Boom to Bust

Not so long ago, before the water crisis, Flint, Michigan, was a well-off bastion of the middle class. What happened?

Another Flint factory that no longer exists.

If all you know about Flint, Michigan is that the water supply was poisoned, you are not alone. In many ways, Flint and cities like it decline in obscurity, all but forgotten by politicians and the public. The birthplace of General Motors suffered mightily before this latest calamity — skyrocketing violent crime, widespread poverty, rampant unemployment, an arson spree, and even a racially motivated serial killer from Israel — yet no one seemed all that interested.

I’ll confess that even though I grew up in Flint and four generations of my family called it home, I didn’t know much about the city’s history until fairly recently. In 2007, I had what most observers would describe as a midlife crisis, and I felt compelled to reconnect with my hometown after living in San Francisco for nearly 20 years. I started a blog called Flint Expatriates and, eventually, I returned to Flint to buy a house. Anyone with a passing knowledge of psychology and real estate values knows that this was a flawed plan. It was. But my attempt to once again be a part of the place that made me who I am turned out to be a success in some unexpected ways.

In the process, I managed to augment my meager knowledge of the city’s history, which, if it were a pithy advertising slogan, might be condensed to “Flint: A lot of bars and even more cars.” This is my personalized, highly subjective history of Flint, right up to 1973, when Flint started to morph into the sort of place that could have a water crisis. It’s the Flint that most people know nothing about.

I discovered that Flint’s bad reputation wasn’t exactly a new development. It has recently been labeled “Murdertown, U.S.A.” and “the toughest city in America” while charting on a list of the most depressing places in the country, but the area that would become Flint had image problems from the start, at least among potential white settlers. It was seen as a swampy, dangerous backwater with brutal winters, impenetrable forests, and swarms of bloodthirsty mosquitoes, long considered the unofficial state bird. In some ways, Flint’s recent decline was a return to its roots in terms of public perception.

The first batch of bad PR came shortly after Congress reserved two million acres in the Michigan Territory for veterans’ land grants in 1812. Government officials then penned such awful reviews of the peninsula surrounded by the Great Lakes that the land was set aside in the Missouri and Illinois Territories instead. The surveyor general of the United States land office, in a “labored and depressing” report, declared that not one out of a hundred acres was farmable, maybe not even one out of a thousand. The commander of Fort Saginaw, located north of present-day Flint, penned a distressing official report to the War Department just before the outpost was evacuated. “Nothing but Indians, muskrats and bullfrogs could exist here,” he wrote. Thanks a lot, buddy.

These bad write-ups didn’t bother the local fur traders, who were happy to burnish the region’s reputation as an inhospitable place unsuitable for newcomers. They could be considered the area’s first NIMBYs for their not-in-my-backyard approach. “Many tall tales came out of the woods — tales of ferocious animals and treacherous Indians and strange diseases,” read one history of the city. “The men who lived by trapping and trading in furs did not want the country settled for that meant the end of the wild life on which they existed.”

With this antigentrification campaign in place, coupled with the white settlers’ abject fear of the local Chippewa tribes, it’s little wonder that the 1820 U.S. Census counted fewer than ten thousand settlers in the Michigan Territory, which then included the present-day states of Wisconsin and Minnesota. Nearly everyone lived in or near Detroit.

None of this deterred an ambitious Canadian with a taste for adventure named Jacob Smith. He was happy to find a place where beavers, muskrats, skunks, weasels, otters, minks, and raccoons easily outnumbered humans. Born in Quebec in 1773, Smith was a fur trader facing dim prospects in a crowded Canadian market tightly controlled by the British. He migrated to Detroit with his wife and newborn daughter in the early 1800s in search of less competition and more opportunity.

Described as powerful, agile, and resourceful, Smith was adopted into the Chippewa nation and given the name Wahbesins, which means “young swan.” Not exactly the toughest name for a bad-ass fur trader, but it reflected his graceful nature and ability to get along with the local tribes that would supply him with pelts. He forged a strong relationship with Chief Neome, who led one of the largest bands of the Chippewa. Time would prove that Smith had motives far more complicated than mere friendship when he bonded with Neome.

