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Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City

Gordon Young
Copyright Date: 2013
Edition: 1
Pages: 312
  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    After living in San Francisco for 15 years, journalist Gordon Young found himself yearning for his Rust Belt hometown: Flint, Michigan, the birthplace of General Motors and "star" of the Michael Moore documentaryRoger & Me.Hoping to rediscover and help a place that once boasted one of the world's highest per capita income levels, but is now one of the country's most impoverished and dangerous cities, he returned to Flint with the intention of buying a house. What he found was a place of stark contrasts and dramatic stories, where an exotic dancer can afford a lavish mansion, speculators scoop up cheap houses by the dozen on eBay, and arson is often the quickest route to neighborhood beautification. Skillfully blending personal memoir, historical inquiry, and interviews with Flint residents, Young constructs a vibrant tale of a once-thriving city still fighting-despite overwhelming odds-to rise from the ashes. He befriends a rag-tag collection of urban homesteaders and die-hard locals who refuse to give up as they try to transform Flint into a smaller, greener town that offers lessons for cities all over the world. Hard-hitting, insightful, and often painfully funny,Teardownreminds us that cities are ultimately defined by people, not politics or economics.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95537-0
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Prologue: Summer 2009
    (pp. 1-4)

    The sticky summer weather had finally overpowered the cold, rainy spring, and I was sleeping on the floor of a vacant house across the river from downtown Flint, Michigan, in a neighborhood called Carriage Town.

    Festive Victorian-era homes in various stages of restoration battled for supremacy with boarded-up firetraps and overgrown lots landscaped with weeds, garbage, and “ghetto palms,” a particularly hardy invasive species known more formally asAilanthus altissima,or the of tree of heaven, perhaps because only God can kill the things. Around the corner, business was brisk at a drug house where residents and customers alike weren’t...


    • 1 Pink Houses and Panhandlers
      (pp. 7-12)

      I had arrived in Flint in early June of 2009 after listening to the Tigers game in my rental car during the ninety-minute drive up I-75 from the Detroit airport. I thought baseball on the radio would snap me into a Michigan frame of mind, but the legendary Ernie Harwell, whose distinctive voice had mesmerized me as a kid, was no longer calling the games. It wasn’t quite the same. But the game did remind me to stop at a thrift store and buy that baseball bat, a handy accessory for any extended stay in Flint.

      I eventually made it...

    • 2 Bottom-Feeders
      (pp. 13-23)

      Looking back, the desire to own property in Flint was rooted in my decision to buy a house in San Francisco. Despite the yawning economic, geographic, and meteorological gap between the two places they were united by one thing: I didn’t have any business owning property in either place. By nature, I am deeply skeptical when it comes to most things that involve spending money. A few friends have jokingly used terms of endearment like “cheap bastard” and “tightwad” to describe me. (At least I think they’re joking.) But my frugality seems disappear when it comes to real estate.


    • 3 Bourgeois Homeowners
      (pp. 24-28)

      I liked to believe I was immune to popular sentiment, unaffected by the predictable middle-class longing for hearth and home. I thought it was important to keep your options open, and I was drawn to journalism because it allowed me to discover a new story, a new place, and a new group of people—and then move on. I fancied myself an outsider didn’t who didn’t do something just because everyone else was doing it.

      So it was tough to reconcile this self-image, however delusional, with the deep satisfaction I felt as a first-time homeowner. The house was supposed to...

    • 4 Virtual Vehicle City
      (pp. 29-35)

      I launched Flint Expatriates in the fall of 2007. It lacked just about every attribute that guarantees a large audience in the blogosphere. It wasn’t devoted to strident political views, tawdry celebrity gossip, the latest life-changing technology, or hardcore porn, unless you are turned on by graphic photos of abandoned houses, stripped bare of their aluminum siding and totally exposed to the elements. Aside from demolition crews, pawn shops, and moving companies, it had no obvious advertising tie-ins.

      I wasn’t expecting a blog about a troubled Rust Belt city to be wildly popular. I was hoping it would help me...

