Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Flint and the Generation Gap

Aaron M. Renn has a fascinating post on The Urbanophile blog about the way different generations view cities. You can see these generational divides played out in the comment section of Flint Expatriates and on Facebook. Baby Boomers tend to have very different opinions about the past, present and future of Flint than Gen-X'ers. The Millennials, who have only experienced the Vehicle City during its socioeconomic death spiral often seem bemused by all the old timers' talk of Flint's glory days. These contrasting viewpoints can lead to real conflict as residents and local leaders try to map out the path to a better Flint in the future.

Renn writes:
Gen-X and the Millennials have a much more optimistic and positive views of urban areas than baby boomers and previous generations. I think this results from the rupture that those earlier generations experienced when our urban cores declined. If you read a newspaper interview of someone in that age bracket, you always here the stories about the wonderful things they did in the city when they were younger. It was the land of good factory jobs, the downtown department store where their mothers took them in white gloves for tea, of the tidy neighborhoods, the long standing institutions and rituals – now all lost, virtually all of it. Unsurprisingly, this has turned a lot of people bitter. Many people saw everything they held dear in their communities destroyed, and they were powerless to stop it. These people are never going to be able to enter the Promised Land.

For people about my age or younger, it’s a very different story. None of us knew any of those things. Our experience is totally different. We’ve basically never known a city that wasn’t lost. Gen-X, which Jim Russell views as the heartland of Rust Belt Chic, is a generation defined by alienation, so the alienated urban core suits our temperament perfectly. The Millennials of course have a very different attitude towards cities.

I don’t see any signs of the older generations getting through the grieving process and moving on. This makes me think that for us to fully embrace a true urban policy, even in city government itself, it is going to take generational turnover. The baby boomers are already starting to age, but they’ll be with us a lot longer. Alas, they have historically been the most suburban generation, and not shy about imposing their values, so I suspect we’ll be dealing with that legacy for a while. Still, as time goes on, we’ll have more and more people seeing the city with fresh eyes, and only knowing it when there’s reason for hope and optimism. That by itself will be a building force for change and new directions over time, until the true changing of the guard arrives.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Jim Abbott Tells His "Imperfect" Story

 If you haven't already, check out Flint Expatriate and Central High grad Jim Abbott's excellent book, Imperfect: An Improbable Life. You don't have to love baseball to enjoy this book about Flint, fatherhood, and living a meaningful life. (Although the baseball sections are really great, as well.)
"The lives of many of the breadwinners in the cul-de-sacs and verdant streets near Burroughs Park would change in the 1980s, just as they would all over Flint, when General Motors began boarding up its manufacturing plants. For decades a man in Flint could chart his course from the playground to high school to an assembly line or management job at GM, the path their fathers and grandfathers had taken to middle-class stability. When the jobs disappeared, so too did Flint's hope, and the street corners that had been edgy in my father's youth became strictly off-limits in mine."

Friday, November 23, 2012

Lions Lose...Creatively!

If the purpose of instant replay, which destroys the rhythm of the games and drains all excitement out of the matchups, is to get the calls right, why would you ever negate automatic review because a coach throws the challenge flag? I guess the review isn't "automatic" after all. This one just may be more ridiculous than the tuck rule. How idiotic do NFL rules have to get before people stop watching?

Flint Artifacts: Genesee County American Cancer Society Bike-A-Thon

We could all use a little exercise today.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Color Coordinating in San Francisco

Think your truck is big and impressive? I bet it's not as big and impressive as this Chevrolet Apache I spotted parked in San Francisco's West Portal neighborhood today. And I bet your truck isn't color-coordinated with your house.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Flint Photos: Livin' Large

You may remember this Buick Century wagon from an earlier post in mid August. At one time, it seemed like half the families in Flint owned this impressive ride. Now it appears to be following me around the streets of San Francisco. Or I'm following it, and its two owners, who just might be living in the car.

Flint Expatriate Robert "Bobby" Stanzler, the man who created Made in Detroit, is having a holiday event at Detroit Mercantile, his emporium of all-things-Michigan located in Detroit's Eastern Market.
Metro Times and Detroit Mercantile invite you to attend the Merry Market on December 15th and 16th.

HOLIDAY SHOPPING featuring 20 Detroit and Michigan art, design, vintage, and antique vendors + Detroit Mercantile Company's assortment of new and vintage USA/MI-made items.

FESTIVE BEVERAGES will be available for purchase both days, including Cider, Nog, beer, and liquor libations.

ON-SITE food trucks will be on hand serving lunch and dinner fare for purchase.

A portion of proceeds will benefit a local charity.

FREE admission. Please join us! You're sure to find something for EVERYONE on your list!

Flint School District Debt

The Flint School District is officially facing a $4 million deficit. Sounds bad, but it's actually much worse than that. Blake Thorne of mlive reports that an audit recently revealed that the district is really $11 million in the red.
The budget for the Genesee Area Skill Center is, and has for years, concealed a larger deficit in the district's K-12 general fund, said several board members and Mike Frawley of Yeo & Yeo, the accounting firm which conducted the audit.

