Kerrytown BookFest to host panel on Detroit and Flint

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.

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3 Responses to “Kerrytown BookFest to host panel on Detroit and Flint”

  1. John Hilton says:

    I just finished reading Teardown and have to rave about it. Though Young has no illusions about the depth of the city’s troubles and how little one person can do to help, he had me rooting for the “Flintoids” who are hanging on in their half-abandoned neighborhoods–even if that means packing a .45 on evening walks–and working to revive downtown. Teardown is fast-moving, improbably fun, and full of admirable people–not least of whom is Young himself.

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