug marketing. The suburbs prefer to keep their money and pretend the problem doesn't affect them. The state prefers to think of the problem as local and simply a matter of managerial and taxpayer choices. The feds by and large ignore the problem. Over the years the CIA and friends have even been involved in drug distribution in a number of ways, and the feds have used drug profits to extra-nationally fund various activities.

Nothing will be fixed until the feds make ending drug marketing a national goal, and formulate a practical plan that doesn't involve interdicting individual mules or processing labs or plants.

One way to do that would be to bioengineer hardy, persistent genetic-attack vectors for the plant precursors for cocaine and heroin, and broadcast them in cultivable areas.

Much of the world would be outraged at our transgressing various nations' sovereignty in the process, and hurting poor farm families. We'd have to be led by someone that was willing to say, "tough $%@& with it."
I'd love to hear some more ideas.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Is America Finally Downsizing When It Comes to Housing?

Are the days of brand-new McMansions over? Housing stats make the rest of the country sound a lot like Flint.

David Streitfeld of The New York Times reports:

Sales of new single-family homes in February were down more than 80 percent from the 2005 peak, far exceeding the 28 percent drop in existing home sales. New single-family sales are now lower than at any point since the data was first collected in 1963, when the nation had 120 million fewer residents.

Builders and analysts say a long-term shift in behavior seems to be under way. Instead of wanting the biggest and the newest, even if it requires a long commute, buyers now demand something smaller, cheaper and, thanks to $4-a-gallon gas, as close to their jobs as possible. That often means buying a home out of foreclosure from a bank.

Four out of 10 sales of existing homes are foreclosures or otherwise distressed properties.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Murdertown, USA...with Video

Charlie LeDuff's ride along with Flint Police finds space in The New York Times Magazine and on the local TV news in Detroit.

And Flint Mayor Dayne Walling comes out swinging in an email to his supporters:

Recently, the City Of Flint has been the subject of some very negative press. A freelance reporter from Detroit, with the help of a few opportunistic police officers joined forces to paint a very unfair picture of Flint’s public safety challenges. My administration was given no opportunity to participate or answer questions, and I am deeply disturbed by yet another cheap shot at the City of Flint.

Let me set the record straight. My administration has dedicated a greater percentage of available resources to public safety than ever before. More than 70% of the city’s general fund is dedicated to public safety. We are partnering with Federal, State, and County law enforcement officials and implementing innovative approaches to address the long standing public safety challenges of violent crime, gangs, drugs, and quality of life issues.

On May 3rd voters in Flint will have an opportunity for the first time ever to approve a jail millage that will provide dedicated funding to keep our city jail open. This is an identified problem and I proud that City Council members and community leaders have come together to support fixing this long-standing stumbling block. We must send a strong message to those who are breaking the laws in our community that there are consequences and repercussions for those acts of lawlessness.

Our highly skilled public safety force of more than 120 men and women remains strong, and fully prepared to keep the citizens and visitors of this community safe. Residents can be assured that there is more than handful of officers patrolling the streets of Flint. We have a force of more than 20 officers on duty prepared to answer calls in every section of this city on every shift. On each shift, officers are assigned to general and directed patrols, community policing, special operations, traffic calls and youth cases. Many individual officers do not know the full strength and power of the department. The notion that 6 officers are on duty in the City of Flint on any given shift is absurd and, quite frankly, wrong and misleading.

We also continue to work proactively through our Ceasefire and Blue Badge programs to prevent crime. We have opened a police mini-station in every ward of the city. We are now exploring opportunities and partnerships to open more mini-stations.

We continue to seek out positive opportunities for our youth in this community. The Boys and Girls Club of Greater Flint has established a second location in our newly renovated Haskell Community Center with the partnership of PAL, the Police Activities League. The center is providing mentoring and positive intervention in the lives of young people.

With all of this hard work underway, I take offense at this irresponsible media who come into our city to use our public safety challenges to advance their own sensational, fear mongering agenda. I am even more offended by the audacity of those few police officers who provided dishonest and incomplete information. The officers’ actions are disrespectful and harmful to the tax paying citizens of this community who expect their officers to have honor and to uphold their oath to protect and serve at all times. Without question, these officers are entitled to voice their own opinions. And if they no longer desire to honorably and faithfully serve this community, there is nothing compelling them to remain with us here. There are many who would love the opportunity to serve this community.

Flint has had difficult challenges with crime for over forty years, and our murder rate has been and continues to be totally unacceptable. This was no secret to these officers when they asked to be hired by our department, and certainly not news for the media.