    • 5 Bad Reputation
      (pp. 36-42)

      Thanks to a spellbinding high school European history teacher who looked like a taller, dark-haired version of Albert Einstein and delivered his lectures engulfed in a cloud of pipe smoke, I knew more about the Austro-Hungarian Empire than I did about Flint when I left for college. He threw parties at his house, where teenagers from across the city drank wine coolers, smoked pot, and had break-dancing competitions in his low-ceilinged basement, proving that odd things passed for normal in Flint in the eighties and that a Catholic education wasn’t just choir practice and all-school Masses.

      Now, as the publisher...

    • 6 The Road to Prosperity
      (pp. 43-51)

      I made a surprising discovery as I blogged about Flint and immersed myself in its history for the first time. In the early days of the auto industry, my moribund hometown had been the gritty equivalent of Silicon Valley, a freewheeling city with go-getters eager to put their ideas on the line. A place where people sought their fortune. Billy Durant is a perfect example. The charismatic grandson of a local lumber baron, he dropped out of high school and sold cigars before he teamed up with his friend J. Dallas Dort to launch a carriage company with two thousand...

    • 7 Bar Logic
      (pp. 52-60)

      It’s fitting that the notion of buying a house in Flint began to take shape in a bar, like so many other ill-formed and potentially disastrous ideas. I played basketball every Saturday morning at the Mission Playground in San Francisco. A collection of players would retire after the game to the grimy gravel patio of Zeitgeist, a dumpy bar that has the trappings of a tough dive without the credentials to back it up. Yes, people who ride motorcycles hang out there, but so do aging punk rockers, bike messengers, assorted hipsters, uninhibited pot smokers, and the occasional yuppie types...

    • 8 Downward Mobility
      (pp. 61-67)

      I spent a rainy morning driving around Flint with two real-estate agents in the cramped confines of a lime-colored Jeep Rubicon. Jennifer, a forty-seven-year-old who had grown up in the city but now lived in the suburb of Fenton, was at the wheel. Ryan, who had purchased his first Flint home ten years earlier, when he was just seventeen, was folded into the backseat. It was a queasy mix of nostalgia, tanking property values, and mild motion sickness.

      I had determined that my budget for buying and fixing up my dream house in Flint was three thousand dollars. But I...

    • 9 Black and White
      (pp. 68-79)

      I’ve been obsessed with politics since grade school. I collected campaign buttons in Flint, tacked an electoral college map on my bedroom wall, and lamented that more Americans didn’t vote for Jerry Brown—who stood alongside Evel Knievel in my pantheon of childhood heroes—when he ran for president in 1976. I’d had a brief and regrettable fascination with Ronald Reagan and neoconservatism in high school, but I had since dismissed that as a youthful indiscretion. Even though I’d written about bigger, more important elections, I was excited to be covering the Flint mayor’s race forSlate.There was a...

    • 10 The Forest Primeval
      (pp. 80-93)

      I was driving through downtown after another haphazard house-hunting expedition. My real-estate quest had already become highly unfocused. I’d spent the morning wandering aimlessly in search of neighborhoods that appeared both inviting and inexpensive. The more I looked, the farther I seemed to drift from making a decision.

      I fiddled with the needlessly complicated car radio, hoping to find some cheery, superficial pop songs to propel me into a good mood. It wasn’t easy. A Jay-Z hip-hop number was far too realistic. A corporate rock “classic” like “Dust in the Wind” was just depressing. I finally resorted to AM radio...

    • 11 The Naked Truth
      (pp. 94-99)

      As June stretched into July, I’m sure I came across as an increasingly unreliable narrator in my conversations with Traci. I often called her on my cheap pay-as-you-go cell phone while I sat in the shady backyard of my house in Carriage Town. A familiar pattern began to emerge. I would talk about how much I liked being in Flint before I launched into another mildly disturbing story about the city. There was the time I noticed the beautiful light cutting through the mist as I picked up the empty booze bottles left in the front yard one morning. I...

    • 12 The Toughest Job in Politics
      (pp. 100-105)

      Dayne Walling, the leading candidate to become the next mayor of Flint, was a rarity: someone who grew up in the city, left for college and a career, then came back. I saw him as a person who was following through on a much more inspired variation of the hazy plan I was trying to put into place.

      Like my mom, he attended Central High School. But while the beautiful brick building had been an educational showcase when she attended, Flint police and security guards with metal-detecting wands roamed the halls by the time Walling graduated in 1992. Central had...

