Sunday, September 29, 2013

Valencia and Flint, Michigan Attempt to Iron Out the Design Wrinkles

Repairs have begun on Santiago Calatrava's opera house in Valencia, Spain to smooth out the wrinkles on its white exterior. (Photo by Samuel Aranda for The New York Times.)

 If it makes you feel any better, we are not alone.

Valencia, Spain's third-largest city, has been hard hit by the recent worldwide economic downturn. Like Flint, it has an unemployment rate pushing 30 percent. And like the controversial "floating house" in the Vehicle City, it has a high-profile design project in the heart of the city that is unexpectedly wrinkly.

Granted, Valencia's troubles are on a much grander scale. The City of Arts and Sciences is a new multi-building cultural complex in Valencia that includes "a performance hall, an opera house, a science museum, a covered walkway and acres of reflecting pools," according to a recent article in The New York Times. It is the work of architect Santiago Calatrava, who is known for his stunning vision and, lately, his cost-overruns and design flaws. The City of Arts and Sciences was originally priced at $405 million. The pricetag is now inching toward $1 billion.

Modest by comparison, Flint's controversial "floating house" resides in a downtown parking lot and is the winning design in the international Flat Lot Competition sponsored by the Flint Public Art Project. The house — designed by a London- and Madrid-based firm called Two Islands — has been criticized by some residents for its $40,000 pricetag and its wrinkled Mylar exterior. Calatrava's work has drawn similar criticism. Suzanne Daley of The New York Times reports: 
Here in Valencia, the regional government’s spending spree and Mr. Calatrava’s work are being dissected and disparaged regularly as local politicians fight over who is responsible for the project’s pile of debt. Regional officials had hoped that the complex would transform this city into a tourist destination, in much the way that Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao put that city on the map, and they continue to defend the investment. But they appeared to draw a line last year when the smooth skin of Mr. Calatrava’s opera house — some call it the Darth Vader helmet — began noticeably wrinkling just six years after the building opened.
At least critics of the floating house can take solace in knowing that it has sparked a vigorous debate over the impact of public art in civic life and fostered intense discussions about the esoteric nature of beauty in a city normally consumed with tackling blight and abandonment. It was privately funded. And unlike Flint's seemingly intractable economic problems, the floating house is a temporary structure. It will soon disappear, wrinkles and all.

Flint's wrinkled public art project has drawn complaints from some locals.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Flint Photos: Capitol Theater

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Color-Coded Shrinking City

A map used in the City of Flint master planning process reveals the extent of abandonment and sub-standard housing in the Civic Park neighborhood. Go here for the master plan map gallery. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Calling Dustin Hoffman

Talk about journalism dream jobs...Plastics News in Detroit is hiring!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Flint Photos: Downtown Flint in the Fifties

Friday, September 20, 2013

Powers and St. John Vianney Students Unite in Flint

ABC 12 – WJRT – Flint, MI

The impact of Powers Catholic High School relocating to the City of Flint can be measured in many ways. The high school has already partnered with Kettering University and UM-Flint to enable Powers kids to take classes at the two universities. And it offers another anchor for the city's core, linking St. John Vianney School with Kettering and Powers. It's another incremental improvement in Flint that I hope will help the city make the slow climb to stability.

Go here for information on how you can help support Powers.

Flint Photos: A View of Chevy in the Hole from Powers High's Fay Hall

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Abandoned: The Corner of Humboldt and W. Rankin in Flint, Michigan

 September 2013

December 2010

June 2010

Flint Photos: Bassett Place

It appears the scrappers have finally descended on my childhood home on Bassett Place in Flint's historic Civic Park neighborhood.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Floating the Idea of Public Art in Flint

"Popularity is the crown of laurel which the world puts on bad art. Whatever is popular is wrong."  
— Oscar Wilde

"The best that one can say of most modern creative art is that it is just a little less vulgar than reality." 
— Oscar Wilde 

The floating house in Flint as the designers originally envisioned it.