Yes we have our challenges, like many other communities, but working together with the resources available, we are putting in place solutions. It will take a sustained effort for our community to have safer streets, new jobs, strong neighborhoods, and opportunity for all. Signs of our positive transformation are coming up. Just this week Kiplinger’s Report named Flint, Michigan one of eleven comeback cities in the USA based on the job creation forecast from Moody’s.

At this important time, we will not let a misguided few distract us from the important work that we must continue to do to create a better Flint for all of us and generations to come.

Thank you for your continued support.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Flint: Murdertown, U.S.A.

Lest Flintoids past and present get too giddy after Kiplinger's proclamation that Flint is a "comeback city," The New York Times Magazine is there to bring everybody back to reality.

The intrepid Charlie LeDuff, riding along with a Flint cop, reports:

It’s not that the cops here are scared; it’s just that they’re outmanned, outgunned and flat broke.

Flint is the birthplace of General Motors and the home of the U.A.W.’s first big strike. In case you didn’t know this, the words “Vehicle City” are spelled out on the archway spanning the Flint River.

But the name is a lie. Flint isn’t Vehicle City anymore. The Buick City complex is gone. The spark-plug plant is gone. Fisher Body is gone.

What Flint is now is one of America’s murder capitals. Last year in Flint, population 102,000, there were 66 documented murders. The murder rate here is worse than those in Newark and St. Louis and New Orleans. It’s even worse than Baghdad’s.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Flint: The Comeback Kid...According to Kiplinger's

Flint has a knack for showing up on the ubiquitous lists that rank some aspect of a city. They're always lists that most cities would like to avoid. Most Miserable. Most Depressed. Most Dangerous. Kurt "Bad News" Badenhausen spends a lot of his time at Forbes compiling these useless tallies. But they sure generate online hits, so they're not going away any time soon.

So even though I've questioned the need for these lists, it's still refreshing when the Vehicle City shows up on a list for something positive. Kiplinger, the influential business forecasting company, has selected Flint as one of 13 "Comeback Cities" in 2011.
The health care and life sciences industries are giving long-suffering Flint a shot in the arm. Diplomat Specialty Pharmacy relocated its headquarters from the suburbs to the city, using a former auto assembly site for its offices, while both the city’s public hospital, Hurley Medical Center, and McLaren Regional Medical Center are bulking up.

Meanwhile, Flint’s traditional employer, the auto industry, is no longer at idle. General Motors -- the community’s single largest employer -- plans to start a third shift at its assembly plant in Flint for a net increase of 750 jobs, phased in over the summer. Flint's employment fell nearly 12% during the downturn, and is forecast to rise about 2.6% this year.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Evolution of Jane Avenue

Jane Avenue's new look.

If there is a single block that has come to epitomize Flint's struggles with economic decline and population loss, as well as the Genesee County Land Bank's efforts to deal with blight and abandonment, it's the 1600 block of Jane Avenue on the city's east side. Although it is just one of more than 400 blocks in Flint that are more than 50 percent abandoned, it became a handy visual aid for many journalists, including me, to illustrate Flint's problems. Here are a few of the photos I took for "The Jane Avenue Blues," a slide show that accompanied a profile of Dan Kildee, the former land bank chief who now runs the Center for Community Progress, that was published in Slate.

Arson is a byproduct of abandonment in Flint, and Jane Avenue had more than its share of fires. David Harris of The Flint Journal reported on the street in January:
A single east-side block of Jane Avenue between Minnesota and Iowa avenues was the hardest hit in the city, with 20 arsons last year.

What once was lined with houses is now just barren land on the north side of the street.

All that’s left is a burned-out shell of a house. The rest of the charred homes have been bulldozed away and the sites filled with dirt.

The bark on the trees is still black from the fires. The houses on the south side of the street remain standing but are dilapidated.

“They burned the whole block,” said Allen Willard, 53, who lives in the only occupied house left. “I used to wake up at 2 or 3 a.m. I’d open my eyes, and I’d see flames (reflecting) on my bedroom wall. A house a week started going down.”
It's not much consolation, but Flint is not alone. Adam Geller, covering nationwide arson trends for Insurance Journal, reported:

Fires in vacant homes rose 11 percent to 21,000 in 2006 — the latest year for which figures are available — while all home fires rose just 4 percent, the National Fire Protection Association reported in April. More than four of every 10 vacant building fires were intentionally set, the group reported.

Some of that is arson for financial reasons. But in neighborhoods of sagging homes worth little, fires are often set by vandals, the homeless or people seeking revenge.