Smith did well for himself. Though Detroit was always his home base, he traded frequently in other areas of the state. One spot was a shallow crossing on a river about seventy miles north of Michigan’s largest settlement, an area that French fur traders had already named Grande Traverse and which would eventually become Flint. Native Americans making their way south to Detroit with their furs were likely to pass the spot on foot or via canoe, creating the equivalent of a backwoods Times Square. A trading post would shorten their journey and allow Smith to buy the best furs before they reached Detroit. Smith is often credited for his entrepreneurial foresight and dubbed the first white settler in the region. But setting up shop on the river was hardly an original idea; white trappers and traders had been operating in what was known as the Saginaw Valley for a century before him.

I was happy to discover that people had been drawn to the area that would become Flint for hundreds of years. The unromantic would argue that it was simply a convenient point to cross the river and get to a more desirable place. But I wanted to believe Flint was something more than an accident of geography. Maybe it possessed some ineffable quality that pulled the Chippewa and Jacob Smith to it, the same pull I was feeling. But as I’d learned over and over again as a journalist, the more you know about something, the less magical it becomes. Flint was no different.

Jacob Smith built a small outpost on the riverbank sometime around 1810, but war with the British soon interrupted his plans. He fought in the War of 1812 and did a little networking in the process by ingratiating himself with white power brokers like Lewis Cass, who became the territorial governor after hostilities ended. Smith’s close ties with Chief Neome and Cass led to an active role at an 1819 treaty negotiation between the territorial government and various Native American tribes. Smith often gets credit for safeguarding Chippewa interests — think Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves — but he didn’t exactly secure a good deal for the local tribes. The Treaty of Saginaw transferred more than four million acres of Chippewa lands to the U.S. government for white settlement. The Chippewa received yearly payments in return. In fact, Smith was on the Cass payroll, receiving the equivalent of more than $10,000 in today’s currency to help further the interests of the U.S. government.

Smith also carved out his own personal reward in the treaty, pulling off a real-estate sleight of hand that makes all the disreputable land speculators in present-day Flint look like amateurs. In a “concession” to the Chippewa, Cass set aside eleven sections of land totaling some seven thousand acres in and around present-day Flint. The parcels were reserved for “mixed blood” individuals, harshly known as “half-breeds.” By using their Chippewa names, Smith managed to reserve parcels for five of his own white children. Cass caught on to the con, so Smith had to round up five full-blooded Indians to act as stand-ins for his own kids to pass muster with the governor. After a protracted legal and political battle that lasted for years, Smith’s children eventually gained control of the parcels. My hometown, I discovered, was founded on a shady, under-the-table land deal. A ruse, a feint, a dodge. A swindle, to put it another way.

Despite its advantageous location, Smith’s riverbank trading post was not a success. A man of many talents, Smith proved to be a poor businessman. He ran up big debts and was dragged into court by his creditors. “It would seem that he was a very careless man in his business affairs,” wrote one federal official who examined Smith’s finances, “and somewhat extravagant.”

Smith’s wife had died in 1817 and his children were grown, so he was on his own. One of Chief Neome’s daughters described his lonely death in 1825: “When Wahbesins sick, nobody come; him sicker and sicker; nobody come. Wahbesins die.”

There’s no shortage of irony in what happened next. Smith’s son-in-law came and took all his possessions, leaving the trading post where he worked and lived to sit empty. It was a dubious day in local history, one unlikely to be commemorated by a plaque or a marker. What is arguably Flint’s first permanent structure — built by a man who could be considered its first speculator and failed businessman — became its first abandoned property. Obviously, it wouldn’t be the last.

The Flint area’s reputation had hardly improved by the time Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont visited the area in July of 1831 on the journey that would form the basis of Democracy in America, the classic outsider interpretation of religious, political, and economic life in the United States. A cranky innkeeper in nearby Pontiac tried to dissuade the two Frenchmen. “Do you know that from here to Saginaw you find hardly anything but wilds and untrod solitudes? Have you thought that the woods are full of Indians and mosquitoes?”

Undeterred, the pair pressed on, arriving late at night in utter darkness, which has never been a good time to show up in Flint. “At last we saw a clearing, two or three cabins, and what gave us greatest pleasure, a light,” Tocqueville wrote. “The stream, that ran like a violet thread along the bottom of the valley, sufficed to prove that we had arrived at Flint River. Soon the barking of dogs echoed through the wood, and we found ourselves opposite a log-house and only separated from it by a fence. Just as we were getting ready to get over it, the moon revealed a great black bear on the other side, which, standing upright on its haunches and dragging its chain, made as clear as it could its intention of giving us a fraternal welcome. ‘What a devil of a country this is,’ I said, ‘where one has bears for watch dogs?’ ”

Unsure of how to proceed but unwilling to tangle with a bear, Tocqueville and Beaumont called out until a man appeared at the cabin window. He invited them inside and gave the bear permission to turn in for the night: “Trinc, go to bed. To your kennel, I tell you. Those are not robbers.”

