Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Contradicting Flint

Top: a partial deconstruction at the GM Flint Buick Motor Division plant. Bottom: Olon Dotson, Associate Professor of Architecture, Ball State University, and Jeff Burdick, Neighborhood Planner at the Genesee County Land Bank, visit a "hoop house" greenhouse in a Flint residential neighborhood. For more images of Flint, see the website.

Last week I made my 14th visit to Flint, Michigan. While comfortable among distress and interested in small local initiatives, after this trip I'm seeing some contradictions.

These inconsistencies are informed, courtesy of my colleague Olon Dotson, by song lyrics recorded by The Ohio Players and sung by Leroy "Sugarfoot" Bonner. With "Contradictions," Sugarfoot sets out to reveal his world, influencing and influenced by:

my convictions . . .
my restrictions . . .
my intentions . . .

contributions . . . the solutions . . . a revelation . . .
your constitutions . . . retribution . . . illusion . . .

confusion . . . institution . . .
diffusion . . . dilution . . .


In Sugarfoot's mix, each response or action or feeling informs as it complicates, each is unique and reliant on others, each explanation both helps and hinders.

Top: a mattress in a back bedroom of an abandoned house on 4th Avenue between Stone and Begole Streets suggests the presence of a squatter. Bottom: In east Flint, which is probably the city's most distressed neighborhood, Olon talks with Billy, a local man and houseowner. Note the yard sign: "All Gave Some. Some Gave All." Additional images of the abandoned house can be seen at this site.

Flint, today, has its own contradictions:

Outdoor dining downtown--is this an illusion


an estimate of 20,000 abandoned structures--a revelation


opening of UM-Flint's first on-campus housing--a contribution


widespread abandonment and open lots of east Flint--a dilution


remodeling of the Durant Hotel into downtown apartment living--an institution


the 51st, and last, Buick Open golf tournament (won by Tiger Woods)--a further blow to Flint's constitution


my windshield survey: more urban gardens now than in years past--highlighting convictions


the 235-acre Buick City site is the largest brownfield in the U.S.--overrun with restrictions


an August election that seated a new mayor--part of the solution


8-10 structure fires every week--are these contributions?

"Contradicting Flint" has a larger sense about it . . . that inconsistencies do exist, side-by-side, simultaneously, are of the same whole cloth of a living, vibrant city. There is no doubt, Flint continues to fall. And there is the possibility that Flint, in conventional terms (restaurants downtown, new mayor, refurbished grand buildings) is "rebounding," is "coming back," is a "city to watch," as we're tempted to say about such indicators.

Top: thousands of houses are self-deconstructing, this one in the Carriage Town Historic District, at 4th & Stone. Bottom: across the street, a house tended, lovingly, by Adam, who I wrote about in "First Name Basis (Part 1)."

Still, in Youngstown, Ohio a year ago, a city with its own distressing story: at one time it was the third largest steel-producing city in the world, now it's best known for leading in efforts to "shrink" the city. With Olon, Nihal Perera, and architecture and planning students, a conversation with Hunter Morrison, Director of Campus Planning at Youngstown State University.

Among Morrison's observations: when considering cities we should think in "long wave patterns" and fifty-year increments. Morrison added that mining towns which fed the Rust Belt went under first. The refineries of that rough stuff and their cities (Youngstown, Pittsburgh, Braddock, Gary) went next. And now the steel-bending towns and states are in free fall. Detroit and Flint, Michigan. Anderson and Muncie, Indiana.

That said, Flint's story might be, will be a hybrid. It has universities (UM-Flint, Kettering, Mott Community College) and hospitals (Hurley, McLaren, Mott Children's, Genesee Cancer & Blood Disease, among them)--what Morrison termed "eds and meds," which provide a base that is unlikely to go away. Local philanthropies--the Charles Stewart Mott and the Ruth Mott Foundations--offer continuous, critical support. And the people of the Genesee County Land Bank are trying their best to stand tall in an avalanche of foreclosures, abandonments, emergencies, and more.

And, I suggest, individuals who are not doctors or bank presidents or university professors or foundation secretaries will have their say, do have important roles to play in Flint's future. Like Billy in east Flint welcoming persons-in-need into his house, Adam in Carriage Town who holds down his part of the historic district, the squatter Keith making his way, the police officer/poet/photographer Brian comforting a victim of violent crime or refereeing a youth basketball game, and Julie at the Brown Sugar Cafe, getting people going in the downtown. In their own ways and for their own reasons, these persons and their actions will matter.

If we apply Morrison's timeline, maybe another 25 years of hard fall remain for the people of Flint. Or maybe the city is going to be a place that does pull out of its decline.

Most likely, it will fit somewhere in-between, as Sugarfoot suggests, contradicting our predictions and our visions while contradicting our optimisms and pessimisms.