P-Nut, Gordon Young, and Aaron at the house on Dayton Street.
If you read Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City, you may remember P-Nut. Pastor Sherman McCathern at Joy Tabernacle Church introduced me to him after I had given up on buying a house in Flint. It turned out that P-Nut was moving into a house donated to the church, and I was lucky enough to get to know him and help out as he fixed up his new home, which just happened to be the house Ben Hamper, author of Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line, grew up in.
I recently learned, via Ben, that P-Nut's house on W. Dayton Street caught fire and is totaled, like many houses in Civic Park before it. P-Nut and his family are safe and they have a place to live, so by Flint standards this could be a lot worse. Nobody died.
I've included the epilogue from Teardown that tells P-Nut's story and provides a brief history of the house. If you'd like to help out P-Nut and his family, contact me at gordoncyoung(at)gmail(dot)com and I can give you information on providing some assistance to him.
An all-too-common fate of houses in my old neighborhood of Civic Park. P-Nut's home after the fire.
It was still drizzling after we ate
lunch at McDonald’s, so P-Nut and I ditched our plans to paint the exterior of his
house on West Dayton Avenue and decided to get started on the interior of the small
first-floor sunroom instead. That meant scraping off several decades’ worth of old
paint and taping the windows. Painting prep is one of the least satisfying home
improvement projects, but I was happy to be there. So was P-Nut. He had all the
energy and determination you would expect of a twenty-three-year-old first-time
homeowner who feels like he’s working toward a brighter future. He also had a practical
incentive. He was sharing a single room with his girlfriend, Raevyn, and their three
young daughters at his father-in-law’s home until his two-story Civic Park Saltbox
was fit for habitation. He needed more space. Fast. “I want my family to have a
real home, so I’ve been doing something at the house every day,” he told me.
P-Nut had already tamed the wild,
overgrown yard, cleared the house of debris, pulled up the worn carpet, fixed a
few broken windows, and painted the living room a rich red color. The floors still
needed refinishing, and some plumbing and electrical work remained to be done, not
to mention all the holes in the walls that needed patching. But as abandoned houses
in Flint go, this one wasn’t too bad. He brought his little girls—who were ages
three, four, and six—over on weekends so they could play while he worked. Despite
the summer weather, he’d even burned some wood in the fireplace, just because he
could. “I’ll be saving some money on heat in the winter with all the wood you can
find around here,” he said as he attacked a window sill with a putty knife. “It
heats up the whole house.”
Sherman McCathern was the reason P-Nut
and I were working together on a June afternoon in 2012. I’d stayed in touch with
the pastor, and during one phone conversation he mentioned that a local real-estate
agent had donated a house to the church. In turn, the pastor had given it to P-Nut,
a member of the congregation who was trying to turn his life around. McCathern had
made the decision after receiving another one of his famous communiqués from God.
He had sat P-Nut down for a long talk to ensure that he knew a house was a huge
responsibility and would require a lot of hard work to make it a home. The problem
now, as usual, was money. They needed funds to fix up the place.
The solution seemed obvious to me.
I could donate the money I had set aside for a house of my own in Flint to finance
the rehab. This small gesture would have immediate, tangible results. I’d be reaching
out to a guy who was roughly the same age I was when I left Civic Park. I’d be doing
my part to help the pastor in his uphill struggle to transform the neighborhood.
And unlike my earlier plans, this one wouldn’t make me an accidental slumlord, saddled
with a second home I couldn’t afford to maintain. I knew one house wasn’t going
to magically fix Flint, but I was still determined to assist the city in some way.
