Are our cities vanishing? A provocative discussion at the Kerrytown BookFest moderated by Michigan Radio’s Jennifer Guerra will attempt to answer that question as four panelists have a conversation about our changing urban landscape. The panelists are Gordon Young (“Teardown”); John Gallagher (“Revolution in Detroit”); June Thomas (“Redevlopment and Race”) and  Edward McClelland who purposely chose “Nothin’ But Blue Skies” as the title for his new book on the rise and fall of America’s once great manufacturing cities because it was ambiguous.

“I wanted it to have double meaning,” he said in an interview from his home in the northern Chicago neighborhood of Rogers Park. McClelland said the inspiration for the title came from a story relayed to him by a former steel worker from south Chicago who looked up one day at the site of a former steel plant and said, “Nothin’ but blue sky.” He was referring  to the wide open horizon where massive smoke stacks once blocked the sky in more ways than one.

“But I also wanted the title to represent a blank slate and the chance for cities to reinvent themselves,” he said.

McClelland, 46 (real last name Kleine),  grew up in Lansing, attending Sexton High School in the shadow of the General Motors Fisher Body Plant on Verlinden Street. McClelland said he feels like he’s been writing this book for 20 years. His book opens with his ‘nostalgic’ recollections of running on the Sexton track while inhaling paint fumes from the Fisher Body plant. Recalling the many bars facing the plant, “Fisher Body’s shoprats could speed from punch out to bar stool in five minutes or less,” he said.

McClelland, who has authored two other nonfiction books, is a graduate of both Michigan State University and Lansing Community College. While in Lansing, he wrote for the Lansing State Journal, LCC’s The Lookout, The State News and the Capital Times.

While researching “Blue Skies,” McClelland visited six states — Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, New York and Pennsylvania — that have seen their industrial backbone broken in recent decades. In each of those states he examined the causes of the decline and takes a look at what is being done to rebuild cities such as Detroit, which during World War II, was called the “arsenal of democracy.”

He said Chicago and Pittsburgh were probably the best at weathering the apocalyptic storm while Detroit and Flint are at the other end of the spectrum. Reflecting on the outcomes of deindustrialization, he is sometimes brutally honest about why some cities (mostly in the South) grew, while others faltered.

“It wasn’t just about what government could do, but the differences in the work environment,” he said. “Flint never let go of the spirit of the sit-down strike.”

McClelland highlights Lansing for its ability to land two new GM plants through regionalism and management-labor cooperation. He also points to certain positive high-tech manufacturing start ups and their success, particularly Niowave.

“There are few places besides Lansing where this could be started,” he said, citing the marriage of former Oldsmobile craftsmen and university researchers. When McClelland made a return visit to his old high school he observed the educational focus had turned to health care education and training for what he called “taking care of retired Olds workers.”

“We can’t forget shop class,” he said.

McClelland said allowing Detroit to go bankrupt is “not going to solve the underlying problems.” He believes that Detroit’s loss of population, loss of the middle class and loss of the tax base will only be exacerbated by bankruptcy.

“No state needs an urban policy more than Michigan,” he said. And although he is not shy about faulting government officials, he said, “Governor Snyder had to do something.” Even when he was writing the book, McClelland said he thought Detroit was not a functional city.

“It’s basically a lower class neighborhood of a metro area without enough tax base to support the infrastructure,” he said. Part of that is due to the loss of the middle class. He recalls talking recently with a retired Detroit police officer who is worried about his pension due to the bankruptcy.

“That’s part of the problem,” McClelland said. “He moved out (of the city). Chicago has a residency requirement (for municipal  police and fire fighters while Detroit does not that helped maintain the middle class.”

He also said Detroit’s fall has contributed to the out migration of college graduates from Michigan.

“There are as many MSU bars in Chicago as there are in East Lansing,” McClelland said.

He said he strongly believes that what happens in Detroit matters to the whole state, where it’s likely that the negative ramifications will reverberate through the entire state. As if on cue on Friday, a Wall Street Journal article reported on a $53 million Genesee County bond sale that was delayed because of what the paper called “Detroit Fallout.” The Journal also reported that the next scheduled bond sale is for the city of Saginaw. Good luck there.

“Detroit has got the whole nation’s attention,” he said. No doubt about that; in just this past week national columnists Clarence Page, Paul Krugman, Frank Bruni and George Will have weighed in on the Detroit bankruptcy, and every national news organization has had in-depth coverage on the bankruptcy. The architectural porn articles that were all the rage a few years ago now have turned to economic decline porn diatribes with Detroit as the focus.

He also looked carefully at the urban pioneer movement that some point to as our cities’ saving grace. He learned Youngstown, Ohio, residents call this back-to-city movement “Rust Belt Chic.”

“Only suburbanites romanticize the city,” he wrote about Detroit.


