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Remediating the Past and Writing the Future in Flint

Remediating the Past and Writing the Future in Flint

By Edward McClelland

A stiff, hardy wildflower with a spiky stem crowned by a bouffant of tiny violet florets, red clover is described by The Peterson First Guide to Wildflowers as “another alien to look for along roadsides and in waste places throughout our area.” It’s not a plant that gardeners cultivate, but it thrives in places neglected by humans.

Red clover in Flint. Photo by Edward McClelland.

Red clover in Flint. Photo by Edward McClelland.

Red clover grows like a graveside flower over the remains of the Delphi Flint West Site, better known as Chevy in the Hole, a sprawling auto plant in Flint, Michigan, that ran its last shift in 1992. Demolished a few years later, Chevy in the Hole is now a garden of weeds, trees and flowers strong enough to push through cracks of the factory’s concrete pad. The old shop floor is sectioned off by inverted curtains of wild lettuce. An urban naturalist can also identify yarrow, with flowers like tiny daisies, and field mustard, a spangle of yellow flowers across the green desert. Poplars grow on the margins, where the dirt is broad and deep enough for a tree’s roots.

One hundred and forty wild acres on the south bank of the Flint River, Chevy in the Hole encapsulates the city’s entire history: in the late 19th Century, sawmills here cut up logs that floated downriver from the thumb of Michigan’s mitten. Shops in Flint used the wood to build carriages. After cars replaced carriages, Swiss race car driver Louis Chevrolet’s namesake automobile was built here. Sitting on low-lying riverfront, the plant became known as Chevy in the Hole, to distinguish it from Chevrolet’s other Vehicle City factories. In the winter of 1936-37, Flint witnessed the historic Sit-Down Strike, a work stoppage that paved the way for the unionization of the American automotive industry. Chevy in the Hole was the front line for the Sit-Down Strike’s most violent conflict, the Battle of the Running Bulls. Occupying autoworkers pelted Flint police with door hinges, bolts, and milk bottles. The police fired back, wounding 13 strikers. But the workers held their ground, and won the right to form the United Auto Workers.

The former Buick City appears on maps as a gray void in the heart of the city.

Flint’s autoworkers never let go of the Sit-Down Strike’s militant spirit. Labor disputes in Flint took nearly twice as long to settle as strikes in other General Motors towns. The company finally got sick of Flint’s attitude, and used the declining car sales of the 1980s as an excuse to pull out of town. Over the last 35 years, auto employment in Flint has dropped from 80,000 to 5,500. That’s why Chevy in the Hole has shifted from producing engines to growing wildflowers. Like so much of Flint, which has lost half its peak population of 196,000, the former plant exists in a state of half-wildness that looks neither natural nor deliberate. Nearly half the city’s commercial properties are vacant. Factories abandoned by General Motors make up over 10 percent of the city’s land area. The largest former GM property, the 400-acre Buick City, appears on maps as a gray void in the heart of the city.

For Flint, big nothings like Chevy in the Hole and Buick City represent a clean slate.

But for Flint, big nothings like Chevy in the Hole and Buick City also represent a clean slate. This year, the city released its first Master Plan since 1960, a blueprint for evolving from a blue-collar town, where autoworkers lived in neat rows of bungalows and Cape Cods, to a post-industrial rump city with a dense urban core surrounded by parks, prairies and farms. The Master Plan is an acknowledgement that GM is not coming back, and that Flint has to figure out how to turn one of its least appealing qualities—acres of vacant land—into an asset. In the words of its congressional representative, Dan Kildee, Flint is attempting to “rebuild from the center out.” Downtown, the University of Michigan recently built the first-ever dormitory for its Flint campus, and developers have transformed two empty, anachronistic hotels into luxury apartments. Last month, a new farmer’s market opened. Chevy in the Hole is so close to downtown that the stone pinnacle of the Mott Foundation Building—the tallest structure in Flint, since last year’s demolition of the brutalist Genesee Towers—is visible above the unkempt crowns of the trees. The vacant Chevy plant is the next empty space the city will address in its big rebuild.

“Our job is to efficiently reuse a thousand acres of industrial property,” says Flint Mayor Dayne Walling. “We’re well on our way to addressing over half of that. If the demand isn’t there for industrial reuse, then we shift to the greening.”

Ryan Londrigan’s family history is tied up with Chevy in the Hole. His grandfather was a Sit-Down Striker. His father built engines there. Now Londrigan is an environmental engineer who helped draw up plans for the site’s next iteration, a nature park called Chevy Commons (a name unlikely to fully supplant the more evocative Chevy in the Hole.)

