Journalist Gordon Young
escaped Flint, Michigan, and eventually found himself able to purchase a modest
cottage (with nothing down!) in overpriced San Francisco. Yet the experience
drew him back to his roots in Flint. He began a blog called “Flint Expatriates.” In his new book from
UC Press, Teardown:
Memoir of a Vanishing City, he tells the tale of trying to go home
again. Place is not always the result of the work of well-intended design
professionals. I interviewed Gordon about his book and his hometown.
Kenneth Caldwell: Tell me
more about how the book came to be. You’ve created a compelling narrative from
a lot of disparate threads. Most of your earlier work had been short pieces for
magazines and newspapers, right? How were you able to bring all these pieces
together? When did you know that you had a book?
Gordon Young: Believe it or not, the idea for a house in Flint really emerged because my girlfriend, Traci, and I somehow managed to buy a house we
really couldn’t afford in San Francisco back in 2004, just as the real estate
bubble was starting to expand. Being a first-time homeowner triggered all these
unexpectedly warm feelings for Flint and the house with faded green aluminum
siding that I grew up in. I’m not sure this qualifies as a mid-life crisis, but
I began to realize that Flint was the center of my authenticity. I still knew
every street, building, and landmark. I’d covered large chunks of the city on
foot, bike, and skateboard. I still had a deep connection to Flint, even though
I’d only been back a few times over the years. It doesn’t matter that I’ve
lived in San Francisco longer than I lived in Flint. Flint is part of me, and
I’m part of Flint. I wanted to reconnect with the place that made me who I am.
It’s also one of the poorest, most violent cities in the country, and I felt an
obligation to help it in some way.
Looking back, I can see now that there were easier ways for me to make this
happen, but I somehow convinced myself that buying a house in Flint was best
way to do it. And I sort of convinced Traci. Maybe it was the prices. Anyone
who’s bought property in a big city knows how insane the cost can be. Our
700-square-foot bungalow in San Francisco cost half a million dollars. We
bought it with a no-money-down, interest-only loan – the sort of toxic mortgage
that would eventually bring the world to the brink of economic collapse. You
can buy houses in Flint by the dozen on eBay, like they’re donuts, for about
The more time I spent in Flint, the more I realized that what was happening
revealed a lot about what is happening in a lot of other cities around the
country. And it seemed like every time I told someone a story about something
that happened in Flint, they always said I should write a book about it.
What role did your blog play in shaping the book?
The blog was really my way of thinking out loud about Flint when all these
memories of my childhood came flooding back after Traci and I moved into our
house in San Francisco. It was a great way to sort out some of my feelings and
connect with current and former Flint residents. But the virtual Flint obviously wasn’t the same as the real thing, even though it had better weather and
less crime. I needed to go back and re-experience the real Flint.
What about Flint’s history contributed the most to its decline?
Depends on who you ask. General Motors is an obvious culprit for eliminating
close to 80,000 jobs in Flint. Some say it’s the United Automobile Workers
union’s fault because the union was too militant and too demanding. Of course,
labor agreements are the result of negotiations. General Motors didn’t have to
give in to union demands. And union workers didn’t have anything to do with the
horrible management decisions General Motors made over the years. Then there
are U.S. policies that effectively swapped our industrial economy for the
so-called service economy. The middle class withered, but we get to buy a lot
of cheap crap at big box stores. Others point out that Flint never diversified
its economy, but who diversifies during the glory years? Is Silicon Valley
trying to diversify and develop something other than technology right now? So
it’s a complicated question, and it’s probably a combination of all those
This pattern of corporations using up and wasting towns seems to be not just
a U.S., but a global trend?
Corporations abandon cities to varying degrees all the time. And that is one of
the factors creating shrinking cities all over the world. Some of the
statistics are pretty surprising. More cities shrank than grew in the developed
world over the past 30 years. Fifty-nine U.S. cities with more than 100,000
people lost at least a tenth of their residents over the last 50 years. Flint and Detroit are high-profile examples because they lost half their population, but
the same thing happened in Buffalo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis. But don’t assume this is just a Rust Belt phenomenon. The Great Recession
ensured that cities in the South and the Sunbelt are part of the trend now.
Dan Kildee, a Flint politician who advocates the shrinking city model, is
now in Congress. In your book, he talks about a “regional tax-base
redistribution system.” How well will that phrase work now that he is in
Congress? Won’t he be accused of being a socialist?
Dan Kildee’s never been shy about taking potentially unpopular stances. He
frequently says that good policy doesn’t always equal popularity. It’s a
refreshing approach for a politician, and Kildee’s recent election to Congress
shows he has a knack for convincing voters that he has good ideas and is
willing to work to make them a reality, even if the voters don’t necessarily
agree at first.
He’s a visionary thinker. As a county treasurer and head of the local land
bank, he garnered international publicity for refining and enthusiastically
pushing what has come to be known as the shrinking-city concept. It basically
calls for abandoning irrational hope and moving on. Kildee wants cities like Flint to accept that they aren’t going to recover from population loss anytime soon.
Abandoned houses should be demolished and replaced with parks, urban gardens,
and green space. Down the line, incentives could be used to lure residents into
higher-density neighborhoods that have been reinvigorated with infill housing
and rehab projects. Theoretically, Flint could save money by reducing
infrastructure costs. It’s manifest destiny in reverse, a radical
urban-planning concept that rejects growth as the fundamental goal of cities.
