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: PEELING THE PAINT
“I won’t be in Flint for long, If you want to do anything with life you have to leave” – Andrea “Brandy” Sarazine
I stood, in a thicket of wiry looking metal and twisted scrap, a few scattered plants stood in the way but most had withered once the first frost hit the region. Off to my right is a newer looking metal structure, much bigger than I anticipated and it even looks like there may be some signs of life in a building that was actually kept up. I stand there staring deep into the non-descript structure looking for a broken window which is too common in this city. Soon I see a car whizzing past me on Cole Blvd. that soon turns into the mysterious looking factory building. I pick up my laptop which I had conveniently sat on a tree stump that had been left in the middle of the large open concrete jungle and head back to the car. Obviously the tree stump had been planted, but what I was standing in too had been planted, and was slowly being reclaimed by mother nature. Here I was, in Buick City, the once industrial outpost where the very first Buick vehicle rolled off the line in 1904 is now just acres of open and barren wasteland at the edge of Flint’s downtown. The site, spawning 235 acres hugged every curve of the Flint River as it twisted back and forth into downtown. Getting closer to my car, you could see a couple of kids with a basketball in one hand head to the middle of an empty concrete box, they were out to play a game of 3 on 3 in what once was the paint shop of many Buick vehicles still on the road today. Finally sliding into the drivers side, I slipped away down the beaten concrete and paved path that had been carved by thousands of employees just a couple decades before and back toward downtown Flint.
Buick City, just like Chevy In The Hole are both long lost remnants of the great industrial past that once made Flint prosper. The factory is now long gone, just as the other site on the west end of downtown, but the numerous open acres of concrete and weeds make Flint look like a ghost town at best. The closest house was hundreds of yards away from where I stood and you could barely see the outline of Flint’s once prosperous downtown. Buick City was a barren wasteland, and no one had concrete plans on how to fix it. Between 2009 and 2013, nearly 42% of the population in Flint lived below the poverty line. Compare that unimaginable number to the state at just 17% which is still astronomically high in its own regard. In Flint, nearly 30% of the families have an income of $15,000 a year or less. While we all hear of the woes that face Detroit, the smaller sister north of the motor city has poverty rates nearly 10 points higher and it’s a shame nothing has been done. As one begins to peel the layers of caked on paint over the city facade, it’s easy to see that Flint is simply a poor, economic shell of its former self and water as we have said is just scratching the surface of the much larger problems. So to discover how the city got into this situation requires we look into the past, how the city was designed and what is causing the fall out and severe economic decline.
THE FLINT CRISIS: DURANT’S COMPANY TOWN
“We have depended on G.M., all of us,” – Shirley Prater / Community Service Director for Local 599 Flint
In 1989, nearly 4,000 families were counseled by Ms. Prater, as General Motors began cutting the cord of a ticking time bomb. Issues ranging from eviction to lack of food, attempted suicide, lack of money for heat and electricity and affordable education all were on the minds of Flint residents nearly every day as GM shuttered over 30,000 employees. This was the same year that craft-film maker Michael Moore made a national splash in his documentary called Roger & Me which painted a negative picture of General Motors president Roger B. Smith. The mayor of Flint at the time, Matthew Collier who was fearful of the negative backlash that the movie would provide to the city image was considered by many a part of the bigger problem. “A General Motors bashing movie can only jeopardize efforts to persuade the auto maker to expand its activities” said Collier, while tens of thousands of residents who had been out of work for a few years all realized that Flint Michigan’s largest and most controlling employer wasn’t coming back or expanding anytime soon. It was at that moment that Flint began to realize what it had least hoped, it was a company town that was betrayed by the company.
Collier along with his several predecessors all had been as one may say “drinking the kool-aide” far too long, and while many were looking for changes the era of GM dominance wouldn’t end anytime soon. For nearly a century, Flint relied on the leadership of General Motors for its survival. The ancestor of the Buick City plant was the companies very first assembly line and because of that long lasting relationship, the good workers of Flint made more and spent more than any other industrial workers in the world. Hitting an all time employment high of 80,000 in the city and 40% of the Genessee County workforce in 1978, after foreign competition took full swing at GM in the 80’s, the workforce was whittled down to bare skeleton and has continued a steady free fall since. William Durant and J. Dallas Dort certainly were entrepreneurial people, but never did they envision their start-up wagon company created for Flint Michigan would also be the same nail in its post-industrial coffin. Economic Development experts have tried numerous times to step in and look at the value the city could offer, but the consensus still comes back that Genessee County continues to have a relatively low ability to attract and retain the kinds of people inclined to build businesses and do things for themselves. One person quoted in The Flint Journal says “It’s not going to be like the ’60s and ’70s anymore, we tell the kids they better get a good education because the opportunities just don’t exist with GM. Hell, the city is starting to be non-existent from GM.”
