Many of you know this already but for those who don’t…I live in Flint, MI. Yes, pause for gasps of wonderment but wait a second before you do a Google search for the “most dangerous cities in America.” Flint is actually not that bad of a place to live in. Sure we have lead in our water and crime in our streets. Sure we have decaying roads and decaying homes. Sure we have Michael Moore and Charles Guiteau (assassin of President Garfield). But Flint is actually on the up and up. We have a Red Lobster and an Olive Garden. There is a mall that has cute puppies and free samples of Chinese food. And most importantly, Flint has citizens who participate in nonfiction book clubs.
In all seriousness though, I enjoy living in Flint most of the time, and the city is in the progress of reinventing itself. So, as an ode to the Vehicle City, my feminist- librarian book club decided to read a book about Flint – Tear-Down: Memoir of a Vanishing City by Gordon Young. This is an account of a former Flintoid trying to reunite with his childhood city after living in San Francisco for the past decade. The memoir, for me at least, was a great look at the history of Flint and how its past is just as complicated as its future trajectory.
It is believed that Flint was formerly called Pewonigowink, which translated to “place of flints.” The area was originally a trading hub for furs and in the early 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous French author of Democracy in America, visited Flint. The fur trade was eventually surpassed by the lumber business which blossomed in the city from 1855 to 1880. At the peak of the lumber industry, there was a significant need for transporting logs – this led to Flint’s next big industry – carriages. By the turn of the century, Flint was producing 150,000 carriages, making it the largest carriage producer in America and most likely the world.
One of these carriage makers was Billy Durant who ended up investing heavily in a new burgeoning car company called Buick – he would eventually combine Buick with various other automakers and parts companies to form General Motors in 1908; he then went on to create Chevrolet in 1911. The rest is history – the automobile became an American necessity, and Flint provided that dream for millions of people. By 1955, Flint peaked with a population of 200,000 people and had one of the highest per capita incomes in the world at the time. That year the city celebrated its centennial parade that featured GMs 50 millionth car – a gold trimmed 55′ chevy. Flint was the poster child of manufacturing potential and the middle class – the model city of the future.
Everything seemed to go to crap in 1973 with the OPEC oil embargo that brought higher gas prices, fuel shortages, and lines at service stations. GM, at this time, was at near peak employment in Flint but soon began layoffs after the crisis. This led to an unstoppable pattern which culminated in the 80’s and early 90’s with GM closing factories like Buick City which employed nearly 30,000 people. At its pinnacle, GM employed 80,000 Flintoids, after the closures, less than 10,000 remained. Today, the population of Flint is half of its 1955 zenith – with around 100,000 inhabitants. This dramatic loss of jobs and population led to increases in crime and infrastructure breakdown. In 2016, Flint had the highest vacant home rate in America (source).
Flint today is struggling with a tax base which is forcing the city to consolidate police, firefighters, parks, school buildings, and almost every public service imaginable. Funds were even cut on treating the drinking water – causing lead to leach from aging pipes and a multi-billion dollar public health crisis. Yes, there are a lot of things wrong with Flint, but the people that still live here are resilient and make it a better place to live in every day. Here are some recent examples: the city will be replacing all lead service lines (funding is already secured), the crime rate is no longer one of the highest in the country, and abandoned homes are regularly being removed to decrease blight. Is Flint, MI the best city in America? No. But in my opinion, it is far from the worst, and I am proud to call it my home. Flint shaped America, and it is compelling to live in a place with not just a significant history but also a promising future.