2014 Finalist for California Book Awards, Commonwealth Club of California
Podcast interview with Gordon Young, author of Teardown.
Pink Houses and Panhandlers
I had arrived in Flint in early June of 2009 after listening to the Tigers game in my rental car during the ninety-minute drive up I-75 from the Detroit airport. I thought baseball on the radio would snap me into a Michigan frame of mind, but the legendary Ernie Harwell, whose distinctive voice had mesmerized me as a kid, was no longer calling the games. It wasn't quite the same. But the game did remind me to stop at a thrift store and buy that baseball bat, a handy accessory for any extended stay in Flint.
I eventually made it to Saginaw Street, the city's main artery, which roughly divides Flint between east and west. As I crossed the river into what was once the thriving shopping district in the heart of downtown, the first of several black metal arches harking back to the early twentieth century spanned the thoroughfare, announcing that this was the "Vehicle City." The rumble caused by the uneven, old-timey bricks that still lined several downtown blocks gave me a jolt of nostalgia, a rush of the familiar that tapped into memories of numerous trips down this bumpy street with my mom, my grandparents, and my friends. It felt reassuring. And although no one would describe downtown as bustling, with its empty storefronts and boarded-up buildings, I saw signs of hope.
There was a crowd at Blackstone's, a new restaurant located in the former home of a fashionable men's clothing store that had folded decades earlier. (Spotting a new business in downtown Flint is as rare as seeing someone driving a new Buick in San Francisco.) The Art Deco splendor of the sixteen-story Mott Foundation Building, scrupulously maintained with the financial legacy of a fabulously wealthy industrialist once referred to as Mr. Flint, would draw attention in any city. There were enough people out and about to chase away the eerie sense of emptiness pervading so many other parts of the city. A few construction projects generated a reassuring racket that indicated something was happening here. The city wasn't dead yet.
I was headed to a vacant house owned by a friend of mine named Rich. Like me, he had grown up in Flint and eventually moved to San Francisco, where we met. He owned three "investment" properties in Flint, although the fact that all of them were empty indicated they weren't exactly generating a lot of income. He had happily agreed to let me crash at one of them. "It's good to have it look like there's someone actually living there," he had told me. "It keeps the thieves from stealing the plumbing."
It took me a while to find the house because downtown still had an inexplicable number of confusing one-way streets, an unnecessary remnant of the days when growth and good fortune meant traffic congestion. I'd also never spent much time in the Carriage Town neighborhood. It was unfamiliar terrain when I lived in Flint, a neighborhood to avoid unless you were in the market for drugs, hookers, or an ass kicking.
Rich's sister, Berniece, was there to greet me when I finally arrived. She still lived in Flint. Although we'd never met, she showed me around the house like I was an old friend, presenting a very practical housewarming gift-a four-pack of toilet paper. She seemed worried about me, offering advice like "Don't let anybody you don't know into the house" and "Be careful who you talk to on the street." I tried to reassure her that I knew how to take care of myself. I was from Flint, after all. But I sensed that my San Francisco pedigree, the new Patagonia shirt with lots of snaps and pockets that I'd bought for the trip, and my teal-striped Pumas were undermining my street cred.
Before I try to pawn myself off as a minor-league George Orwell writing a Rust Belt version of Down and Out in Paris and London, I should point out that Rich's house wasn't as rundown as many in the neighborhood. It was the well-preserved former home of Charles W. Nash, the president of GM in 1912 and founder of Nash Motors. It was just across the street from the Durant-Dort Office Building, the beautifully restored birthplace of GM. Unlike many of Flint's empty structures, the Nash House had luxuries like plumbing and electricity. The water heater was broken, but a cold shower would be better than nothing. Inexplicably, the place was painted pink, destroying any chance I had of establishing myself as some kind of tough-guy writer, a Buick City Bukowski.
The wood floors, wraparound porch, handsome stained glass window, and high ceilings oozed Victorian charm. There was no sign of habitation other than an awkwardly modern glass table in the dining room, a couple of folding chairs, and an expensive-looking Persian rug in the living room. Our voices echoed in the empty space. The bulk of the tour was devoted to the house's four doors and eight locks. The kitchen door had been nailed shut from the inside with a two-by-four after a break-in. The side door was locked and seldom used. If there was a fire, Berniece advised, the front door was my best option, other than the windows.
