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


  1. Other cities somehow manage to cover up the serious problems happening in their cities, insinuating that a mayor can somehow cause the problems to go away, and that particular cities are getting better.

    CBS Radio Station WINS in NYC recently interviewed a Newark, NJ resident, who told it like it is. WINS promptly took down the video, but it has gone viral on youtube.

    Almost all big cities are having MAJOR problems. Not just Flint. Don't let other cities hide their problems at Flint's expense.


  2. ... Zeitgeist reminds me of the Skylark in Chicago. If yer ever in Chiraq you should hit it up.


  3. Crime in San Francisco.

    Flint. Coming soon to a city near you.


    1. What in the world are you talking about? An assault in SF foretells a Flint future for the city by the bay? C'mon, SF is a big city. Violence occurs in all big cities. Besides, before SF reaches Flint levels it would have to "become" Indianapolis and then Philly and then Hotlanta and then Gary and then St. Louis.

    2. Other Michigan cities in Michigan are "centric" in a POSITIVE way, often to the point of being OBNOXIOUS. Flint is "centric" in a NEGATIVE way. Unless you move away, even to the next county, you can't usually see your "centricity". Many large cities have very SERIOUS crime problems, and the cities and media cover it up. The story cited has not made national news, nor have scores or recent similar incidents in many cities in recent weeks. People who bring it up are faced with denials and name calling. Flint people have to get over the idea that they are somehow different or worse than the rest of the country. Flint and Detroit are the only cities that seriously consider this tear down philosophy. The rest of the country sees their own cover ups and just laugh at us in Michigan.

    3. Actually Youngstown also seriously considered a large scale teardown approach, but decided against it.

      I agree though that Flint and Detroit are being honest about issues, and lots of other places aren't. I think that'll stand us in good stead eventually.

    4. Get Your Booty LickedSeptember 13, 2013 at 4:30 PM

      uhhhh... Flint IS worse than the rest of the country. Look at the FBI Uniform Crime Statistics. We are perennial top 10 for violent crime, arson, rape, and homicide.

      As for your "teardown theory", smart management of shrinking cities (including demolition) is a strategy that has been successfully utilized throughout the world.


      As for your line- "The rest of the country sees their own cover ups and just laugh at us in Michigan." uhhhh... whattday mean?

    5. The rest of the country is even more morally corrupt even than Flint or Detroit. They figure out loopholes to avoid reporting crime. One trick has been that if the person dies in the hospital and not at the scene, it's not counted as murder. Another trick could be to move or hide the bodies of the homeless or drifters. Then they may be counted as missing if anyone notices and reports it as such.

      After watching the video of the lady in Newark, it's a breath of fresh air. The police chief led the woman away from the reporter and the radio website took the video down. It's still available on youtube. I'm not saying that Flint or Detroit or Saginaw are safer, just not comparatively as bad as other cities as the statistics suggest. There was a book, and it's still available, called "How To Lie With Statistics", and I think other cities are making themselves look better on paper. There have been many violent crimes in many other cities that have been covered up, like beatings, that the police didn't charge and the media failed to report. This is particularly true when teenagers are involved. There are youth crime diversion programs in some cities that make these school discipline issues rather than criminal issues. A beating may be disguised as school fighting, for instance.

  4. San Francisco Main Library-Man Arrested After Chair Attack


  5. I dunno what yer getting at but these comparisons are silly. San Francisco has 8 times the population of Flint, but had fewer homicides in 2011.

    Flint IS different. It is a matter of degree. Crime is much, much worse here.

  6. San Francisco has a convenient twin city to shift its crime to, called Oakland. And many western cities have hundreds of square miles to dilute their crime statistics over. I'm sure there is a 34 square mile area in many of those cities that rivals Flint statistically. Consider that Flint only takes up a little more than 5% of the area of Genesee County. Many cities now include an entire county. So no matter which way you slice it, using those statistics people talk about is comparing apples to oranges. I see that Oakland is ranked #3 for crime on certain lists. I'm not saying that Flint is safe by any means. Just that being #1 on so many lists is mainly a function of the city limits arbitrary definition, and annexation laws that restrict them that differ from other states. Beyond that, there is a lot of corruption in the way crime is reported or not reported in many cities.