Despite the need for such elaborate security measures — rendering the popularity of pit bulls in modern Flint almost quaint by comparison — the Flint settlement grew steadily. Before long, against all odds, it was seen as a desirable place to live. “The tide of emigration is rapidly increasing,” a settler observed in a letter dated November 28, 1837, just a few months after Michigan became a state. “The village presents a fine appearance in the evening when going in from our way, the lights from so many undiscernible windows upon the heights among the trees and bushes, have the appearance of beacons to guide the weary traveler.”

The local chamber of commerce couldn’t have come up with a better promotional blurb. Settlers from New England and New York began arriving, often combining farming and fur trapping to make a decent living. Businesses opened to serve the growing population. Before long, Flint was a prosperous county seat known for tree-lined streets, comfortable wood-framed houses, and spacious lawns.

The City of Flint was incorporated in 1855, and it appears it was never meant to be an easy-going municipality. Slow and steady just weren’t part of its civic DNA. The fur trade was declining, but there was another natural resource to be exploited. An unsullied white pine forest stretched for miles on either side of the winding river. From 1855 to 1880, Flint emerged as a thriving lumber town, and that meant prosperity and a healthy dose of drunken buffoonery. “The bearded lumbermen with their coonskin caps, red sashes, and hobnailed boots brawled from tavern to tavern,” explained Carl Crow in a 1945 history of the city commissioned by General Motors and characterized by endearingly flamboyant prose. “Lumbering was rough business and lumbermen were rough men. They worked hard, played hard, and usually drank quantities of hard liquor. There was a story throughout the logging camps that some of the lumberjacks would cheerfully eat pine chips or sawdust if generously moistened with whisky.” Now that sounds like the Flint I know. The drinking part, not the lumberjack fashion statements.

The city reached its peak as a lumber town around 1870, when the population climbed to five thousand and the city boasted eighteen lumber dealers, eleven sawmills, nine planing mills, a box-making factory, and a dealer in pine lands. (I couldn’t get a count on bars and taverns, but I’m sure it was impressive.) At its height, the lumber industry generated more than $1 million annually for Flint.

In the midst of this abundance, the next big thing was already emerging. The lumber industry required transportation. Oxcarts were needed to haul logs from forest to town. Farmers claiming the deforested land needed wagons. And well-off shopkeepers and other locals needed horse-drawn vehicles to get around town. By the 1880s, when there weren’t enough trees left to keep the lumber industry from fading, it didn’t take carriage making long to ramp up and take its place. Flint may have exhausted its supply of high-quality pine, but there were buggies to be made and plenty of people to buy them.

By the turn of the century, the city’s numerous carriage firms were producing 150,000 vehicles annually. One merchant was selling 23,000 a year all over the country and maintained a permanent office on Broadway in New York City. Over half of the roughly 13,000 Flint residents were connected with the carriage business in what was now known as the “Vehicle City,” a catchy nickname that had nothing to do with automobiles. Yet.

The transition was possible because Flint’s lumber industry was run by local entrepreneurs who had a stake in the community. They weren’t looking to make a quick profit and then hit the road. “In other places the timber had been cut by companies from out of state, companies which regularly remitted their profits for deposit in eastern banks,” Crow wrote. “When their mills closed down, the only mementos of the former prosperity they left consisted of piles of rotting sawdust and mill buildings which had been stripped of machinery.”

Alas, Flint would eventually suffer a similar fate when GM decided to skip town, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We’re coming to the really good part of Flint’s history, when the growth and good times seemed limitless. The horse and buggy era didn’t have many years left, and the city was poised to transform itself once again. This time into the epicenter of the automobile industry, the headquarters of the American Dream.

