Sunday, May 5, 2019

The Fading Murals of Civic Park: An Excerpt of "Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City" by Gordon Young


Gordon Young attempts to enliven a family photo of his mom, grandparents, and older brother in front of his Civic Park home on the day his brother graduated from high school in June of 1972.


In honor of the centennial of the Civic Park neighborhood in Flint, Michigan, this is an excerpt from "Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City" by Gordon Young, who grew up in Civic Park on Bassett Place.


Fading Murals

I had a plan for figuring out if it made sense to buy a house in Civic Park. My goal was to discover someone who was maintaining a home despite the challenges facing my old neighborhood. A holdout. A dreamer. I needed to find inspiration. My friends John and Christine were obvious examples of residents who hadn’t given up hope, but I wanted to know if there were more people like them, other diehards fighting to ensure that the neighborhood had a future.I would drive through Civic Park until I spotted a house in good condition. Then I’d just go up, knock on the door and try to talk with the owner. If there was no answer, I’d track down a phone number and call to set up an interview. I figured this was the best way to get the unvarnished truth about life in the neighborhood. Numerous friends pointed out that this was not the safest plan, but I figured if I couldn’t find people who felt comfortable having a conversation with me, then Civic Park was no place to buy a house.

Like the rest of Flint, Civic Park had an elaborate history. Only a few miles northwest of downtown, it is one of the country’s first subdivisions and one of the largest districts listed on the National Historic Register. The development began in 1917 as a private venture to create housing for autoworkers and their families flooding the city. After World War I, the project was taken over directly by GM, which formed the Modern Housing Corporation to avoid the embarrassment of shop rats living in tents and tar-paper shacks surrounding the factories. The company had real concerns that substandard living conditions would hurt its ability to recruit and retain workers.

The creation of Civic Park shows how fast and loose life was in an industrial boomtown. This was not an era that required elaborate environmental impact reports or a time-consuming public approval process for a massive housing development. It also provides yet another illustration of Charles Stewart Mott’s power and influence.

One morning in 1917, a survey crew headed by a twenty-six-year-old named Charles Branch was preparing lots for new houses on the far East Side. The workers were surprised when a well-polished automobile cut across the empty field, stopping near the surveying equipment, and none other than Charlie Sugar stepped out and started a conversation with Branch.

Mott: “Did you read in the paper last night that we were going to put 10,000 men to work at Buick and Chevrolet?”

Branch: “Yes, I did.”

Mott: “When I woke up this morning I thought of something. Where are we going to put them? How soon can you start building ten thousand houses?”

Branch: “I can send out a surveying crew in the morning to make a boundary survey if I know where to send them.”

That’s how Branch was hired to create the initial plat and street design of Civic Park. A more modest goal of one thousand houses was soon established, but they needed to be built as quickly as possible. A work camp that would rival many small towns was created to accommodate 4,600 workers. There were ninety-six bunkhouses and two commissaries that could feed 1,500 at a single sitting, along with barbershops, shoe repair shops, and several open-air theaters. A railroad line was built to carry two thousand tons of materials from the Chevy plant to Civic Park. At one point, trains left the supply station every six minutes, twenty-four hours a day. Five sawmills cut hemlock and yellow pine around the clock. In just nine months between 1919 and 1920, GM built 950 houses of varying design on 280 acres of farmland, a staggering accomplishment that rivals the pace of new construction in places like Las Vegas and Phoenix during the more recent housing bubble. It was not unusual for a new home to be completed in seven hours from start to finish.

More than two dozen variations on eight different models were available to homeowners, including the New England Colonial, the Civic Park Saltbox, and the Urban Traditional. “A typical home had five or six rooms, a slate roof, an open porch and a basement,” reads the historic-site marker. “Curved streets, planned park areas and tree-lined boulevards added to the attractiveness of the community.”

Bassett Place, named after a former Buick president, is one of those curved streets. My childhood home sits midblock. It was not built until the late twenties, after the initial Civic Park construction spree. It faces a sprawling park, one of the last projects completed by GM’s Modern Housing Corporation, with baseball diamonds, tennis courts, and a stretch of woods once filled with trails perfect for BMX bike riding and illicit cigarette smoking.

I hadn’t intended to start my search on my old street. It was probably just muscle memory that led me back to Bassett Place. Over the winter, I had checked the property records and connected with the current owner to try and arrange an official visit. The phone conversation had been awkward. “You’re from California and you want me to let you inside of my house?” she’d asked. “I’ll have to call you back on that.” She never did. Who could blame her? I had given up on ever seeing the inside, but now I noticed there was no car in the driveway. I called the number that was saved in my cell phone. No answer. I parked across the street and stared at the house. Thanks to the dull utility of aluminum siding, it was surprisingly unchanged since the day we moved out twenty-five years earlier. I noticed a familiar chip in the wood steps leading to the screened-in front porch. I called the number again. Still no answer. There didn’t appear to be anyone home.