The GASC is a vocational program operated by the district but serving students throughout the county and operating as a separate school. 

However, Frawley said, the state considers the deficit to be $4 million and the GASC budget has been allowed to be included in the general fund for more than 30 years.

"We're lying to ourselves," said board member Vera Perry. "We have to stop lying to ourselves and face it head on."
Board member Isiah Oliver agreed, saying the district has to face the deeper structural problems of an $11 million shortfall.

"I'm bothered, not as much at the $11 million, but by the fact that I'm digging to get someone to say that's the reality," Oliver said. "If that's the case, let's just deal with it."

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Dan Kildee Wins

A Kildee will still be representing the Flint area in Congress. This time it's Dan instead of Dale.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Sunday, November 4, 2012

An Interview with Frank Popper about Shrinking Cities, Buffalo Commons, and the Future of Flint

Deborah and Frank Popper

I originally published this interview on April 14, 2010, but the concepts it explores are just as relevant today, especially if you're wondering what  shrinking cities like Flint have in common with remote grazing land in Colorado.

Frank J. Popper is just the person to answer that question. The land-use expert from Chicago is a professor at Rutger’s Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy and teaches regularly in the Environmental Studies Program at Princeton. In 1987 he published an article with his wife, Deborah Popper, a geographer at City University of New York and Princeton University, advocating the creation of what they called the Buffalo Commons. They argued that using the drier portions of the Great Plains for farming and ranching was unsustainable, leading to environmental damage and a dwindling population. Instead, they suggested returning 139,000 square miles of the Great Plains to native prairie where the buffalo could, once again, roam. In short, they wanted to turn parts of ten western states into a vast nature preserve.

Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times called it “the boldest idea in America today…the biggest step to redefine America since the Alaska purchase.” The locals in states like Kansas, Montana and Nebraska were less enthused.

In an interview with Flint Expatriates, Popper discusses death threats, the links between deindustrialization and agricultural decline, the fate of shrinking cities, and the heartless genius of capitalism.

What was the response to the Buffalo Commons idea?

It was extremely negative in the region. Everyone else from outside the region thought it was a great idea. There was a period in the early nineties when we were speaking in the plains five times a year and sooner or later it would emerge that they had hired private detectives to protect us. We had death threats at one meeting that eventually had to be cancelled. If your county is suggested as part of the Buffalo Commons, you’re not going to like it very much.

Have conditions in the Great Plains changed over the years?

The basic conditions that we described in 1987 are either still there or have intensified. But late last year we picked up our first serious editorial endorsement. Two McClatchy papers in Kansas City and Wichita suggested that two counties in western Kansas should become the core of Buffalo Commons National Park, and that elicited a lot of letters from those two counties. But I think over time it will work and we will live to see it.

The emerging ideas about how to deal with shrinking cities like Flint echo a lot of your recommendations from the eighties about how to approach the Great Plains. What’s the connection?

It’s very clear that the industrial decline as it’s still unfolding is almost exactly parallel to the earlier rural decline in the United States. In rural areas, agriculture reached a high point in the late 19th century, and then it started going through a kind of slow motion collapse that the country largely didn’t realize until the dust bowl of the depression. In the 20th century, the industrial sector likewise hits its high point and then started shedding people, only it happened in more urban places like Detroit. The U.S. had these two great cycles play out. And there is the beginning of an argument that the dotcom bust, the mortgage foreclosure crisis and the credit crunch that has now hit a number of sunbelt cities really hard indicates that the information age is beginning to shed people, too. And it’s a largely suburban phenomena so you have a trifecta of decline — rural agricultural, urban industrial, and suburban information age.

Why are cities and regions so reluctant to accept that they are getting smaller?

It’s part of American culture to believe were number one, we grow every year etc., etc. So all of this — whether its Buffalo Commons or shrinking cities — feels very un-American. A lot of people ended up describing Buffalo Commons as manifest destiny in reverse, which kind of makes sense. Shrinking cities could be described as unbuilding cities that all those late 19th-centrury, early 20th-century industrialists and laborers sought to build up. And that hurts for their descendants down the line. It also comes with another sort of sting. Good blue-collar jobs that promised upward mobility have just disappeared.

A population density map of the United States. Click to enlarge

How does America’s approach shrinking cities compare to the rest of the world?

I think the American way is to do nothing until it’s too late, then throw everything at it and improvise and hope everything works. And somehow, insofar as the country’s still here, it has worked. But the European or the Japanese way would involve much more thought, much more foresight, much more central planning, and much less improvising. They would implement a more, shall we say, sustained effort. The American way is different. Europeans have wondered for years and years why cities like Detroit or Cleveland are left to rot on the vine. There’s a lot of this French hauteur when they ask “How’d you let this happen?”

Do shrinking cities have any advantages over agricultural regions as they face declining populations?