It is with some trepidation that I wade into the controversy over Flint's floating house, which, depending on who you ask, is either a bold artistic reflection of the Vehicle City's current reality or a high-profile example of money poorly spent. It currently resides in the parking lot across from the soon-to-be-demolished Genesee Towers and the Art Deco splendor of the Mott Foundation Building in downtown Flint.

Regardless of what you think of this paean to plywood and Mylar, one thing is clear — Flintoids are a very tough audience. And they aren't shy about voicing their opinions. Can you blame them? Given the misfortune that has befallen the birthplace of General Motors, residents have a very short fuse. And the tragedy of a shrinking city is that the allocation of precious resources is the fundamental issue that animates civic life. There simply isn't enough money to go around.

It's hard for residents to embrace a $40,000 public art project when budget cuts have forced the closure of the police station on weekends in a city that's considered the most-dangerous place in America, according to FBI crime statistics. Even though the project was funded with outside grants and an online fundraising campaign — not money from the city — it's easy to imagine how else the money could have been spent. This isn't a very creative example, but that's enough cash to demolish four abandoned, burned out houses in Civic Park. It's also enough to put a few Flint kids through Mott Community College and provide a shot at a better life.

Blake Thorne, who has been covering the story for Mlive, details how the floating house was built in a city that has lost more than 100,000 residents over the last 50 years:
The project is the result of the first ever Flat Lot Competition, a design contest that launched last fall, organized by the Flint Public Art project and the Flint chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Founded in 2010 and headquartered in Flint's Carriage Town neighborhood, the Flint Public Art Project was launched and headed up by Flint native and New York City resident Stephen Zacks. The group has been building momentum by putting on art projects and events, like lighting Genesee Towers for a dance party and hosting an art fair at the abandoned Chevy in the Hole site.

According to the rules of the Flat Lot Competition, the winner would get a $25,000 budget to make a temporary structure that met three stipulations. The design needed artistic merit and to be aesthetically pleasing; the team behind it needed to be able to build the structure within the awarded budget; and the piece needed to interest and engage the public.

About 220 entries from more than 35 countries poured in. But to the organizers, one stood out.They called it "Mark's House."

The plan was for a piece that told the story "of an imagined Flint resident named Mark Hamilton whose family loses his home to foreclosure. The pavilion appears as a Tudor-style house that appears suspended in mid-air, reflecting the city that surrounds it....The pavilion is a literal and figurative reflection of the city it is located in," Zacks said at the time.
The winning design came from a London- and Madrid-based firm called Two Islands, founded and composed of William Villalobos, Cesc Massanas, and Tom Selva.
“The city of Flint and the competition organizers have given us a great opportunity to create a forward-looking project,” Villalobos said after their design was chosen.
The wrinkly reality of the completed floating house in downtown Flint.

On a superficial level, it doesn't help that the real floating house looks decidedly less polished and impressive than the original proposal that won the prize. Instead of a sleek house of mirrors, Flint residents found a lot of wrinkly Mylar. Things got even dicier when photos surfaced on the web that made the house look a lot better than the real thing. Once again, Blake Thorne explains:
With the project complete, the structure began getting attention. Architecture and design blogs began picking up the story, even the popular technology website Gizmodo ran a story.
But Flint residents noticed something odd about the photos in these sites. The house in the online pictures didn't look anything like what they'd seen in their own town. One commenter on the Gizmodo site wrote, "Here's what it actually looks like ... pretty wrinkly."

The questioned photos were taken for FPAP and Two Islands by Linden-based photographer Gavin Smith in late August.

Smith said he didn't do any post-production work on the photos, an assignment he described as basically a favor.

"I just took the photo," he said.

After looking at more recent, unprofessional photos of the piece, Smith said he agrees there's a big difference.

But the structure did look much less wrinkly in person when he shot his photos, he said. He thinks maybe the weather that day had a way of smoothing out the Mylar.

