Expensively Shrinking Cities: Gordon Young on His New Book, ‘Teardown’

Teardown author Gordon Young’s hometown of Flint, Mich. Notice the dark gaps between the lights. Credit: Flickr user gerrybuckel

Gordon Young is a freelance writer whose fixation on his hometown of Flint, a small, struggling Michigan city with a hemorrhaging population, led him to look into buying a house there. This, despite limited finances and a job and family back in the San Francisco Bay Area. What resulted was Young’s new book, Teardown: A Memoir of a Vanishing City, which I reviewed last week.

Here, Young answers some of my lingering questions, touching upon population loss, arson and the “shrinking cities” concept. The discussion returns to some of the same themes that arose back in January when I talked with Francis Grunow about Detroit.

Next City: Let’s start with a political question: [Flint Mayor Dayne] Walling has his recipe for saving Flint. He describes it as taking advantage of the existing schools of higher education, supporting local business and luring in some manufacturing. It strikes me as sticking to all that’s familiar about the town already. Did you get a sense from Walling, in talking to him, that he had some deeper ideas for promoting economic development, but he just wasn’t talking about them on the campaign trail?

Gordon Young: Yes. Like most politicians, I believe he delivered a truncated, simplified version of what he hoped to accomplish on the campaign trail. There’s a scene in Teardown where he’s in his den discussing his academic work and his bigger hopes, plans and aspirations for the city, but we talked for a few hours about it. That’s not really feasible in most campaign settings. And, like many politicians, it’s easier to go with broad strokes to avoid alienating voters.

But in many ways, the goals of a mayor in a place like Flint don’t matter. Shrinking cities often don’t really control their own destinies once they get to the crisis stage like Flint. The city needs more police and firefighters, yet public employees are getting laid off to balance the budget. The city needs more revenue, but raising taxes on residents who are struggling only drives more people out of the city and exacerbates the problem. The mayor can do some things, but he has very few options at this point. And, of course, Walling has been replaced by an emergency financial manager, so he holds a largely ceremonial position at the moment.

NC: It’s not like Flint’s only resources have to come from within, right? Some $423 million came into Genesee County under the stimulus plan. That’s one example of a moment in which Flint had a chance to do something without using the tax base. It seems like there are opportunities for a leader with a vision for fomenting entrepreneurialism. I wonder if you saw any signs, while you were there, that there’s a group of people who are moving forward in a way that has nothing to do with Flint’s past. That’s where renewal seems to come for cities.

Young: I’m not sure on the exact numbers, but the stimulus plan has very specific guidelines for use. You can’t use it to pay pension obligations or hire more police and firefighters. So it definitely helps, but it does nothing to help in certain areas.

I saw several encouraging signs. The first is more of a welcome change in how local leaders approach Flint’s problems. I think the city has finally realized it will take smaller, more incremental changes to turn the city around. There’s no big fix. It’s taken a long time to get to this point, but remember that Flint had perhaps the broadest middle class in America and the highest per capita income level in the ’60s. It took a long time for folks to realize that prosperity was gone and we couldn’t get it back quickly. The city seems to accept that Flint isn’t going to return to the glory years anytime soon. It’s concentrating on the few resources it has — higher education in the form of a University of Michigan-Flint campus downtown, a large community college, a big vocational school and Kettering University. The city is also trying to hold the line on neighborhoods that are tilting the wrong way. And the shrinking city plan is being implemented, albeit slowly.

NC: I spent a little time trying to get a handle on where the people are in Flint. It looked to me like they’re in the southwest part of town. Are there parts of Flint that seem to be fairly healthy?

Young: The South End is denser and doing relatively better than the North End, where abandonment and crime are definitely worse. But home values are still in free-fall all over the city, even in the nicest neighborhoods. The Mott Park neighborhood is vital because it’s still relatively healthy and is close to Kettering University, which is an important anchor. But it’s having problems. There are abandoned houses popping up. The College Cultural District is still a great place to live, but it’s also seeing some problems.

NC: I get the sense that the land bank is successfully tearing some houses down and building some places up. But the perfect outcome is moving people from the weaker neighborhoods to the stronger ones. Is much of that happening?

Young: In a way, the land bank has been too successful in wresting derelict housing away from speculators, house flippers and slumlords. The city is not at the point where it’s seriously considering enticing residents to move into denser, more vibrant neighborhoods. That’s really somewhere down the line. There has been some infill housing in certain neighborhoods closer to the downtown core, but the bulk of that will happen later. Right now, the main focus is getting houses down.

NC: Moving people also seems to be a politically dicey concept. It has shades of not-so-renewing urban renewal. I wonder if any place has a history of managing those sorts of inside-city migrations.

Gordon: Well, it’s important to remember that [former Genesee County treasurer and current U.S. Rep.] Dan Kildee specifically wrote into the Michigan land bank legislation that eminent domain cannot be used to force people to move. Kildee has also maintained that reduced city services would not be used to effectively force people to move. So this would be a case of enticing residents with incentives or house swaps. I believe this will happen to some extent eventually. Some of Flint’s neighborhoods like Civic Park, where I grew up, are really emptying out now. They’re shrinking all by themselves.