    1. Not trying to be snarky, but these crime rankings are based on per capita measurements, so these cities do NOT rival Flint on a per capita basis. Flint simply has more crime. And at 34 sq. miles, Flint is not exactly small. Sure, cities like Jacksonville, Florida take up the entire county, but you could take the worst 34 sq. mile section of almost any big city (area wise) in America and Flint would still have a higher per capita crime rate. Not sure what your angle here is? Yes, lots of cities have crime, but Flint has the most, per capita. Even Oakland's crime rate is lower than Flint's on a per capita basis. And do you really believe that Flint isn't cooking the stats to artificially lower crime?

  7. Zero murders in Grand Blanc or Fenton 2000-2010. I guess if we could just include crime and crime rates for the entire county, we could compare that to the crime rates in other cities with metropolitan government. Otherwise, with comparable city limits, Flint would be just an unsafe city, but certainly nowhere near #1. And the whole county would look fairly good on paper as a metropolitan government.

  8. Not trying to be snarky, but a greater area would also have more people. Keep in mind that more than 75 percent of the population of Genesee County resides outside of Flint. The surrounding four townships have as many people as Flint has. Unless we have the crime statistics for the whole county available, or other larger area, we can't make that calculation easily. I don't think your argument is correct, but I have yet to find the numbers I need to prove it. I would say that 34 square miles is quite small by today's standards.

  9. There are 153 cities in the US with more than twice the area of Flint, or more than 70 square miles. That's as big a list as I could find so far. In 1930, Flint was around the 50th largest city in the US in population, its highest rank in its history. It is now down somewhere near 300. Population of the surrounding four townships, including the City of Mt. Morris, was 108,096, vs. Flint population of 102,434 in 2010. I will attempt to find statistics for these. It may be a while. Genesee County population including Flint was 425,790, more than 50,000 more than in 1960, when Flint's population peaked at 196,940. So the outlying townships now have more people than the central four townships and Flint combined. Most of that is concentrated around Grand Blanc, Fenton, Davison, and other substantial suburbs. I do not think 2012 estimates are reliable outside Flint, given that they consider the outlying areas as losing population at the same rate as Flint. Outward migration within the county is still substantial.

  10. OK, here we go.

    From mlive interactive map, looking at murder and non negligent manslaughter.

    Flint 63
    Burton 1
    Flint Twp. 2
    Mt. Morris Twp. 2
    Mt. Morris 0
    Genesee Twp. 0

    Murder rate Flint 63/102434=61.5 per 100000
    Murder rate Flint plus surrounding four townships including Mt. Morris City 68/210000=32.4 per 100000
    Murder rate of surrounding four townships including Mt. Morris City alone=4.6 per 100000

    This dramatically shows the effect of annexation on crime statistics. Now that 34 square miles that is Flint is bad, but even that differs substantially in different parts of the city.

    New York and Chicago have much denser populations, so the murder numbers per square mile may be higher compared to Flint also.

    Remember that book "How To Lie With Statistics"? BTW, it is a real book and it is available on line.

  11. Continuing onto the rest of the outlying townships and cities, the mlive interactive map shows only one more murder or non negligent homicide, in Thetford Township. Some townships do not have data, but given the fact that only one entity had a murder, the number is probably zero for the rest also. So the total county murder rate per 100000 persons would be

    69/425,790=16.2 per 100000

    The whole county area is comparable to many metropolitan governments, and large area cities nationwide.

  12. Interactive map link from September 18, 2013 Saginaw News


  13. Social media founders and other internet media consultants are buying up houses in San Francisco and driving housing prices, rents, and taxes sky high driving the less fortunate out of the city.

    There was this kid at U of M-Flint that always used to say, "the way I figure it,, things are tough all over". I guess he was right.



