Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City

  • Gordon Young
  • University of California Press
  • 288 pp.
  • Reviewed by Jim Schulman
  • July 26, 2013

A love poem to arson-prone, deindustrialized Flint, Mich.

I was halfway through Gordon Young’s absorbing yet wrenching portrait of Flint, Mich., while on a red-eye flight from Seattle to Baltimore with a stopover in Detroit. After I had put the book down to sleep, I awoke in the dark over southern Wisconsin. Perhaps it was the optics of the airplane window or my vantage point above the clouds, but I observed the most delicate new moon I had ever seen. I took it as a portent of hope for the sustainability of communities all over the world, including down-and-out Flint. As the light grew from the incipient sunrise, I made out the outlines of Lake Michigan. In a few minutes, much to my surprise, the whole mitten thumb of eastern Michigan, framed by Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron, laid out before me.

I knew that Flint, the birthplace of Buick automobiles and documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, was below me somewhere, an hour north of Detroit. But with the sun peeking above the horizon and the street lights now off, it was difficult to make out precisely where the city might be. Reading further, I learned that the profound physical changes that have taken place in Flint in the last 35 years, including auto plant, school and house demolitions, have made Flint difficult to recognize as a city of over 75,000 people, even from the ground.

A San Francisco-based journalist, Young has written this love poem to his arson-prone, deindustrialized hometown and its impoverished and traumatized citizenry using a snappy yet journalistically skeptical style. He chronicles how homeowners left town when manufacturing jobs dried up and the mounting crime that followed. Describing how Flint residents had developed a high tolerance for neighborhood crime that was becoming prosaic, Young recalls a break-in that he witnessed during his youth in the 1970s.

He found his mother “with a frying pan raised over her head” as “the disembodied arm” of a “guy too high to offer much resistance” to the police was reaching in through the window of the kitchen door he had smashed trying to unlock the deadbolt. His mother shouted “with more resolve than panic” that she had just called the police. “She didn’t scare easily.” This recently released parolee, who had been in Jackson State Prison for rape, claimed to the arresting officer that Young’s mom was his girlfriend, and they’d had a little spat. “‘He’s not my type,’ my mom responded … Typical 3 a.m. humor in Flint,” Young concludes.

Despite its wide focus, probing the history, racial dynamics, oddball culture and budgetary plight of Flint, Teardown is a quick read. The depiction of Young’s first visit to a handgun shooting range with a Flint old-timer is hilarious, as are his wife Traci’s curt reactions to his increasing obsession with Flint. It is unfortunate that the author does not appear to be familiar with building deconstruction as an environmentally and community-friendly alternative to demolition, one that’s successfully being employed in some decaying suburbs of Detroit as a green jobs program, for example, through the WARM Training Center. But this did not sour my interest in the critical question of how Flint might be turned around.

Young constructs an especially compelling character study of Dan Kildee, the controversial former president of the Genesee County Land Bank and a current congressman. Kildee advocates intentionally shrinking the size of depopulating industrial cities such as Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland and Buffalo, using a regional approach that redistributes and reinvests real estate wealth. Young comes to appreciate how Flint residents who have not fled in the face of the city’s long decline see things. With regard to the shrinking-city plan he says that, though it “could be criticized for taking away the hopes and aspirations of Flint residents, it did give them a place to focus their anger about how this all came to pass. They couldn’t exactly give an abstraction like ‘deindustrialization’ or ‘globalization’ a piece of their mind.”

Although the jury is still out on Kildee’s approach, some residents of Flint depicted in the book, including the never-say-die Rev. Sherman McCathern of the Joy Tabernacle Church, have warmed to Kildee’s politically charged medicine of writing off some dying areas of the city in order to save and invest in others. The frustrations of Flint Mayor Dayne Walling are well characterized, as are those of the other struggling and colorful folks Young interacts with in his multiple-year dalliance with property acquisition in Flint. The book turns out to be just as much about the author’s split emotions as it is about the hardships suffered by the residents of a city in apparent free fall.

Even casual readers who have no experience with Rust Belt cities or real estate investment will find Teardown compelling and worth their attention. Flint is very much a poster child, not only for the fate of the underclass in America but also for the destiny of most American cities unless principles of community sustainability are embraced and implemented, especially with regard to regional economic development and land use reform. But perhaps the highest testament to the author’s storytelling is the suspense he generates surrounding the question of whether or not he will buy property in Flint. The answer is not revealed until after page 200, but it is worth accompanying him on his introspective journey to find out what he will do.

Jim Schulman, AIA, BMRA, is currently treasurer of the Building Materials Reuse Association (BMRA) and is a registered architect in Washington, D.C. He is the founder of Community Forklift, a 40,000-square-foot retail used building materials store in suburban Maryland. He is also a board member of the non-profit organization Sustainable Community Initiatives, which owns Community Forklift. Read more about reuse and reclamation in the community at The Reclamation Administration.


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