Wednesday, October 4, 2017

How to Fix Flint: Replacing the pipes in my hometown won’t revive the city. It will take the equivalent of a Marshall Plan to save it. By Gordon Young

How to fix Flint
P-Nut and Raevyn work on their Civic Park home in 2010.

My friend P-Nut was shopping at the Flint Salvation Army in March with Sherman McCathern, the pastor of his church, when he got a phone call. 

It was one of his buddies from Civic Park, a neighborhood of houses primarily built for autoworkers that is now one of the most blighted areas in a city often defined by decay and loss. 

“You know your house is on fire?” the friend asked.

P-Nut and the pastor headed for their car and rushed home. When they pulled into the parking lot of Joy Tabernacle Church on North Chevrolet Avenue at the corner of West Dayton, two blocks from P-Nut’s house, smoke was wafting through the neighborhood.

“So I knew it was bad before I even saw it,” P-Nut told me. “When I got to my house, it was blazing.”

Long before Flint had a water crisis, it had an arson problem. And decades before Cher and Snoop Dogg arrived on the scene with their PR teams, or the journalists and presidential candidates showed up, my hometown was vanishing in ways both large and small. Shifting global economic trends aren’t big on taking union industrial strongholds along for the ride, and Flint was left behind to fend for itself. Obviously, it hasn’t fared well. Decades of double-digit unemployment, population loss, and artless budget cuts equal crime, abandonment, and burning buildings.

All Flintoids — as we sometimes call ourselves — can catalogue the places that meant something to them that have disappeared. My personal list includes Homedale Elementary, the East Side school my mother and I attended less than a mile from the massive automotive complex known as Buick City. The school was torched and then demolished in 2010. The factory is long gone, too, along with thousands of G.M. jobs. My grandfather’s elegant brick office building downtown, where he earned the money that kept our family afloat, is a parking lot. And the pool where I learned to swim is a grassy field in Kearsley Park.

Now I have to add P-Nut’s house to the tally. Sure, it was just a two-story saltbox that needed a lot of work in a neighborhood that might not exist in twenty years. But it had a meaningful past and, I foolishly thought, a future. It was a symbol of hope for P-Nut. And for me. And hope is a tenuous thing in Flint.

When I got the news, I flashed back to a cold December morning in 2010. I was sitting in the lobby of City Hall in Flint, waiting to shadow the mayor for a story I was writing about my hometown. I was alone because the receptionist I had gotten to know over the previous year had been laid off, a victim of the city’s relentless quest for a balanced budget.

A disheveled guy with an armful of manila file folders tucked under his arm walked into the lobby. He had to angle his head toward the offices behind the desk and call out, “Hello, anyone home?” A staffer finally emerged and asked if she could take a message for the mayor.

“Well, I’ve given up on Flint,” the man said, “and I wanted to see if he could give me a reason not to give up on it.”

The staffer took his name and number, promising to pass his message along to the mayor. The guy left with his folders, more disappointed than angry.

I couldn’t really relate to his request at the time. I was cautiously optimistic about the city’s future. But after years of steady decline and the ongoing water crisis, I understand him a lot better. In fact, I think I’m becoming that guy now, desperately searching for some evidence that things will ever get better in Flint. And worried that I won’t find it. For someone who once naively thought he could help solve the city’s problems, it’s not an easy thing to admit.

As a journalist who has written about Flint for more than a decade, I’ve been lucky to meet dozens of smart, inspiring residents like Pastor McCathern and P-Nut who are fighting to save this troubled spot on the Michigan map. But I’ve also talked to enough economists, urban planners, and politicians to know that all their efforts will never be enough to pull Flint out of its socio-economic free fall. It will take a monumental national effort to reinvigorate Flint and cities like it. That means an investment of federal and state money that gives Flint a chance to prosper but might not pay dividends for years. And I fear our bitterly divided country does not care enough to make it happen.

I hope I’m wrong. I don’t like thinking that bad things are likely to keep happening in the city where four generations of my family lived. But I also know that Flint is a place where reality destroys the best laid plans, and optimism gets its ass kicked on a regular basis.