    1. Definitely happening. But a rising market also enables people with big mortgages that are nearly overwhelming to refinance and get a better deal. It also enables homeowners of modest or fixed incomes who have some equity in their homes to get home improvement loans to do work on their house. It also enables longtime homeowners of modest incomes a chance to sell their home and make a bundle. I see this happening all over on my block, along with the well-off techies buying houses for way too much money. It's also interesting that the folks often complaining the loudest about gentrification are those who gentrified the neighborhoods 20 years ago.So, like many economic issues, this one is a lot more complicated than it appears. I don't like seeing my neighborhood become less diverse, but the overspending techies made it possible for me to refinance and allowed some of my neighbors a chance to cash in.

  14. Sounds a lot like "a rising tide floats all boats", Gordie, and the "trickle down economics" of sometime California Governor Ronald Reagan. Strange how some wouldn't buy into that in Flint, but they would in San Francisco, even during a Governor Jerry Brown era of California Politics. Oh well, maybe there's abundant oil and gas reserves under the "Teardown" areas of Flint, and all boats will rise again.

    1. Anonymous, read my comment again. At no point did I endorse "trickle down economics" or the notion that "a rising tide lifts all boats," or even "gentrification." My point is that when people try to talk about economics and complex social trends they get into real trouble when they start throwing around vague, almost meaningless terms like the ones I just mentioned.

      Again, who are the gentrifiers and who are the non-gentrifiers in a place like San Francisco? It's really tough to figure it out. One of my elderly neighbors has lived in the nabe for 50 years. She owns a house outright that is probably worth more than a million dollars now. Her net worth is now higher than many other people on the block. Definitely higher than mine. In numerous conversations with her, she has never complained about "gentrification." Instead, she has remarked repeatedly how nice the neighborhood is now and expressed relief that she no longer has bars on her windows and can walk to a nearby grocery store. She's even conveyed that she's happy knowing her kids will inherit a valuable piece of property when she's gone.

      Then there are college-educated creative types — another vague term but what the hell — who grouse that the "techies" are ruining the hood by driving up prices and importing their bland, white bread culture. It's worth noting that to the naked eye the techies look suspiciously like the creative types doing the complaining. The creative types base their right to complain on the fact they moved in five or ten years before the techies. Both drove up the cost of real estate — and the equity of existing homeowners — and both made the neighborhood safer and nicer looking. And both made it tougher for people like my elderly neighbor to move into the neighborhood.

      So there's no doubt when people with money — mostly white people in SF — descend on a neighborhood it changes things. Some of the change is, in my opinion, for the worse. My neighborhood is definitely less diverse and more uptight than it was ten years ago. At the same time, I have several neighbors who have been in the area a long time who embrace the changes and are glad it happened. It seems like the people complaining the loudest are the first wave of gentrifiers, folks who have money, but not as much money as the new gentrifiers.

      So in my typical unsatisfying way, I was merely pointing out that this question gets very complicated and hard to measure or figure out. But I'm highly suspicious of anyone who claims to know the answers to issues like this when they rely on vague terms and labels to advance a very hazy argument. And I say this as someone who strongly believes that growing income inequality is the gravest problem facing the United States right now. I'm just not sure some middle manager at a tech firm with two kids buying an overpriced house in SF is the real problem. It's more likely the head of his tech firm and the team of lobbyists he or she employs. But I digress.

    2. Gordie, did you read your own comment immediately preceding mine? You talk about a rising market, and the less fortunate people benefitting from it. In this case, they may be only a little less fortunate, or they might be renters of properties about to be sold out from under them, after which their rents may go way up, or they may perhaps go condominium and be way out of their price range. No, you did not use the exact same terms, but it all amounts to the same thing. The rising tide may benefit the slightly less fortunate, they may sell or qualify for bigger loans, and the wealth may trickle down to them, but those renters will not realize the same benefits, which is what many others will concentrate on. This kind of reminds me of a real estate agent that was selling properties in Leonard, Michigan. I said, "is that near Lapeer County?". She said, "No, No, don't you know anything about real estate, you never tell anyone that a property is near Lapeer County." Look at a map with county lines if you don't know where Leoanard is.

    3. The worst problems facing us are the ones by which I personally am adversely affected.

      Those problems are the fault of people unlike me...the more unlike me, the greater the blame.

      National problems are important, too, especially if they adversely affect me.

