Gordon Thomas, author of “Teardown,” will join a panel discussion on vanishing cities 2 p.m. at the Kerrytown BookFest Sunday September 8 in Ann Arbor, Michigan: Michigan Narratives: Vanishing Cities. A conversation about the changing urban cityscape in Michigan with Gordon Young (Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City); John Gallagher (Revolution Detroit); June Thomas (Redevelopment and Race) and Edward McClelland (Nothin’ but Blue Skies: the Heyday, Hard Times and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland). This panel will be moderated by Jennifer Guerra of Michigan Radio.
An offbeat idea hatched in a San Francisco hipster bar set journalist and Flint native Gordon Young on a quest to buy a house in his downtrodden hometown. Young’s obsession-like love of Flint is the focus of his first book, “Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City.” In a recent phone interview, he admitted to having a “sketchy” and “naïve” idea that he could take the few thousand dollars he and his girlfriend had saved and buy a house in Flint, hoping it would be his contribution to helping turn the city around.
“I wanted to capture the spirit of Flint that I remember,” he said.
Over the course of several house-hunting ventures, Young discovered some things he didn’t know about Flint. He found a city that had been gutted by the loss of General Motors jobs, but he also found “so many people who are not giving up on the neighborhoods.”
“The hope and fighting spirit is alive,” he said.
Young, who teaches journalism at Santa Clara University in California, left home in 1984 to pursue his education. He has been following the plight of Flint on his blog flintexpats.com, which he has maintained since 2007, where his fellow “Flintoids” post about what is right and wrong with the city, as well as fond memories.
To research his book, Young made lengthy visits to Flint from 2009 and 2012, often sleeping on the floor of friends’ homes, including one that used to belong to early auto pioneer Charles W. Nash. While back home, his girlfriend established a “no Flint zone” after she got so tired of his talking about the city.
Where Young’s book distinctly differs from the glut of other books written on the demise of urban America is that he focuses on individuals, such as Rev. Sherman McCathern of the Joy Tabernacle Church, who serves the inner city residents with the fervor of a saint. But the author said that he was conscious of not being voyeuristic.
“It was always on my mind,” he said. “Flint residents are wary of outsiders who parachute in and think they know everything about Flint. I let people tell their stories and did not impose my views on the city.”
At its height in the 1950s and ‘60s, Flint was known as Vehicle City, the number one city in the country for disposable income. Today, it is mostly known as “the most dangerous city in America” (according to a recent national poll) and its decay was featured prominently in fellow Flint alum Michael Moore’s 1989 documentary, “Roger & Me.”
While searching for his fix-up project, Young found, somewhat to his surprise, that both his childhood home and his grandparents’ home were in great shape.
“They look exactly the same,” he said, crediting aluminum siding for the preservation. Young often found himself a guest in strangers’ homes after a short introduction, including the current residents of his grandparents’ former home. Although he didn’t get into his boyhood home, he wandered around it (not always a safe thing to do in Flint) and discovered that a mural he and his sister painted on the garage was still there.
However, any sense that Young is being Pollyannaish about Flint ends when he mentions that average residents carry guns with them while out on a walk and are eager to show their weaponry. Young writes about one longtime friend who took him to a gun range for some practical experience, at which he failed miserably. Discoveries like the residents’ propensities for carrying guns were eye-openers for Young.
“It was really a stark reminder about how a lot of things have changed,” he said.
Young, who prided himself for “knowing every street in Flint,” was surprised when he became disoriented while driving near the site of the former Buick City, a series of buildings that were razed in 2002. He said he became confused even though he had been chauffeured past it on the way to school as a kid by Ben Hamper, a fellow Flint native-turned-author (“Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line.”)
“It was really a strange experience not knowing where I was.”
An even stranger experience occurred on one of his last visits to Flint. He volunteered to work on a home that McCathern was donating to a parishioner in exchange for sweat equity. The author discovered the home was the childhood home of Hamper, and he’d been a guest there dozens of times over the years, especially when Hamper was carpooling with Young and his younger siblings to the local Catholic school.
Young said he has been reading and rereading Hamper’s book “nonstop” since it was published in 1992. He also uses Moore’s “Roger & Me” in his journalism class. He said he’s seen it at least 25 times.
The nationwide kick-off for the book will be at the iconic Luigi’s on Davidson in Flint, which was a neighborhood hangout for Young while growing up. Contrary to the aphorism, it seems as though Young found he could go home again.