In Flint, Michigan, the Wrecking Ball Has Not Meant Progress

Andrew Highsmith charts the rise and fall of Flint, a city deserted by industry and divided by segregation.

Daniel HertzJuly 27, 2015

(University of Chicago Press)

Once upon a time, there was a town. For a while, it exist­ed more or less peace­ful­ly. But one day, the res­i­dents of an out­ly­ing neigh­bor­hood decid­ed to secede. Their prospects for eco­nom­ic growth depend­ed on acquir­ing more land and estab­lish­ing their own gov­ern­ment to look out for their inter­ests. The cam­paign for sub­ur­ban­iza­tion made many towns­peo­ple angry. Final­ly, a few seces­sion­ists accused sev­er­al seces­sion oppo­nents of being tools of Satan and, after a series of show tri­als, con­demned them to death by hang­ing or being crushed under rocks.

It turns out that the little guy can take on corporate America and win—if only for a while, and if only he’s white.

Per­haps the only way to make a witch tri­al dull is to frame it as a dis­pute over munic­i­pal bound­aries, but the his­tor­i­cal evi­dence sug­gests that just such a dis­pute was a key part of the con­text in Salem, Mass., 300 years ago.

Read­ing Demo­li­tion Means Progress: Flint, Michi­gan, and the Fate of the Amer­i­can Metrop­o­lis, Andrew Highsmith’s pow­er­ful his­to­ry of that city’s rise and fall, you get the sense that if you could explain racism and car­bu­re­tors to the denizens of 17th-cen­tu­ry Mass­a­chu­setts, the rest of Flint’s his­to­ry would sound very famil­iar. On one lev­el the book tells a 20th-cen­tu­ry sto­ry about dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion and the mis­for­tune that befalls any town unlucky enough to depend on a sin­gle indus­try (cars) or a sin­gle com­pa­ny (Gen­er­al Motors) for its eco­nom­ic vital­i­ty and civic iden­ti­ty when that com­pa­ny decides it can make more mon­ey else­where. The title, which comes from plac­ards placed in shut­tered GM fac­to­ries’ win­dows through­out Flint, is a nod to the city’s con­stant ill-fat­ed attempts to rein­vent itself.

But on anoth­er lev­el, Demo­li­tion Means Progress is a sto­ry of how peo­ple — in this case, the found­ing fathers of Flint’s white sub­urbs — used munic­i­pal gov­ern­ment as a weapon, draw­ing bor­ders of cit­i­zen­ship to exclude peo­ple of col­or and the poor from the region’s wealth. That’s a sto­ry that played out in met­ro­pol­i­tan areas across Amer­i­ca in the decades after World War II. But it was par­tic­u­lar­ly dev­as­tat­ing in Flint.

High­smith sets up Flint’s post­war his­to­ry as a strug­gle between three main groups. The city’s white res­i­dents are split into met­ro­pol­i­tan cap­i­tal­ists” and sub­ur­ban cap­i­tal­ists”: On one side, the most­ly GM-affil­i­at­ed urban elites who rad­i­cal­ly reor­ga­nize the city to help max­i­mize their prof­its; on the oth­er, white fam­i­lies and sub­ur­ban offi­cials who want to estab­lish their own local gov­ern­ments to help max­i­mize their prop­er­ty val­ues. Then there are Flint’s black cit­i­zens, seen as a nui­sance or a threat by their white neigh­bors, but who nev­er­the­less press their own case for equal access to employ­ment, schools and civic life — some­times successfully.

At first, the met­ro­pol­i­tan and sub­ur­ban cap­i­tal­ists seem to be on the same team, rev­el­ing in Flint’s pros­per­i­ty (usu­al­ly at the expense of African Amer­i­cans, forced into more dan­ger­ous, low­er pay­ing jobs; worse hous­ing; and unequal schools). But when the two cap­i­tal­ists do face off, the fight is a rout: GM’s schemes are repeat­ed­ly defeat­ed by white sub­ur­ban­ites deter­mined not to share their tax dol­lars or address­es with what they see as a fail­ing — and increas­ing­ly dark-skinned— city. It turns out that the lit­tle guy can take on cor­po­rate Amer­i­ca and win — if only for a while, and if only he’s white.

