Learning to accept addition by subtraction in Flint, Mich.
By Gordon Young
I returned to my hometown of Flint, Michigan, in 2009 to buy a house after living in San Francisco for nearly twenty years. Why would I leave the City by the Bay for a city where violence and heartache are all too real? Well, it’s complicated. Like a lot of people who hit midlife in an adopted city, I saw my hometown as a center of authenticity—my authenticity. I wanted to reconnect with the place that made me who I am, even if it had become one of the poorest and most-dangerous cities in America.
Flint is the birthplace of General Motors and the “star” of Michael Moore’s Roger & Me, the documentary that established the Vehicle City as a place where desperate residents sold rabbits for “pets or meat” to survive. But I soon discovered that it was also the epicenter of a radical urban planning concept known as the shrinking city model, a plan for struggling cities that was fine-tuned and vigorously promoted by a local politician named Dan Kildee, now a member of Congress representing the Flint area. Kildee believed that Flint needed to accept that it was unlikely to recreate an era when it had close to 200,000 residents, a vibrant middle class, and one of the highest per capita income levels in the United States. Abandoned houses and buildings should be leveled and replaced with parks, urban gardens, and green space. Eventually, incentives could be used to entice residents into higher density neighborhoods that have been reinvigorated with infill housing and rehab projects. Kildee was instrumental in crafting legislation in Michigan beginning in the ’90s that enabled public “land banks” to quickly gain control of delinquent property — and the revenue it sometimes generates. Once it acquires a property, the land bank can sell it, rent it, or demolish it. It also collects interest penalties and principal from property owners behind on their taxes, rather than selling off the debt at drastically reduced rates to private investors — a common practice in many municipalities.
The approach makes a lot of sense in a city that has lost more than 70,000 GM jobs and half its population. After all, Flint is shrinking all by itself, so why not manage the process? Yet many residents resist the plan, even though abandoned houses are magnets for crime and playthings for unscrupulous speculators. I didn’t understand the opposition until I returned to Flint. One day I visited the modest house with faded green aluminum siding in the crumbling Civic Park neighborhood where I grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The happy memories of growing up at 2402 Bassett Place came flooding back as I stood in the small yard where I played football and built forts as a kid. I knew my former home would soon become a prime candidate for demolition and the entire neighborhood might be headed for extinction. I suddenly realized how agonizing it is for a city to cut its losses and let go of the past. Many residents love their homes, no matter how undesirable they might appear to outsiders. The thought of walking away just seems wrong, like turning your back on an old friend.
For all his evangelizing on behalf of right-size cities and the undeniable exuberance he exhibits when discussing urban-planning issues, Kildee never wanted it to come to this. “I wish that thirty-five years ago some American city had gone through what Flint is going through, and they could have given us some advice to produce a different outcome,” he told me.
I still fully endorse the shrinking city model for Flint and other cities like it. It’s the first step in transforming my old hometown into a better place. Maybe not the city it was in the glory years of the fifties, but a different place that still has pride and dignity. But I also have a much better understanding of the process now that I have reconnected with the city where four generations of my family lived. I realize that it appeals more to the head than the heart, and local leaders who are forced to implement the approach should not discount the profound emotion bound up in an attempt to reconfigure an entire city. Simply appealing to logic may not be enough to win over a reluctant populace with a deep collective reserve of happy memories.
Gordon Young is a journalist and author of Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City, published by the University of California Press in June 2013. For more information on the book visit www.teardownbook.com.