The Kerrytown BookFest presents an insider’s look at the music that moved Detroit with a panel presentation by three top music writers: Steve Miller (“Detroit Rock City”); Peter Benjaminson (“Mary Wells: the Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Super Star”) and Brett Callwood (“The Stooges”).

Miller includes first-person accounts by Ted Nugent, Jack White, Wayne Kramer, Alice Cooper, Bob Seger and Russ Gibbs, the legendary rock promoter who headed the Grand Ballroom, among a score of other top performers. Read excerpts from his book in the Lansing City Pulse here.

The panel, From Motown to Iggy Pop, will be at noon Sunday September 7 in the Main Tent at the Kerrytown BookFest in Ann Arbor Michigan.

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, 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.


Kerrytown 2012 Scene

Detroit may be on the brink of bankruptcy, but the city is rich with authors writing new books about the city’s economy, the auto industry and its music.

The 11th Kerrytown BookFest will celebrate Detroit and its writers with three panel discussions featuring celebrated auto executive Bob Lutz, rock ‘n’ roll writers Steve Miller (“Detroit Rock City”) and Peter Benjaminson (“Mary Wells”) and urban observers Edward McClelland (“Nothing But Blue Skies: The Heydey”, Gordon Young (“Teardown”), June Thomas (“Redevlopment and Race”) and John Gallagher (“Revolution Detroit”) of the Detroit Free Press. The BookFest is set for 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday September 8 at the Farmers Market in downtown Ann Arbor. The BookFest is free.

As always the Kerrytown BookFest will be an eclectic mix of authors, book artists, used book sellers and fun and crafts for children said Robin Agnew, president of the Kerrytown BookFest Board.

“Each year we ask ourselves how we are going to top the year before and each year we do,” she said.

Agnew said each of the authors featured at the BookFest have recently published books or books which will be unveiled at the BookFest.

As an example, she pointed to the Automobiles and the Industry panel featuring Bob Lutz with his new book “Icons and Idiots”. He will be joined by Steve Lehto who has written a new book “The Great American Jet Pack” along with Bryce Hoffman who recently wrote one of the definitive books on the Ford Motor turn-around (“American Icon”) and Larry Webster of Road & Track Magazine.

Once again, the BookFest will feature several superior mystery writers including Julia Keller (“A Killing in the Hills”, William Kent Krueger (“Ordinary Grace”), Cara Black (“Murder Below Montparnasse”), Erin Hart (“The Book of Killowen”), Libby Fischer Hellman (“A Bitter Veil”) and Alyse Carlson (“The Begonia Bride”).

A special session will feature the quirky and hot authors Matt Bell (“In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods”) and Ben Percy (“Red Moon”) who will enter into a discussion with University of Michigan writing instructor Jeremiah Chamberlin.

There also will be numerous hands on activities for both adults and children where they can produce their own accordion and Meander books.

Agnew, co-owner of Aunt Agatha’s mystery bookshop in Kerrytown, said children and budding children’s book writers and illustrators will be enthralled and entertained by the lineup of authors at this year’s BookFest.

Children’s book authors Ruth McNally Barshaw (“Ellie McDoodle”), Nancy Shaw (“Elena’s Story”) and Shutta Crum (“Dozens of Cousins”)  will join with award-winning illustrator David Catrow (“Max Spaniel”, “Dozens of Cousins” and author or illustrator of 70 books) to discuss picture books from their inception to publication. In addition, Barshaw will conduct a drawing session for young illustrators and Deborah Diesen (“Pout Pout Fish”) will read from her books and conduct sing-a-longs. Critter fish from Diesen’s popular books are being sold at Kohl’s Department Store as part of a national promotion.

Since one of the goals of the BookFest is to celebrate book arts, three panels will focus on Michigan book artists, experimental typography, the changing face of book content and the Detroit letterpress printing scene.

Agnew said by popular demand the panel “Cherchez la Femme” will feature writers Bonnie Jo Campbell, (“Once Upon a River”) Natalie Bakopoulos (“The Green Shore”), and poets Francine Harris (“Allegiance”) and Susan Ramsey (“A Mind Like This”) discussing the women’s point of view.

“Each year we mix new authors, veteran authors from a variety of genres along with notable experts in the printing arts to create the best small book festival in the country,” Agnew said.

Agnew said  “the BookFest is sponsored by many-many small donors along with the Michigan Humanities Council and is planned, organized and run by an all volunteer Board.

It is something we are very proud of,” she said.

The BookFest also will recognize Jay Platt, owner of Westside Books, for his service to the book community with the Community Book Award and will announce the winners of the Sixth Annual Book Cover design contest.

For a complete schedule, a list of authors and presenters visit

Also, potential exhibitors including book sellers, artists and photographers are encouraged to visit the website  and register online.