Going Home Again
I left Flint in the eighties for college around the time my mom moved to Florida after a series of robberies at our house in Civic Park. I didn’t give our departure much thought. It felt like everyone I knew was getting out. Flint was already a place people left.

Maybe it was a mid-life crisis, but after living in San Francisco and working as a journalist for 20 years, I felt compelled to reconnect with the place my grandparents moved to from the cornfields of Iowa nearly 100 years ago. My half-baked plan was to buy a house. I naively thought that I’d be doing Flint a favor by fixing up one of the thousands of empty eyesores marring the city.

It was a heartfelt quest but also pretty stupid. I not-so-quickly realized that Flint did not need another underfinanced homeowner, especially a well-meaning but distant one on the West Coast. Nostalgia just doesn’t get you very far in Vehicle City. Flint needed committed residents who were willing to endure the inevitable setbacks that come with home ownership in a troubled city — breakins, fires, and abandoned houses on your block. I had to admit that wasn’t me, and I wasn’t sure what to do next.

Pastor McCathern gave me the answer. He understood my desire to help the city that, I had come to realize, made me who I am. After all, he believed God was calling on him to save Civic Park and minister to its remaining residents. “When G.M. is through with it, let’s see what God can do with it,” he boomed at a nearly four hour Sunday service I attended.

He told me about P-Nut, a young member of his congregation who was fixing up a house that had been donated to the church. P-Nut was raising three daughters with his girlfriend, Raevyn, and they were struggling to make ends meet. I decided to donate the money I had saved to buy a house to P-Nut and made plans to help him work on his new home.

When I met P-Nut, he was wearing a black baseball cap 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. He asked that I stick with his nickname when writing about him.

He spent most of his teenage years in a juvenile correctional facility in Pennsylvania after he was arrested for stealing a car at 13. When he got out, he earned money working as a mechanic, but it wasn’t enough to support his growing family. He wasn’t above breaking into empty houses in search of anything he could sell. He was a scrapper, an all-too-common scourge in Flint’s troubled neighborhoods.

“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.”

How to fix Flint
P-Nut's house in 2010.
It turned out I was no stranger to P-Nut’s Band-Aid beige and brown house on the corner. It was the childhood home of writer Ben Hamper, the autoworker and bestselling author of Rivethead: Tales From the Assembly Line, a searingly funny book on factory life in Flint. I’d stopped there dozens of times over the years when I carpooled to St. Mary’s School with Ben’s younger siblings. He had moved up north to Traverse City long ago, but he understood my attachment to Flint: “It’s a dismal cascade of drek,” he emailed me, “but it’s home.”

P-Nut, Raevyn and I spent one afternoon prepping and painting a sunroom in the front of the house, looking through the windows at a row of abandoned houses across the street as we worked. Their three girls played on the front lawn, wrestling and chasing each other, their laughter mixing with the chirping birds in the otherwise silent neighborhood.

I noticed a series of dates tattooed in black ink on P-Nut’s arm as he reached up to paint a section of wall near the ceiling. I asked him what they meant. “These are my daughters’ birthdays,” he said, “so I don’t forget what I’m here for. So I don’t forget my life has a purpose.”

I returned to San Francisco feeling pretty good about myself. I felt like I’d done my part to make Flint a better place. And I could keep helping. I worked with local residents to raise money to demolish an abandoned house that was dragging down their otherwise healthy block in the North End. I spoke to journalism classes at UM-Flint about how to cover the city in a meaningful way. And, in the ultimate act of journalistic hubris, I thought that by writing about Flint I could raise awareness about its plight. Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City, my book about my return to Flint that profiles Pastor McCathern, P-Nut and the other people I met there, came out in 2013.

When I saw a photo of P-Nut’s burned-out house on Facebook, I was ensconced in my San Francisco house — a poorly constructed, 700-square foot “cottage” purchased with a series of toxic, no-money-down loans that is now inexplicably worth close to seven figures. The city is so awash in money that neighborhoods getting too nice is considered a real problem. It was a beautiful day and my infant daughter was sleeping nearby. My wife, Traci, and I suffered only from sleep deprivation and excessive joy. So I won’t claim that I have any right to complain, especially compared to everyone who actually lives in Flint.