“I think it’s kind of cool that I’m the third generation working on this site,” Londrigan said. “The first was practically a slave, the second was at the height of making money. Now it’s still putting food on the table.”

Returning a factory to its pre-industrial state is not as simple as planting trees and grasses.

Returning a factory to its pre-industrial state is not as simple as planting trees and grasses. General Motors was here for 80 years, and left behind toxins that will take centuries to dissolve: arsenic, chromium, mercury, lead, solvents. Petroleum leaks into the Flint River, said Christina Kelly of the Genesee County Land Bank, which has been overseeing the remediation and participating in the site planning.

kettering

Planting trees to remediate lingering industrial pollution. Photo via Kettering University.

The plan is to contain the pollution with an 18-inch soil cap planted with native wildflowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees. Wild lupine, black-eyed Susan, showy goldenrod, ironweed, red osier dogwood, elderberry, and tamarack are among the all-American plants on the list. Their roots absorb rainwater, preventing it from filtering through to the polluted dirt, and then carrying toxins the river. A sign hanging from the weave of a chain-link fence surrounding the property calls the proposed cap a “Phytoremediation Initiative,” a combination of Greek and Latin words that means using plants to contain or dissolve industrial pollution. The first phase of the plan, scheduled to be completed next year, will include a playground, a meadow, a walking trail on an old railbed, and a river overlook. The overlook sounds especially appealing … unless you’ve ever looked over this stretch of the Flint River.

Because it was built beside a shallow riverbank, Chevy in the Hole had a tendency to flood. When the river overflowed in 1947, the water washed away the ground beneath the factory floors and nearly swept away the entire plant. To prevent that from happening again, the Army Corps of Engineers built a mile of concrete banks, with intermittent steps providing purchase for boaters. As a result, Chevy in the Hole has a view of steep gray walls spray-painted with messages like “PARTY HARDY ROCK & ROLL.”

The artificial banks of the Flint River. Photo by Edward McClelland.

The artificial banks of the Flint River. Photo by Edward McClelland.

The artificial riverbank is an industrial scar that’s not going away. Tearing up the concrete banks would be too expensive. It would also create an environmental hazard, because the concrete prevents dangerous chemicals from leaking into the river—Flint’s current source of drinking water. This is the Flint Conundrum: the city lost its auto plants, but those plants left an economic and environmental legacy that both a) gave Flint no choice but to go back to nature and b) made it impossible for Flint to ever recover its natural state.

The artificial riverbank is an industrial scar that’s not going away.

Chevy in the Hole has already been reopened to the public for the Free City Art Festival, an annual event overflowing with Rust Belt chic. Artists from Germany, Poland and Ireland came in to dance, perform plays, and display art on the old shop floor. This year’s festival, on August 22 and 23, will “focus on light and sound, with an emphasis on new media (video, electronic arts, and sensor-controlled and programmed lights), art that engages active public participation and conversation, conceptual art, and art that plays with social processes and scripted actions.”

Transforming an auto plant into a park is “just a way to hold the site until conditions change,” Londrigan said. “If there’s no commercial development or industrial development, the best thing to do is put it in a neutral state. It’s not a negative. We’re setting the stage, or someone could add a soccer field, housing, a canoe launch.”

Buick City was supposed to be GM’s version of a Toyota plant. American automakers had always dismissed the Japanese as a copycat nation, but once Americans began cramming themselves into Asian clown cars—you didn’t drive a Honda Civic, you wore it like a square steel suit—GM conceded that the copycats were worth copying. Like the Japanese, GM wanted six-person work teams, in which every member could do every job, “just-in-time” delivery of parts (instead of stockpiling materials in the plant), and robots welding seams and painting bodies.

Only a dozen years after it opened, GM decided to shut down Buick City.

Buick City opened in September 1985. With 28,000 workers, drawn from factories all over Flint, the plant was supposed to represent the city’s recovery from the recession of Ronald Reagan’s first term. From the time the complex opened, its main product, the LeSabre, was one of J.D. Power and Associates’ highest-ranked automobiles for quality and reliability. The only problem: the LeSabre wasn’t selling. In the 1990s, when gasoline cost less than a dollar a gallon, young drivers who had once begun the Buick-to-the grave cycle in a LeSabre were  buying SUVs. In Buick City’s first decade, GM lost 10 points of market share, falling from 40 to 30.7. It also didn’t help that the president of Flint’s UAW Local 599—at the time, the largest UAW local in the nation—was a Vietnam vet who took the local back to its militant roots, appearing at Flint City Council meetings to protest tax abatements for GM. Only a dozen years after it opened, GM decided to shut down Buick City, moving production of the LeSabre to its plants in Hamtramck and Lake Orion, Michigan. It was part of the company’s broader strategy to disperse militant Flintoids to plants with no ancestral memories of the Sit-Down Strike.