    • 13 Urban Homesteaders
      (pp. 106-116)

      I was becoming more and more at home in Carriage Town. It was where I was staying, after all, the place where I was bridging past and present. I soon realized that my initial fears, prompting the desire to carry my bat at all times, were based more on the neighborhood’s circumstances in 1989 than 2009. Rich, my friend from San Francisco had been singing its praises from the start with the fervor of a real-estate agent who genuinely loved Flint but also had a financial incentive in the form of three Carriage Town houses he was trying to rehab...

    • Photographs
      (pp. None)

    • 14 Quitters Never Win
      (pp. 119-130)

      Traci and I decided to celebrate my homecoming at the Peruvian restaurant two blocks from our house the night I flew back to San Francisco from Flint. It felt like I’d been gone a few years, and we were be together again. It was an unusually warm evening without a trace of the typical late summer fog or wind to torment us. The streets filled with healthy-looking Californians enjoying the weather as they strolled around in their straw fedoras, the latest ubiquitous fashion trend. Everyone seemed relaxed and carefree. We ate crab cakes drank sangria at eight dollars a glass....

    • 15 Burning Down the House
      (pp. 131-142)

      The fires started in late March of 2010, around the time Flint residents typically start fantasizing about the spring thaw. Like any city with widespread blight, Flint had an ongoing arson problem, but this was different. Sitting at my kitchen table in San Francisco, I watched a seemingly endless stream of shaky YouTube videos featuring Flint houses in flames while crowds watched from the street and neighbors frantically hosed down their roofs. I talked to nervous Flint residents who told me the sight of smoke plumes was now commonplace, along with an acrid, charred smell that wafted through the city....

    • 16 Emotional Rescue
      (pp. 143-148)

      This story should probably end here. I’d been warned repeatedly and explicitly by friends and strangers alike that my desire to buy a house in Flint made no sense. Sadly, the topic had lost its appeal at Zeitgeist, where not even the sunny spring weather and excessive amounts of alcohol could sustain it. After toying with the idea of joining a local Elks Lodge en masse and taking it over, the basketball crowd was now fixated on the prospect of somehow renting or buying a small garage or empty warehouse in San Francisco and transforming it into our own “Gentleman’s...

    • 17 Get Real
      (pp. 149-155)

      Dan Kildee was driving with his knees and talking with his hands as his black Chrysler pushed eighty miles per hour on a stretch of I-69 near East Lansing about a week after I returned to Flint in June of 2010. I was in the passenger seat, working up a sweat as I frantically took notes for mySlatestory and tried to fight off the onset of car sickness. We passed a familiar Michigan tableau—a dead deer sprawled across the edge of our lane—and Kildee adjusted accordingly without touching the steering wheel. But it was the eye...

    • 18 Living Large
      (pp. 156-159)

      It was easy to settle into life at Jan and Ted’s house. I was lord of the manor. Unlike my previous home away from home in Carriage Town, this place had chairs and couches and beds and hot water. But I discovered that the relative luxury of life off East Court was not exactly conducive to house hunting or writing. For one thing, there were books everywhere, which was a constant distraction. Then there was the fifty-five-inch flat screen in the living room. It was huge. I felt like I was in Michael Moore’s private screening room. And the World...

    • 19 Fading Murals
      (pp. 160-168)

      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...

    • 20 Gun Club
      (pp. 169-179)

      Dave Starr looked grandfatherly, with his gray hair and glasses, as he tapped a crooked stick on the edge of a patio table in his backyard and announced, “The meeting of the Milbourne Avenue Block Club is officially called to order.” The friendly sixty-eight-year-old was the first white guy I’d seen in Civic Park. With his well-worn jeans, flannel shirt and red suspenders, he appeared to be an easy mark in a tough neighborhood. But looks can be deceiving.

      Dave has his Yahoo account set up to automatically append to each of his emails two concise lines that reveal a...