  15. Even at 61.5 per 100000, Flint ranks behind the 2011 murder rates of four ENTIRE COUNTRIES, including Honduras, El Salvador, and Venezuela. Still not good, but we're looking at just 34 square miles, of which perhaps half is well below the other half.

  16. Torrey Hammerberg XIIOctober 20, 2013 at 10:57 AM

    John Truscott is a guest writer in the October 20, 2013 edition of The Detroit Free Press/The Detroit News. Today's article is about Consolidation and Metropolitan Government, which makes some of the points discussed in the above comments. I was amused by the notion that further consolidation could be done in Grand Rapids, making he city the largest in the state, a point that is technically correct but statistically ridiculous.


  17. Torrey Hammerberg XIIOctober 20, 2013 at 11:12 AM

    Another good discussion about annexation. Perhaps we should calculate the murder rates based on the population of the area that each city encompassed in 1950, which would be more comparable to Flint and Detroit. I bet they would fall out of the #1 and #2 positions they occupy at the very least.

    Increase in the area size of US cities since 1950.


  18. Torrey Hammerberg XIIOctober 20, 2013 at 11:13 AM

    I don't know if I included the original link.


  19. Torrey Hammerberg XIIOctober 21, 2013 at 7:48 AM

    Current Area-Area Annexed Since 1950=1950 Area

    Toledo 84.2-42.4=43.8
    Fort Wayne 110.8-91.8=19.0
    Columbus 223.1-177.8=45.3

    While some cities want to tear down, others annex!

    Annexation is a touchy subject apparently. It was difficult to find this online. You would have to go to a library and pore over each US Census report to find some of this. What these cities don't want you to know is that their apparent growth and success and lower crime statistics is largely due to annexation. Even the relative success of Grand Rapids compared to other Michigan cities is largely attributable to the annexation of 21 square miles in 1960. You have to go into planning knowing these facts.

  20. It's official! This is the most boring comment thread in the history of Flint Expats.

    Dude, we get it. You support annexation, even though none of the communities being annexed would ever agree to it. We got it! You've made your points clear. Please stop now.

    And to the other dude, or maybe its the same annexation dude, we understand that there is crime in other places besides Flint. Thank you for that startling observation. We got it. No need to state it in a different but equally boring way. Point taken.

    What's bizarre is that this is a post about a bar! I pray I'm never in a bar with such blowhards.

    1. I wondered when someone was going to throw a grenade into this fruit bowl. Man, there's apples, bananas and grapes all over the place.

    2. unclebuck, you said it. Don't forget the oranges. Sable Pelt was clearly pushed to the limit! And I thought this post would elicit ribald tales of heavy boozing in bars like Zeitgeist. Boy was I wrong.

    3. Torrid Love RhombusOctober 23, 2013 at 3:36 PM

      If Flint annexed the rest of the entire United States our homicide rate would match the nation's average.

    4. For those of you that didn't study Latin or Law, Torrid Love Rhombus' argument is known as "reductio ad absurdum". For the rest of you that don't see what's going on here, read Saul Alinsky's Rule #5.

    5. > If Flint annexed the rest of the entire United States <

      I like that optimistic, big-thinking spirit.

  21. We'd live the life we choose
    We'd fight and never lose
    For we were young and sure to have our way.
    La la la la...

    Mary Hopkin-Those Were The Days

    Based on a Russian Folk Song, in response to a person who calls themselves Sable Pelt, a Russian Folk Coat Material. How ironic that Sable Pelt would be offended by arguing about politics in a Bar, which "Those Were The Days" alludes to in those lyrics.

    When I see the words "Tear Down" as if it was the only option, I am forced to disagree and show you exactly how other cities have dealt with their problems, and how they can statistically appear better on paper due to annexation. If Flint is completely torn down and disincorporated, will you declare victory in such a defeat, when others came up with a better solution?

    Get your Sable Pelt out tonight. Much of the area is predicted to freeze!

    1. Sable Pelt, before you venture into the night, you need to watch this for the full effect:

    2. Great song, by the way. Haven't heard it in a long time and it does sound like a potential Flint theme song. Thanks, anonymous.


Thanks for commenting. 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 www.teardownbook.com.