"I'll try not to burn the place down," I joked.
"It's not you I'm worried about," she answered. Like any city with a lot of abandoned property, Flint houses regularly went up in flames.
I decided to bed down on the nice rug. Besides adding a little padding, it was close to the fire exit.
I walked Berniece out to her pickup truck, suddenly feeling lonely and wishing she'd stay for a while. As she was driving away, I saw my two closest neighbors, a man and a woman who looked to be in their thirties, playing with two dogs in their massive yard, which took up about five city lots. I wanted to introduce myself, but it looked like they were heading inside. I started jogging across the wide expanse of lawn that separated the two houses. "Hey there!" I yelled, for some reason deciding to wave both arms over my head to get their attention. "Hey! Hi!"
I immediately realized this was not the way to introduce yourself in Flint. In unison, the couple and the dogs swung around to face me. A consistent and unmistakably hostile look animated the faces of both humans and canines. "What do you want?" the guy demanded, as one of the dogs started to growl. I skidded to a stop, still a good fifteen yards away, far enough that I was almost yelling as I awkwardly explained who I was and offered up a rambling history of my relationship to Flint dating back to 1972, dropping every local name and cultural reference I could muster. I'm not positive, but I may have recited the names and addresses of all my high school girlfriends. "I used to be an altar boy at Saint Mike's, right over there on Fifth," I trailed off.
The dogs were still intent on ripping me to shreds, but the couple turned and looked at each other, apparently trying to decide if I was a harmless oddball, a potentially dangerous criminal, or just fucking crazy. "Sorry about that," the guy said after an awkward pause. "When someone we don't know runs up on us like that, we're not sure what to expect." We shook hands, but the dogs continued to eye me warily.
Nathan and Rebecca told me they had purchased their cornflower blue, two-story house seven years earlier for $90,000. I was shocked by the high price tag, and they admitted that they'd paid way too much. It was a great place, nevertheless. We walked over to their back deck, complete with a hot tub, and they pointed out their herb and vegetable garden, compost heap, and the fruit trees and berry bushes scattered across their half-acre property.
They had good jobs. Nathan commuted to Lansing, where he worked as an environmental policy analyst with the Michigan Senate Democrats, and Rebecca was the executive director of the Flint Watershed Coalition. "I grew up in Lansing, and when I told people I was moving to Flint, they were like 'Are you frickin' kidding me?'" Rebecca said. "But we never had a lot of apprehension about moving here. When we lived in various suburbs we were never engaged in our community at all. Now we know everybody. You have a hard time getting your yard work done because people stop by to talk. You really feel like you're part of something."
They pointed out that although they'd dealt with crackheads, panhandlers, and various shady characters, the only thing that had ever been stolen from their property was the small metal sign planted in their front yard warning intruders that they had a burglar alarm.
I was growing suspicious. I wondered if these two were operatives planted by the real-estate agents I was planning to meet later in the week. Aside from an abandoned brick building casting a long shadow that nearly reached the healthy clusters of rhubarb in the backyard garden, the conversation could have been taking place in San Francisco, although in that scenario Nathan and Rebecca might become millionaires simply by selling off a portion of their yard. Here was a couple who seemed to prove that you could have a meaningful, fulfilling life in Flint.
Right on cue, a loud, exuberant yelp of either agony or ecstasy cut through the quiet, followed by what sounded like a board breaking and laughter. Rebecca giggled and shook her head. "Ah, that would be the drug house across the street," Nathan said calmly as he continued to survey his property, a smile of satisfaction-or was it resignation?-on his face.
After I said my goodbyes, I cut across the yard to my empty pink house. I didn't exactly know what to do with myself, so I started organizing, attempting to create a makeshift bedroom by sorting stuff from my suitcase into carefully arranged piles on the living room floor near my sleeping bag. That's when I heard a strange, ghostly voice floating through the house. "Oh luke aht this window, so bootiful!" a woman said in what sounded like a German accent.
