A crazy idea hatched in a San Francisco hipster bar set former Flint resident and journalist Gordon Young on a quest to buy a house in his downtrodden hometown of Flint Michigan. Young’s almost obsession-like love of his hometown is now the focus of his first book “Tear-Down: Memoir of a Vanishing City.
Young who left home in 1984 for college and now teaches journalism at Santa Clara College in California had this sketchy and he admits now “naïve” idea that he could take the few thousand dollars he and his girlfriend had saved and buy a house in Flint Michigan. It would be his contribution to helping turn the city around.
Young would make several ventures back to Flint in search of a house and along the way he would discover some things he didn’t know about his old hometown which he writes about in his new book.
“I wanted to capture the spirit of Flint that I remember,” he said.
What he found was a city that had been gutted by the loss of General Motors jobs, but he also found “so many people who are not giving up on the neighborhoods.”
“The hope and fighting spirit is alive,” he said.
Young has been following the plight of Flint on his popular blog FlintExpats.com which he has published since 2007. There you can follow fellow Flintoids as they post about what is right and wrong with Flint, butmostly fond memories of their hometown.
Where Young’s book distinctly differs from the library of books being written on the demise of urban America is he focuses on individuals like Pastor Sherman McCathern of the Joy Tabernacle Church who serves the inner city residents with the fervor of a saint.
At its height Flint was known as Vehicle City and in the 1970s was the number one city in the U.S. for disposable income. Today, it is mostly known as the ‘most dangerous city in America”, named “one of America’s Fastest Dying Cities” and a star in Michael Moore’s 1989 documentary “Roger& Me”.
While searching for his fix-up dream, Young found that somewhat to his surprise both his childhood home and his grandparent’s home were in great shape.
“It (Young’s home) looks exactly the same,” he said, citingthe advantages of aluminum siding. Although he didn’t get into his boyhood home he wandered around it (not always a safe thing to do in Flint) and discovered a mural that he and his sister painted on the garage was still there. The current residents of his grandparent’s home invited him in for a conversation about Flint. Young often found himself guests in strangers’ homes after a short introduction of who he was.
Young comes away from his several visits to Flint with a bad taste in his mouth for the speculators who seeing a profit bought up homes in Flint for pennies on the dollar, but soon learned the realities of Flint where the housing market has not come back. Those houses now sit waiting for a bulldozer.
He said his experience in buying a home in San Francisco helped him understand better what he calls the “insane real estate market.”
“The speculators are so conditioned they can’t resist buying a home off e-bay. But they are kind of clueless and don’t know about
scrappers,” he said.
Scrappers are urban denizens who cruise neighborhoods looking to strip a house of everything saleable including copper wiring and plumbing often descend on a house days after it is left empty, leaving it worthless. Flint has thousands of homes in that category alone.
Any sense that Young was being Pollyannaish about the realities of Flint ends when he learns average residents carry guns with them while out on a walk and they
are anxious to show their weaponry.
Young writes about one longtime friend, who after loadings his own shells, takes Young out to a gun range for some practical experience at which Young fails miserably.
The author, who prided himself for “knowing every street in Flint” was surprised when he became disoriented while driving near the old Buick City which is now razed.
He said he became confused even though he had been chauffeured by it on the way to school as a kid by former factory rat and author Ben Hamper (“Rivethead”).
“It was really a strange experience not knowing where I was.”
Even a stranger experience occurs when on one of his last visits to Flint he volunteers to work on a home which Pastor McCathern is donating to a parishioner in exchange for sweat equity.
The author discovers the home was the childhood home of Ben Hamper and he’d been a guest there dozens of times over the years especially when Hamper was carpooling his younger siblings along with Young to the local Catholic school.
Young said he has been reading and rereading Hamper’s book “nonstop” for more than 25 years. He also uses Moore’s “Roger and Me” in his journalism class, so he’s seen that at least 25 times.
The author said that he was very conscious of not being voyeuristic about his former hometown.
“It was always on my mind. Flint residents are wary of outsiders who parachute in and think they know everything about Flint.
I let people tell their stories and did not impose my views on the city,” he said.
Discoveries like the resident’s propensity to carry guns were eye openers for Young.
“It was really a stark reminder about how a lot of things have changed.”
Young who made lengthy visits to Flint in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012, often sleeping on the floor of friend’s homes including the former home of Charles W. Nash, an early auto pioneer, found himself enmeshed in the city. While back home his girlfriend established a “no flint zone” after she got so tired of him talking about his former hometown.
The nationwide kick off for the book will be at the iconic Luigi’s on Davidson in Flint which was a neighborhood hangout for Young while growing up. Contrary to a popular aphorism Young found he could go home again. Checkout the tour schedule here and Flint blog is here. And read why the Atlantic named it one of the best books of the summer here.