I had a sudden urge to see the small square of lawn in back where I played football as a kid, the chain-link fence I jumped in the winter to save time getting to the Dupont Street bus. I wondered if the tree where I used to read my Encyclopedia Brown books nestled in the comfortable crook of two big branches was still standing. I wanted to catch a glimpse of the Flint I remembered. I knew this was probably a mistake. I was bound to be disappointed. I was starting to regain my sense of familiarity with Flint, shedding some of the trepidation I’d felt the previous summer. I wasn’t sure if that was such a good thing. I hesitated, then got out of the car and headed for the driveway. I’d just take a quick look.

Lingering uninvited in the yard of a house in Flint is not a wise move, but it was all so instantly familiar that my nervousness disappeared in the June heat. There was the tree. There was the fence. There was the pint-sized, makeshift football field with a flowerbed doubling as the sideline. But I was surprised to see something I had completely forgotten—the peeling remnants of a mural on the side of the neighbor’s garage. My sister had painted it in the midseventies, an escapist desert landscape with an orange sun setting over a purple mesa surrounded by golden sands and the occasional cactus. It was similar in style and temperament to the airbrushed scenes adorning many customized vans in Flint at a time when Earth, Wind & Fire was battling the Eagles for supremacy on car radios and eight-track tape decks throughout the city, another reflection of Flint’s racial divide.

The garage, listing badly and engulfed in shrubbery, hadn’t been painted in more than three decades. It once belonged to our neighbor, a stylish elderly woman named Mrs. Procunier. I played gin rummy with her on Tuesday nights when I was a kid. We would sit at a little table in her kitchen, taking turns dealing while she worked her way through a pack of Parliaments and I polished off the Brach’s candy she supplied. I also mowed her lawn, shoveled her snow, and bought her cigarettes at the nearby Double D Market, now a vacant lot dotted with fast-growing ghetto palms across the street from the recently shuttered Civic Park School. To allow me to procure smokes at such a tender age, she wrote a note on a piece of scrap paper in her perfect cursive: “Gordie Young has permission to purchase cigarettes for me. He is my employee.”

Mrs. Procunier also signed off on my sister’s plan to paint the mural. She didn’t seem thrilled with the idea, but she was kindhearted. After all, she had forgiven me for almost burning the garage to the ground during my extended flirtation with pyromania. (Take a lighter and a can of Lysol and you’ve got yourself a flame thrower.) She didn’t live long after the mural was completed. She enjoyed a cigarette the day she died of pneumonia, perhaps one purchased by me. She bequeathed our family two thousand dollars and a light blue Buick LeSabre in her will.

Dan Kildee’s younger brother Mike and his wife then moved into the house. They drove a Renault Alliance and made out in their backyard, which made them seem wildly exotic. As if to counteract Mrs. Procunier’s unhealthy smoking habit, Mike was an avid runner who put up a basketball hoop on the garage. I remember him telling me once when we were shooting baskets that he thought the mural was pretty cool.

In one of my recent conversations with Dan, I had asked for his verdict on Civic Park. He’d spent the bulk of his childhood just five blocks away on Genesee Street. “That neighborhood was at the tipping point about eight years ago, and it tipped,” he said, frowning. “The wrong way,” he added unnecessarily.

My old neighborhood was clearly in the crosshairs of a revolutionary urban-planning experiment. The shrinking-city concept is a rational approach for a punch-drunk municipality with few options, but standing in my old backyard in a neighborhood on the edge of extinction, despite its historic status, I felt the emotional reluctance of many to embrace the new approach. As I looked at the decaying mural my sister painted in the twilight of Flint’s glory years, I understood how agonizing it was for a city to cut its losses and let go of the past, to walk away from so many memories. It felt like accepting defeat.

Back in my car, I drove the streets of Civic Park, window down to better appreciate the beautiful weather, passing familiar landmarks, or what was left of them. My pal Jerry’s house on Delmar Avenue was now a vacant lot. Another friend’s home on the same block was abandoned, but the railroad ties his dad used to define their flowerbeds in the seventies were still visible. The two-story on the corner of Humboldt and West Dayton—known as “the bachelors’ house” because four young guys who were very popular with the ladies lived there—looked like it had been hit by a tornado. The windows were broken, and the front door was wide open, affording a view of the living room where numerous parties had raged. A couple of blocks away, Rivethead author Ben Hamper’s old house had seen better days. I slowed down for properties that seemed promising, only to discover that they were gutted, nothing more than shells. This was going to be harder than I thought. Blight was in abundant supply; a well-maintained Dutch Colonial defying time, the elements, and complex global economic trends was not.

