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