Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan, and the Fate of the American Metropolis by Andrew R. Highsmith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The city is not a problem to be solved; it is a story to be told.
I used to dream about getting a fat grant years down the road and taking a leave of absence to start research toward a complete history of the city of Flint, Michigan. There would be so much to it, from the history of technology and the rise of the auto industry, to labor history and the creation of the middle class. I knew race would play a role in this theoretical history as well, though I hadn’t even begun mapping out the implications. It would have been an immense book, one that tapped into several important streams of the larger American drama. It would be in many ways a tragedy as well– a tale of controlled atrophy and downsizing, of a dying city, industrial decay, and the birth of the Rust Belt. That was my nebulous plan, but it was not to be: the book has already been written, and this past week I finished reading it.
Flint and its story fascinates me. I grew up on its nearly all-white suburban margins but with roots running into its history. I have memories of visiting AutoWorld as a child and of my grandparent’s home on Waldman Avenue. My mom and her parents often spoke with regret about what Flint had once been, of the prosperity of the post-War years and the sparkle of downtown before the sprawl of suburban shopping districts. Though I grew up in the suburbs of Flint Township and later Swartz Creek, my mom (and many of the parents of my friends and peers) had grown up in city. Her family came from Missouri looking for work in the factories, and my grandfather built a career on the Grand Trunk Railroad. My dad spent his career working for General Motors, much of it at Buick City before it was closed and he was relocated to Saginaw. I ventured downtown occasionally as a teenager (and it was always clearly a venture), specifically to the Cultural Center and the Longway Planetarium.
Flint’s story shaped me in obvious ways I’m only now realizing. Many of the photographs on this blog, for instance, were inspired by the rich background of texture and decay I grew up on the fringes of. I knew the city’s history in a cursory way and even saw some of it myself. For all these reasons, I wanted a book that dove into this history. In the absence of such a book (though Gordon Young’s memoir– reviewed here previously– was an excellent journalistic step in this direction) I was prepared (one day in the distant future) to attempt to write it myself.
But the book now exists.
I wrote earlier on this blog about Mark Quanstrom’s study on Nazarene theological history and the way it helped me understand the religious context in which I was raised. What Quanstrom’s book did for my theological heritage, Andrew Highsmith’s new study does for my social and urban context. (Note to self: a work exploring the intersection of these two themes, charting the growth and decline of the Nazarene church– which at one time could count at least half a dozen large congregations in the city– would be of interest.) I knew Flint was economically depressed and racially divided. But I never fully understood the depth, origins, and repercussions of “white flight,” a trajectory in which my family participated.
My sister and her husband live and work in downtown Flint. On multiple occasions I’ve biked with my brother-in-law from his restaurant on Saginaw Street, past the former site of Chevy-in-the-Hole, where it looks like giants literally gouged a cement valley along the river into the center of the city, to his house in Mott Park. He’s told me lately he feels most of his work in the city revolves around racial reconciliation and that if we can’t understand race we won’t understand anything about Flint’s story and where it is today.
I think Highsmith would agree. I first learned of his book just days after it was released from my brother-in-law, who passed it along to me with a sort of resignation: “Here’s another academic who thinks he’s figured Flint out.” I don’t know that Highsmith claims to have unravelled any riddles, but he’s begun plunging the depths of the issue, the tangle of politics– many on a national level– that made Flint what it was and is. It’s very much a story of place, rarely focusing long on any particular individual. Highsmith’s Flint is made up of institutions, organizations, politics, and changing demographics. Yet there are enough specific personal focuses, ranging from Michael Moore to the tragedy of the Beecher assistant principle driven to suicide by the intractable problem of de-segregating his high school, to keep it a poignant and human (though a consistently scholarly) read.
Highsmith offers an urban history of Flint from the early 1900s to the present. (Indeed, the epilogue brings the story up to the point of names, organizations, and developments I recognize from my frequent visits home.) In particular, Highsmith wants to understand and outline the institutional and administrative forms of segregation that kept Flint one of the most racially divided cities in America long after the era of Civil Rights. Under the aegis of strong neighborhood schools, for example, the Flint public school system remained effectively segregated until whites were in a clear minority throughout the city.
Highsmith examines the central issue of race and urban policy from several angles over the century. Much of the division began in housing policies at a national level in the inter- and post-War years, in which real estate redlining kept neighborhoods divided and set the foundation for much subsequent de facto segregation. In the era of urban renewal and the coming of the expressways, proponents of development argued for the clearing of predominately black slums like St. Johns, but administrative segregation largely prevented the relocation of these residents (who initially supported neighborhood clearings) from getting much value from their property and finding new homes in an integrated city.
In addition, a ring of largely white suburbs acted quickly to self-incorporate, preventing Flint’s spatial growth and through tough zoning laws blocking the construction of public housing complexes that would result in racial integration (and potentially lower property values). The background to all of this was of course the ebb and flow of the fortunes of General Motors and its complex relationship with the city. If the city of Flint was equated with Buick as the quintessential company town, what happens when Buick dies?
All of this tells a story. It doesn’t give any answers. At the risk of sounding trite though, that’s the point. Highsmith makes the case that America is the story of a thousand Flints, linking the racial and post-industrial challenges of Flint to the nation as a whole. That may be true, but Flint is also importantly unique, enough that its tragedy has a wholly specific resonance, especially to those who grew up in its shadow. This book should be required reading for anyone in or from the Vehicle City, especially anyone who cares about locality and knowing how the place that shaped you was itself shaped.
As T. S. Eliot said, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”