But while the perfect house was difficult to spot, I was certainly attracting a lot of attention. Judging from the icy stares I got from the few people I passed on the street, I was a highly suspicious character. White guy, short hair, Ray-Bans. There were two obvious possibilities—cop or misguided suburbanite trolling for drugs. The pessimistic might add a third option—a random, crazy muthafucka. I felt the urge to yell out the window, “It’s okay, I used to live here.” After all, I regularly covered these same streets by foot, bike, and skateboard as a kid. I knew these houses. I’d scouted all the shortcuts and gaps in backyard fences. I still remembered where the unfriendly dogs once lived.

I didn’t get too excited when I spotted an impressive wooden sign in the yard of a corner house proclaiming, “Welcome to Milbourne Avenue Block Club / Working Together for a Better Neighborhood.” I knew that well-intentioned block clubs frequently couldn’t compete with the forces of decline in Flint. These signs were scattered around the city, often acting as tombstones for blocks that didn’t make it.

But Milbourne between West Dayton and West Hamilton wasn’t dead yet. The curbs lining the street were painted white. Many residents had planted red flowers in the parkway between street and sidewalk. Closer inspection revealed that the flowers were fake, indicating a thrifty pragmatism, a realism that might ensure long-term survival. There was only one vacant lot. A few houses were abandoned, but only a couple were boarded, burned out, or obviously empty. The occupied homes were painted and well kept. Yards were mowed. The random trash that littered so many other blocks was nowhere to be found. A TV news crew looking to capture the decline of Civic Park wouldn’t shoot on this block.

And there were actual people visible on the street.

An older black couple sat on lawn chairs in the driveway of an immaculate yellow house. A statue of the Virgin Mary looked out over the front yard. The walkway to the steps was covered in black Astroturf and flanked with running lights. The front of the house was decorated with black shutters and one of those eagles you’d expect to find in an Ethan Allen catalog. If not for the bars on the first-floor windows, it looked like a typical suburban house. Down the street, a woman on her hands and knees was planting flowers. Real ones. At another house, a man on a tall ladder was trimming a tree with a handsaw.

I drove slowly down the street, wondering if I was engaging in magical thinking. Was I looking so hard for signs of hope that I was inventing them? I checked out two adjoining blocks just to make sure; they were shabby, abandoned, and empty. They resembled a movie set after production had shut down.

I looped back around to Milbourne. Instead of a single house, I’d stumbled on almost an entire block making a stand against seemingly inexorable decline. I stopped the car and basked in a little of the useless nostalgia I’d vowed to avoid. With the humidity building as the afternoon stretched toward evening and the birds chirping from the trees above, this could have easily been a typical Civic Park street on a hot summer day in the seventies. It could have been the Flint I remembered.

I noticed two black women—one older and holding a small dog, the other younger with short, bleached hair—watching me from the side porch of the gray house with the block-club sign in the yard. Though I was excited to find their street, they didn’t seem thrilled to discover me surveying the situation. I walked over, introduced myself, and asked if they had time to talk. They agreed with a shrug.

I checked out the house as I walked up the driveway. The shingles needed a fresh coat of paint, but the planters near the forbidding wrought-iron security door were filled with healthy flowers. There were

new eavestroughs on one section of the roof. It seemed like a house owned by people who still cared but were short on funds.

I took a seat at a glass-top patio table with Betsy, who was just shy of her seventieth birthday, and her forty-three-year-old daughter, Delarie. Betsy had tinted wireless glasses and was wearing a black T-shirt. She looked comfortable on the shady porch, holding a little black Yorkipoo named Quasi on her lap. “There’s a lot of drugs and gangs in the neighborhood since you lived here,” Betsy said, sounding tired and touching the silver cross she wore on a chain around her neck. “But our block is a lot quieter.”

Delarie had a beautiful smile and seemed ten years younger than me, but we had both graduated from Flint high schools in 1984. We ran though a list of people we might know but failed to find a connection, illustrating the gulf between a white Catholic school kid and a black public school student. But like many conversations I had with Flintoids, the initial, practical suspicion quickly evaporated. Once they trusted you, Flint residents were anything but guarded. Betsy and Delarie seemed somewhat bemused by my enthusiasm for the block, agreeing that Milbourne was better than most in the neighborhood but tempering my exuberance with the perspective that comes with being an actual resident. “Civic Park has really gone downhill, but I have hope,” Delarie said. “This street is trying to help make up for the rest of the neighborhood.”