I didn’t like the way I’d left things between me and my hometown. Traci thought
it was a great idea, one of my rare epiphanies related to real estate in the Vehicle
Reverend McCathern, a survivor well
schooled in the art of raising money, happily accepted the offer. “It’s providence,”
he declared, not for the first time. He suggested that I fly out to meet P-Nut and
his family, maybe earn a little sweat equity in addition to my donation. So I was
back in Flint, a few blocks from my old house, just a short walk from Dave and Judy
Starr’s place on Milbourne Avenue. It turns out I was no stranger to P-Nut’s Band-Aid
beige and brown house on the corner. It happened to be the childhood home of writer
and former shop rat Ben Hamper. I’d stopped there dozens of times over the years
when I carpooled to Saint Mary’s with Ben’s younger siblings. He had described the
old Civic Park in Rivethead: “Our neighborhood
was strictly blue-collar and predominantly Catholic. The men lumbered back and forth
to the factories while their wives raised large families, packed lunch buckets and
marched the kids off to the nuns.” Obviously, times had changed.
P-Nut was far more organized than
I ever was when I tried to fix up my house. He had the painting supplies neatly
arranged on a drop cloth in the living room, like a surgeon preparing to operate.
He planned to get the entire sunroom prepped and painted in one day. He was wearing
unwrinkled jeans and an oversize T-shirt that closely matched the red color he had
chosen to paint the walls. His black baseball cap was emblazoned with his nickname
in gold script. “Everyone said my head looked like a peanut when I was a little
boy and it just stuck,” he explained.
While we worked side by side, P-Nut
told me his story. He had followed a trajectory similar to many of the young men
who had grown up in Civic Park and landed at Joy Tabernacle. His desire to create
a home for Raevyn and their kids was driven by the fact that he’d never really had
a home of his own. His parents were divorced, and his mother had a drug problem.
The courts eventually intervened, and P-Nut was sent to live with his grandparents.
His grandfather taught him how to “fix on cars,” and he was an accomplished mechanic,
skilled enough to get arrested for auto theft when he was thirteen. Seeing over
the steering wheel was a bigger challenge than busting the steering column to start
the car. He was sent to a juvenile correctional facility in Pennsylvania until he
was seventeen. Both grandparents died while he was incarcerated. “I got to come
home for the funerals,” he said.
When he was released, P-Nut met Raevyn
back in Flint, and they rented a house together. He earned a little money working
on cars, but not nearly enough to support his growing family. He wasn’t above breaking
into empty houses in search of anything he could sell, especially copper plumbing
and wiring. He was a scrapper, the scourge of Flint’s troubled neighborhoods, and
his voice got softer when he tried to explain. “It was wrong, but I had kids, no
job, and no money,” he said. “I didn’t want to sell drugs or go out and rob somebody.”
In fact, P-Nut and some friends had
once targeted the house he now owned—the very house we were working on at that moment.
They ran off when a burglar alarm sounded. But P-Nut admitted that his partners
had gone back later and stolen the water heater and some electrical wiring in the
Things had gotten worse when the police
raided a neighborhood garage where P-Nut was repairing cars. A spare transmission
was identified as stolen property. P-Nut maintains he had no idea it was hot, but
he did a year in county jail nonetheless. Raevyn could no longer afford rent on
their house, so she moved back home with the kids. Visitors under eighteen weren’t
allowed at the jail, so P-Nut didn’t see his daughters while he was incarcerated.
“That’s when I knew I had to change things when I got out,” he said. “I had to take
care of my family. I had to do things the right way.” His brother was a member at
Joy, and P-Nut became active in the church after his release.
Our conversation was soon interrupted
when the sound of someone rattling the back door echoed through the empty house,
followed by loud pounding.
“Who there?” P-Nut yelled, tensing
“You know who there. Let me in!”
It was the voice of Reverend McCathern,
and P-Nut hurried over to let him in.
“Why you locking me out?” he asked
as he came up the back steps into the living room, followed by Aaron, who had taken
in the winter scene with me in the church parking lot that snowy Sunday more than
a year earlier when I decided not to buy a house in Flint.
“Security,” P-Nut said a little sheepishly.
“Don’t make me cut you,” I said to
the pastor, brandishing my spackle knife.
“Shoot, you don’t scare me, son,”
McCathern said, laughing as he lightly grabbed my shoulder and gave me a push.