I made a surprising discovery as I immersed myself in Flint’s history for the first time. In the early days of the auto industry, my moribund hometown had been the gritty equivalent of Silicon Valley, a freewheeling city with go-getters eager to put their ideas on the line. A place where people sought their fortune. Billy Durant is a perfect example. The charismatic grandson of a local lumber baron, he dropped out of high school and sold cigars before he teamed up with his friend J. Dallas Dort to launch a carriage company with two thousand dollars of someone else’s money. By 1900, it was the largest horse-drawn vehicle maker in the country, if not the world. Durant was initially so skeptical of automobiles that he allegedly forbade his daughter to ride in one, but that didn’t stop him from investing heavily in Buick, one of the many manufacturers emerging at the turn of the century. Before long, Buicks were the most popular cars in the country.

A mesmerizing salesman, Durant believed in offering consumers variety and consolidating the gaggle of competing car companies. With that in mind, he combined Buick with an assortment of automakers and parts suppliers to form General Motors in 1908. Although based in Flint, GM was incorporated in New Jersey, a state that placed no restriction on the amount of stock a venture could issue, regardless of its actual assets. This allowed Durant to dazzle investors with his vision for the future rather than the company’s current reality.

Durant was not easily satisfied. After marrying one of the prettiest girls in Flint in his younger days, he divorced her when he was in his midforties to wed his twenty-one-year-old secretary. He overextended GM in his rush to expand the company and was forced out by skittish financiers in 1910. After teaming up with Louis Chevrolet, he managed to regain control five years later, only to get bounced for good in 1920. He was replaced by Alfred P. Sloan, who lacked Durant’s endearing panache and dapper style but relied on a shrewd, methodical management style that led to unprecedented growth. Undeterred, Durant moved to New York and made another fortune in the stock market, his latest obsession. After the market crashed on Black Tuesday in 1929, Durant, along with other financial giants like the Rockefellers, disregarded the advice of friends and bought heavily to show confidence in the market. He declared bankruptcy in 1936.

A crazy dreamer if there ever was one, Durant returned to Flint for one final venture. He opened an eighteen-lane bowling alley in 1940 and later combined it with one of the country’s first drive-in hamburger joints, creating perhaps the quintessential Flint enterprise. He thought bowling and fast food were the next big thing, but he never got a chance to see his hunch pay off. After suffering a debilitating stroke in 1942, Durant and his wife survived on handouts from members of GM’s early board of directors until his death in 1947.

I couldn’t help but like Durant, despite his many faults, as I read about his triumphs and failures. For me, he came to personify that hard-to-define spirit that Flint possesses, a certain exuberant recklessness that I wanted to somehow be a part of again. Durant’s approach to business may have robbed him of prosperity in the end, but he was a visionary whose ideas transformed Flint. By 1929, on the eve of the Great Depression, GM had produced ten million cars for consumers and was well on its way to becoming the world’s largest corporation. In the process, Flint gained a reputation for plentiful jobs and good wages, causing the population to jump from 13,000 to more than 156,000 between 1900 and 1930. Finding a comfortable place to sleep was a real challenge for the new arrivals. “In the worst areas, like the notoriously overcrowded section known simply as ‘the Jungle,’ hundreds of families paid one dollar down and fifty cents a week to purchase tiny lots for their tents and tarpaper shacks,” wrote historian Ronald Edsforth. “Elsewhere, homeowners took in lodgers, while many rooming houses converted to double shifts, using every square foot for extra beds.”

Verne McFarlane and Leone Stevenson, my grandparents, were part of the influx. In my mind, they were always the picture of calm stability. I don’t remember seeing my grandfather in anything other than a suit or the well-ironed work clothes he wore on weekends. Their home was always spotless. They expressed the same disapproval of a neighbor’s uncut grass as they conveyed when someone appeared to be spending money unwisely. I didn’t think of them as particularly adventuresome, but on a visit to see my mom one Christmas at her cozy house in Florida, decorated with much the same furniture and artwork that once filled our old house in Flint, I learned that they fit right in with the spirit of the Vehicle City during the boom years.

Sitting on the indestructible couch where I had lounged as a kid, my mom broke out her meticulously maintained photo albums and filled me in on the family history that I’d never really known. My grandparents both grew up on forty-acre family farms in the northeast corner of Iowa near Maple Leaf, which no longer warrants a mention on state maps. My grandfather wasn’t meant to be a farmer, but he promised to help his dad for several years after graduating from eighth grade. Tall and lanky, he pitched for the local barnstorming baseball team and was known to participate in weekend wrestling matches. My mom showed me a flyer from one bout with his personal commentary written in neat cursive above his opponent’s name: “He got nothing but abuse!” Given my grandfather’s gentle demeanor and sense of humor, this was surely more of a joke than a boast. My grandmother was shy, smart, and good looking. She grew up with seven brothers and sisters in the house with three tiny bedrooms that her father built. After finishing high school, she taught in a one-room schoolhouse. My grandparents met at a dance called the Turkey Trot.

