Hoch Associates, a progressive architecture, engineering, urban and interior design firm with offices in Fort Wayne, Indianapolis and Dayton 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: URBAN BEGINNINGS
One architectural blogger shared his opinions on the situation in Flint best, “It’s like another shade of New Orleans, caught in between states of devastation and piddly renewal, though instead of having been flooded, it’s all dried up.”
From very humble beginnings as a trading post between Detroit and the Bay area (Saginaw-Midland), Flint was just another spot on the road for many decades until the birth of the carriage wagon industry. William Durant and Josiah Dort had created the Flint Road Car Company which would change the path and growth of the city in a profound way as the company transitioned from carriages to cars and control nearly every aspect of the city as the company continued to grow. General Motors operated in Flint from the early 20th century and as the company continued to grow, so did the position of the employees and the community in which they lived. By the 1960’s, Flint had a population base of nearly 190,000 residents and half of them worked for General Motors. City officials touted that with so much growth from GM, the city was expected to reach 250,000 residents in the next decade, but all that would come to a crashing end very soon. Flint would soon feel the brunt force of globalization and the effects of not diversifying industry.
The July 15th 1983 article in The New York Times wrote a great piece about globalization.
As the final shift ended at International Harvester Company’s truck-building plant here today, an era came to a close. That point is best understood by the 2,200 workers whose jobs were lost with the closing. “I know things are going to be different,” said Jerry DeLeon, as he walking into Harvester’s sprawling, red-brick factory this morning for his final day’s work after more than 21 years with the company. What does concern Mr. DeLeon, and many colleagues who are joining him on the unemployment rolls, is the uncertainty of trying to find jobs in a community that already has an unemployment rate of 10.3 percent in a work force of about 165,000 people. These workers also know that the skills they learned in truck manufacturing are not the skills needed by business and industry today in an economy shifting toward high technology and away from heavy manufacturing. Dim Prospects for Graduates. Gone are the days of full employment, or nearly full employment, in Fort Wayne, when a high school graduate could land a good-paying job that offered security and stability by simply applying at the factory gate. None are more painfully aware of that change than Mr. DeLeon and his fellow workers, many of whom have worked only at Harvester throughout their adult lives.
The Flint Crisis is sadly nothing new or unique to Flint. In Fort Wayne, we nearly faced the same fate with the loss of International Harvester. In the early 1980’s, the company decided to consolidate a portion of the work in Springfield leaving nearly 2,000 employees without steady work. Both Springfield Ohio and Fort Wayne Indiana politicians were well aware of the impending doom and both had created incentive packages to lure Harvester to stay in their community, but after much effort placed by the government only once city won. As the jobs fled Fort Wayne, sadly did a portion of the population. Many know that the city had a struggle during the 80’s glitz and glamour era putting our region behind others by nearly a decade. With the jobs that left, so did the soul of several neighborhoods in the city, especially near the Harvester plant itself.
In Flint Michigan, the once bustling metropolis is now to some a barren wasteland of burned out homes, abandoned factories and empty stretches of residential lots where the grass is never mowed and the sidewalks are in severe need of repair. In the 1980’s General Motors, once the city’s largest employer with nearly 80,000 individuals calling it their career decided to abandon their home base and leave the city high and dry. Very similar to the situation in Fort Wayne, when the regions largest employer began abandoning the city, they did more than move…they destroyed entire neighborhoods, public services like police, fire, health, schools and the soul of Flint itself. However what they didn’t expect to happen was the surrounding industry would also collapse. Flint, just like Fort Wayne, Gary, Lima and many other Midwestern cities would often have one large central industry (such as General Motors) with several hundred supporting businesses. Companies that provided parts to GM also located in Flint would soon too find little to no work and would have to shutter their doors laying off additional employees only driving the unemployment rates higher.
With cities like Flint, losing the largest employer was bad, but the after shock was even worse. As people became unemployed the options to continue living in Flint were practically non-existent. The only solution was to stay and live in poverty or relocate to another city, which for many was the top choice for survival. As the population declined, neighborhoods became open gaping wounds because the staggering amount of outbound migration. Once filled corner taverns now are filled with stray animals, once manicured lawns in front of opulent homes are now filled with wild cabbage plants and trees that are reclaiming their natural habitat. One intersection in Flint features a makeshift memorial to 9/11 victims, the property was purchased from the city for a mere hundred dollars, a far cry from sales figures just a half century before. Neighborhoods where families used to interact and Sunday picnics after church were a regular occurrence are now dark, grim and filled with despair. While this isn’t the case for all of the neighborhoods in the city, when you lose half your population base you have to understand that it’s not all roses. Flint is shrinking, and the services the city had provided for a city twice its size must also adjust to the current demands, one that city officials were hesitant to make a reality.
One anonymous writer in M-Live (the successor to the Flint Journal) said General Motors is like a dead-beat. For one hundred hard years, it used every ounce of the city from the people to the schools and while it provided a good life for many the city that caved to its needs is now feeling the pain. Then just like a dead-beat it skipped town, leaving us high-dry and worn-out. Instead of them ever repaying us for their use, the judge continues to give them solace because that dead-beat is linked to another woman, Detroit. In what may be some of the most painful words written about the once long love affair between the auto manufacturer and the city, a pure sense of pain shines through in most everyone around the city. Officials aren’t quite as quick to point fingers at the former manufacturing giant, but insist that both parties had their fair share of faults that lead to the Flint Michigan we see today.
So why is there a difference in the outcome of Flint and Fort Wayne? One could easily say that Flint was not nearly as fortunate as Fort Wayne when the latter was granted a gift from the large auto manufacturer in the form of a new truck plant, but that would be incorrect. See, Flint too was given a second chance in 1985 with the consolidation of facilities and the birth of the Buick LeSabre. Buick City, which is now an abandoned wasteland along the banks of the ever popular, media centric Flint River once had several thousand employees working day in and day out building a new lower cost luxury Buick to compete with several Japanese auto manufacturers. To comply with this gift, once again Flint officials focused on “what was” instead of “what could be” and placed all their eggs in the large auto manufacturer. City streets were rebuilt to facilitate the one site, and marketing/research dollars were used to attract support industry, the same way they had in the past to lift GM. Fort Wayne, who was given the gift of General Motors new facility in Lafayette Township didn’t just settle on the new plant. While spending some money to support the new plant, it focused on diversification of industry attracting financial, insurance and music based industries to the city. Less than ten years after Buick City opened its doors to the people of Flint, the plant would become abandoned as lines were moved to nearby Detroit where they could consolidate facilities.
Soon, the city that had originally built the automobile would soon be left on the side of the road for better incentives, larger skilled workforce and cheaper labor. A city that had invested millions, if not billions in nearly one hundred years to support the one industry that it knew and loved would come to find itself millions in debt with no way out. With dwindling populations and depleated resources, a city that once had shone as the most promising place to relocate your family to would soon earn the tagline “America’s Most Dangerous City.”