The threat grows as empty homes multiply, said John Hall, the NFPA’s division director for fire analysis and research. Vacant homes nationwide topped 19 million earlier this year, up from 15.7 million in 2005, according to the Census Bureau.

“The best way to prevent vacant building fires is to prevent vacant buildings,” the NFPA concluded.

Or eliminate the buildings altogether. When I was in Flint last month, I drove down Jane and discovered that nearly every house had been demolished. It's probably the best solution for the block at this point, but it's still hard to get used to the new view that's created when an entire block disappears.

Friday, April 8, 2011

It's Opening Day in Detroit

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Buyer's Remorse

Michigan, where Democratic and Republican governors alike appear to be equally unpopular.

John Terbush of Talking Points Memo reports:

In Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder (R) is facing a backlash of his own.

Last November, Snyder beat Democrat Virg Bernero by a huge 18-point margin. But in a PPP poll released yesterday, registered voters suggested they wish they'd elected Bernero -- who won a hypothetical do over, 47% to 45%.

Since taking office, Snyder has pursued a number of controversial proposals, such as one that would grant him the power to declare a financial emergency in a given city and appoint an emergency manager to modify or void union contracts, and even dissolve a city government -- a proposal one supporter likened to "financial martial law."

In PPP's latest poll, 50% of respondents said they opposed that proposal, versus 32% who said they supported it.

The also poll found that a majority of registered voters in Michigan disapprove of Snyder's job performance. Fifty percent of respondents said they disapproved of the job Snyder was doing, while just 33% said they approved.

Divine Intervention

Ah, the joys of eBay. Would you pay $395 for a faded photo of Jesus hovering over Flint?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Giving Up on the Borderlands?

The city of Flint hasn't officially endorsed the shrinking city concept, but budget woes may help make it a reality.

Ron Fonger of The Flint Journal reports:
The city says it can't afford to help pay for fixing one of the most deteriorated sections of Carpenter Road, Flint's northernmost border, leaving the Genesee County Road Commission saddled with the full bill for the local share of the job.

Flint Artifacts: 1977 Longfellow Yearbook

Bucks for Broadside

Broadside is a print-only newspaper published in Flint. It's been around three years and hearkens back to those thrilling days of yesteryear when people believed in the power of newspapers to make a difference, regardless of the financial realities. I've worked at a few of those newspapers, so I have a rooting interest in Broadside. Like many newspapers these days, Broadside is having trouble making ends meet. I'll let Broadsider Robert Mabbitt explain:
" its own small way, [Broadside] provides a service to local readers as the only publication in the area where they can find a real diversity of perspectives facing our community and our world. But for some reason, businesses in Flint don't have a lot of extra room in their budgets to buy print advertising in anything that isn't bright, glossy, and a blind cheerleader for all things Flint. For a publication whose business model is to sell only enough ads to cover each issue's printing costs (± $777), that can be a pretty precarious position. Which, after the computer we use to layout each issue crashed and burned, is precisely where we find ourselves."
How can you help? You can go here to donate to Broadside and keep it running. Or go here to subscribe and catch up on some Flint news. Want more info? Check out this NPR story on Broadside.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Drunk-Proof Cars

Are "drunk-proof cars" coming to a dealership near you?

Mark Huffman of reports:

Two members of the U.S. Senate, one a Democrat and the other a Republican, have taken a step by sponsoring the ROADS SAFE Act, which would authorize $12 million a year for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to develop technology that would prevent an intoxicated person from driving a vehicle.

The objective, of course, is to prevent drunk drivers from getting on the road and causing fatal accidents. Senators Tom Udall (D-NM) and Bob Corker (R-TN) co-sponsored the legislation, expressing hope their bi-partisan approach will help secure passage.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Charlie Sheen Encounters a Tough Crowd in Detroit

It sounds like the most entertaining aspect of Charlie Sheen's "performance" in Detroit is A.O. Scott's fantastically negative review in The New York Times:
You could say that Mr. Sheen and the audience failed each other. The ticket buyers did not show him the “love and gratitude” to which he felt entitled, and he did not give them the kind of entertainment they thought they had paid for. But you could also say that the performer and the audience deserved each other, and that their mutual contempt was its own kind of bond. The ushers, in their black gold-braided uniforms, retained an air of inscrutable dignity in the midst of an orgy of depthless vulgarity. Everyone else in the room — onstage, backstage, in the $69 orchestra seats — had to swallow a gag-inducing, self-administered dose of shame. And no, the journalists who traveled to Detroit to gawk and philosophize at the spectacle are not exempt from that judgment.