But I was stunned, nonetheless. I guess I thought all the time and effort that had gone into P-Nut’s house would preserve it. There were hundreds of abandoned houses lining the deserted blocks of Civic Park, practically begging for someone to torch them. Why hit one of the survivors? It was cruel, in a cosmic sense, which is the only way I could describe it because I’m no longer religious, despite — or because of — all those years in Flint Catholic schools.

P-Nut never checked in with the fire inspector about the cause of the blaze. He didn’t have homeowner's insurance and the house was totaled, so what difference did it make? But he figured it was arson. When he walked through the shell of the house a few days after the fire, the spot that had burned most intensely was the sunroom we had painted together. He speculates that it must have started there.

No Quick Fix
Thanks to the international coverage and widespread outrage over the Flint Water Crisis, some money and resources have finally started flowing to the city to replace the damaged pipes. But these upgrades will simply get the city back to the dysfunctional place it was a few years ago, if we’re lucky. It won’t dramatically change the lives of most Flint residents. Keep in mind that with the city’s continual population decline a good number of the houses that get new pipes will be abandoned or demolished in five or ten years.

In the seemingly never-ending discussions of what it would take to “save” Flint, it’s tough to even define what success would look like. The glory days in the fifties, when Chevys were rolling off the assembly lines and it had one of the highest per capita income levels in the world, are not coming back. Automation has eliminated roughly 80 percent of industrial jobs, so even if globalization disappeared, long dead factories like Buick City and Chevy in the Hole would not magically spring to life.

In downtown Flint, faint glimmers of life in the form of new restaurants, lofts, and renovated buildings have sparked dreams that the city can transition into a smaller, safer, greener place. There’s hope that Flint might emerge as a quiet county seat with colleges, some industry, a few good medical facilities, and a quaint downtown that lures suburbanites — many of whom are too terrified to visit the city — on a regular basis.

But even that modest proposal will be a daunting task in a place where 41.4 percent of adults and 66.5 percent of children live below the poverty line. It’s called entrenched poverty for a reason. Once it’s there, it tends not to leave.

Poverty reduction strategies typically involve getting more money into the pockets of poor people with minimum wage hikes or through supplements like social security and tax credits. Or by providing services like affordable housing, improved schools, or easily accessible healthcare. Obviously, these kinds of fundamental, long-term reforms require money and foresight. Lots of it.

I can’t imagine anything more untenable in today’s delusional political climate, where trickle-down economics is embraced and climate change is denied. Keep in mind that the Republican-controlled Michigan state government had to be sued to replace the corroded lead pipes in Flint, a problem they created with their own policies and political appointees who were running the city. And Republicans in Washington, who control both houses of Congress and the White House, are obsessed with taking healthcare away from millions of Americans and trying to slash a host of other entitlements.

But Dan Kildee, Flint’s Democratic congressman, is more optimistic, which is one of the many reasons he’s a successful politician and I’m a struggling journalist. We both grew up in Civic Park at a time when the city was slipping but still had a lot to offer. Neighborhood kids had to decide which of the dozens of free summer programs to attend. It was a far cry from today’s Flint, where the police station is closed to the public on weekends, and there are times when not a single cop is patrolling the streets.

Kildee believes that a massive program that devotes as much as $1 trillion to rebuilding the country’s infrastructure has the greatest chance of bipartisan agreement in Washington. President Trump has said this is one of his goals to make America great again. And Kildee believes if special emphasis is given to Flint and other distressed cities, it could function as a new Marshall Plan to “reset” these troubled places, much the way the U.S. helped rebuild Europe after World War II.

The city — like other poverty stricken municipalities — has the vexing ability to resist broader economic upturns. Real growth, let alone bubbles, never seem to visit. The city continued to decline during the boom years of the Clinton administration and kept sinking during the modest but historically long-running economic recovery that President Obama orchestrated. Clearly, a rising tide doesn’t lift all boats. Kildee, who is an exuberant practitioner of metaphor, describes these cities as “anchored to the bottom of the ocean.”