Trees burst through the shop floor.

Buick City sat empty for 15 years, until RACER Trust, the quasi-governmental agency that took over GM’s abandoned properties after the company filed for Chapter 11 in 2009, finally knocked down the last remaining buildings. In the meantime, B’s Bar and Grill and the United Van Club, the shoprat taverns across Industrial Avenue from the plant gates, closed their taps. Trees burst through the shop floor. Deer began capering among grasses as thick as savanna, and the surrounding North End neighborhood became so depopulated that a couple built a memorial to the victims of 9/11 on corner lots they purchased from the city for a few hundred bucks apiece.

Vehicle City in 1913, not long after the switch from carriages to automobiles. Photo via Flickr user Wystan, used under a Creative Commons license.

Vehicle City in 1913, not long after the switch from carriages to automobiles. Photo via Flickr user Wystan, used under a Creative Commons license.

Chevy in the Hole’s riverfront location made perfect sense for a 19th-century carriage factory, but would never be built on today. Buick City, though, is still choice industrial land, with a railroad line and easy access to Interstate 475. If Flint can still attract industrial development, it wants to put that development in Buick City.

Chevy in the Hole’s location made perfect sense for a 19th-century carriage factory, but would never be built on today.

Buick City is getting its first new tenant as a result of the financial turmoil in Detroit, a city whose budget is even more distressed than Flint’s. This year, Flint and its surrounding communities ended a 30-year deal to buy water from the Detroit Water and Sewer Department. Unwilling to pay high rates to subsidize Detroit’s recovery, the municipalities formed their own utility, the Karegnondi Water Authority, and floated a $220 million bond for a pipeline to Lake Huron, 63 miles away. Until the pipeline is completed, Flint is drinking from the river.

American Spiralweld Pipe, a Birmingham, Alabama company, won the contract to build the pipe, and bought 18 acres of Buick City for a 180,000-square foot factory. The skeleton of that plant is taking shape among the weeds at the northern edge of Buick City. The company is looking to hire 50 employees, including welders and machinists who will earn between $17 and $22 an hour.

“We’re looking for anything and everything that could work at Buick City.”

American Spiralweld was attracted to the site because it’s well-served by railroads and highways originally built to carry away automobiles. Just 65 miles down Interstate 69 is a major border crossing, at Port Huron, Michigan, offering possible access to Canadian markets. Flint also boasts a skilled labor force, a legacy of its automaking days, although Mayor Walling admits some prospective businesses express concern about the city’s reputation for labor strife.

“Currently, their plan is limited to the manufacture of pipe for the water system,” said Bruce Rasher, redevelopment manager for RACER Trust. “Once they establish themselves in the market, they may seek out other clients. They have a smaller facility in Alto, Michigan. The principals told me the Flint location has a higher probability of expanding.”

More than any American city its size, Flint’s economy was a one-trick pony.

Another reason the site was attractive: when RACER took over GM’s properties, it was capitalized with $500 million for environmental cleanup. It paid for most of the remediation at American Spiralweld’s site. Along with the Flint & Genesee Chamber of Commerce, RACER is now marketing the rest of the property to small manufacturers and distributors, like two companies that currently occupy land adjacent to Buick City: Spen-Tech, which builds machines for the auto industry, and Repocast, an Internet auction warehouse.

“We’re looking for anything and everything that could work at Buick City,” said Justin Sprague, the chamber’s director of special projects. “Initially, it was thought we could find one large user, but when the economy crashed in 2007, we realized that was not possible. We routinely get inquiries about the site. Most of the businesses are businesses that need a major supply chain network.”

Filling the ruins of some of the world’s largest auto plants with a hodgepodge of enterprises is the city’s bet for economic revitalization.

Filling the ruins of some of the world’s largest auto plants with a hodgepodge of enterprises is the city’s bet for economic revitalization. In addition to the Free City Art Festival, the former Chevy in the Hole hosts a test track for new automotive engineering. Run by Kettering University, the track will be built in part with cleanup funds. The former Fisher #1 site, where long-vanished Durant Motors built a model called the Flint, and where strikers sat down in 1936, now hosts the headquarters of Diplomat Specialty Pharmacy, a pharmaceutical distributor. A building that was once a GM engineering laboratory is now a pill mill.

