If you're looking for the heart, humor, and, at times, horror of Flint, Michigan — and cities like it all over the country — look no further than these five non-fiction books.
Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line by Ben Hamper
I was assigned to the Cab Shop, an area more commonly known to its inhabitants as the Jungle. Lifers had told me that on a scale from one to ten — with one representing midtown Pompeii and ten being then GM Chairman Roger Smith's summer home — the Jungle rates about a minus six.
"It wasn't difficult to see how they had come up with the name for the place. Ropes, wires and assorted black rubber cables drooped down and entangled everything. Sparks shot out in all direction — bouncing in the aisles, flying into the rafters and even ricocheting off the natives' heads. The noise level was deafening. It was like some hideous unrelenting tape loop of trains having sex. I realized instantly that, as far as new homes go, the Jungle left a lot to be desired. Me Tarzan, you screwed.
Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City by Gordon Young
I was headed to a vacant house owned by a friend of mine named Rich. Like me, he had grown up in Flint and eventually moved to San Francisco, where we met. He owned three “investment” properties in Flint, although the fact that all of them were empty indicated they weren’t exactly generating a lot of income. He had happily agreed to let me crash at one of them. “It’s good to have it look like there’s someone actually living there,” he had told me. “It keeps the thieves from stealing the plumbing.”
It took me a while to find the house because downtown still had an inexplicable number of confusing one-way streets, an unnecessary remnant of the days when growth and good fortune meant traffic congestion. I’d also never spent much time in the Carriage Town neighborhood. It was unfamiliar terrain when I lived in Flint, a neighborhood to avoid unless you were in the market for drugs, hookers, or an ass kicking.
Rich’s sister, Berniece, was there to greet me when I finally arrived. She still lived in Flint. Although we’d never met, she showed me around the house like I was an old friend, presenting a very practical housewarming gift—a four-pack of toilet paper. She seemed worried about me, offering advice like “Don’t let anybody you don’t know into the house” and “Be careful who you talk to on the street.” I tried to reassure her that I knew how to take care of myself. I was from Flint, after all. But I sensed that my San Francisco pedigree, the new Patagonia shirt with lots of snaps and pockets that I’d bought for the trip, and my teal-striped Pumas were undermining my street cred.
Before I try to pawn myself off as a minor-league George Orwell writing a Rust Belt version of Down and Out in Paris and London, I should point out that Rich’s house wasn’t as rundown as many in the neighborhood. It was the well-preserved former home of Charles W. Nash, the president of GM in 1912 and founder of Nash Motors. It was just across the street from the Durant-Dort Office Building, the beautifully restored birthplace of GM. Unlike many of Flint’s empty structures, the Nash House had luxuries like plumbing and electricity. The water heater was broken, but a cold shower would be better than nothing. Inexplicably, the place was painted pink, destroying any chance I had of establishing myself as some kind of tough-guy writer, a Buick City Bukowski.
The wood floors, wraparound porch, handsome stained glass window, and high ceilings oozed Victorian charm. There was no sign of habitation other than an awkwardly modern glass table in the dining room, a couple of folding chairs, and an expensive-looking Persian rug in the living room. Our voices echoed in the empty space. The bulk of the tour was devoted to the house’s four doors and eight locks. The kitchen door had been nailed shut from the inside with a two-by-four after a break-in. The side door was locked and seldom used. If there was a fire, Berniece advised, the front door was my best option, other than the windows.
“I’ll try not to burn the place down,” I joked.
“It’s not you I’m worried about,” she answered. Like any city with a lot of abandoned property, Flint houses regularly went up in flames.
I decided to bed down on the nice rug. Besides adding a little padding, it was close to the fire exit.
The Magical Stranger: A Son’s Journey Into His Father’s Life by Stephen Rodrick
But on November 4, Americans are taken hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Iran. I fold my papers and stare at pictures of blindfolded Americans. I don't connect the dots. Then, two weeks later, in the middle of a November night, Dad calls from the officers' club in Subic Bay. Mom says he wants to talk to me. I rub the sleep out of my eyes and cradle the phone. He says he's sorry. The boat is being turned around, off to the Persian Gulf, as a show of strength. I don't know what that means. I just know there will be no trip to Hawaii.