“I don’t think we can chip away at the problem,” he told me recently. “We need a big, bold, and very significant effort to help areas where you have chronic poverty. Until we fix the fundamental problems, we are really just managing the decline.”

Not that Kildee hasn’t done his share of chipping away at Flint’s problems. He helped pioneer the use of land banks to deal with abandonment in shrinking cities and oversaw several redevelopment projects in Flint as the Genesee County treasurer. He went on to found a non-profit to help distressed cities. In Congress, he focuses on urban policy as the vice ranking member of the house Financial Services Committee and co-chair of the Congressional Urban Caucus.

Kildee envisions clearing away the thousands of abandoned structures in Flint, Youngstown, Gary and cities like them around the country. Extra funding would be used to evaluate and rehabilitate abandoned factory sites, and provide increased tax credits for developers to build on them. Cities would also get resources to right-size their aging, inefficient water and sewer systems, often built for much larger populations. Because these projects would take years to complete, job training and apprenticeship programs could train the chronically unemployed to complete some of the work.

It’s a clear-eyed plan that doesn’t sugarcoat Flint's problems, but I doubt that any of this will come to pass in my lifetime. It’s hard for me to imagine any meaningful infrastructure plan emerging from Republican-controlled Washington, let alone one that emphasizes troubled cities with large African-American populations that tend to vote for Democrats. President Trump’s August press conference on infrastructure spending devolved into an angry rant about the violent Nazi rally in Charlottesville. He abandoned his nascent Advisory Council on Infrastructure soon afterwards.

Kildee doesn’t try to reassure me. He simply points out that there aren’t very many alternatives, other than tinkering around the edges. “It may well be that this does not happen anytime soon,” he said,” but it will never happen if we don’t define what the real solution is for Flint. And it will never happen if we don’t try.”

Another House, Another Fire
The past and the present have a way of intertwining in Flint. Long-gone Flint expatriates who remember a happy place are inextricably linked to the current catastrophes. Today’s residents aren’t safe, and neither are the memories of those who have moved on.

I was reminded of this when another Civic Park house that I know well on Greenway Avenue caught fire in June, just a few blocks away from P-Nut’s house. Two teenage girls named Amber and Autumn burned to death, along with their 61-year-old father. Their mother escaped by jumping out a second-floor window.

It apparently started in the middle of the living room, and the cause is still under investigation. A quick search for the property on Zillow captures the falling fortunes of Flint real estate. The handsome, 1,872 sq. ft. house with four bedrooms and two bathrooms last sold for just $7,027 in 2014.

A group of us from the old neighborhood quickly filled a Facebook post about the fire with memories of the Greenway house. My friend Jim Holbel, who now lives in Atlanta, grew up next door, and a state police sergeant did a live remote for the local TV news on his old front lawn.

“It was hard to watch because the girls who died are about the same age as my two kids,” Jim emailed me. “I’ve taken them back to Flint to show them the old neighborhood, but it’s impossible for them to really imagine that this used to be a great place with great jobs. When my young son first saw a store with full bullet-proof glass inside and asked if it used to be a giant aquarium, I knew they were too far removed to understand.”

When we were kids in the seventies and eighties, the Scieska family lived at the house that burned. Louis, a middle school principal, and Shirley, a nurse, raised six boys who became legendary for their misadventures — a car crashed through a garage but repaired before their parents returned, and the invention of street hockey played with a tennis ball soaked in gas and set on fire. Jon, the second oldest, attended Culver Military Academy, which seemed exotic, and went on to become a best selling children’s book author.

The house was later home to Reverend Timm High and his family. I wrote about him in Teardown. He was fresh out of the seminary when he came to Flint in 1986 to run the nearby Community Presbyterian Church, which was then exclusively white in a neighborhood that was increasingly diverse. The only African American connected with the church at the time was the custodian.

High had no shortage of ideas to change the situation, but he met stiff resistance from many longtime church members. “There was almost an attitude that they wanted to turn back the clock to the 1950s,” he said. “That’s a hard mentality to overcome. I tried, but I couldn’t do it.”