Betsy and her family ended up here almost by accident. She was living about a mile to the east when she spotted a rent-to-own sign in the yard of the house on a trip to the Double D Market to buy groceries in 1991. She liked the oversize lot—a perfect place for her eleven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren to play. “I prayed to God to give me this house with a big yard, and it worked out,” she said. “I like my corner.”

The house became a gathering spot for family and neighborhood kids. There was room for an above-ground pool, a swing set, a trampoline, and a badminton net. Betsy was known as “Granny” to the children; Delarie was “Mama,” regardless of whether they were relatives or not. But the kids grew up, and then the board of education closed Civic Park School in response to dwindling enrollment and budget cuts. “I really miss hearing little kids in the neighborhood,” Betsy said. “Sometimes I feel lost and alone without them.”

Delarie added, “They made it seem normal.”

Delarie raised two boys in the neighborhood. She rented a house across the street—now abandoned—for several years before moving in

with her mom. The boys were eighteen and twenty-three now and still lived with them. The youngest was working on his GED, hoping to join the army. If all went well, he would be in boot camp at Fort Bennington in July. “He had some trouble in school,” she explained. “I’m trying to save him, because if you stay around here you can get bitter.”

Betsy had moved to Flint from Mississippi in search of opportunity when she was thirty-five. She joined her sister, who had already migrated north. Betsy’s time in Flint had not been easy. She was working at a restaurant and lounge on New Year’s Eve many years ago when she slipped while carrying a container of hot grease and suffered severe burns. She underwent five skin-graft surgeries on her neck and face. Although she won a $2.5 million judgment against the restaurant, she was never able to collect. “The restaurant didn’t have that kind of money,” she explained.

Betsy’s husband had died in 2007, not long after he retired from GM. The day of the funeral, she was sitting with Quasi when the puppy put its paws on her chest and Betsy felt a sharp pain. After a visit to the doctor, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Betsy had children in North Carolina and Georgia who wanted her to move in with them, but she was undecided. “I’m a survivor, but I’m not sure I can take care of this house,” she said. “Then again, I’m used to having a place of my own. All I’d have is a room at my kid’s house. I’m not sure which direction I’ll go. I’m just not sure if I’ll stay in Flint.”

Delarie was the only one of six children still living in Flint. “I’ll stay here as long as my mom stays,” she said. “I see this block as the soul of the neighborhood. Every night you hear shots from the other streets, but not on our street. But I still don’t leave home without my gun. I just feel better carrying it.”

She showed me her nine-millimeter handgun, a black Taurus Ultra Slim she kept loaded with hollow-point bullets. She carried it in a small holster on her waist. The gun shattered the reassuring sense of normalcy that had enveloped me, the feeling that Civic Park wasn’t that far removed from the place where I grew up, a neighborhood where three people could spend a pleasant afternoon sitting on the porch and talking without the need for firearms. She left the gun on the table, and it was distracting. I kept glancing at it.

“She’s concerned about my safety,” Betsy explained, sensing my discomfort.

“I’m concerned about my safety, too,” Delarie added.

I asked what they thought of Dan Kildee’s shrinking-city concept. It got a cold reaction, even from two residents who might leave the city to escape its problems. “There are parts of Flint where you can sit on your porch and see empty lots for two or three blocks,” Betsy said. “I don’t want that to happen here. That’s not going to help me. That’s just going to make me an easier target.”

Delarie repeated a persistent rumor. “You know the land bank is burning down houses all over the city to get rid of them.”

As so often happened in Flint, the glimmer of hope I had felt just twenty minutes earlier was fading away. Betsy and Delarie exhibited the contradictory feelings I discovered practically everywhere in the city. They defended their block and the memories they had created there. They were proud of this place. But they were also weary, and it was clear that it might not take all that much for them to join the Flint diaspora, to head to North Carolina or Georgia or Mississippi and leave the challenges of Civic Park behind.

“But what’s happening on this block to make it better?” I asked, trying to get back to a positive topic. “Why’s Milbourne different from all the other blocks?”

Betsy told me that a black congregation had taken over the once all-white church just around the corner. Community Presbyterian had given way to Joy Tabernacle. The pastor was named Sherman McCathern. “He’s doing everything he can to help,” she said. “And Dave Starr runs the block club. He’s trying hard, too. You should meet both of them.”

It turned out I was in luck. There was a block-club meeting scheduled for the next day.


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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.