Dad's letters continue to arrive from somewhere in fits and spurts. They used to be marked on the back with the number of days until his return. Now he just circles the seal on the envelope with a question mark and an unhappy face.
Soon, it's the morning of November 28. Mom sleeps in; Chrissie has been up with the croup. By 11 am, I'm trying, unsuccessfully, to skate backward at the Roller Barn for eighth-grade gym class. I can tell you the electoral-college breakdown of the Carter-Ford presidential election and the status of Kenny Stabler's wobbly knees, but when it comes to the things that confer acceptance upon boys – hitting a baseball, building a catapult for Webelos, roller-skating backward – I'm hopeless. I need someone to show me how, someone to tell me that it really doesn't matter anyway. But that man is always 8,000 miles away.
So I fall on my ass. The cool kids snicker. My gym teacher calls me over. I'm relieved at first because it stops the laughing. But the teacher's permanently upbeat face has gone flat. She points to a man standing by the snack bar. He wears a black uniform and carries a white hat in his hand. It is Lieutenant Commander Laddie Coburn, Dad's best friend. I slowly skate over and sit down on a bench. He hesitates, sits down next to me, and puts a hand on my knee.
"Your father has been in an accident."
Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan, and the Fate of the American Metropolis by Andrew Highsmith
Back in 1945, when Americans celebrated the conclusion of World War II and looked forward to a future of peace and prosperity, Buick historian Carl Crow claimed that the United States consisted of a thousand Flints. Even though many decades have since past, Crow’s words still ring true. From coast to coast, the America of the twenty-first century is, in fact, a thousand Flints, but not at all in the whiggish capacity that Crow envisioned. There are Flints in the economically depressed neighborhoods of Decatur, Illinois; Camden, New Jersey; Erie, Pennsylvania, and other struggling cities once renowned for their industrial might. Flints also exist in hypersegregated ghettos on Chicago’s south and west sides, in Miami’s Overtown district, and in struggling suburbs such as Yonkers, New York; East Palo Alto, California; and Ferguson, Missouri, where the legacies of white supremacy and legal, popular, and administrative Jim Crow continue to abridge civil rights and economic opportunity. However, there are also a thousand Flints in the booming, affluent bastions of suburban capitalism surrounding high-tech metropolises such as San Francisco, Boston, Raleigh, Seattle, and Austin—places like Cupertino, California; Redmond, Washington; and Round Rock, Texas, all of them defined more by fragmentation and exclusion than by cooperation and inclusion. There are Flints on the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts as well as in the so-called Rust Belt and Sunbelt, for the conditions of racial, spatial, and economic inequality that took shape in the Vehicle City during the twentieth century know no regional boundaries. Indeed, Flints can be found anywhere in the world where the eternal quest for metropolitan growth and revitalization has buttressed social inequalities. Because it took the full weight of government at all levels along with the efforts of untold numbers of ordinary Americans to construct and fortify the walls that still surround the nation’s Flints, it will require an equally concerted movement of millions to demolish them all and build anew.
The Poisoned City by Anna Clark
In the first full account of this American tragedy, Anna Clark's The Poisoned City recounts the gripping story of Flint’s poisoned water through the people who caused it, suffered from it, and exposed it. It is a chronicle of one town, but could also be about any American city, all made precarious by the neglect of infrastructure and the erosion of democratic decision making. Places like Flint are set up to fail—and for the people who live and work in them, the consequences can be fatal.
Through a series of disastrous decisions, the state government had switched the city’s water supply to a source that corroded Flint’s aging lead pipes. Complaints about the foul-smelling water were dismissed: the residents of Flint, mostly poor and African American, were not seen as credible, even in matters of their own lives.
It took eighteen months of activism by city residents and a band of dogged outsiders to force the state to admit that the water was poisonous. By that time, twelve people had died and Flint’s children had suffered irreparable harm. The long battle for accountability and a humane response to this man-made disaster has only just begun.