Just as the pastor had definite plans
for Civic Park, he also had some well-defined ideas about home decorating, and he
wasn’t shy about sharing them. He suggested a vibrant green for the trim in the
small kitchen, holding up a can of Glade air freshener as an example. “Now isn’t
that a beautiful color?” he asked. “You want each room to be distinctive and different.”
A discussion ensued about the relative merits of removing a front window to prevent
break-ins versus preserving the window and installing security bars. “You need some
natural light in here,” the pastor explained as he slowly turned to take in the
living room. I felt like I was in a home-decor reality show, Flint-style. P-Nut
mentioned that he was thinking of a small chandelier for the sunroom, but the pastor
wasn’t going for it. Instead, he recommended a ceiling fan and “that straw kind
“This is like your patio,” he elaborated,
sweeping his hands forward to encompass the sunroom. “This is where you sit and
There was a brief pause before Aaron
and P-Nut burst out laughing.
“Okay, I need to step back now, don’t
I?” McCathern said, shaking his head and looking at P-Nut. “This isn’t my house,
is it? It’s yours.”
After a short tour, the pastor and
Aaron left. P-Nut and I went back to work for a half hour before Raevyn arrived
with the couple’s three daughters—Mariah, Kamira, and Jheniya. The little girls
had matching braids and appeared to have cornered the market on pink, lavender,
and pale blue clothes. They quickly headed for the front yard and were soon racing
around the house, yelling and laughing.
By now, we were ready to paint, and
Raevyn joined us in the small room with a brush. She was twenty-five, and it turned
out that we had gone to the same high school, albeit twenty-one years apart. She
told me she’d been skeptical about the house at first, wondering who would just
give it away to someone. She also worried about its condition when she learned it
had been vacant for a long stretch. Now she was looking forward to moving day.
“I’m glad we’ve been able to fix it up ourselves,” she said. “It’s good to do something
from the ground up. It gives you something to be proud of.”
As we painted, talk turned to the
future. P-Nut was part of a pilot program that the pastor had brokered with Baker
College to help church members get college credit and job training. It was connected
with the city’s Clean and Green program, so P-Nut and several other members of the
congregation got paid for mowing and maintaining dozens of yards and vacant lots
in Civic Park. Raevyn was on public assistance, and P-Nut also earned a little extra
money fixing cars on the side. The family of five lived on $1,200 a month. P-Nut’s
goal was to earn his GED and get certified as an automotive technician, building
on the knowledge his grandfather had passed on to him before he died. “I know he
would have liked seeing me earn a living from the things he taught me,” he said.
I wanted everything to work out for
P-Nut and Raevyn, but I knew the odds were against them—a young couple with a large
family and few resources in a city that faced monumental, perhaps insurmountable
challenges. Yet they had not given up yet, and that was an accomplishment all by
And they were not alone. Reverend
McCathern and the members of his flock. Mayor Dayne Walling. Dave and Judy Starr
and the other diehards on Milbourne Avenue. Dan Kildee. The urban homesteaders of
Carriage Town. They were all tough people fighting for Flint in their own ways.
And I could fight alongside them in my way. I could keep writing about the city.
I could keep coming back and stay connected to the place that meant so much to me.
I could donate time and money to the individuals and organizations determined to
create a new Flint. Maybe not the city it was in the fifties, a bastion of the middle
class, but a different place that still had pride and dignity.
Instead of viewing my time in Flint
as a failure because I hadn’t bought a house, I realized as I stood next to P-Nut
and Raevyn—looking through the windows at a row of abandoned houses across the street—that
it had been a success in all the ways that really mattered. I was part of the city
again. I had new friends in my old hometown. And I had a measure of hope for the
P-Nut was reaching up to coat the
wall above the windows with red paint, and I noticed a series of dates tattooed
in black ink on his arms. I asked him what they meant. “These are my daughters’
birthdays,” he told me, “so I don’t forget what I’m here for. So I don’t forget
my life has a purpose.”