The urban areas have this huge advantage over all these larger American regions that are going through this. They have actual governments with real jurisdiction. Corrupt as Detroit or Philadelphia or Camden may be, they have actual governments that are supposed to be in charge of them. Who’s in charge of western Kansas? Who’s in charge of the Great Plains? Who is in charge of the lower Mississippi Delta or central Appalachia? All they’ve got are these distant federal agencies whose past performance is not exactly encouraging.

Why wasn’t there a greater outcry as the agricultural economy and the industrial economy collapsed?

One reason for the rest of the country not to care is that there’s no shortage of the consumer goods that these places once produced. All this decline of agriculture doesn’t mean we’re running out of food. We’ve got food coming out of our ears. Likewise, Flint has suffered through all this, but it’s not like it’s hard to buy a car in this country. It’s not as if Flint can behave like a child and say “I’m going to hold my nose and stop you from getting cars until you do the right thing.” Flint died and you can get zero A.P.R. financing. Western Kansas is on its last legs and, gee, cereal is cheaper than ever.

In some sense that’s the genius of capitalism — it’s heartless. But if you look at the local results and the cultural results and the environmental results you shake your head. But I don’t see America getting away from what I would call a little sarcastically the “wisdom” of the market. I don’t think it’s going to change.

So is there any large-scale economic fallout from these monumental changes?

Probably not, and it hurts to say so. And the only way I can feel good about saying that is to immediately point to the non-economic losses, the cultural losses. The losses of ways of life. The notion of the factory worker working for his or her children. The notion of the farmer working to build up the country and supply the rest of the world with food. We’re losing distinctive ways of life. When we lose that we lose something important, but it’s not like The Wall Street Journal cares. And I feel uncomfortable saying that. From a purely economic point of view, it’s just the price of getting more efficient. It’s a classic example of Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction, which is no fun if you’re on the destruction end.

Does the decline of cities like Flint mirror the death of the middle class in the United States?

I think it’s more the decline of the lower-middle class in the United States. Even when those jobs in the auto factories paid very high wages they were still for socially lower-middle-class people. I think there was always the notion in immigrant families and working-class families who worked in those situations that the current generation would work hard so that the children could go off and not have to do those kind of jobs. And when those jobs paid well that was a perfectly reasonable ambition. It’s the cutting off of that ambition that really hurts now. The same thing has been true on farms and ranches in rural parts of the united states.

The basic premise of shrinking cities resonates with a lot of people, but there’s not a lot detail in the plan. Is this a concern?

The shrinking city approach is really the core of what’s needed to improve these places. I guess what I see is an emerging movement that’s improvising every step of the way, often under extreme political pressure. My sense is that it’s sort of like Boris Yeltsin in the ‘90s, making it up as he goes along because he has no other options. That’s not meant as a criticism at all. Cities like Flint and Detroit have gotten so desperate that a lot of policy Hail Mary’s are necessary. And it’s hard in an era of budget shortfalls, but part of the process will be figuring out what does and doesn’t work. The shrinking city [concept] is sufficiently new that things will be discovered on the fly. And this is not uncommon. My impression is that that’s how the Civil War was fought; that’s how the New Deal was created. It’s how NASA operated in the 1960s, which is thought of as a sort of golden age. This is not an unusual situation.

What about the prospect of a single business or industry moving into a shrinking city and reviving it?

In none of these cities — including the Southern and European ones — is there any hope whatsoever of a serious new industry coming. I think I can say that categorically.

Will relocating residents to a more viable central urban core work?

When you’re talking about many of these neighborhoods, you’re talking about really poor people who are not likely to move. We’ve tried this at different times and different places in this country, and I don’t think any of them were shining points in American history. It evokes all that 1950s urban renewal stuff which didn’t work, but we keep trying to do anyway. More likely is that you’ll get this reversion to a more rural feel to parts of the city, maybe even a suburban feel. That could provide some form of stability for the city. It could even be a retirement option for some people.

Care to make a prediction of how this approach will play out in cities like Flint?

I think a few neighborhoods will benefit and things will turn around precisely because the upside of the shrinking city plan — the green economics, the growth of small retail — will work. But the really poor places, the worst neighborhoods, they’ve got real problems, as they always have. I would worry about the really poor ones. I don’t know what will happen to places like that, and I’m not of good conscience about it.

This is the second in a series of interviews with urban planners and land-use experts. Go here to read the Flint Expatriates interview with Terry Schwarz, interim director of the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative at Kent State University.

Calling Woody Woods

If Woody Woods of Touch Boutique fame is out there, shoot me an email. I have some old friends from Mexico who want to get in touch.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Happy Birthday, Big Mama!

It's time to wish Pat Young — our most loyal reader and contributor — a happy birthday. She was born at Hurley Hospital in 1930 and graduated from Flint Central in 1947. She stays in great shape by restraining her highly trained attack dog, Rob Roy, and writing about old Flint, the Sill Building, and etiquette lessons. Happy birthday, Mom!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

2012 World Series: Just Walk Away

Many readers have mentioned that they would like an original painting to commemorate the 2012 World Series. Well, I may have found just the thing, courtesy of artists Michael Dumontier and Neil Farber.