I had always assumed they were married in Iowa, but that was not the case. They eloped in the early 1920s and eventually made their way to Flint. They were in love, but that didn’t mean they abandoned the frugality imparted by their hardscrabble Scottish parents. They lived together but pledged to save one thousand dollars each before they got married, a lofty financial goal at the time. (Actually, it would be ambitious for many Flint families even today.) The fact that my grandparents had “lived in sin” for a short time was my first big surprise.

My grandfather worked at “the Buick” for a little while, but he was as ill suited to life on the line as he was to life on the farm. He soon started a small trucking outfit with a friend, but the entire enterprise folded when their lone asset — the truck — caught fire. My grandmother was not pleased with this development. She was more pragmatic than my grandfather and always acted as the family bookkeeper. After a few tries at other businesses, he gravitated to real estate, studying up and passing the licensing exam to buy and sell property.

My mom opened the cedar chest in her bedroom and pulled out the well-preserved, amazingly detailed financial logs my grandmother kept her entire life, tracking every penny made and spent. The dark green ledgers included all the real-estate commissions my grandfather earned, but they also listed the financial breakdown on dozens of houses he personally bought and sold. My mom told me that my grandparents had regularly purchased rundown houses with their own money. Grandma, using the carpentry skills she learned from her father on the farm in Iowa, was in charge of rehabbing the properties. A long-forgotten memory of helping her lay down a linoleum floor in the kitchen of a cold, empty house flashed into my head. We were both on our hands and knees, and she was teaching me how to measure out the tiles with a yardstick. She was a stickler for getting it right. I remember pulling up linoleum squares because they didn’t fit perfectly into a corner. My grandparents then resold the properties. The logs offered a blueprint of the entire process — the purchase price; the cost of lumber, nails, and other supplies; and the sale price. The profits, small but steady, were recorded with a blue-leaded pencil. I suppose my grandparents were early house flippers. Another revelation.

My mother was born in 1930, an event recorded in the financial journals with an entry in the debit column: “Cigars: $3.25.” The family soon moved from a downtown rental to a modest two-story house with a cherry tree in the backyard, just a few blocks from Kearsley Park and Homedale School in the working-class East Side. They would never move again, despite my grandfather’s success as a real-estate agent. My grandparents generously exported a lot of the money they made in Flint back to Iowa, helping numerous relatives stay afloat with “loans” that they knew would never be repaid. When my grandmother’s brother couldn’t come up with enough cash to purchase a farm of his own, my grandparents bought one for him. Several Iowa relatives journeyed to Flint in search of work, staying in my grandparents’ spare bedroom for long stretches. A few moved in to attend high school in Flint, which was considered a better option than their rural schools back home. This reminded me of today’s immigrants who send money back home and help others make the journey to a better life. It was a reminder that Flint wasn’t always a place people longed to escape.

My mother showed me black-and-white photos of my grandparents from their early years in Flint. I remembered my grandma wearing modest house dresses she had sewn herself, accented with blue canvas Keds when she worked around the house. But here she was with her hair in a stylish bob and dressed in full flapper mode. My grandpa was decked out in a tailored suit with wide, peaked lapels and a fedora set at a rakish angle. They were both smiling, their arms around each other, gazing straight at the camera. They looked like Bonnie and Clyde, not the low-key couple I remembered. America was making the transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy, and my grandparents seemed happy to be a part of it all, eager for what might happen next. Flint and my family had a far different history than I had imagined.

Without any facts to back it up, I’d always assumed that Flint experienced ever-increasing economic success once the auto industry got up and running. A little research revealed that this wasn’t the case. Flint was harder hit during the Great Depression than many other cities around the country. Plummeting nationwide demand led to unemployment rates in the city that hovered around 50 percent in the early 1930s. By the time my mother was a third-grader at Homedale Elementary in 1938, more than half of all Flint families were on some type of relief. And although the population dipped as the jobless returned to their original homes in other cities and states, Flint continued to face a chronic housing shortage and abysmal public health standards. There were high rates of infant and maternal death, typhoid fever and diphtheria. It was hardly a workers’ paradise.