NC: I’m not sure what my take is on city services. Where I’m from in Kansas, there are people who live just outside of town so they won’t have to pay local taxes, with the understanding that they also don’t have police and fire protection there. It seems like there’s some threshold population density where such a policy might not just be moral, but also inarguably rational.

Young: It’s also important to note that the shrinking city model is not an economic plan. It doesn’t create jobs. It just gets Flint to a place where it has some possibilities for growth.

NC: You wrote about that pretty early in the book, where you said it’s not about growth. This struck me as an odd way of looking at it, though. It’s not about land growth, but it does seem to me like the shrinking city approach could yield tax base growth and population growth.

Young: One of Kildee’s mantras is that you can’t measure the success of a city by population growth. Flint can still be a place that has dignity and opportunity, but it may be a city with 40,000 people. Now if it started growing again, that would be great. But the reality is that it’s losing five residents a day, and that trend doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon. So if growth is the only sign of success, Flint’s going to continue to fail. But a smaller, denser city that has eliminated blight and reduced costs would be a vast improvement. But you are right in that more tax revenue would help hire more police, which would help reduce crime, which would probably make the city more appealing.

NC: I was both weirdly relieved and completely unsettled by the passage where the Michigan State Police arson investigator say he thought firefighters were setting some of the fires in Flint, especially during the spike that followed the mayor’s announcements of layoffs — relieved, just because it was so honest. It would have been easy for him to retreat into spin. But it’s also unsettling to think of firefighters setting fires, even if it’s not unprecedented. Did you get blowback for reporting on that?

Young: I got an enthusiastic denial when I asked Flint firefighters and union leaders about the accusation, to put it mildly. I was surprised the Michigan State Police arson investigator was willing to make the accusation on the record. As I write in the book, even if it’s not true, the fact that the state police believe Flint firefighters are arsonists is an indication of just how dysfunctional the city is in many ways.

I was struck by just how many arsonists there were in the city and the varied reasons for the fires. Gang initiations, revenge fires, insurance jobs, drunk guys having fun, squatters accidentally torching a house, neighbors trying to get rid of a drug house, scrappers burning a place down because it’s easier to get the copper wiring. But there were definitely some fires that were done by people who knew how to do maximum damage.

NC: So how is the relationship between public sector workers and non-public sector workers in Flint? One of the sad stories you see in a lot of deindustrializing cities is resentment about the fact that public sector workers tend to hold on to decent pay and benefits longer than non-public sector workers that got laid off. Which is too bad, because it means that there is still some money being spent in the community that could stimulate new private sector activity. Is that kind of divide playing out in Flint?

Young: Yes. Despite its strong union roots, you don’t have to look hard in Flint to find residents who blame all the city’s problems on the U.A.W. and public employees unions. They’ve seen their wages and benefits slashed, and they resent some union workers still getting a better deal, even though the union members have faced severe cutbacks as well.

NC: There were three big images from the book that gave the city a surreal quality. The first one was the fact that you started driving when you were 10 years old. Nothing shows a town treating cars religiously like teaching a kid who can barely see over the dashboard to drive. Then, there’s Charlie “Sugar” Mott, a guy who puts loads of effort into teaching self-reliance, and yet all of his mountains of effort and money seem to be doing just the opposite: Showing everyone in the town that one of the city’s fathers will always solve its problems. The last is the Starr family between its basement armory and front yard fountain.

It made it hard for me to sympathize with the city, when it just keeps existing in this strange constant state of denial. Why should an outsider sympathize with Flint?

Young: I think Flint is America. It may be an extreme example — because it lost half its population and was ahead of the curve in terms of deindustrialization and the low wages that followed — but there are numerous shrinking cities all over the country. So if you wanted to give up on Flint, you might have to give up on dozens of other cities. And it’s not just the Rust Belt. Phoenix, Las Vegas, Stockton, Bakersfield and numerous other cities are experiencing population loss, abandonment, poverty and unemployment. And it’s expensive to lose cities like Flint. It costs money to rebuild infrastructure. It costs money to pay for the dispossessed. Michael Moore pointed out that Flint’s not that different from many cities and towns in America. The Grim Reaper just likes to visit Flint first.

NC: So let’s imagine money, mortgages, mobility, all that was a non-issue. You had lots of cash in the bank. No obligation to leave San Francisco. Would you buy a place in Flint today?

Young: I’ve gone through a long, emotional progression in my thinking about Flint and how to help my hometown over the past five years. The book describes the evolution of my thinking about the city that made me who I am today. I’ve connected with some residents who I am able to help financially and with sweat equity. We’ve become friends and I’m determined to be a part of what they’re trying to do in Flint.

But I have to say that I think the biggest thing I could do for Flint, if I had a wad of cash, is pay to tear down as many abandoned houses as possible. It was tough for me to get to this point. I had lofty aspirations when I went back to Flint. You could even call them fantasies about helping the city. But after spending a lot of time there, I’ve gotten very realistic about what the city needs.

Brady Dale is a writer and performer living in Brooklyn. You can find him on Twitter.

Brady Dale is a writer and comedian based in Brooklyn. His reporting on technology appears regularly on Fortune and Technical.ly Brooklyn.

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