Married with two children, High had his own share of grief on Greenway Avenue. Burglars once injured the family dog, a Norwegian Elkhound named Thor. “They must have used a bat,” High told me. “The dog was never really the same after that.”

He left in 1995 to run a church in New York. Despite it all, he doesn’t regret his stay in Flint. “I’ll always be grateful that I lived there,” he said, echoing the loyalty many people, including me, feel toward the city after they leave.

In a way, the changes High wanted to make came to fruition. When Community Presbyterian closed, it was sold for a song to Pastor McCathern and became Joy Tabernacle, the predominantly African American church that has become a beacon for P-Nut and many of the remaining residents of Civic Park.

P-Nut's house on West Dayton Street in Flint after the fire.

The Next Crisis
When I talk to P-Nut about the fire at his house, he displays the trait that all Flint survivors seem to share — the ability to absorb bad news while simultaneously spotting encouraging signs.

He tells me he’s been through this before. His house and all his possessions went up in flames when he was 9-years old. He’s used to this kind of thing. And he didn’t really own much anyway, so it’s not like he’ll miss the few possessions he had. Then he tells me that he and Raevyn are no longer a couple. They are still friends dedicated to raising their three daughters together, but she and the girls live together in a house on Cadillac Street. (Most of the G.M. jobs have left Flint, but numerous reminders of the city’s automotive history remain.) This sounds like another defeat, but P-Nut points out that there was no chance of them getting hurt when his house burned because they were not there. A silver lining, Flint-style.

It’s hard for me to accept this line of reasoning at first. I launch into a rambling soliloquy on the guy with the file folders, and how I’m struggling to keep fighting for Flint when any sort of success — regardless of how you define it — seems so unreachable. I confess that I’m confused about my role as a Flint expatriate, wondering what the hell I should do at this point. I finally realize how self-absorbed this sounds. How petty. So I stop talking.

There’s a long pause. I wonder if P-Nut is making sure I’m done, or if he’s checking his email, which would be a more efficient use of his time.

How to fix Flint
P-Nut and his daughters.
“It hurt to see the house after the fire because that was my little piece of Civic Park,” he said evenly. “But nobody died. We’re all safe. So my situation is not really bad enough for me to think about leaving Flint. This is still home.”

P-Nut credits Pastor McCathern and Joy Tabernacle for his ability to roll with the body blows that Flint delivers on a regular basis. He appends his emails with “P-NUT THE ONE AND ONLY,” which is hardly the sign off of a defeatist. When P-Nut says things could have been worse — like the fire on Greenway Avenue — it’s not a throw-away cliché.

It’s a sobering reminder that anyone trying to change Flint’s trajectory must accept that there’s a good chance things might never get significantly better, but make the decision to keep trying anyway. I realize this is not exactly an inspiring marketing slogan. A self-help book with this realistic theme would tank. But it’s probably the best approach for anyone who wants to have a long-term relationship with Flint.

So I stop moping and post something on Facebook about the fire at P-Nut’s house. I ask for donations, however small, to help him and his family out. Several people — none of whom know P-Nut personally — respond and send around $300 his way. A few offer to send regular monthly donations. It won’t save the city, but it will help one family when they need it. Sometimes making life a little less bad is all you can ask for.

It’s a realistic approach, definitely helpful in hanging onto your sanity, but P-Nut and other Flint residents shouldn’t have to use it. The United States is the richest country on Earth. What’s happening in cities like Flint is morally wrong, and we could fix it. Kildee’s infrastructure plan — or something like it — would be a good start. But we, as a nation, choose not to do anything about it. As a result, water gets poisoned, kids wallow in poverty, houses burn, and people die. I wish we could remember that we’re all Americans. We are in this together. And it’s time to start doing the right thing.

Otherwise, we are left to help in our small way, easing a little pain but knowing things probably won’t fundamentally change. We are left to admire stoic survivors like P-Nut and applaud the minor improvements in Flint — a restored downtown theater, an art walk, a federal grant to hire a few more firefighters — even as we prepare for the next crisis. Because history and common sense show us that another crisis is on the horizon. It’s only a matter of time.