"It was heated up and had snapped back into place," Smith said.
The floating house looking suspiciously wrinkle-free in a publicity shot for the designers.

If the goal of public art is to spark discussion, then the floating house is a huge success. (Check out the comments on this story about the project by Mlive's Scott Atkinson.) And there's no denying Stephen Zachs' devotion to his hometown. The Flint Public Art Project has brought inspired outsiders to the city to collaborate with local residents and foster a creative spirit in a city that at times can feel cursed by fate and complex global economic trends. As a Flint Expatriate who has struggled to figure out a way to contribute something to the place where four generations of my family lived, I'm thankful that so many artists and designers have come to Flint to try and help. Zachs deserves credit for working so hard to be a part of the place where he was raised. He never gave up on his hometown.

My primary interaction with the floating house came last Tuesday on a hot, sunny day in Flint. I'd just delivered a somewhat rambling talk to a group of creative writing students at U of M. I couldn't help worrying about the future of these would-be writers who were learning a challenging, often discouraging craft in a troubled city. I got takeout at Blackstone's and was cutting across the steamy parking lot to my car when I decided to stop under the floating house to eat my late lunch. No, it didn't look like the sleek images of the proposed project I'd seen online. It was a little worse for wear and parts of it were pealing off in the heat. But it was a shady, welcoming spot. And even though I was well aware of all the alternative ways the money could have been spent, it was gratifying to sit in the middle of downtown Flint and know that the house was a very real sign that there were a lot of people out there who still gave a damn about Flint. It wasn't perfect, but the house was a reminder that the city I love isn't dead yet.

Interview with "Teardown" Author Gordon Young

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

"Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City" Book Tour Schedule

Friday, September 13, 2013
Q & A and Book Signing
Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative
1309 Euclid Ave.
Cleveland, Ohio

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Flint's Rep. Dan Kildee on the Colbert Report

It takes more than a knife-wielding comedian to scare a congressman from Flint. Go here to see Dan Kildee on the Colbert Report.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Zeitgeist and "Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City" by Gordon Young

Several readers have asked about Zeitgeist, the San Francisco bar where the dream of reconnecting with Flint really took shape. Here are a few photos of the dive that promises "Warm Beer/Cold Women" and an excerpt from Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City.

It’s fitting that the notion of buying a house in Flint began to take shape in a bar, like so many other ill-formed and potentially disastrous ideas. I played basketball every Saturday morning at the Mission Playground in San Francisco. A collection of players would retire after the game to the grimy gravel patio of Zeitgeist, a dumpy bar that has the trappings of a tough dive without the credentials to back it up. Yes, people who ride motorcycles hang out there, but so do aging punk rockers, bike messengers, assorted hipsters, uninhibited pot smokers, and the occasional yuppie types slumming from the more upscale Marina District, all united in the desire to start drinking at 1 p.m. on a Saturday or as soon as the morning fog burns off. The Zeitgeist motto showed that it didn’t take itself too seriously: “Warm Beer / Cold Women.”

Although our gang of mediocre basketball players was a mixture of native Californians, Midwest transplants, and a few Texans, we were all conditioned by the exorbitant cost of local real estate, even in the midst of the Great Recession. In 2008, a few players were unsuccessfully trying to buy houses, and they were frustrated by the fact that a down market meant a two-bedroom house in a decent San Francisco neighborhood was now going for $775,000 instead of $800,000. The minor drop in price was offset by stiffer mortgage requirements that demanded 20 percent down. “Can you imagine writing a check for $160,000?” one of my friends asked. It was a big shift from the easy-
to-find, no-money-down, interest-only loans that were prevalent just a short time earlier. The kind of loans that enabled Traci and me to buy our house and pushed the planet to the brink of economic collapse.

