Hoch Associates, a progressive architecture, engineering, urban and interior design firm with offices in Fort Wayne and Indianapolis is talking about the Flint crisis in a series of blog posts over the next few days. While we understand our core of a company is architecture, we also believe in the importance of community and how it drives us. We believe that no matter where we are in location or in life, our responsibility is to create better, healthier, stronger and more vibrant communities. We are happy you decided to follow along over the next few days as we dive deeper than water in Flint Michigan to get to a bigger story on how we design and plan our cities IS our responsibility.
It’s important to note that we are not CNN, NBC or any of the major news outlets covering the actual water crisis. While the headline news is devastating and our hearts reach out, we are leaving that coverage and information to the national news outlets. You will see throughout our coverage of the Flint Crisis small inserts about the current situation, however the focus will be on the city itself and how urban design has played a roll in where Flint stands today.
THE FLINT CRISIS: THE AUTOMOBILE KILLED THE URBAN STAR
“When should you stop, or start, caring?” – Wes Janz, Ball State University
Strolling along West Court Street in downtown Flint Michigan, hundreds of classic autmobiles are lined on both sides of the street. The crowd, filled with mostly blue haired individuals begins to thin out as I get closer to the end and the chatter is dwindling as if the crowd is starting to disperse. Out of the 50 or so individuals I saw walking in the one block stretch of cars, nearly 45 were above the retirement age. As I turned around and headed toward the start, small groups of friends gathered by their favorite classics from a 57 Chevy to a Mustang colored deep purple with the glisten of a bowling ball shine. These friends continued to gather and reminisce on the days of the past, but the crowd is wearing thin and fragile compared to a car cruise in just twenty years prior. Maybe it’s the nostalgia of car shows that just aren’t reaching the younger audiences the same way they used to, or could it be the dream of car ownership is fleeting? Mike Berger, a historian who studies the social effect of the car says “The automobile just isn’t that important to people’s lives anymore, social media blows any limits that you once had out of the water and you don’t need a car to go find your friends today.”
Maybe Mike is on to something, or maybe he is too out of our realm of thinking. The automobile has been a part of the American way of life for 100 years now, and since the first Ford models rolled off the assembly line, the “new car” smell has dictated so many things in our lives that we often take for granted. Think back to when you were a teenager, the thought of car ownership was the pinnacle of your hard work and efforts either in school or at home. If you were lucky enough to pick out your own vehicle, every detail made the difference for which one you would settle on. Vehicle ownership was a status symbol for those in power and a mode of transportation for those who relied on road travel other than foot or bike. That feeling of getting your license gave you freedom to roam and a sense of independence that you had never experienced before, the automobile was everything you needed and wanted. For cities, vehicle ownership meant the creation and rapid expansion of suburbs, shopping malls, industrial parks and highways. The automobile that was first crafted in Flint Michigan is responsible for the America we see, feel and participate in today. That same automobile might as well be responsible for the Flint Michigan we see, feel and don’t participate in as well, because with one industry rose a city from dirt and now is responsible for its very collapse.
While it’s easy to just blame General Motors for the rise and fall of Flint, the issues that plague the city are much deeper than the surface. That’s why we insist that the water crisis is just the tipping point for Flint Michigan.
THE FLINT CRISIS: IT’S IN THE DESIGN
In a book, buried deep in the archives of Cornell University library, the cover has a faded set of golden lead letters on a blue book jacket that says “FLINT 1920.” What one would think is a high school yearbook turns out to be the city’s very first Civic Plan, one that was written by the well renowned John Nolan who was at the time the city planner for Flint. Inside you can start to see the story of how Flint came to be and why it has ultimately landed where it is today. Only 20 years prior to the writing of the book, Flint had a population of 13,000 residents. In 1920, that population swelled to an outstanding 80,000 making city officials rush to accommodate the new wave of migrants to the community. On Page 18 of the book it states “work of pushing on the sewer, water and paving improvements to keep pace with the rapid building up of the residential districts has fallen upon the Engineering Department which is meeting the situation as fast as possible due to the rapid expansion of industrial workplaces.” The city was facing a growth spurt, but leaders weren’t exactly sure how to handle the onslaught of new residents, factories or what it means to be a city on the verge. Flint was in a very new and dangerous territory, and the hope was that having a civic plan would help secure the city success for generations to come.
We must first start with Flint’s new dawn as an industrial city. As Flint Michigan began growing in the late 1800’s and timber was being transported through the town as a central hub, the railroad industry quickly took claim on several valleys in the city laying miles of track near the Flint River. Just like the industrial boom towns across the country, Flint was in growth mode and train transportation was essential for its continued expansion. As the railroads came, so did the industry from the Flint Road Wagon Company to General Motors, all building expansive factories dotting the valleys and hugging the major water source for the city. Planners and city officials continued to allow for expansive industrial growth to fill in the gaps along the riverfront rather than dedicating a space for development due to transportation access making the land more valuable as industry rather than open green space. As more industries supporting the automobile manufacturers moved to Flint, the industrial zones along the river became clogged with industrial waste and the only outlet was the nearby Flint River. At this time, modern sewers and water lines for a growing city with little budgets were available but a limited resource which made dumping hazardous chemicals in the nearby water stream an easier and more affordable solution.
