Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City by Gordon Young
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I did not grow up in Flint, so I’m pretty sure I cannot call Young’s memoir a book about my hometown. But many of my relatives lived and still live in Flint, and I grew up just outside it and spent quite a bit of time in and around it. I remember going to Autoworld as a child. My father worked for GM. My mother worked for Hurley. Though I definitely lack cred as a true “Flintoid,” I consider myself among this book’s intended audience. I must have been, because I couldn’t put it down.
Young’s memoir is not perfect. I would have liked to hear less about Gordon Young and more about Flint’s history and the neighborhoods Young rediscovers. Young’s account of his own home-purchasing odyssey in San Francisco– though it helped illustrate the poor choices that led to the housing crisis and paint a sharp contrast between Flint and the West Coast– was tedious, as was the narrative thread of Young going back and forth about whether he should help the city out by buying and refurbishing a house in Flint. To his credit, Young finds another meaningful way to contribute to his hometown.
Yet the book itself might be his most important contribution. Young’s accomplishment in this work is letting us see Flint through both his past memories and his present journalistic eyes and communicating its history and today’s reality. A comprehensive story of Flint would be a considerable contribution to American history, involving histories of labor, industry, race, capitalism, technology, and urban construction and de-construction. That work remains to be written, but Young makes a powerful case for why it should– and his helpful bibliography points to many additional resources. More than this though, Young’s book gives a compelling picture of the city– of both the harsh economic realities on the ground and the spirit of those who remain to face them.
I have a personal interest in this story. My sister and her husband moved back to Flint after he completed his graduate degree, bought a house in the city, and are at the epicenter of many of the changes and challenges Young describes in this book. Flint’s story is one that needs to be told, and Young’s work is an effective and compelling first chapter. He doesn’t offer many (or any) solutions, but he introduces some of the characters, fills in the background, and gets you rooting for the underdog.
Honestly, I don’t know if this book would appeal to those who don’t already have a place for Flint in their hearts. But if you’re from Flint, or especially if you’re from one of those Flint satellites like Burton, Flushing, Fenton, Swartz Creek, Grand Blanc, or Gaines and grew up hearing of Flint’s glory days alongside ominous accounts of how bad it had become– read this book. It’s your story too, whether you realize it or not.
Stephen, thanks for checking out the book, and thanks for your thoughts on it and the City of Flint. Best of luck to your sister and her family. Flint needs good people trying to make a difference. A sad update on the book related to my friend Dave Starr, who passed away recently. He was a great example of the spirit of Flint and he epitomized the folks in shrinking cities all over the country who never gave up on their hometowns:
Gordon: thanks for the response, and thanks most of all for writing this book. My brother-in-law manages the Flint Crepe Co (https://www.facebook.com/FlintCrepe), which I think is– so far– a downtown Flint success story. They’re doing good work. I don’t know if you’ve been there or discussed it on your blog, but it’s worth checking out (and the food is fantastic).
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