    • 21 Bargaining with God
      (pp. 180-190)

      It took me a few weeks to catch up with Sherman McCathern, the pastor of Joy Tabernacle Church, which was located within shouting distance of the corner house where Betsy and her daughter lived. I’d heard positive reviews of his work in the neighborhood at the block-club meeting. He had only been in Civic Park for about a year, but he’d already established himself as a stabilizing force. When we met, he made it clear that it was no accident the two of us were sitting in his well-ordered office behind the sanctuary.

      “It’s providence that you’re here,” he said....

    • 22 Psycho Killer
      (pp. 191-196)

      Shortly before returning to Flint in the summer of 2010, I read an online story about the most recent murder in the city. The police had found David Motley’s body near the base of a tree in a shady yard at the corner of Leith and Dexter Streets in the northeast corner of Flint early on the morning of May 24. The thirty-one-year-old had left a house party the night before, intending to walk to a nearby liquor store and meet up with a friend. He was stabbed to death on his way there. Motley was at a distinct disadvantage...


    • 23 Winter Wonderland
      (pp. 199-202)

      Back in San Francisco, I once again became mired in my typical decision-making process, a routine that didn’t really involve deciding anything. I endlessly mulled over the pros and cons of a Civic Park house, making lists on legal pads and jotting down various financial scenarios with the help of a calculator. Then I did it all over again. And again. It was similar to the way I hunted for a set of lost keys, looking in the same spots as if the keys would magically appear during the third or fourth round. I paced around the house, reciting various...

    • 24 Home on the Range
      (pp. 203-209)

      On a clear morning cold enough to numb my face after a couple of minutes outside, I was standing at a workbench with Dave Starr in his relatively warm basement on Milbourne Avenue. Judy, his wife, was upstairs assembling a miniature Carole Towne Christmas Village in the dining room, as she did every holiday season. I could hear her moving around on the worn carpet directly above us. Dave’s task was less festive, but he approached it with equal enthusiasm. He was showing me how to make bullets. Or, more precisely, we were making cartridges or rounds. The bullet is...

    • 25 California Dreamin’
      (pp. 210-218)

      When I called Pastor Sherman McCathern to tell him I was back in town and wanted to take him up on his invitation to attend services at Joy Tabernacle, he wasn’t surprised. “I knew you were meant to get more involved with the congregation,” he said. “But you should come by before Sunday. I’ve got something to show you.”

      That’s how I wound up standing in a cold, damp Dutch Colonial in Civic Park as McCathern—all six feet two of him—prepared to pull up a long strip of nasty beige carpet from the living room floor with his...

    • 26 Thankless Task
      (pp. 219-228)

      I kept my gloves on while I sat in the empty lobby of the mayor’s office at 10:30 on a Wednesday morning. The three-block walk from my car in lightly falling snow had been brutally cold. I was shivering despite the dry warmth of city hall, silently vowing to never complain about the weather in San Francisco again. I was eager to see how Dayne Walling’s dream of returning home to Flint matched the reality of running the city. With that in mind, he agreed to let me spend a typical day with him.

      These “ride-alongs”—as journalists call them...

    • 27 Joy to the World
      (pp. 229-235)

      When I left the house on Sunday morning to attend church at Joy Tabernacle, the first real storm of the winter was in full swing. The wind was picking up, and dark clouds were dumping heavy snow as I drove slowly down Paradise Drive. A few inches of white stuff already capped the wooden sign with teal-colored palm trees marking the entrance and exit of the Grand Wailea housing development in Grand Blanc, where I was staying with my friend Duane. I guess if you were trying hard to maintain the illusion of Hawaii on a December day in Michigan,...

  7. Epilogue: Summer 2012
    (pp. 236-241)

    It was still drizzling after we ate lunch at McDonald’s, so P-Nut and I ditched our plans to paint the exterior of his house on West Dayton Avenue and decided to get started on the interior of the small first-floor sunroom instead. That meant scraping off several decades’ worth of old paint and taping the windows. Painting prep is one of the least satisfying home improvement projects, but I was happy to be there. So was P-Nut. He had all the energy and determination you would expect of a twenty-three-year-old first-time homeowner who feels like he’s working toward a brighter...

  8. Updates
    (pp. 242-246)
  9. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 247-250)
  10. Notes
    (pp. 251-264)
  11. Sources and Further Reading
    (pp. 265-268)
  12. Index
    (pp. 269-276)