I slowly pulled back the curtain of the window closest to the voice and was face-to-face with a meticulously made up elderly woman who was peering intently into the house. She had on lavender-tinted glasses and was wearing a long cotton nightgown and slippers. With her bright red nail polish contrasting with flashy gold rings and bracelets, she reminded me of an aging Hollywood legend padding around the grounds of her mansion. She tapped on the window with a well-manicured index finger. "Oh, hello there!" she said and unsteadily weaved her way toward the backyard.
I'm ashamed to admit that I briefly considered grabbing my bat before I ventured outside to investigate. Sure, she appeared to be a sweet little old lady, but she was wiry, and those polished nails looked sharp. What the hell was wrong with me? I needed to cool it with the security measures. I went outside-unarmed-and introduced myself.
It turned out to be Rich and Berniece's mom, out for a drive with a friend. They had stopped to look at the purple and yellow irises blooming in the yard. I gave them a tour of the house and told them my plans. I mentioned that I had gone to grade school at Saint Mary's, and I could tell that the connection meant something to Rich's mom. It was her parish. Before she left, she gave me a hug in the front yard. "You woot be happy if you came back home," she whispered to me.
Once again, I was in the front yard waving goodbye, this time as my two unexpected visitors drove away. A shirtless guy down the street saw me, waved back, and made a beeline down the block. I considered hustling into the house to avoid the encounter, but he was fast. "My man, you have to help me out," he said, rubbing his head with one hand and imploring me with the other. "I just got robbed. You know what it's like to get robbed on your birthday? That shit is messed up!"
I was used to being panhandled in San Francisco, but it had never happened in my front yard before. Rich had warned me to never give anyone change in the neighborhood, but I didn't want to be too harsh with this guy since he knew where I lived. "Happy birthday," I said, trying to sound firm yet friendly. "I don't have any money."
"Come on, man!" he said, taking a step toward me, suddenly angry. His face was inches from mine.
"Sorry, but I can't help you out," I said, getting a little pissed off myself and regretting the decision to leave my bat in the house.
"Cheap-ass muthafucka," he yelled before abruptly turning, crossing the street, and cutting through the parking lot behind the Durant-Dort building, no doubt covering the same ground that GM's creator, Billy Durant, had traversed numerous times about a hundred years earlier.
I took a deep breath, found a shady spot on my front steps, took out my phone, and called Traci in San Francisco. She reported that our cat, Sergio, had invaded the neighbor's house again, peeing in their basement, then sacking out on one of their beds and refusing to leave. He was relentless in his quest to acquire new territory, an impulse I was beginning to understand. The previous night Traci had gone to a party filled with other writers and reporters that had degenerated into the typical group lament over dwindling jobs, bad editors, and low pay-the sort of unrestrained bitching that often defined our lives as journalists.
I tried to explain how one day in Flint contrasted with the cold, superficial friendliness of San Francisco, where I sometimes felt like I could go long stretches without making a real connection with anyone besides her. I'd already been fretted over by Berniece; confronted, scrutinized, and ultimately accepted by Rebecca and Nathan; embraced by Rich's mom; and called a muthafucka by the birthday boy. It was all a visceral reminder that the anonymity of big-city life in San Francisco and the stereotypical laid-back character of California had their drawbacks. If you weren't careful, you could float along on a sheen of lovely views and trendy pop culture distractions. Ironic roller derby matches at the Kezar Pavilion, graffiti masquerading as art in the Mission, and the mesmerizing fog rolling over Twin Peaks. At the risk of sounding like a touchy-feely Californian, somehow Flint felt more real, like I had permanent ties here that I could never make in San Francisco. This must have come off as an overly enthusiastic endorsement, because Traci cautioned me to give Flint a few weeks before I came to any big conclusions. "I miss you," she said before we hung up. "The house seems empty without you."
I lingered on the front porch, resisting the urge to go inside and needlessly rearrange my belongings. There was nowhere I needed to be. I tried to sit back and appreciate the fact that after all the planning, worrying, and soul searching, I was really in Flint, well on my way to buying a house. But I couldn't quite silence the small voice in the back of my head whispering that this was a very bad idea.
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