AutoWorld is dying, but Flint lives on 2016.06.02

The city of Flint is in the news a lot these days and it made the news right here just 20 years ago.


If Cleveland is the city of light and magic, then what do they call Flint? It’s definitely the City of Fake Storefronts, if nothing else.

Cleveland became the City of Light—City of Magic in a song written by Randy Newman. Actually, he was making fun of the city. The chorus went something like “burn on, big river, burn on,” commemorating dirtier times like when the Cuyahoga River caught fire.

Now that I’ve spent a few hours in Flint, I’m trying to think back to my notions of the city before I got there. I want a before-and-after comparison.

I have plenty of memories of this great industrial town, but almost all of them are of watching it go by from the expressway. Nobody goes to Flint; they go around it. I’ve had relatives in Flint forever, but all I remember is heading for the outskirts. In recent years, we’ve always headed east along that stretch of grooved pavement on I-69 that heads for Davison.

I don’t remember ever going downtown except once to meet someone at the bus station. That didn’t give me much to go by. All I can say is: lots of auto plants and lots of murders. That was my entire notion of Flint, before visiting recently.

We took the trip to Davison for the females of the family to attend a mother-daughter banquet, but later that night we headed for Flint and the pullout couch in the living room of Jeff Johnston and Grace Tarala.

These should be familiar names to Observer readers. My former colleague Jeff is now designing pages for the Flint Journal. His wife Grace is designing women in the fine jewelry department of a Sears store. Jeff’s hair is a little longer; Grace’s is shorter. They live with two cats.

Jeff gave me a tour of the downtown on the way to the Journal office. I couldn’t help think about what a beautiful place this must have been back, say, 200 years ago. Lots of hills, a river winding through. The forests must have been spectacular.

That thought came to mind when I noticed all the trash that had collected on a hillside. It wasn’t unexpected since we were driving through a dirty industrial area. Nobody’s going to go climbing that hillside for wind-blown trash, especially not from the nearby General Motors plant.

We passed through downtown, a surprisingly small downtown for a city of 140,000. I saw the bus station—a new, modern looking structure compared to what I remember from 1973—and I got a glimpse of the infamous Auto World. It was once heralded as Flint’s new tourist attraction that would help revitalize downtown. Unfortunately, not enough people wanted to come downtown and the entire structure will soon be leveled.

Revitalization efforts are still going on. In one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, several stately old homes are being reclaimed from urban decay. They look beautiful, but the area is still on the border of inner city Flint. Jeff isn’t so sure the project is going to succeed and grow. The new residents measure the change from the past by saying, “We hear gunshots only occasionally now.”

The downtown development group has taken a most unique approach to pretending that the downtown is revitalized. Instead of boarded up windows and dangerous alleys, there are now good-looking storefronts. But don’t try to get inside, because they’re all fakes. They’re just false fronts covering the deserted buildings and broken glass.

So what do I think now? Like most big cities, it has its contrasts. There are beautiful houses and stunning neighborhoods to match any city. There are slums and empty buildings and downsizing factories, along with beautiful parks and new construction, and in the distance the occasional gunshot.

I suppose it’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to die there.