After a few beers, I inevitably began regaling the Zeitgeist crew with tales of Flint gleaned from my blog, both depressing and uplifting. There was the one about the family who posted a “No Ho Zone” sign in their yard to ward off the neighborhood prostitutes. Or the retired blues musician who was nurturing a huge garden on the vacant lot near his home. And of course there were stories about all the Flint houses going for pocket change on eBay with the option of buying them by the dozen, like the jelly rolls I used to love at Dawn Donuts. With a little cocktail napkin math, we determined that I could own a Flint house for the cost of our bar tab. Wild speculation ensued. I could snap up a house in Flint, quit my job, and survive on the freelance income Traci and I could generate once we were freed from San Francisco’s exorbitant cost of living. I would be embarking on a grand adventure and helping Flint at the same time. Or I could buy a few Flint houses, rehab them, then rent them out—stabilizing the local housing market and making a modest profit at the same time. Or I could improve the city by transforming a junker into a summer house, allowing me to reconnect with Flint without abandoning San Francisco. Or instead of giving money to charity, why not buy a house, make it livable, and give it away to a needy family? The ideas came fast and furious, and the possibilities were intoxicating, perhaps because we were often intoxicated.

My friend M.G. understood the appeal of a Flint house. He grew up in a small town in the suburbs of Los Angeles, the kind of close-knit place where you could return books to the police station if the library was closed. He had no desire to ever live there again, but he liked the idea of it enduring more or less as he remembered it. Being a homeowner meant something to M.G. His father had immigrated from Iran, where property symbolized wealth and success. His mother was on her own at an early age, paying rent in San Francisco when she was only sixteen, so a house equaled stability and security. While I was still parsing my feelings about Flint, my motivation was fairly obvious to M.G., regardless of how many pitchers we’d finished off. 

“I think you’re selling yourself on something,” he told me one Saturday after he’d bummed a cigarette off three women at a nearby table. “You’re selling yourself this ideal of small-town America being feasible in a world that’s constantly changing. It’s a real possibility that the kind of towns we grew up in are going to disappear. They aren’t going to exist anymore. A house in Flint is your way of trying to hang on to something from your past that’s important to you.”

Leave it to a tipsy Persian-Irish guy from LA who had never been to the Midwest to sum up my feelings about Flint. As I unsteadily rode my old Schwinn home that day, I started to believe a house would be the best way to forge a connection with Flint and do my part to preserve the city I remembered, or what was left of it. I could make this happen. I could go home again.

Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City

Monday, September 2, 2013

Flint Postcards: Chevy in the Hole at Night

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Flint Artifacts: Deep Purple at Atwood Stadium, August 18, 1985

Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City by Gordon Young

On Sunday, Mark and I toured his grandparents’ old neighborhood. We slowly rolled up and down the street. There were a few abandoned houses and the charred remains of a big two-story that was probably the victim of an arsonist. We stopped in front of the house where Mark’s mom grew up, and I jumped out to take a picture. A neighbor’s door immediately flew open. A big white guy stepped out onto his front porch.

“What the fuck are you guys doing?” he asked, sounding more exasperated than angry. He looked tired.

“We’re just taking a picture of the old neighborhood,” I yelled back, embarrassed that I’d needlessly alarmed another nervous Flint resident.

He turned and walked slowly back inside his house. As we were driving away, I looked back and saw him watching us through his front window. An encounter like this might have angered me the previous summer, prompting me to declare that this was still my city and I had a right to be here. But I understood the place better now. I didn’t blame the guy. He was probably just trying to unwind on a Sunday morning, hoping for a chance to let his guard down. I wondered if he ever wanted to quote Bukowski and just say “Life, fuck it!” and escape to California for a few weeks of relaxation in an apartment overlooking the Pacific, like Jan and Ted.

It seemed like a good time to end our Sunday drive in Flint. Mark needed to get back to his wife and young son in Grosse Pointe. “I’m really glad my grandparents aren’t around to see this,” he said as we passed another burned-out house, turned the corner, and drove away.

Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City