The Past, Present, and Future of a Shrinking City By Gordon Young Lingering uninvited in the backyard of a house in Flint, Michigan on an overcast June afternoon is not a wise move — even if it is the modest two-story with faded green aluminum siding where you were raised. So I didn’t plan to stay long. I just wanted to see the small square of lawn where I played football as a kid, the chain-link fence I jumped to save time getting to the Dupont Street bus stop. I wanted to catch a glimpse of the Flint I remembered.
Gordon Young (lower left) at his brother’s high school graduation
I was in the birthplace of General Motors writing a real estate story for The New York Times and covering the mayor’s race for Slate magazine. Aside from a few quick driveby’s over the years, it was the first time I’d visited my old house in the Civic Park neighborhood since my mom and I moved out, along with what seemed like everybody else, in the mid-eighties. As the B-52’s used to sing at the citywide Our Lady of Lebanon dances I attended in high school — after over-indulging in illegally obtained Boone’s Farm and/or Mickey’s Malt Liquor — "Don't feel out of place/'Cause there are thousands
of others like you." I’d tried to connect with the current owner to arrange an official visit, but it hadn’t worked out. I decided to take a quick look anyway. Now would probably be the logical place to insert the appropriately dire anecdote, crime stat, unemployment rate or livability index to illustrate Flint’s economic freefall. To be honest, I’ve written a lot about Flint and I’m a little tired of repeating them. Just rent Michael Moore’s Roger & Me. Or read Forbes, which seems to reserve a spot for Flint in each of its useless — yet seemingly endless — online lists of America’s worst places. “What can I say? The economy is fucked up, man,” is how one resident put it to me in terms any Flint expatriate could understand. Despite being only a few miles from downtown, the Civic Park Historic District is considered one of the country’s first subdivisions, according to a 1976 history of the city published by The Flint Journal, the local newspaper that recently slashed its editorial staff and cut publication to three days a week. The development began in 1916 as a private venture to create housing for autoworkers and their families flooding the city. The Civic Building Association constructed 133 houses on 400 acres of farmland before it went belly up. Typical of the pattern that would define Flint for decades to come, G.M. stepped in to pick up the slack, buying 280 more acres and building 950 houses of varying designs in less than a year. “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 streets. The homes weren’t built until the late twenties after the initial Civic Park construction spree. They face a sprawling park with baseball diamonds, tennis courts, and a mini forest once filled with trails perfect for BMX bike riding. My house sits mid-block. Pausing at the end of
the driveway, I was surprised to see the peeling remnants of a mural on the side of the neighbor’s garage. My sister had painted it in the mid-seventies, an escapist desert vista 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 vans in Flint at a time when the Theme from S.W.A.T. was inexplicably at the top of the charts. The garage, listing badly and engulfed in shrubbery, hadn’t been painted in more than three decades.
It was the only time in my three week visit that I wanted to cry for my hometown. The garage once belonged to our neighbor Bernice Procunier. I played gin rummy with her on Tuesday nights when I was a kid. We’d 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 Brachs 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, Mrs. Procunier would write 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.”
She also signed off on my sister’s plan to paint the mural. She didn’t seem thrilled with the idea, but she was kind hearted. After all, she’d forgiven me for almost burning the garage to the ground during my extended flirtation with pyromania. Mrs. Procunier didn’t live long after the mural was completed. My mother reports that she enjoyed a cigarette the day she died of pneumonia, perhaps one purchased by me. She bequeathed our family $2,000 and a light blue Buick LeSabre in her will. A young guy named Mike Kildee and his wife then moved into the house. As if to counteract Mrs. Procunier’s unhealthy smoking habit, he was an avid runner and put up a basketball hoop on the garage. He seemed to like the mural. A few days after my unauthorized visit to Bassett Place, I happened to find myself interviewing Dan Kildee, Mike’s older brother. At the time, Dan was the county treasurer and head of the Genesee County Land Bank, which acquires foreclosed property and restores or demolishes it. I asked him for his verdict on Civic Park. “That neighborhood was at the tipping point about eight years ago and it tipped,” he said, frowning. “The wrong way,” he added unnecessarily. Dan Kildee has become an eloquent national advocate for the shrinking city concept, a plan for Flint and other cities with rapidly declining populations and thousands of abandoned houses to turn empty neighborhoods into green space and encourage residents to voluntarily relocate closer to downtown. Given that Flint’s previous attempt at rejuvenation centered on the ill-fated AutoWorld theme park, the idea makes sense for the Vehicle City, where one in four properties is abandoned. When I’m feeling optimistic, I envision a smaller, more verdant city with a vibrant downtown anchored by the University of Michigan campus. It’s the only rational approach for a city with few options, but it runs headlong into the countless memories of Flint’s past — a swaggering factory town with one of the highest
per capita incomes in the nation, a place where my mom danced to Duke Ellington at the I.M.A. auditorium, and the public schools were so flush they offered free harp lessons to students. (Harp lessons!) Itâ€™s even been argued that flint gave birth to the middle class in America. Standing in my old backyard in a neighborhood on the edge of extinction despite its historic status, I can understand the emotional reluctance of many to embrace the shrinking city concept. As I look at the decaying mural my sister painted in the twilight of Flintâ€™s glory years, I know how hard it is for a city to cut its losses and let go of the past.
Gordon Young, founder and editor of the Flint Expatriates blog, remembers the Flint, Michigan of his childhood, visits Flint in 2009, and wr...