  1. I am decidedly more optimistic than you about the fate of our hometown. There are so many amazing things happening here right now that I couldn't list them all if I had to. I moved my office downtown two years ago and we have clients from all over the state (and indeed from across the country) who are amazed at what they see happening. We entertained some 500 visitors during the Back to The Bricks, and I had the pleasure of giving tours to many of them telling the true story of the city that build the 20th century. The story really is a bipolar escapade though isn't it? The fate of the neighborhoods are far more elusive than the fate of the city center. Taking a city of 200,000+ high paid auto workers and executives and transforming it to something completely different is no small task. The work involved will be laborious, but a labor of love for those of us who could have long ago abandoned the old girl and chased sunnier climes. There are so many committed folks here doing so many wonderful things that the end result will not be a resurrection of the 'old' Flint , but rather a metamorphosis to a new creation. Anyone who thinks this kind of thing is impossible only needs to take a trek down Woodward Avenue in Detroit. Start downtown and take it all the way through Bloomfield Hills and you will experience every segment of the American economy. Yet there is so much new life injected in that run. Certainly, the rust belt comparison to Flint is identical even if the size and scope are not. That run, all the way to the bricks of Flint exemplify the resilience, vision, and commitment that I promise you is inherent in the DNA of all FLINTSTONES (I never, ever called my self a TOID)! :) Gordon, thanks for your ongoing and relentless focus on the city we love!

  2. Another dose of real talk from Gordon Young. A pretty bleak read, but you don't want your doctor or nurse to dance around the facts, and you don't want your journalists to as well. And these are essential realities that Flintstones have to wrestle with as we plan for our future, and that America has to wrestle with as it examines its conscience.
    Speaking personally, I've been blessed in life and family, friends, and Flint have been good to me. My complaints are fairly trivial next to those of many friends.
    But I do have one thought that leads, perhaps, to a small allotment of earned (or unearned) hope.
    Around the time I moved back in 2011, there was a shift in my thinking. I no longer think of Flint as a geographic place, but rather as a tribe of people moving through time together, momentarily united by proximity. In some ways, this doesn't change the picture, because such a tribe is struggling mightily to survive and thrive. But the metric is different in a meaningful way. It isn't about abandoned schools, or a rejuvenated downtown, or about my own memories: remember when I sat out on that porch reading? It's about the people I see on the streets every day, friends I grew up with who have moved away, and the children living in this city who will be carrying their memories of it with them long after I am gone. I don't care much, anymore, whether "Flint" the city is going to be around in 20 years, but I care passionately about how "Flint" the tribe will be in 20 years.
    This, alone, is not grounds for optimism. As Gordon points out, poverty here is entrenched. When a house burns down, it is the people who live there who suffer... sometimes fatally. With the water crisis, it was children who were lead poisoned and seniors who got Legionnaires'. We are all scarred, in ways big and small, by everyday unkindness and the relentless and indifferent machinery of capitalism. But even if the Marshall plan is not coming to Flint (though I agree we must fight for it) I am inspired at the way Flint residents marshal their own spirits and creativity and determination to rally again and again.
    Tonight I went with my family to a friend's "end of summer" bonfire. It was supposed to be a fun, casual get together, but while we were there, none of the grown-ups could resist the temptation to talk shop. I heard brainstorming about programming for youth, how this outreach program was going to best leverage its connection with so-and-so, how that curriculum was going to accommodate itself to the needs of 2017. While my daughters at marshmallows and kicked a basketball back-and-forth, nobody could restrain themselves. This bonfire took place just a couple blocks away from the streets where I distribute a community newspaper each month. This month, I noted that eight more houses were abandoned than the month prior. Out of about 120. 7% of those houses were abandoned in one month.
    But the bonfire happened. The conversations were probing and rigorous. The energy there, positive and visceral. The programs will happen. The kids will learn. They will carry their experiences with them. It isn't a total victory of any sort, but it is a victory.
    My two cents for anyone putting a stake on Flint, right here or from afar: yes, fight for the seeming impossible, but seize hope wherever it presents itself. Seize hope relentlessly and unrealistically and passionately and constantly. Look for it from the people you meet. Hope is so powerful not because it is realistic and rational, but because it persists despite its being unrealistic and irrational.
    If you want to be happy in Flint, you probably have to be a little unrealistic and irrational.