In this atmosphere, union organizing culminated with the Flint Sit-Down Strike during the bitterly cold winter of 1936–37. It was still a legendary event when I was growing up, and I knew of it despite having scant knowledge of Flint’s history. For many it was the city’s greatest achievement, and it was spoken of with pride, if not reverence. For forty-four days, workers aligned with the recently created United Auto Workers occupied the massive Fisher Body No. 1 plant on the South Side, the smaller Fisher Body No. 2, and the Chevrolet No. 4, located at the sprawling Chevrolet manufacturing complex along the Flint River, which came to be known as Chevy in the Hole. (The charitable might attribute the nickname to geography — the factory was situated in a valley — but it’s more likely that it stemmed from the less than ideal working conditions inside.)

Typical of a populace apparently incapable of half measures, this was no ordinary labor action. This was war. In what the strikers dubbed the Battle of the Running Bulls, local police attempted to reclaim Fisher Body No. 2 on the night of January 11, 1937. The strikers were in no mood to leave. “The tide of battle ebbed and flowed outside the plant,” wrote Sidney Fine in Sitdown: The General Motors Strike of 1936–1937. “Hurling cans, frozen snow, milk bottles, door hinges, pieces of pavement, and assorted other weapons of this type, the pickets pressed at the heels of the retreating police. Undoubtedly enraged at the humiliation of defeat at the hands of so motley and amateur an army, the police drew pistols and riot guns and fired into the ranks of their pursuers.”

Gunshots and tear gas weren’t enough to deter the workers or their family members, who often supplied the strikers with food passed through the factory windows. The strike ended when GM agreed to recognize the UAW and engage in a limited form of collective bargaining, leading to better wages and working conditions in Flint and, ultimately, the rest of the country as the union launched a national organizing effort. It also set the pattern of contentious negotiations between labor and management that were as much a part of life in Flint as drinking Stroh’s beer and rooting for the Detroit Tigers.

In 1954, more than 100,000 people crowded downtown Flint for a parade celebrating the 50 millionth car produced by General Motors.

A few years after the strike ended, production at the auto factories shifted to M-18 Hellcat tank destroyers and other armaments during World War II, but it was just like the good old days in Flint when the fighting ended and a postwar economic expansion swept the nation. In 1955, Flint held its centennial parade and two hundred thousand boisterous spectators showed up to take in the marching bands, admire the colorful floats, and perhaps catch a glimpse of GM spokesmodel Dinah Shore or Vice President Richard Nixon. (It’s hard to imagine a whiter, more unhip couple than Dinah and Tricky Dick.) There was good reason to be festive. “An industrial marvel,” wrote historian Andrew Highsmith, “Flint was home to more GM workers than any other city in the world.”

Flint’s population was near its peak of nearly 200,000, and confident local leaders envisioned 350,000 prosperous citizens residing in what was being called “Fabulous Flint” and the “Happiest Town in Michigan.” Flint’s per capita income was one of the highest in the world, and it had perhaps the broadest middle class on the planet. The American dream was alive and well in Flint. You could even argue that it was born there.

And what would a thriving industrial city be without a strong-willed, wealthy industrialist to animate it? More than any other citizen, Charles Stewart Mott shaped the character and feel of Flint as it became an American success story. Known as Mr. Flint, or, more informally, Charlie Sugar for the gifts he bestowed on the Vehicle City, Mott had moved a family wheel and axle business to Flint from Utica, New York, in 1906 after being courted by Billy Durant, who needed a local parts supplier. Mott sold his company to GM in 1913 in exchange for stock, making him the company’s largest individual shareholder. Talk about getting in on the ground floor of a company with growth potential. Mott went on to serve on GM’s board of directors for sixty years. Showing a personal knack for economic diversification, which never caught on in Flint, he created the United States Sugar Corporation in 1931.

Mott became one of the richest men in America, and he certainly looked the part. Balding with a thick white mustache and bushy eyebrows, the three-time mayor was a familiar figure in Flint with his dark suits and ramrod-straight posture. He had a reputation for thrift, sleeping on a cot-like bed with no headboard and looking around town in a modest Chevy Corvair. Despite a kindly smile, he could be a distant, imposing figure. He signed notes to one of his sons “Very truly yours, C. S. Mott” and employed a coach to teach the kid how to ride a bike.