The details of how it works can get complicated. Kildee casually throws around
terms like “scattered site cross collateralized tax increment financing” in
conversation. But the essence of what he’s created is a system that keeps
distressed property away from real-estate speculators. It keeps that abandoned
house on Flint’s East Side, where a Buick worker once raised a family, away
from some guy in Nevada looking to make a quick buck. Kildee has given cities
facing economic decline and a dwindling population a way to control their own
real estate outside of so-called market forces. He’s given them a way to
control their own territorial destiny.
Sometimes that means money from Flint’s more prosperous suburbs are used to
help the urban core. So far he’s got a lot of communities in the area to go
along with the plan. I don’t see any indication he’s going to abandon this
approach now that he’s in Congress.
For me, there were two climaxes to the narrative. The first one takes place
in the chapter entitled “Home on the Range,” when you lose it at the firing
range. Because at that point, I think you realize that you are not the kind of
man who wants to own a gun to protect his home. And then, of course, in “Joy to
the World,” when you break down crying following the service in Sherman McCathern’s church.
I went to the firing range with Dave Starr, a retired autoworker who still
lives a few blocks from my childhood home with his wife, Judy. They bought
their house in 1968 for $14,000, and it’s probably worth half that amount
today. But Dave has never given up on the neighborhood. He’s still fighting to
save it. I realized that if I were going to buy a house in my old neighborhood
of Civic Park, I’d have to take precautions like Dave. That meant carrying a
gun. So Dave showed me how to make bullets in his basement. He taught me gun
safety. And we went to the shooting range together. That experience, although
pretty funny in hindsight, really showed me what it would take to be a part of Flint again.
I came to view Pastor Sherman McCathern as a real unsung hero in Flint, like Dave and Judy Starr. He’s coming up with innovative ways to help the city in
the face of overwhelming odds. And he’s doing it with a sense of humor and
incredible resolve. He’s also someone who can be very practical but never loses
sight of all the emotion that’s wrapped up in a struggling city like Flint, a place that has a real unemployment rate pushing 40%. I’m not exactly comfortable
revealing my emotions, but the pastor has a way of tapping into what I’m really
feeling. And sometimes it’s not easy to acknowledge those feelings. I was
sitting in his church one Sunday while a blizzard raged outside. It was the
same day Flint tied the record for the most murders in a single year. And all
the emotion he brought out in me and the rest of his congregation really made
me realize why I had returned to Flint after all those years.
I found this a surprisingly spiritual book. The story is about big ideas
like Kildee's, but also small deeds and people taking a stand that is within
their means. You come across as a lapsed Catholic who is still affected by his
religious upbringing. One of your challenges in the book reminds me of what
Dorothy Day talks about. Altruism is rarely selfless. You are fairly open about
how you need to get out the way of giving to actually give.
At best, I’d say I’m sort of a cultural Catholic now. But I’m still guided by a
lot of the big lessons the nuns taught me in the Flint Catholic school system.
You should help out when help is needed. And you should feel guilty – very guilty
– if you don’t. Without really realizing it, I definitely had this misguided
notion in the beginning that I would somehow show up in Flint, buy a house, and
spur the recovery of the city. I was trying to help the city on my terms. I
wanted to be a combination of the prodigal son and a conquering hero. After
spending a lot of time in Flint and getting to know dozens of people there, I
eventually figured out that this was a pretty selfish approach. And the reality
of Flint forces you to be very practical. There is no magic bullet. No quick
fix. It will take a lot of time, hard work, and small individual efforts that
combine to improve the city. I think I found a way to do my part, but it
required me to let go of all the plans I had cooked up back in San Francisco. I never imagined my return to Flint would turn out the way it did.
What did your family make of the book?
They love it, but that’s their job, right? Four generations of my family lived
in Flint, and my mom told me the book captured the city she always loved but
always longed to escape. My goal was to reveal the spirit and allure of Flint, without sugarcoating the reality of life there. This isn’t a sappy, nostalgic book.
But it does reveal the powerful hold that the place where you grew up can exert
What is your next book?
I’ve got three ideas for new books. I’m in the process of fine-tuning them and
deciding which one makes the most sense for me at the moment. Writing Teardown
was a very emotional process for me. It took four years to complete. I want to
make the right choice. And I still have a lot of work left in Flint.
What’s next for you in terms of Flint? The book may be out in the world, but
I don’t think your story in Flint is finished.
Without giving away too much of the book, I’ve forged strong friendships with
many people in Flint. I talk to them almost daily. And there is no shortage of
projects that can help the city. I’m trying to show other Flint expatriates how
to connect with the city in some way. I’ve heard from a lot of people who have
read the book and want to know how they can get involved. I hope that my
experience can help some of the other people who left to create a bond with the
city again, like I did.
All photos courtesy http://www.teardownbook.com
Kenneth Caldwell is a writer and communications
consultant based in the San Francisco bay area. He can reached at Kenneth@KennethCaldwell.com.
Also by Caldwell:
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Barry Elbasani, FAIA,
1941-2010: A recent conversation with the gruff optimist and realistic urbanist
about his history, inspirations, and aspirations.
architect known for plans and buildings that revitalized American cities passed
away last week at 69.
Op-Ed: CAMP Notes
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Public Architecture Co-founders John Peterson and John Cary
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Facility by Melander Architects
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Public Consensus: A Conversation with Barbara Faga, FASLA
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and Chong Partners offer two views on trends in public and academic libraries
Ironies: Notes on Losing the Bunshaft's Travertine House (1963)
Stories: Renovating San Francisco's Ronald McDonald House
answered yes in the 1980s and again in the new century.
A New Yet
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