Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City, by Gordon Young

Sherry Lee Linkon on a ‘community of memory’ fighting for a place called home

October 31, 2013

Gordon Young wisely ends this exploration of deindustrialisation without a clear conclusion. While scholars and urban planners throughout the US and Europe debate strategies for revitalising former industrial cities that are “shrinking”, “forgotten” or “failing”, Young reminds us that storytelling, including the kind of inconclusive ending we might find in a contemporary novel, sometimes reveals more than the most careful study can. Better yet, a good story shows us why we should care, even if it doesn’t provide any solutions.

Young’s memoir hangs on his plan to buy an inexpensive house in his home town of Flint, Michigan, fix it up and somehow help the local economy in the process. This tale provides a structure for a complex report on the multiple factors contributing to Flint’s decline and stagnation: the rise and fall of General Motors, persistent racial divisions, the impossible task of balancing a shrinking city budget when the need for firefighters and police officers is growing, and the combined effects of vacant properties and the underground economy. Along the way, he profiles former Flint residents who have returned there to work for non-profit organisations and fix up old houses; local politicians pushing uncertain visions of the future; long-time residents who refuse to leave crumbling neighbourhoods; and a pastor whose commitment to Flint and its people might not be enough to save either.

Like others who have written about deindustrialised places, Young sees Flint as unique, although his stories reflect common patterns. He recalls how the wealth of the industrial era supported free clinics, cultural institutions, community centres, and even harp lessons for local kids. He describes the “perverse pride” he takes in stories about crime in Flint and the “exuberant recklessness” of the local character. In the end, even if he didn’t move back, he “would always be a Flintoid at heart”. This “community of memory” inspires many residents to fight for their city.

Young uses individual stories to humanise the effects of economic restructuring and neoliberal policy. Three million Americans have lost their homes to foreclosure since 2008, a fact brought to dramatic life here in the case of Dave and Judy Starr, who refuse to leave their house, now worth less than the $14,500 they paid for it in 1968, despite rising crime rates in their neighbourhood, including a driveway mugging that left Judy severely injured. It’s their home, she explains, “and I will not be driven from it”. That stubborn determination is not unique to Flint: it’s an attitude that vitalises neighbourhood organisations and community development efforts across the US rust belt and beyond.

Teardown highlights recovery plans widely used in these places. “Smart shrinkage” advocates strategies to accommodate population loss: creating landbanks to manage abandoned properties, replacing empty lots with urban gardens, and encouraging people to move out of largely abandoned areas in order to reduce city responsibility for infrastructure. Churches and community groups have pursued a more grass-roots approach, cleaning up neighbourhoods, turning vacant lots into gardens and helping individuals. In Flint, Sherman McCathern, leader of an independent black church, preaches sermons that exhort people to hold on to hope and trust in God, but he also pursues more concrete efforts, working to help young men build new lives after prison through training, jobs and housing assistance.

In the end, Young makes clear, neither solution is sufficient. Flint will survive, he tells us, because it has many “tough people fighting…in their own ways”. But it will be a long, hard battle without a triumphant conclusion: Flint will never again be “a bastion of the middle class”. At best, it might become “a different place that still had pride and dignity”. That may sound like a disappointing conclusion, but it’s an honest one. The economic and social challenges of the post-industrial austerity economy are complex, and we may never return to past prosperity. Like Flintoids, we need to keep fighting in our own ways.

Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City

By Gordon Young
University of California Press, 288pp, £19.95
ISBN 978052005 and 20955370 (e-book)
Published 4 June 2013

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