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 pretty clear to me, so I got the hell out. I went to a halfway-decent suburban high school. My parents fought like hell to keep me in the district. They rented claptrap houses on the edge of the district line. I graduated and 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 stride down the hallway during tense negotiations and sing Woody Guthrie’s song:
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 stuck to the union and stayed as Flint crumbled. Everyone who could afford to moved away. My suburban school district installed metal detectors. I went away to graduate school and met people who had never heard of a carbureted engine. I would come home for holidays, dragging bemused boyfriends and waving around my new words, new ideas, big opinions.
I came 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.