To support the nearby factories and industries, the city of Flint also had to provide space for residents to relocate families and build new homes, however in less than ten years, Flint’s population more than doubled making it harder for factory employees to have adequate homes. The 1920 plan created by Nolan was partially designed to address such a need. One interesting figure points out the housing crisis the growing city was facing with nearly 3,100 factory employees who were unable to find home for their families in Flint, so many lived in make-shift tents, stick/gravel structures and tar paper shacks just to get by til a home could be built. It wasn’t that the city was facing any wage issues, in fact the local factories paid well. The issue facing Flint was the number of jobs versus the availability of amenities in the city, so rapid construction commenced in the coming years. As Flint pushed the boundaries past the 1910 annexation, residential streets were quickly filled with small, poorly constructed, short-term houses that were designed for quick build rather than long-term housing solutions. City officials would rather have miles of homes (no matter how poorly designed) than miles of tents lining railroad tracks and public sidewalks giving the city a bad visual image.
THE FLINT CRISIS: A CITY ON THE BRINK
In the 1920’s, financial glory and a good paying jobs were all the rage for Flint city officials. As the industrial centers continued to boom, so did the residential base which meant more taxes for the city coffers. On paper, all was great for the city and there was no end in sight. Little did the leadership know that the growth and prosperity of this mid-sized Michigan industrial town would soon collapse as the government stepped in and would shift the way cities would be designed and built in the future. Near the middle of the decade, other regional cities such as Battle Creek started to see cracks in the industrialization that once were the driving force behind their own growth. Lansing, Saginaw, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and others started to see layoffs in mass even before the stock market crash that would lead to America’s worst decade in economic regards. Flint, which was built on the automobile was on an all time high with thousands of new residents moving to the city in droves looking for work and many moving from much poorer, southern states who were not nearly as developed. As the economy continued to teeter around the state, residents clamored to Flint continuing to fuel the outward growth from the city center. General Motors and other companies continued to expand growing the workforce to over 80,000 for the automobile manufacturer alone. While the onslaught of new citizens to the city was ideal for leaders at first, the growing pains would soon catch up with Flint and cause more damage than good.
In 1925 alone, over 35 miles of new water mains were installed under city streets and one article even says “Flint’s Northeast Neighborhoods suffer the stench as city grows.” In 1926, Flint engineering officials laid around 45 miles of new sewage, but the growth was still outpacing the city tax rolls and their plans to connect residents to adequate city services. Then October 1929, The Flint Journal would bring the city horrifying news from Wall Street, the stock market had just crashed and billions of invested dollars from residents, banks and even their employers were lost. A city that had just laid over 100 miles of city utilities to its residents would soon hit the skids and layoffs at the auto manufacturer would push the city into a steep 36% unemployment rate it would find hard to pull itself out of. With the economy in the gutter, Flint along with every other city in Michigan turned to the federal government for aide in turning around the city and employing the throngs of workers who were desolate and living in deep poverty. At one point during the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration employed nearly 800,000 men which mostly hailed from Detroit, Pontiac and Flint. The men who worked on the team would make a mere $5 a month and the family which he had left would make $25 a month. The job of these WPA employees in Michigan was to build roads, schools, public facilities, dams and such.
As Flint tried pulling itself from the woes of depression, it would soon make the national scene as the site of the 1936 Flint Sit Down Strike against General Motors, essentially the birth of the UAW (United Auto Workers). Flint, which had long been recognized as the epicenter for automobile production had built it’s entire economic success from the location of General Motors. On January 11th, 1937 the city would soon be under siege as company police shut off the heat, locked the gate to the plant and removed the ladder used to supply food to the strikers who were inside the factory. The 2,000 plus employees inside the factory decided they weren’t going to take the tactic just played by the company and forced the gate open, which caused officials to call in the assistance of Flint police. The response was quick, tear gas and bullets riddled the crowd, picketers and bystanders actually ripped the county sheriff’s vehicle apart piece by piece. A total of 28 people were seriously injured in the incident dubbed the “Battle of the Running Bulls.” This once incident at the time was a part of the larger picture that would slowly return Flint to prosperity again and General Motors looked to the changing economy as a way to grow their factory, hire employees and essentially grow Flint once again.
While the city struggled the first few years after the end of the Great Depression, it luckily was able to recover much quicker than similar cities across the industrial landscape. City officials surely didn’t quite expect what was about to happen next in a city designed and built for the automobile industry, one that would set the tables for an even more unraveling Flint Michigan. With poorly constructed homes lining miles of open and grid-locked streets, and industry choking the city from it’s natural resources, the city design is starting to show its deep rooted cracks and no one is the wiser. What could have been fixed in the late 1930’s was pushed aside and ignored by the people in charge then, and we must ask, when did Flint leadership stop, or start caring? Maybe the answer is…never.