While it’s easy to quickly bash General Motors and their love/hate affair with the city, you must observe what such a company did and stiill does for a town like Flint Michigan. Since the founding over 100 years ago, one company is responsible for nearly 80 years of expansion, growth and prosperity for a rather unassuming and open landscape. When America was growing during the industrial era, people moved north to Flint and other Michigan cities from poorer southern states to secure financial and social stability for their families. As the tax base grew, more funds for new schools, hospitals, libraries and parks became available and General Motors for the first couple of decades was a very generous and giving employer to help build a better quality of life for the citizens of Flint. Fast forward to 2016, and substantial medical plans, prescription drug coverage, dental care and pension checks are a lifeline for several thousand G.M. retirees and an untold number of surviving spouses and other family members who still live in the Flint area. While it may not be steady employment, people who spent the majority of their lives with the company have remained in the community, investing in the local restaurants and small businesses to survive. While those long-term retirement funds are still active today, as the older population begins to die off, so does even more of the city and that’s a real problem that leaders must face soon. A company town built by Durant and General Motors is now on the verge of tearing the whole thing apart for scraps, it’s time that people begin to act and stop waiting on a fairy tale romance.
THE FLINT CRISIS: GLOBALIZATION
“Thanks to General Motors, Flint has security for the next 100 years.” – James Rutherford, 86th Mayor of Flint Michigan in 1977 interview with The Flint Journal
During the Flint Mayoral Election when Rutherford won the party nomination, his words were soothing to the ears of over 160,000 Flint residents who were seeing all time highs in population, prosperity and opportunity. No one at that moment in time would imagine the day you could drive off the lot with a foreign built car that was just as efficient as the one made in Flint for a fraction of the cost. No one at that moment in time could even imagine General Motors would pack up and take with it nearly 70,000 jobs bringing the city to its knees in less than 20 years. As the mayor stood near the front of city hall on his victorious inauguration, the automotive workers who called Flint home were seeing so much prosperity that nothing would rain on their day.
100 years ago, Michigan was the ideal location for the Automobile industry to locate its factories, employ its workers and manage from its headquarters. The ideal location along the Great Lakes provided for easy shipping of vehicles to the various ports across the country, access to the Saint Lawrence Seaway and of course the majority of autos at the time were still sold in America, Canada and Western Europe. Not til the 1980’s did automobiles really begin to take off around the globe and the American automobile consumption began to slide while foreign markets became the rage. As we have mentioned before, it was with the globalization of the automobile industry the economic death of Flint truly started to shine through to the public. A city that had spent just as much as it had received in tax payer dollars was bankrupt and the citizens had no money to continue supporting the strong and robust educational institutions it once held. Services ranging from water and sewer to police and fire were all facing massive cuts as the auto industry began packing its bags.
Garel Rhys, Professor of Economic Impacts at Cardiff University says “The Big Three, especially General Motors are facing their greatest challenge ever in their entire postwar history, and while it was inevitable they would eventually lose their monopoly position, their failure to adapt their production methods and meet changing consumer tastes has accelerated their decline.” In the face of a global economy, General Motors and the company town of Flint refused to look at alternatives, and hoped that maintaining status quo would suffice. What Flint and the companies needed supporting the economy was powerful ideas that would challenge and reshape the industry and its people. That didn’t happen for the city, while finally General Motors began seeing the need for diversification. As GM made the necessary changes to remain competitive, it saw that Flint was stubborn to change, and why shouldn’t it be, just ten years before the mayor declared security for the city.