  3. Flint really sprouted when a man named Billy Durant created Buick and later, General Motors. When he died, he struggled trying to make a bowling alley a success. He was broke and some of his old cronies like Charles Mott were helping him. If Flint needs motivation,or perhaps a motto, maybe it should be to strive for the dream even when your world crashes around you.
    Today, there is no talk of the citizens of Flint trying to help themselves. Instead its the old, tired, and completely unsuccessful call to send more money to Flint. We've been subsidizing a large percentage of the population for decades while Flint continues its downward slide. We roll out excuses to increase their income without any expectation from them to begin the improving their city. In a perverse rationale, the people who claim more money will save Flint, convince themselves that the citizens are going to rush to go work, five days a week, all year, if only they had the opportunity. Now why would they want to do that when sitting back complaining, pointing fingers and bewailing their circumstances will get others to support them? Why on earth should they struggle with a crummy job, nasty bosses, low pay and difficult working conditions if we provide for all their needs and desires?
    As sad as P-Nuts loss was, did you ever consider the why of it? Since there were other abandoned places nearby, either it was done because someone could not stand the signs of success, or it was retaliation over something. Whichever it was, I wonder if the culprit was caught, and if so, was his crime excused because he was frustrated, abandoned, perhaps he is black and believes himself racially discriminated against. Those explanations get a lot of use in Flint. But here's a revelation--committing crimes because of hopelessness is NOT an appropriate response. Crime is merely a way of perpetuating the claim that Flint has no opportunities to improve oneself. Of course not. Who wants to work or start a business in a community where they could lose all their hard work to poor, downtrodden hoodlums through theft, fire or death?
    P-Nut had little personal investment in the house so it didn't bother him too much. And if he stays in Flint, his terrible plight will attract pity and more money. If he moved to a thriving city he might be expected to find work and pay for his own place.
    No matter how much money we throw at Flint, unless we change the expectations from the citizens, unless crime becomes an outrage rather than an alternative lifestyle, unless the citizens themselves are willing to invest sweat or financial equity in businesses, nothing will change. In fact, it will probably decline even further. If people don't have a financial stake in the change then they have no concern if it is successful or not.
    I still have fond memories of Flint, including campaigning for Kildee back in the 70's. But now, after a lifetime of struggling with crummy jobs I have hated so I could own my home and have a retirement, I have become sick of Flint and its constant whining. If the citizens aren't willing to make the sacrifices that will save their city, why should I be obliged to subsidize them?
    My old friends who remained in Flint demanded relief from the high water bills. When the administrators tried to do that with the limited funds, it made matters worse. Yet they didn't do it to 'kill off' the citizens, even if that makes a much better news story. Things went wrong, the cover-ups were wrong. But if they admitted to the mistakes made while trying to help, only the mistakes would have been seized on so the citizens could continue to blame someone else.
    The only legacy from Flint these days is finger pointing and complaints. No matter what anyone tries to do for Flint, someone will be there to shout about how it didn't help them, so send more money.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I agree with some of it, and disagree with some of it. In a broad sense, I haven't really run into anyone in Flint who was lazy and just sitting around complaining. Just the opposite. I kept meeting people working very hard at what often seemed like a doomed enterprise. I'm sure some of those lazy folks exist, as they do everywhere, but I have a hard time accepting that a bad attitude is Flint's real problem.

      And I'm a huge fan of Billy Durant. He was a very smart, very determined risk taker. And I agree that he's the sort of person America needs. But it's also worth noting that he came from wealth, so his risk taking wasn't exactly high stakes compared to many less well-off entrepreneurs. And as you point out, when he failed, he had wealthy friends like C.S. Mott to keep him afloat. Also worth noting that he was distracted from G.M. by what amounted to gambling on Wall Street. When the crash came, he lost it all. So I'd say it makes sense to emulate Billy's hard work, his foresight, and his drive, but he also had some profound flaws that would be best to avoid. In other words, he was a real person with flaws.

