Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City

I am from Flint, Michigan.

I was born and raised in a crappy little city perched on the edge of a dying industry. The ominous creaking sounds coming from below sounded like a pretty clear warning, so I got the hell out. I graduated from a halfway-decent suburban high school in a district that my parents fought like hell to keep me in, renting claptrap houses on the edge of the boundary line. I left with a few AP credits, a 1986 Chevy Nova, and a seriously fucked up attitude. Being from Flint was important to me. I thought it conveyed important information to the outside world, information about my work ethic, my disappointments, my belief in the higher power of Buick Automotive.

Flint had helped win the War. My grandpa dropped out of school to help design the M18 Hellcat Tank for Buick, trading in a career as an architect for the promise of a pension and a world free of Nazis.

Flint had started the labor movement. My dad was a proud union representative, joining generations of men and women inspired by the Great Sitdown Strike to restore the power balance between owner and worker. He would sing Woody Guthrie’s song down the echoing hallway during tense negotiations. Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union. I’m sticking to the union, till the day I die.

My family stayed. Flint crumbled. Everyone who could afford to moved away. My suburban school district installed metal detectors. I went to graduate school and met people who had never heard of a carbureted engine. I’d come back home for holidays, dragging bemused boyfriends and waving around my new words, new ideas, big opinions. I’d come home to re-hear the stories that had defined me. Funny stories of disasters too big not to laugh at. People doomed by their own stupidity. Companies collapsing from their own greed. Fights at basketball games. People shooting out the lights on cop cars. Things falling off of trucks. Apocalyptic decisions made by people entrusted with our public good. Flint stories.

Recently, one of my neighbors wrote a book filled with his own Flint stories. Gordon Young lives a few blocks away in my new hometown of San Francisco. Oddly, we have never met. He went to the other suburban school district – those southside swine that were always beating us at quiz bowl – and left about ten years before I did. He’s been writing a blog called Flint Expatriates, and a few years ago he did this weird thing. He tried to go home.

The book is called Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City. Gordon writes about life in Flint and San Francisco, often through a lens of real estate. He has gone through the process of trying to buy houses in both cities, a testament to his tenacity and possibly some kind of undiagnosed brain injury. Anyway, you should read it because it’s awesome and it says many of the things that should be said about Flint. The ending is really strong, and I found myself saying “hell yes” out loud a few times. Leaving Flint seems to have given him the perspective he needed to make some peace with the goddamned place.

You may have noticed, I’m still searching.

Flintstyle

Friends, we need to have a little talk. Judging from some of your emails, many of you are Woefully Ignorant of one of the most important debates going on the world today. I refer to the fight between Flint-style coneys and Detroit-style coneys. Apparently there is a place claiming to be “Angelo’s” located in shiny Ann Arbor (a yuppie Detroit suburb with delusions of grandeur) selling some vile mockery of a coney dog. I’m here to tell you that this is WRONG. Coneys belong to Flint. Flint invented coneys. Specifically, coneys belong to a little place called Angelo’s.

CUE NOSTALGIC MUSIC

From the 1970’s on, Flint’s Angelo’s Coney Island restaurant was a meeting-place of cultures. On a given night you could see rich old women in furs, bikers, prostitutes, gang members, suburb punk rockers (the quasi-urban angst!), and the mayor eating side-by side in its red vinyl benches. The waitresses coughed a lot and if you were really nice, you might get a tobacco-stained smile. They were open 24 hours, every day except Christmas, until the health department made them close for an hour every night to clean. There were fights in the parking lot. You could get fries with gravy. The signs, menu and prices hadn’t changed for 30 years.

What was the attraction? The unchanging ambiance and the coneys. Ah, the coneys. A coney dog, dear reader who wasn’t fortunate enough to be born in Flint, is a Koegel’s hot dog (made with real innards!) with a dry spicy meat sauce, finely chopped raw onions, and mustard. Eat it. It’s good. Get two, you might as well.

There are two genres of Coney dogs: Flint-style and Detroit-style. Detroit-style is all runny and nasty, just a dog with chili on top. Flint-style on the other hand, is coney perfection. These days, the original ones can be found at Tom Z’s coney island downtown. Accept no substitutes.

When GM has a strike, Flint women cook up sauce in a crock pot, chop up onions, and deliver coneys to the picket line. Flint kids go to Angelo’s before prom, carefully lifting their ballgowns off the floor.

A few years ago, Angelo’s was sold. The new owners fired the coughing waitresses, dressed up the new ones in “Angelo’s” t-shirts, took down the old yellow menus, raised prices, franchised the place, changed the food, and generally fucked everything up.

Fortunately, the Angelo’s-shaped hole in the universe has ushered in a new era. During my last visit, I saw dozens of new coney places that had opened up. Flint coneys are everywhere now. I remain hopeful.

Thus endeth the tale of the Vastly Superior Flintstyle coney. Anybody has anything different to say about the quality of the Flinttown dog, then come on up here and say it. I’ll fight ya. Come on. You. Right now. Flint!

Escape from Flint

Last night I drove back to Ithaca from my hometown of Flint, MI. I had Great Expectations on tape, and Dickens’ verbosity helped get me through the nine-hour drive without plowing into someone out of sheer boredom. Flint was unexpectedly fun. I got to see my favorite old gang, and their cute new kids. Downtown’s been sexed up a bit, with some lighted arches and a cobblestone overhaul. The best thing downtown is Flint City T-Shirts, my friend Matt’s new shop. I got an “I heart MI” shirt, and Erin got one that says “Flint: Baddest town around since 1855.”

Things I missed while I was in Flint (Good)

  • Snoop Dogg asking Cornellians “Can U Control Yo Hoe?” (more on misogyny in hip hop)
  • Slope day snowfences
  • Cat barfing

Things I missed while I was in Flint (Bad)

  • Beezoo and Lexie delivering brownies at work
  • Tulips blooming in spite of the damn deer (curse you deer!)
  • International dance festival (opa!)

Things I did while in Flint

  • Ate assloads of coneys. Pretty much literally.
  • Went to Wal-mart twice with parents. Bought nothing. Washed off corporate slime afterward.
  • Gave driving tour of expensive public works projects that were going to “save Flint”
  • Tamale night at Erin’s grandma’s
  • Mourned the death of Angelo’s. The walls are bare. They have wheat toast. The waitress called my friend “sir.” It’s over.
  • Three-hour gossip session with everyone’s favorite Joel
  • Got asked out by skeevy Australian waiter while at Olive garden with mom.
  • Introduced parents to veggi burger. Ate chicken in exchange.

In other news, Wendy at Poundy describes the Seattle Public Library most aptly.
Store Wars should tip you over your monthly bandwidth quota nicely. Headphones required. Organic and work-safe.