THE FLINT CRISIS: A THIRD WORLD COUNTRY
As I pulled out of the former Buick City site and started driving toward downtown, you could see street after street with barren landscapes, boarded houses and every so many lots a nice, well kept home. It was like looking at the mouth of a drug addict, missing and rotten teeth and then every so many one that looked perfectly fine. Maybe i was starting at a drug addict, just one that looked a little different. Instead of substance abuse, this drug addict was still holding onto the past and waiting for it to return to its former glory. As I pulled into the Sunoco Gas station on North Grand Traverse and University, I sit in my car for a moment longer waiting for a crowd of violent looking youth to vacate the property. One is holding a gun, yes a literal gun and slides it into his waste-band, I began to mumble under my breath…where am I at, a third world country? One of the young men jump on the back of the rusted trunk hood and they ride into the night turning down University and heading toward the river. After pumping about $15 into my tank, I start to slowly shuffle my feet toward the front door, and a woman comes charging out at me looking like I was about to be her next victim. She is screaming at the top of her lungs that the young man behind the counter is making advances to her sister and her best friend and she is “done with the drama.” I am not certain what I had experienced in that short five minute fill up, but it’s something you don’t expect coming from most any other place.
I jump back in my car and head north on Lyon Street making stops at all the intersections, not to yield but to look in awe as dozens of lots where homes once stood now sit empty. Finally after driving around Flint for nearly an hour I finally see one cop car, but he is parked in his driveway and not on a mission except for maybe sleep. A city once brimming with nearly 200,000 citizens had been pulled to the ground. Sidewalks were scattered at best, lawns not manicured for what seemed like years and potholes that could easily swallow my Jeep 4×4 lay around every corner. Finally I come to a small corner shop where it looks a little more at ease and a overall better stock of cars. As I walk into the store, you could smell the sweet aroma of orange chicken being cooked next door and I talk with Melanie, a young mother in her mid 30’s who looks to the back room where her 3 and 9 year old are coloring at the table. She says “your plates say you from Indiana, what brings you to these parts?” I tell her, I am trying to find the soul of Flint Michigan and she quickly dismisses my effort and says “dear, the soul is here it’s just not like it used to be.” We reminisce about my short jaunt around the city and she informs me that they are tearing down her neighbors house tomorrow and that she will now be one of two homes left on an entire block. “It’s like they just came in an set off a bomb, some houses stay and the others are gone the next, that’s what Flint is right now.”
As we stand and sip on tongue burning coffee made bitter by the grit in the filter, I listen to stories of the Flint she remembers so fondly and how it has come to be. The one thing that stands out to me most is when she said “Sure, the water is bad but the city is rotting and no one wants to help. We just can’t keep living like this.” As she continues her story about the neighborhood she grew up in and how the school is now standing abandoned and wrecked where she once graduated, she begins to sob for just a minute and says “we’re stuck, Flint is stuck, I can’t sell my house and my kids are now stuck.” I bring up the equation of a Third World Country and she says, “can there be anything worse, maybe Katrina.” See, Melanie purchased her home with her husband in 2004 only months before their first child was born. She knew that Flint was suffering, but the neighborhood in which she chose was still in somewhat decent shape. In 2006, the water was dry as they discovered there was a massive leak just down the block and when she called the city, they said they would tend to it as soon as possible. After waiting for almost three weeks, the city finally came to fix the leaking water main and it was then she started seeing the issues facing the bankrupt city. In 2013 her husband left her and the children behind in search for a better life, Melanie couldn’t leave the house was in her name. She tried putting it on the market twice only to be so far under water the bank told her to hold onto the home just a bit longer. Melanie is just one citizen of nearly 100,000 that are all facing the same post-industrialization issues that haunt Flint.
Her son Jacob runs into the room and says “mommy look what we colored.” She excuses herself and thanks me for my visit and genuine heart for the city of Flint. After spending several minutes with her, I walk back to my car and look into the rear-view mirror, my heart continues to beat but just a bit slower as I think about her story. I don’t know if I feel fear, anger, pain or what but the story she told of how her and her family was split apart by a city dying makes it that much harder to swallow. Flint Michigan is a city in desperate need, not just for new water lines, but in desperate need for the country to wrap its arms around her and show it love. As I make my way back to the interstate, I begin to shout…why…why America, why have we done this to ourselves. The foundation in which this once great city stands on is cracking and it’s crumbling faster each day. Water is an issue, so is poverty, crime, education, economy and thats just the tipping point. The Flint Crisis is real, and we have only begun.