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.


  1. There is another way of looking at what happened to Flint. The majority of the population post WWII were transplants from other states and countries. Apart from my wife's family, I can't say that I know many people who can boast their families were originally from Flint.

    People have come and they are now gone. Just give the property back to nature. Who knows, maybe the lumber industry can make a comeback.

    Post WWII Flint is dead. Tear it down and build a new one. It's sad. At the same time, it's time to move on.

  2. Paul, that's definitely one way to look at it. I was talking about this with a few friends this weekend. One of them pointed out that if you take away the emotion and personal attachment that people have for the place, there's no economic reason that Flint won't keep shrinking down to a "city" with 20,000 people in it. Yes, it's the county seat, has some higher ed in the form of Baker, Mott, UM and kettering, and some hospitals. But none of those are generating wealth. They rely on wealth generated elsewhere to survive. And Flint's not close enough to any other big economic regions to meld into them. So if that's the case, the focus, at least for now, needs to be on shrinking in a humane and organized fashion. But is that even possible in this time of budget cuts?

  3. It's a shame to look at the 1600 block of Jane Avenue today. When I was born in the mid 1960's, my family and I lived at 1637 Jane, pretty much a stone's throw from our church. The memories live on. Reality lives now.

  4. Meanwhile, parts of southern Genesee County are growing faster than some of the highest growth areas of the country, including people fleeing from both Flint and Detroit.

  5. "Tear it down and build a new one."

    What we need is another homogenized, history-less city in the state? That will bring them flocking in, I am sure.

  6. I think it's more like tear a lot of it down and preserve the best because no one will be flocking to Flint any time soon. There's simply no good reason right now for businesses or people to come to the city. Not trying to mock the place, just being realistic. Once you accept that reality, you can start to create a much smaller place that's acceptable to the people still there.

  7. Sable - "preserve the best" - That I can agree with, and I don't consider it mocking...quantity isn't always quality.

  8. All seems strangely peaceful and calm on Jane Avenue. After its celebration of life, its trauma, then death, all seems natural and right. A cemetery of sorts; part of an ever expanding Forest Lawn, where lie the fading memories of the once proud home town.

  9. The picture of the first house on Jane Ave was my house growing up on the East Side as a kid. It was a great neighborhood back in the 70's. At one point many of the houses around us were being sold to landlords and that was the sign we needed to get out. I'm assuming from the pictures that it's torn down now. I'll have to drive by and take a look.

  10. Reading the above reminds me that we all must move forward, like it or not. I bet Moses told his own kids about fun times in Egypt, before he started messing with the Pharaoh's mind. The resdents of today's Flint will deal with their problems, either well or poorly. I hope they create something good from the community that came before them. As far as my memories go, Civic Park / Haskell was a great place to grow up, much like my elders felt about their early years in northern Michigan. Today, living in Indiana, I hear my own kids tell their children stories about growing up in Flushing. Good luck Flintoids, hopefully you will become the blueprint for humanely downsizing a city. Make us proud!

  11. I was raised at 1the house on Jane & Olive St I think the address was 1495 or something like that. I left Michigan in 1980 for the oil fields oT Texas came back the first time in 2004 and could not beleive how bad it had gotten. Now I won a house on Ohio St and it just blows me away how bad the once great Eastside of Flint has turned into the ghetto of Flint


Thanks for commenting. I moderate comments, so it may take a while for your comment to appear. You might enjoy my book about Flint called "Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City," a Michigan Notable Book for 2014 and a finalist for the 33rd Annual Northern California Book Award for Creative NonFiction. Filmmaker Michael Moore described Teardown as "a brilliant chronicle of the Mad Maxization of a once-great American city." More information about Teardown is available at