      And our capitalist system demands a lot of failure. All that money couldn't be concentrated as it is if their weren't a lot of people failing in some way. Most small businesses fail. Most restaurants fail. Most Billy Durant-style risk takers fail. That's why the vast majority of Americans don't strike out on their own. They work for mid-size or large corporations. So my question is how we deal with that? If we simply say, well, just move and find another job, then we are going to continue to deal with a lot of Flints in the future, as we have throughout our history, even in the boom years. Just not sure that's the best way to approach it.

      Thanks again for the comment. It's thought provoking.

    2. Also, as someone who has frequently moved for better jobs, I can say with confidence that it can be pretty expensive to up and move every few years. Damage deposits, utility hookups, travel expenses, hotels, etc. can add up. Now imagine if you're broke, and your meager support system in terms of friends, relatives and maybe a church that might help you out in a pinch is in Flint. Maybe you've got a crappy car. How, exactly, would you move to a place like, oh, let's say Chicago to get a better job? And by a better job we might be talking minimum wage job at Best Buy. How would you finance the move? Where would you live? It seems obvious to just move to where there are jobs, but if you have no money or resources — like most of the 46 percent in Flint living in poverty — it's not exactly easy to pull off.

  4. As I drive the streets of Flint and see all the empty or abandoned buildings, I can't help but think how cool it would be if there were street art murals on those brick walls. Maybe, with a theme, like the Audubon Society did in Harlem with endangered birds. I have no idea how we could make that happen, or how to get the grants or funding, but just having art in a city lifts peoples spirits. Especially outside art. So the building is empty, but it's still alive. The idea of attracting artists here who could change our town with some out of the box thinking could be a win for the city. There's so many homes that are affordable to artists here as opposed to other areas. The rentals are the biggest problem in most neighborhoods. The landlords don't take care of the yard let alone the house they rent in some cases. Give home buyers some sort of a break rather than just selling to people who will just rent them out. Recently the city redid Fenton Rd. and it's amazing how much of a difference it makes driving on a new road. Another thing, the city could do better by making strip mall owners, usually out of town, take care of their property, like Flint Plaza. That's the first thing people see as they come into Flint by Fenton Rd. It makes a bad first impression. Also attracting businesses that young adults are into. But mostly, making Flint an artist friendly town, and less rentals!

  5. Unfortunately, a liberal's view of flint was also it's demise. Like other mid to large cities that are all run by liberals, most are cesspools of Marxist ideals and actions. Fortunately for many of them, they were not dependent on one industry.

    Growing up in Civic Park in the 60 and 70 was a great experience. Plenty of things to do, with plenty of kids to do them with. Life was great! Why? Remember the term "Generous Motors". Do you think that other countries in this world ever experienced anything like Flint or Detroit experienced as manufacturing towns. The answer is "NO". Hence, the greatness of capitalism. You know, the thing you guys hate.

    Not to give all credit to GM. Management has always been and will always be heartless to a certain degree. But the labor can take it to the other extreme. And government is not the answer.

    Until Flint becomes a place where businesses want to be, it will keep going downhill and my house will be burned or just fall down in disrepair. I believe our town will not come back until we are all long gone. It may take the being totally abandoned before newcomers can come in and rebuild.

    As Flint was dependent on GM, the current residents are dependent on government. Do you think San Francisco could thrive if almost all of their population was on welfare? Everyone who left Flint went to a place they could find employment. I bet most of us are doing pretty well in this capitalistic society.

    The bleeding heart liberal politicians are nothing more than self serving bulldozers of destruction. When I say self serving, I'm talking about how they make themselves feel good about the things they say. But their actions are destructive. Tear down houses, yeah that's the answer. How about this for an idea. No taxes on businesses at all. If you had residents there paying taxes, that would rebuild the city.


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