He created the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation in 1926 to help ameliorate the problems that accompanied Flint’s rapid growth. It was also an excellent tax write-off that might help blunt the appeal of unions and government programs, but it’s obvious that Mott sought to improve Flint through his philanthropy. The foundation funded free medical and dental clinics for children. It launched a community education program in the Flint schools that became a national model, providing students with an array of after-hours recreational activities and offering adults low-cost enrichment courses in everything from gift wrapping to sheet metal drawing to creative writing.

Mott was also a driving force behind the Flint College and Cultural Center built in the 1950s and 1960s, kicking in millions of dollars via the foundation and donating thirty-six acres of land from his sprawling estate, known as Applewood. Along with a community college, the collection of public institutions included the Flint Institute of Arts, Sloan Museum, Bower Theater, Dort Music Center, and the Robert T. Longway Planetarium.

The best example of what it meant to grow up in a place with GM money coursing through its civic veins and wealthy elites driven by a sense of noblesse oblige along with a desire to keep the masses happy came from a guy named Mark, who emailed me after reading the Flint Expatriates blog. Now a professional harpist living in the Chicago area, he had learned to play in Flint in the late sixties and early seventies. There were five “public harps” available to residents who had an interest, along with complimentary lessons. He played in the Flint Youth Symphony Orchestra, sharing the stage with a fellow musician who went on to become the principal percussionist for the New York Philharmonic. “Somehow I thought it was normal for a town the size of Flint to have a dozen harp students,” Mark told me.

That’s right. The Vehicle City once provided free harp lessons to its residents. I began to realize that the multitude of cultural and recreational activities available to me as a kid had been a little unusual, especially in a town now considered one of the worst places to live in the nation. I took tennis lessons at public courts in the summer, ran track at city-sponsored meets, participated in a local sports extravaganza modestly called the Flint Olympian Games, and learned to swim at a neighborhood community center. I joined baseball, soccer, and floor hockey teams. I took driver’s ed before I was ten at a place called Safetyville, a miniature town in Kearsley Park with tiny cars and classroom sessions on how to make a left turn and parallel park. I still have my license and a few tickets for moving violations. My friends performed in children’s theater productions and took painting classes at the art museum. All of it was free or close to it.

I had lived in the city during a transitional phase when things were just starting to go downhill. The tipping point may have been 1973 when C. S. Mott died at the ripe old age of 97. His foundation would live on, continuing to generously fund local initiatives and projects around the world, but it was hard to imagine Flint without the paternalistic guidance of Charlie Sugar. It was also the year when the OPEC oil embargo caused a spike in gas prices, followed by fuel shortages and lines at service stations. GM was near peak employment in the Flint area, with roughly eighty thousand workers at the time, but the crisis triggered a round of layoffs, a trend that would plague the city for decades as “Generous Motors” abandoned its birthplace in search of cheaper labor in right-to-work states and foreign countries.

By accident of birth, I came of age in Flint when it still had a remnant of the old prosperity. I caught the end of an era when shop rats could drive new Buicks, buy a vacation cabin up north, and send their kids to college. The utter despair that would grip the city in the nineties was looming, but there was still hope that things could be put right. How else would a crackpot scheme like transforming the city into a tourist destination with the doomed AutoWorld amusement park seem feasible, at least to Flint’s delusional civic leaders? By the time I was in high school, the rising crime rate meant that cops couldn’t be bothered with trivialities like underage boozing, trespassing, or petty vandalism. That translated into a lot of freedom. There were abandoned buildings to explore, fake IDs to perfect, and bars to discover. I had to admit there were certainly worse places to grow up than Flint, Michigan. I just didn’t realize it at the time.

Over the years, my family had experienced the extremes of capitalism in a city that was a bellwether for the nation. We stuck with Flint from boom to bust, from the emergence of a thriving manufacturing economy to deindustrialization and the advent of the information age. We were there as the middle class emerged, prospered, and began to wither. We were part of history.

Despite the vital role Flint played in my life and the life of the nation, it was slipping away, becoming nothing more than a catchall for urban decay, a handy joke when references to Detroit were too obvious. It was losing more of its identity with every passing year. I thought it deserved better and I wanted to help. The question was how.

This brief history is adapted from Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City, published by the University of California Press. Filmmaker Michael Moore called Teardown “a brilliant chronicle of the Mad Maxization of a once-great American city.”