Demo­li­tion Means Progress begins with the birth of the auto indus­try in the ear­ly 1900s and the con­ver­sion of Flint, GM’s home city, into a boom­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing cen­ter. From the begin­ning, Flint’s progress” was a sto­ry not only of rapid devel­op­ment, but of racial seg­re­ga­tion. In the 1910s and 1920s, the hous­ing erect­ed to attract migrant work­ers and feed GM’s enor­mous appetite for labor was whites-only. Dur­ing the Depres­sion, look­ing to stamp out labor strife, GM indus­tri­al­ist Charles Mott estab­lished a world-renowned net­work of com­mu­ni­ty schools pro­vid­ing adult edu­ca­tion, health­care and job train­ing, as well as gath­er­ing space. But Mott drew the schools’ atten­dance bound­aries along black-white lines, rein­forc­ing seg­re­ga­tion. White neigh­bors, mean­while, cre­at­ed for­mal and infor­mal agree­ments not to sell or rent to blacks, and vio­lent­ly intim­i­dat­ed those black fam­i­lies who dared to cross the col­or line. From Wash­ing­ton, the FHA assist­ed with open­ly racist mort­gage and urban plan­ning policies.

But for the sub­ur­ban cap­i­tal­ists,” this wasn’t enough. After the war, GM began build­ing new plants out­side the city lim­its, lured by low tax­es, cheap land and fed­er­al sub­si­dies for decen­tral­iza­tion (a pol­i­cy meant to pro­tect against nuclear attacks). With the auto jobs and indus­tri­al tax base now in the sub­urbs, and an FHA-sub­si­dized sub­ur­ban home build­ing spree in full swing, Flint’s white home­own­ers now real­ized they no longer need­ed the city at all. By mount­ing aggres­sive cam­paigns in the 1950s and 1960s to form inde­pen­dent sub­urbs, they could hoard most of the region’s eco­nom­ic resources. By adopt­ing col­or­blind” zon­ing — local ordi­nances that can require home-build­ing spec­i­fi­ca­tions that put hous­ing beyond the reach of peo­ple below a cer­tain income — they kept their towns near­ly all-white long after explic­it­ly racist hous­ing poli­cies became ille­gal. And in the process, they con­demned Flint to poverty.

The source of Flint’s (now sub­ur­ban) wealth, how­ev­er, would soon dis­ap­pear. By the 1950s, GM was build­ing facil­i­ties in oth­er parts of the coun­try to make the sup­ply chain more effi­cient; by the 1970s, nation­al eco­nom­ic trou­bles and automa­tion began to dev­as­tate Flint’s econ­o­my. At one point before the 1973 ener­gy cri­sis, GM employed over 75,000 peo­ple in the Flint area; today, it’s bare­ly over 8,000.

But more than the well-known sto­ry of GM’s aban­don­ment, the seces­sion of the sub­urbs seems like the cli­mac­tic event of Flint’s decline.

The bleak­ness of Highsmith’s sto­ry makes his attempt to frame the book as a nar­ra­tive of rein­ven­tion and revi­tal­iza­tion in the last few pages seem like a jar­ring depar­ture. Sure, to be human is to be resilient, and peo­ple will strug­gle for some­thing bet­ter no mat­ter the odds, as we hear from Flint’s cor­po­rate exec­u­tives, civ­il rights activists and union lead­ers, as well as the own­er of an LGBT-friend­ly café.

But when High­smith com­pares Flint to Pom­pei after Mount Vesuvius’s erup­tion, writ­ing, Flint no doubt will prove to be equal­ly resilient because, in the par­lance of urban renew­ers, decline is but a syn­onym for oppor­tu­ni­ty” — as he does on the book’s very last page — it’s hard not to ask: What is he talk­ing about?

I sup­pose the mur­ders three cen­turies ago in Salem are also a kind of oppor­tu­ni­ty: The city is now full of witch-themed tourist mer­chan­dise. But as with city-destroy­ing vol­ca­noes and spe­cious exe­cu­tions, the fact that Flint’s his­to­ry may offer some kind of new oppor­tu­ni­ties feels sec­ondary to the deep, often irrepara­ble, human suf­fer­ing it con­tains. Most of the time, as the rest of Highsmith’s sto­ry makes clear, demo­li­tion doesn’t actu­al­ly mean progress.

Daniel Hertz is a senior fel­low at City Obser­va­to­ry, an urban pub­lic pol­i­cy think tank.
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