The new Flint wants a diverse economic base, because betting it all on automotive proved a bust. More than any American city its size—including Detroit—Flint was a one-trick pony. In the 1980s, as author-autoworker Ben Hamper wrote in Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line, Flint was:

“… a town where 66.5 percent of the working citizenship are in some way, shape or form linked to the shit-encrusted underbelly of a French buggy racer named Chevrolet and a floppy-eared Scotchman named Buick. A town where 23.5 percent of the population pimp everything from Elvis on velvet to horse tranquilizers to Halo burgers to NRA bumper stickers. A town where the remaining 10 percent sit back and watch it all go by—sellin’ their blood, rollin’ convenience stores, puffin’ no-brand cigarettes while cursin’ their wives and kids and neighbors and the flies sneakin’ through the screens and the piss-warm quarts of Red White & Blue and the Skylark parked out back with the busted tranny.”

A medical marijuana dispensary operates out of a former union hall near the Chevy in the Hole site. Photo by Edward McClelland.

A medical marijuana dispensary operates out of a former union hall near the Chevy in the Hole site. Photo by Edward McClelland.

Chevrolet and Buick are almost all gone, but those latter two demographics are a pretty accurate description of Flint’s modern-day economy. During my most recent visit to Flint, one of the most popular stories on mlive.com (the successor to the now-sporadically printed Flint Journal) was about an urban farmer fighting the city for the right to keep a chicken coop in her backyard. Flint banned poultry in residential areas 46 years ago, but as the chicken farmer pointed out, “this city is such a different place than it was in 1968.”

On that same visit, I took a ride around Flint with Kevin Schronce, an assistant city planner. We passed a Delphi spark plug plant that ran its last shift in November, and already bears a “PRICED TO MOVE” sticker. (“I’ve always heard the adage that the easiest brownfield to repurpose is one with a plant still on it,” Schronce quipped.)

“We didn’t have a diverse sector before, so that’s why we are where we’re at now.”

As we drove past Buick City, Schronce told me that Flint wants “to shy away from the traditional heavy industry and push the concept of solar, wind energy. Maybe it’s heavy manufacturing, but they’re building wind turbines or solar panels. We didn’t have a diverse sector before, so that’s why we are where we’re at now. We were kind of dependent on one industry.”

From Buick City, Schronce’s Audi headed south, into the heart of Flint, where entire blocks have been denuded of houses. On the city’s Master Plan, these have either been designated Green Neighborhoods or Green Innovation Zones. In Green Neighborhoods, current residents are allowed to remain in their homes, but new housing is prohibited. The ban is hardly necessary—in 2012, Flint issued a total of four permits for  single-family houses. In these places, the city will encourage urban agriculture, including hoop houses and the aforementioned chicken coops. Green Innovation, according to the Master Plan, “accommodates uses related to local food production, environmental sustainability, alternative energy, and other locally based ‘green’ initiatives.” In keeping with Flint’s new motto of “diversify,” the Master Plan divided Buick City between Production Center—its traditional use—and Green Innovation Zone.

General Motors used Flint hard for a hundred years. Then it skipped town, leaving a worn-out city to deal with the bill.

“We’ve had a new startup contact us,” Schronce said. “They’re looking at generating solar energy in urban areas. One of the key things that comes to mind is a green innovation site that sits on a brownfield. There is that at Buick City. On the hard pack, the brown field, you can do solar.”

General Motors used Flint hard for a hundred years. Then it skipped town like a deadbeat, leaving a worn-out city to deal with the bill for damages. As farmers once allowed fields to lie fallow, to regenerate them for a future crop, now may be a time for Flint to recover from a failed industrial marriage. So far the city’s history has taken it from logging to carriages to automobiles to urban blight. Flint’s next identity is yet to be written, but it’s preparing the slate. ::

 

Edward McClelland is the author of Nothin’ but Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland.

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4 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    July 29, 2014

    Quite a good article. I must note however that Buick was the first automaker at the site.

    Reply

  2. Avatar
    July 31, 2014

    Excellent article with good insights. Only one contradiction: after telling us that GM saw the need to compete with the Japanese and made adjustments, and then tried to make Buick City work for over 10 years, only to be thwarted by a labor movement leadership stuck in 60’s militant stance, then you state that GM “…skipped town like a deadbeat”. That generalization seem quite unfair.

    Reply

  3. Avatar
    July 31, 2014

    Nice article, that picture you have of “red clover” is actually milkweed.

    Reply

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